I went to see my doctor few weeks ago and the nurse asked me what my job is.
“I’m a dietitian nutritionist,” I said.
“Great!” she replied. Then she started telling me how she switched to being vegetarian to be healthier. She was excited about it so I didn’t want to interrupt and interject my unsolicited advice.
Then she stopped and asked: “are you vegetarian too?”
“Actually, I’m not. I do eat meat and think that there are health benefits to NOT being vegetarian,” I said.
“Oh. Really?” She responded.
I explained my take on meat and here I am sharing it with you in more details. In this article, ‘meat’ refers to beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, and fish.
Here’s why I think eating meat is healthy and being a vegetarian or vegan is not.
1. Meats are rich in vitamins and minerals
A 3-ounce serving of beef is an excellent source of the minerals iron, zinc, selenium, and phosphorus and the B vitamins niacin, B6, and B12. They have no fibers, phytates, oxalates, or lectins that interfere with absorption. Sure you can’t live on meats alone, but they are nutrition powerhouses that are often overlooked.
2. Meats are the best source of iron
There are two forms of iron: heme (from red meat, poultry, and fish) and non heme (plant and fortified foods) iron. While you can get the non heme iron from some plant foods, its bioavailability is lower due to the fibers and polyphenols in plants that interfere with its absorption. The bioavailability of iron in meat diets is between 14 to 18% compared to 5 to 12% in vegetarian diets.
Heme iron is an important component in hemoglobin, an iron-rich protein that makes up red blood cells (that transfer oxygen to body cells). Without enough iron, you may feel fatigued and out of breath. Your heart will have to work harder to provide oxygen to your cells. Iron is also necessary for optimal thyroid function and low iron can lead to hair loss.
3. Animal proteins are the only source of vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 needs a blog post on its own but keep few things in mind.
- 68% of vegetarians and 83% of vegans are deficient in vitamin B12 compared to just 5% of omnivores (study)
- Lab ‘healthy’ ranges overlook borderline deficient vitamin B12 levels in which symptoms and damage start to happen
- You cannot get any vitamin B12 from any plant sources because it’s made in the guts of animals
- Even vegetarian and vegan-promoting websites urge vegetarians and vegans to supplement with vitamin B12. If we need to supplement, then it makes more sense to eat the food source to begin with
The best animal food sources of vitamin B12 are clams and organ meats like beef liver. Next comes fish like tuna and salmon, beef, poultry, and eggs.
4. Red meat and fish are the best sources of creatine
Creatine is a molecule that’s found naturally in some foods or obtained from synthetic supplements. If the diet is deficient in creatine, the body can make it in the kidney from the amino acids glycine, arginine, and methionine.
Studies show that creatine improves muscle strength (study), nerve function, memory and cognitive function (study study), and athletic performance in young athletes. It slows down the worsening of Parkinson’s disease (with Co-Q10 supplements, study) and increases strength in people with heart failure. Supplements have some side effects and food remains the best source.
5. Meats are complete proteins
Animal protein (meats!) are considered complete proteins because they provide all 20 amino acids, which are the building blocks for our muscles, enzymes, hormones, and other protein-based molecules and structures.
Getting all 20 amino acids from plants comes with challenges. First, since all plant sources are deficient in at least one amino acid, you have to plan your dishes to pair amino acids up, and many people on vegetarian diets don’t. Plant-sources of amino acids may not be bioavailable because the fibers and phytates in beans and grains interfere with absorption.
Soy (burgers, meat-imitation products, soy protein powders, soy bars, etc) in the typical American diet is highly processed and mostly genetically modified. Studies on soy benefits and risks are conflicting and any benefit is seen with traditional fermented soy foods not our Americanized version. Even though it’s considered complete because it has all amino acids, I typically steer people away from depending on soy for protein. Some fermented soy products in small amounts may be ok if you tolerate soy.
Meats also provide protein without carbohydrates. With experience, I find that a moderate-high protein (30% of calories) and relatively low carbohydrate intake (40% calories) is ideal for weight loss and blood glucose management. If you have to count on beans, quinoa, rice, wheat, soy, etc to get your proteins, you can’t stick to this range of carbohydrate.
6. Meats can be easier on your digestive tract to handle
I see many people in my practice with digestive complaints such as bloating, gas, stomach aches, diarrhea, and/or constipation. Grains (some or all), beans, dairy, and even some fruits and vegetables can be easily fermented by bacteria in the gut and trigger these symptoms. Red meat, chicken, and fish are typically easier to tolerate. A low FODMAPs diet eliminates many of the above carbohydrates and what helps my patients maintain their nutrient and energy intake is eating a moderate amount of meat with their meals.
When people switch to vegetarian diets, they depend on beans and grains to get their protein, and both are high in lectins (protein in plants). Too much lectins can distress the digestive and immune systems, leading to inflammation, nutrient deficiencies, food sensitivities, and discomfort (bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation). I’ve met several people who admit that vegan and vegetarian diets destroyed their guts and it’s taking them years to heal.
7. Beef and chicken bone broth have healing powers
Speaking of healing, broth made from beef and chicken bones has magical healing powers. Bone broth is a good source of amino acids (especially arginine, glycine, and proline) that are needed for the detoxification process, building key molecules in the body, supporting digestion, and skin health. Gelatin, a protein that comes from the bones, joints, and tendons of animals, helps heal the lining of your intestine. Healthy gut lining will enable you to absorb nutrients. It’s the largest barrier that protects you from food, chemical, and pathogen toxins in our environment. Adding vegetables to your bone broth boosts the nutrient content and flavor of course.
Broth made from vegetables alone will have some flavor but will lack the healing powers of bone broth.
8. The right types of meats have healthy fats
Fish is the only source of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Both play a major role in lowering inflammation, protecting from heart disease, and improving mood, cognition, and more. While you can get the omega-3 fatty acid ALA from plant sources such as flaxseed oil, ALA does not convert efficiently to EPA and DHA, the two fatty acids your body will actually use.
Beef and dairy obtained from grassfed animals contain the fatty acid CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). CLA can protect against cancers, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, and improve immune function (study). CLA may protect and slow down the growth of some cancers (study), improve appetite (study), and lead to more weight and fat mass loss (study).
9. There’s no causal relationship between vegetarianism and improved health
Some studies find that vegetarians weigh less or have less cardiovascular disease, but that’s not a causal relationship. That means we can’t say that being vegetarian is what caused the result. It may be other things in a vegetarian lifestyle that led to this correlation. Maybe vegetarians just eat more vegetables, so what if we eat some meat AND as many vegetables?
Don’t get me wrong, this is not an anti-vegetables article
I love vegetables and on daily basis I’m helping my patients eat more vegetables. But I don’t see a health advantage to skipping high quality red meat, chicken, fish, or eggs. I typically suggest a 4 to 5 ounce serving for my female clients and a 5 to 6 ounce serving for my male clients (also depends on their age and exercise).
If you are vegetarian for religious reasons, that’s something I always respect.
I am also aware of the terrible ways conventional meats are being produced, and this article does not support any cruel animal practices. There are farmers who raise their animals humanely, you just have to make an effort to find them and support them. Look for grassfed beef and lamb, free-range eggs and chicken, and organic and hormone free dairy. Look for farmers who raise their animals with minimum, if any, hormones or antibiotics.
Now it’s your turn. I would love to hear your take, opinion, and your questions about this topic. Share in the comment section below!