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Meat is ideal nutrition for my body, I once thought – after all, my own body is made of meat – like muscles, liver, kidneys, brain, and associated, more-or-less, edible substances, like fat, blood vessels, lymph nodes, tendons, nerves, bone, skin, etc. Most of my friends still believe meat is essential for vigorous health and they don’t hesitate to tell me so. I hear too often, “McDougall, if you ate a few more Tri-tips (a popular cut of beef) you’d be stronger, and be able to windsurf longer.” I answer, “For these benefits, do I have to eat the blood vessels, too?” They’re left speechless.
Everyone Knows Meat is a Serious Health Hazard
The hazards of meat are so well known they make the material for jokes:
This Bizarro cartoon would not be funny if these important issues were not widely recognized and understood. Yet knowledge in this case fails to result in a call to action for most people.
Possibly having better knowledge of the damaging details would make a difference for some people. The following chart provides a summary of the problems with meat, and at the end of this article I have expanded the discussion on each of these points for you.
Three (False) Reasons People Eat Meat
Plants are loaded with minerals, including iron and zinc, which they obtain from the ground (earth).2 Vitamin B12 deficiency is very rare and this vitamin can be obtained from bacteria which synthesize it, and from supplements (purchased in a natural foods store).3
My parents lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s. My mother told stories of her family’s only foods being beans, corn, cabbage, parsnips, peas, rutabagas, carrots, onions, turnips, potatoes and bread for 5 cents a loaf – a little hamburger was their only meat. During my childhood she often reminded me of their poverty, and the promise to herself that her children would never have to suffer as she had, without an easy supply of meat and milk. Her need to provide this bountiful table caused far more suffering for my immediate family in the form of constipation, stomach aches, eczema, a stroke, and heart disease than she ever experienced. The influence of family values on my life and eating habits also came from my grandparents and great-grandparents.
Grandparents Are the Ultimate Justification for Meat-Eating
I have two grandparent examples from my own life that could have served nicely as justification for my not changing my diet. My grandfather lived to be 88 and my great-grandmother was mentally sharp at 106 years old, and they both ate meat every day. Why should I pay any attention to the health hazards of meat with the genes that I had?
“Old Pop” Was a Survivor
Yes, my grandfather lived to 88, eating lots of meat, but he lived in pain. He, like so many people, was deceived by the remarkable resilience of the human body. It survives two packages of cigarettes inhaled, ½ bottle of whiskey drunk, physical activity restricted to TV channel-changing, and a diet of grease and sugar in the form of Krispy Kreme donuts – and it lives! – but in pain and with disability.
Moderation Saved “Old Mom”
How I Saved My Life in a Meat-Eating World
I can’t change my personality – my exuberance for life – my uncontrollable enthusiasm for everything – so I have learned to focus all of this energy upon healthy behaviors. Since my late twenties, I have occupied myself with activities that best support my appearance, feelings of well-being, functioning, and longevity. Saving my own life is one more reason why you find me an unrestrained proponent of healthy eating.
The Detailed Qualities of Meat
Meat is High in Calories
Calories consumed above those utilized are often stored, especially when those calories are from fat. Fat is almost effortlessly moved from your fork and spoon to your body fat.9 To make matters worse there is no carbohydrate or fiber in meat. Carbohydrate is the primary substance for satisfying your hunger drive.10 Fiber provides no calories; therein helping with weight loss. All things considered removing meat from your diet is a giant step to losing excess body fat and staying trim without ever being hungry.
Consuming calories in excess of need promotes the growth of cancer.11 Compounding matters, body fat makes estrogen which stimulates the growth of breast and uterine cancer.12 Excess estrogen also causes precocious puberty, fibrocystic breast disease, PMS, ovarian cysts, heavy menstrual bleeding, and fibroids of the uterus. Overweight people have generally poorer health and shorter lives.13
Meat is High in Fat
Fat is very high in energy. Fat contains 9 Calories per gram compared to pure protein and carbohydrate, each containing 4 Calories per gram. Energy in excess of need promotes obesity. To make matters worse our hunger drive is insensitive to the fat we eat; therefore fatty foods are very easy to over-consume.14 In addition to providing excess calories, fat itself directly promotes cancer growth.15 The predominant kind of fat in beef and chicken is saturated, which raises blood cholesterol and easily becomes oxidized fat, which damages the arteries.16
Certain fats must be present in the diet of humans – these are called essential fatty acids. The two that are essential for humans are linoleic acid and linolenic acid. Only plants can synthesize these two kinds of essential fats – however, once made, animals can store them in their body fat. These essential fats are necessary for formation of most of our body tissues, and especially the nervous system. A diet deficient in essential fats (a diet high in meat and dairy products and low in plant foods) early in life may cause the development of a weakened nervous system, which is highly susceptible to degenerative diseases, like multiple sclerosis.17
Meat is Excessively High in Protein
Small amounts of protein are necessary in the diet to provide the raw materials for the building blocks of body parts, such as hormones and muscle cells. However, our need is very small – no more than 2 ½ % of the total number of calories consumed must be protein.18 Excess protein is not stored; it is eliminated from the body by the liver and kidneys. The amount of protein consumed on the Western diet places a serious burden on these organs – overworking them and causing them to wear out prematurely. For example, by age 70 one-third of a person’s kidney function has been lost due to the typical high-meat Western diet.18 Because of the organ-preserving effects of a low-protein diet, this is standard treatment for people with failing livers and kidneys.19 Animal protein is much more damaging to the body than is an equal amount of vegetable-derived protein.
Excess protein, and especially animal protein, causes the body to lose calcium, contributing to calcium-based kidney stones, and osteoporosis.20,21 Animal proteins can cause autoimmune diseases, especially those affecting the joints (inflammatory arthritis).22
Protein, and especially protein from meat and dairy products, increases the amount of a powerful growth stimulating hormone in the body, called Insulin-like Growth Factor – 1 (IGF-1). This substance stimulates the growth of a large number of common cancers, like breast, prostate, colon and lung cancer.23
Meat is High in Acid
(A positive value indicates acidic, whereas a negative value indicates alkaline.)
If you grind up various foods and then measure their pH (acid-alkaline balance) you will find meats to be very acidic – fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, are alkaline (grains and legumes are slightly acidic).24 The human body is slightly alkaline (pH of 7.35 to 7.45 – a pH of 7 is neutral). The body protects its acid-alkaline balance very carefully, because all of the other chemical reactions in the body depend upon a proper pH level. Dietary-derived acid, primarily from meats and cheeses, must be neutralized.25 The primary acid-neutralizing mechanism of the body depends on the bones; which dissolve to release alkaline materials to neutralize the acid. The end result of slowly dissolving the bones for decades is osteoporosis. Some of this dissolved bone solidifies in the kidney collecting system creating calcium-based kidney stones. Over 90% of stones found in people on the Western diet are made primarily of calcium.
Meat is High in Cholesterol
People who switch from red meat to chicken do not reduce their cholesterol; nor do they reduce their risk of heart disease. Chicken muscle has the same amount of cholesterol as beef, and pork. Most importantly, the blood cholesterol level – a very strong predictor of heart disease and stroke risk – stays the same when people switch among various muscle foods (including to fish muscle).26 Just remember, a muscle is a muscle is a muscle and switching from reddish-colored to yellowish-colored muscles makes virtually no difference at all.
Meat is Claimed to Be Essential for Iron
One of the advertised benefits of meat is the iron. Realize that the iron in all meats originated in the ground (earth). To get into the animal, it first had to go through plants. Iron, as well as all minerals, dissolves in watery solutions and is absorbed by the roots of plants and then is incorporated in the roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits of plants. Note above that plant foods are loaded with iron. The animals eat the plants in order to obtain these minerals.
The iron in meat is said to be more easily absorbed and utilized. Actually, vitamin C found in plants makes the plant-form of iron readily absorbed and utilized, too.2 A healthy vegetarian diet supplies plenty of iron and is never the cause of iron deficiency. Most cases of iron deficiency are due to diseases that cause blood loss, and from dairy products,27 which block the absorption of iron into the body. A common end result from depleted iron stores is iron deficiency anemia.
You don’t want too much iron in your body. Excess iron is associated with heart disease.28 This may be because iron can act as a powerful free radical donor (an oxidant) and damage the arteries.
Meat has No Dietary Fiber
Dietary fiber is undigestible carbohydrate and is only found in plants. Dietary fiber transits the entire small intestine without being digested, finally forming the bulk of the stool (feces). Since meat of any kind has absolutely no dietary fiber, people on high meat diets are usually constipated with tiny rock-hard, infrequently-passed, stools. Seventy percent of people following the nearly all-meat Atkins diet complain of constipation (see my November 2002 Newsletter). Chronic constipation causes hemorrhoids, varicose veins, hiatal hernia, and prolapsed uterus (see my lead articles in the September and October 2002 newsletters). Dietary fiber also plays important roles in deactivating cancer-causing chemicals, preventing excess sex hormone levels from accumulating in the body, and slowing the entry of sugar into the bloodstream.29
Meat Contains No Carbohydrates
Carbohydrate (commonly known as sugar) is the body’s preferred fuel for energizing itself for daily activities. Fatigue results when the body runs out of carbohydrates.30 The human brain and other nervous tissues use carbohydrates as fuel almost all the time, and only burn fat under duress, such as during starvation. Red blood cells and cells of the kidney will only burn carbohydrates – if none are available, then the body will make carbohydrates out of protein (by gluconeogenesis). Carbohydrate burns clean, leaving only carbon dioxide to be exhaled by the lungs and water eliminated by the kidneys.
The human body seeks carbohydrate and derives great pleasure from consuming these sweet-tasting substances – remember the sweet-tasting taste buds on the tip of your tongue. Consumed carbohydrates satisfy the hunger drive and regulate the body’s intake of food – keeping the body weight at the correct level, thereby preventing obesity.10 Carbohydrates are healthiest when consumed in an unrefined, unprocessed state, like in potatoes, rice, asparagus, oranges, etc. As processed simple sugars, refined flours, and polished grains they can cause problems for the body.
Meat has No Vitamin C
Meat-eating animals (carnivores and omnivores) can make ascorbic acid from the raw materials found in meat. Animals that are basically vegetarian, like humans, must have preformed ascorbic acid in their food – this is called vitamin C. Deficiency of this vitamin results in scurvy – a disease that affects all of the body’s tissues causing loose teeth, bleeding, fragility of the blood vessels, compromised immunity, and anemia. (A diet centered around grains and/or legunes must have added fruits and vegetables to supply vitamins A and C.)
Meat has Almost No calcium
Unless you eat the bones of the animal, eating meat of any kind results in almost no calcium intake. Fortunately our requirement for calcium is very low – actually 150 to 200 mg of calcium per day is adequate.31 Obviously, recommendations to consume 800 to 1500 mg of calcium a day are far in excess of our needs (but promote the dairy and calcium supplement industries’ needs). People get confused when they fail to realize bone loss is actually due to the excess protein and acid in the animal foods, rather than any deficiency of calcium.
Meat is Full of Environmental Contaminants
But not all of the contaminants found in meats are from environmental pollution - some are deliberately fed to the animals by the farmers who raise them. Hormones, stimulants, and antibiotics are routinely used by farmers to speed growth and combat infectious diseases in crowded conditions.36,37 If you eat beef or poultry raised under these types of conditions, you are consuming an assortment of powerful animal drugs as well.
Once they are deposited in your body fat they stay there indefinitely. These chemicals can then affect you later in life, threatening the fetus developing in a woman’s uterus and the baby nursing from her breasts. These chemicals damage the nervous system causing a decrease in mental function and neurologic diseases as life-threatening as Parkinson’s disease.38,39 Major cancers are started and promoted by these chemicals.40,41 With weight loss, these stored chemicals are released into the blood stream and eliminated from the body. 42,43 After elimination, by following a healthy diet with plant foods low on the food chain, you can prevent re-accumulation of these toxins in your body. You will become cleaned out!
Cooking Meat Produces Carcinogens
Meat Is Teeming with Microbes
It’s true that plant foods are subjected to plenty of exposure to bacteria, parasites, and other infectious agents. However, the biochemical makeup of plants is so different from ours, that the microorganisms that infect them rarely affect us. You have no friends with Dutch elm disease or aphids. If a plant food does contain an organism that threatens our health, then it is almost certainly a contaminant from an animal source, usually feces. Proper food handling and preparation will avoid animal waste contamination of healthy vegetable foods.
Take a Giant Step Forward
You may be thinking, OK, I’ll cut back on meat and only eat it once in a while. That can’t hurt me too much, right? Well, you may be lucky. However, I truly believe that the easiest way to make the change to a healthier life is to do it all or nothing. People respond better when they have clean breaks with old habits. Have you ever met a smoker who quit by cutting down? Or an alcoholic who switched to beer to dry out? I haven’t. And so it is with food. Take the attitude that you want to permanently leave behind your poor health and portly appearance by making a serious decision. This way you can get all the old favorite foods out of the refrigerator. You are then placed in the position of finding and learning to like new healthy foods. The big improvements you will see in your health will keep you motivated to eat well and exercise.
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