No, and neither is pork or chicken.
But is eating meat bad for you? Why do we do it? Can we do without it? Are we intelligently designed to eat meat? What does the ancient wisdom say about it?
The TCM Perspective:
Traditional Chinese Medicine is a complex skill requiring years, even decades, to master the esoteric connections between seasonal nutrition, environmental effects, Taoist five-element theory, and the thermal natures of foods and the patient. My favorite book touching on the topic is the excellent Healing with Whole Foods, Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition.1 In it, there are no direct statements against the eating of red meat, except where conditions of excess heat in the body exist. [See the essay “Eating Right for Your Body Type All Year Round” for an introduction to incorporating natural eating into your lifestyle.2]
Meat is a heat-producing food and should be limited in persons with a heat nature who “feel hot, dislike heat, like cool weather and cold beverages in quantity, [have a] yellow coating on tongue, dark yellow urine, red complexion. Localized heat [appears] as inflamed tissues, swellings, eruptions, sores, rashes, all marked with redness.”3 Excess sugar consumption will trigger a desire for more protein, which is often sought in animal products. If the cycle accelerates, a “Meat-and-Sugar Syndrome” ensues, causing “obstructions in the body and mind.” Tranquilizers and pain relievers follow for an immediate, but temporary, relief and the condition then becomes “The Meat, Sugar, and Drug Syndrome.” [Much more needs to be said about sugar, perhaps the only truly evil legal food. Stay tuned!]
Meat should be eaten with green and non-starchy vegetables. It should be limited in spring, when one attends to the liver and gall bladder [see also “Spring Cleaning for Your Liver”4], and limited on hot summer days. It is contraindicated along with other foods high in saturated fats for liver conditions.5
You’ve got to love the ancient wisdom with statements like “meat weakens the bones in the elderly.”6 With no concept of statistics or control groups, their common observations a millennium ago previewed research showing the correlation between protein and osteoporosis, discussed below.
So, meat in moderation is more or less OK as a condiment complementing the vegetables which should form the bulk on our plates. And isn’t this, after all, the way Chinese have been eating for a long, long time? And they still do, even the nouveau riche who can afford their prime fillets in today’s China, as I learned from my Chinese friends.
As with all foods, the question of quality must be considered paramount. Whole foods in your diet means avoiding or minimizing processed, denatured, genetically modified, and non-organic items. Just as the health-conscious consumer would avoid white flour and white rice, so should she consider the environmental and nutritional benefits of organic meat. Grass-fed and grass-finished beef is more expensive but it tastes better and avoids the problems of the steer having been fed grains and then treated with antibiotics. There is a farmer or co-op or weekly market or Whole Foods store near you where you can get organic beef, free-range chickens and their eggs, as well as pesticide-free greens and tree-ripened peaches. Make the effort and you will prosper as will the environment which you share with the living things around you.
Michael Pollan famously summarizes the philosophy behind his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto7 with the seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Great book! Buy it and learn what your “food” should be, apply the next five words, and see if the pieces of your life don’t fall a bit more smoothly into place.
Proponents of “paleo” or “caveman” diets claim that our ancestors ate lots of meat and raw vegetables and that we should be consistent with this genetic heritage. True, we are omnivores and can get the nutrients we need from any reasonably varied selection of plants and animals as they are found in nature. But books that tell you to eat mostly meat usually focus on later groups who had fire and weapons and hunting dogs and lived on grasslands. But earlier, tropical, humans ate mostly plants and easily-caught animals like insects, frogs, snakes, fish, small birds, and scavenged carcasses from other animals’ kills. Many of the prehistoric cultures studied by anthropologists appear to have been healthy and not afflicted with the common diseases of settled agricultural people, which are due to crowding, poor sanitation, reliance on just a few food crops, and famines.8 But these primitives also died young so their diet is not practical for someone who expects to live to 100. Wild game then and now might be 3% fat; supermarket beef might be 30%. It is inconsistent to claim our chronic problems come from eating grains and beans and then say you should eat animals fattened on grains and beans.
Dr. Richard Wrangham9 believes the key to modern human survival is based on an early cultivation of fire, not just 300,000 years ago as is currently thought, but maybe 1.5 million years earlier! Cooking’s ability to soften hard seeds, to break down toxic and irritating substances in roots and leaves, to release nutrients bound in plant cells, to increase the digestibility of starchy foods and beans by 75% to 100%, and to allow our distant ancestors to eat meat by killing parasites and bacteria meant that we could evolve away from the jutting jaw and sharp teeth of carnivores, or the large flat teeth of herbivores for grinding grasses, or their very long intestines or multi-chambered stomachs for extracting nutrients from raw plants. Proto-humans with fire would have had access to more food and survived when other species starved; the extra calories allowed for a larger brain (a very energy-expensive organ) which then allowed their dominance in whatever environment they colonized.10
Death: Many epidemiological studies show that people who eat red meat are at increased risk for heart attacks, strokes, at least 17 different cancers, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, arthritis and asthma. People who consumed one serving of red meat per day have a 13% increased risk of mortality, compared with those who eat very little meat; processed meats raise the risk of death from these diseases to 20%.11
A study of more than 500,000 Americans over 4012 shows that those who consume the equivalent of at least a hamburger a day have a 30% increased chance of dying during the next 10 years, mostly from heart disease and cancer. Cold cuts, sausage and other processed meats increased the risk in this study as in the one above. Eating fish, chicken, turkey, and other poultry decreased the risk of premature death.
Weight Gain: Fatty meats, chicken, dairy products, oils, and refined carbohydrates should be avoided if you are overweight, since obese people produce more insulin than thin people do. After a carbohydrate meal, blood insulin levels rise equally in both thin and obese people, but only the obese have a high rise in insulin after a fatty meal. This insulin surge affects the brain to make the person hungry so he eats more, creating a dangerous spiral that fuels the metabolic syndrome, insulin insensitivity, diabetes, and further fat deposition.13
Alzheimer’s Disease: Dr. David Snowden’s ongoing “Nuns Study,”14 begun in 1986 at the U. of MN and now at U. of KY, seeks to determine the underlying factors contributing to Alzheimer’s disease. Research15 among Nigerians in Ibadan and their relatives in the US confirm the disease is not genetic but likely something in the US lifestyle or environment. One in ten North Americans develops Alzheimer’s disease by age 65, and five in ten by age 85.
Snowden determined that the nuns most likely to experience Alzheimer’s had suffered ministrokes, and had low levels of folic acid and high levels of homocysteine, both of which result from too little leafy greens in the diet. The simple amino acid homocysteine is associated with vascular disease in the coronary, carotid, and peripheral circulation.16 It punches holes in arteries and forms plaques, causing ministrokes. Meat is rich in the amino acid methionine which is converted to homocysteine, but leafy greens and whole grains rich in folic acid prevent the conversion of methionine to homocycteine and offer a degree of protection against these ministrokes. Folic acid helps convert carbohydrates to energy and can be found in all whole grains, fortified cereals, leafy green vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, and most plants.17
The American Cancer Society believes that limiting red meat consumption to two or three times weekly, and making processed meats a “once in a while food” would be wise.
The Protein Myth:
Meat is a concentrated source of protein and is often cited as the reason for a carnivorous diet. The common belief that getting sufficient protein is a major dietary concern comes from the fact that our nutrition information comes from old experiments on rats, and they require far more protein than humans do, as evidenced by the fact that a rat mother’s milk has almost 50% of its calories from protein. Human breast milk is 0.8% – 0.9% protein.18
Meat does taste good and it’s culturally the center of most meals in America. It’s relatively and artificially cheap in this country because of farm subsidies providing cheap grain for animal feed. But despite the common misconception that meat is an irreplaceable necessity for our daily protein intake, there are better sources of this important-but-over-emphasized nutrient.
The fact is that most Americans get enough, perhaps too much, protein in their diets. An average working man needs about 37 grams of protein per day. Dr. Colin Campbell’s decades of epidemiology among thousands of subjects in China and The Philippines found a strong correlation between dietary protein intake and cancer of the breast, prostate, pancreas, and colon.19,20,21 In his laboratory studies, mice exposed to the potent carcinogen aflatoxin consistently developed liver cancer with a diet of 20% animal protein and just as consistently failed to develop cancer with a diet of 5% animal protein. Campbell could turn cancer on or off, just by altering the protein content of the feed.
A disease correlation was also found in a natural experiment when Germany invaded Norway in 1939 and confiscated all cattle for its troops. The death rate from circulatory disease, which had been rising for years among the Norwegians, abruptly reversed when they had to adopt a plant-based diet. The dramatic decline in mortality continued until 1945 when hostilities ended; the death rate immediately resumed its upward climb with the reintroduction of meat into the Norwegian diet.21
With very little meat or dairy in the diet, the incidence of breast cancer in Kenya in 1978 was 82 times lower than in the US the same year.21
With very little meat or dairy in the diet, Japan, with about half the US population had 18 deaths from prostate cancer in 1958, while the US had 14,000 deaths.21
Plant protein is equally nutritious as is animal protein, and in many ways it is far superior. Plant foods contain a broad range of essential amino acids. Clinical studies22,23 compared the intake of the essential amino acids in the diets of meat eaters, lacto-ovo vegetarians (those consuming dairy products and eggs) and vegans (no eggs or dairy products). The study directors set the protein requirement for each amino acid at a level that would easily cover the needs of growing children and pregnant women. The researchers found that not only did all three diets provide sufficient protein, each group exceeded twice its requirement for every essential amino acid. Vegetarians easily get more than enough protein, even without careful planning or intentional protein complementing.
The Calcium Connection:
The research of Deborah Sellmeyer of Johns Hopkins links osteoporosis to excessive meat intake.24 Countries with the most osteoporosis are those where people eat the most meat and dairy products. Countries with little dairy consumption suffer little osteoporosis. Dr. Sellmeyer found that women who eat the most acidifying foods are the ones most likely to have the disease. What happens is that when you take in more protein than you need, it is broken down into its constituent amino acids and the liver converts them to organic acids, causing metabolic acidosis. Your kidneys respond to this acidic blood condition by neutralizing the blood with calcium pulled from bones. Osteoporosis is a condition caused by a number of factors, but the most important is excess dietary protein. Low-protein diets create a positive calcium balance, and high-protein diets create a negative calcium balance. This occurs in men and young women, as well as in post-menopausal women.
The high protein content of milk may actually contribute to the very disease that the calcium in milk is alleged to prevent. While lower-fat dairy products represent an improvement, they are actually higher in protein, and this contributes to kidney problems and some forms of cancer as well. Dairy products are also the leading culprits in food allergies.25 Sufficient calcium should not be a problem in any ordinary diet, but its absorption requires adequate dietary magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamins A, C, and D. Without certain of these nutrients, it appears that calcium cannot be absorbed at all.26
Plant proteins do not result in calcium loss in the same way that animal proteins do. Plant foods that are high in calcium include broccoli, tofu, chickpeas, almonds, cornmeal, soybeans, nuts, baked beans, and leafy green vegetables such as collard greens and kale, to name a few. No need to obsess about your calcium requirement, though, because there is no correlation, “not even a trend,” between calcium intake and bone loss.27 Eskimos, who consume the highest amounts of calcium of any of the world’s people, have the highest number of cases of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis occurs relatively infrequently in China, even though they consume very little milk or other dairy products.28
The Smoking Gun:
Scientists have blamed saturated fats or burnt fats in meats for the increased risk of serious disease due to meat consumption, but this does not explain why red meat is linked to all of these diseases while poultry, fish, or saturated fats from palm and coconut oils, eggs, and shellfish are not.
It is likely that inflammation from the glycoprotein Neu5Gc is the real problem.29,30
N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc) is found in the tissues of every mammal except humans. Our ancestors lost the ability to make this sialic acid sugar shortly after splitting off from the apes, with a genetic mutation adding an extra oxygen atom to Neu5Gc to become the very different Neu5Ac. Neu5Gc, however, is present in high levels in human malignant cells, and is highest in metastasizing tumors. Its only possible source is the ingestion of products containing Neu5Gc – found in very high levels in mammalian meat, in moderate amounts in their milk and cheese, in low levels in poultry and eggs, and in negligible amounts in seafood and plants. The hypothesis is that the human body treats this sugar as a foreign substance and the consequent antibody production maintains a state of chronic inflammation known to lead to heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancers. When cancer-infected mice were treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents the detrimental effect of the inflammation was largely eliminated.
Some meat eaters, of course, do not develop cancer, and subsequent research explained this observation by noting that if pre-cancerous cells are present, Neu5Gc stimulates these to initiate angiogenesis – new blood vessel growth – to bring more nutrition into the area, indirectly feeding the cancer and promoting its growth. Without this nascent malignancy, there is nothing for the Neu5Gc to act on. Billions of times daily, cells in our body unzip the DNA helix, match their sister nucleotides, and zip up. Untold numbers of errors are made in replication, but almost always these errors are caught and corrected before damage occurs. Almost always. There’s always the infinitesimal chance that something will slip through, so flirt with death by skydiving or free climbing or wrestling grizzlies or by joining a cobra-kissing cult, all of which will get you on the evening news, which cancer won’t. Prudence would suggest occasionally seeking alternative protein sources to meat, such as fish, legumes, or poultry.
So, does all this make red meat sinful or not?
Well, to further obfuscate a complex question . . .
. . . it touches on the moral imperative to keep ourselves healthy to minimize the financial and emotional burdens of a sick body on our families and society. The US Department of Health and Human Services is now airing radio ads promoting “Real Men Wear Gowns” to get us to adopt the selfless and responsible attitude that uncomfortable prostate and colon exams and sigmoidoscopies and regular checkups are part of what makes a responsible parent and spouse.
On a more esoteric level, the question also forces a confrontation with the math we learned in biology – that only about 10% of the energy taken in passes from one trophic level to the one above. Thus, in the wild, roughly one pound of vegetation or insects or small game must be eaten by one consumer to gain an ounce or two of body mass to pass a quarter ounce up to whatever eats him.
However, in the wildly competitive world of the factory farms which stock our supermarkets, decimal point changes in feed conversion ratios quickly become six-figure profits or losses. So beef may have a FCR of 5 to 20 (i.e., 5 to 20 pounds of feed to yield one pound of flesh on the hoof),31 pork about 4,32 poultry about 2,33 farmed salmon (since they are raised virtually weightlessly) about 1.2.34 The US food production system uses about 50% of the total US land area, 80% of the fresh water, and 17% of the fossil energy used in the country. The heavy dependence on fossil energy suggests that the US food system, whether meat-based or plant-based, is not sustainable.35
To minimize feed costs and time-to-market, compromises are made between genetics, feed, and health. Fast-growing breeds cut the background cost for feed lost to maintenance without adding market weight. Pasture is a rare and slow luxury for cattle so huge feedlots process animals quickly with a grain diet. And since grain is not a natural feed for ruminants, antibiotics are widely used to control digestive disorders and speed weight gain – nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics last year.36 The 38% of the world’s grain crop (plus 30 million metric tons of soybeans) fed to animals could many times over feed the 1 billion people chronically hungry on this planet.37 Add the 20% of the world’s methane (a potent greenhouse gas) produced by cattle, and the 25% loss of Central American forest in the last 50 years to cattle production,38 and the pollution problems of incredibly large pools holding millions of gallons of feces draining a high-rise operation fattening 50,000 hogs at a time, and barely mentioning the inhumane slaughter of sentient beings: 9 billion chickens and 150 million cattle, hogs, and sheep annually and you have a moral question to consider as you beat your way through the starving throngs to pass through the golden arches on your way to a once-in-a-lifetime cardiovascular event.
1 Pitchford, P. Healing with Whole Foods, Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, 3rd ed. North Atlantic Books, 2002.
3 Pitchford, p. 95.
5 Pitchford, pp. 324-6.
6 Pitchford, p. 366.
7 Penguin Books, 2008.
9 Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Basic Books, 2009.
11 Pan, A., et al., 2012. Red Meat Consumption and Mortality: Results from Two Prospective Cohort Studies. Arch Intern Med, 172(7):555-563.
12 Sinha, R., et al., 2009. A Prospective Study of Over Half a Million People. Arch Intern Med, 169(6):562-571.
13 Speechly, D., et al., 2000. Appetite Dysfunction in Obese Males: Evidence for Role of Hyperinsulinaemia in Passive Overconsumption with a High Fat Diet. Eur J Clin Nutr, 54(3):225-233.
15 Hendrie, H., et al., 2001. Incidende of Dementia and Alzheimer Disease in 2 Communities: Yoruba Residing in Ibadan, Nigeria, and African Americans Residing in Indianapolis, Indiana. JAMA, 235:739-747.
16 Loscalzo, J., 2002. Homocysteine and Dementias. N Engl J Med; 346:466-468.
18 Belitz, H. Food Chemistry, 4th Edition, p.501 table 10.5, Springer, 2009.
19 Campbell, T.C., quoted in Lang, S. 1983, Diet and Disease. Food Monitor.
20 Campbell, T.C., The China Study : the Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health. BenBella Books, 2005.
21 Campbell, T.C., with colleague Esselstyn, C., Forks Over Knives, a documentary of The China Study and other research, John Corry, Director. Virgil Films, 2011.
22 Hardinge, M., et al., 1966. Nutritional Studies of Vegetarians, Part V, Proteins. J Am Diet Assoc, 48(1):27.
23 Hardinge, M., et al., 1984. Nutritional Studies of Vegetarians, Part I. J Clin Nutr, 2(2):81.
26 Pitchford, p. 218, table p. 223.
27 Kolata, G. 1986. How Important is Dietary Calcium in Preventing Osteoporosis? Science; 233:519-20.
29 Tangvoranuntakul, P., et al., 2003. Human Uptake and Incorporation of an Immunogenic Nonhuman Dietary Sialic Acid. Proc Natl Acad Sci, 100(21)12045-12050.
30 Cohen, J., 2008. Eat, Drink, and Be Wary: A Sugar’s Sour Side. Science 31 October: 322(5902): 659-661.
31 National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle. National Academy Press. 2000.
32 Brown, L., et al., Dynamic Agriculture, Book Three. 2nd ed. McGraw-Hill, Sydney. 2001.
35 Pimentel, D., et al., 2003. Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment. Am J Clin Nutr, 78(3):660-3.
37 Safran Foer, J. Eating Animals, Back Bay Books, 2010.
38 Singer, P. Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 1999.