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Why Eating Meat is Healthy and Being Vegetarian Isn’t

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.

steak with veggies on a plate

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.

Vegetarians have lower levels of creatine compared to omnivores (study, study)

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.

Chicken Peppers Red sauce CLEAN 14

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!

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • dixya@food, pleasure, and health November 6, 2014, 1:01 am

    this is a very fair, informative piece because I am on the same page as you. while veganism/vegetarianism is a personal choice but being a nutritional professional, we have to also consider what research is showing. thank you for sharing!

    • Nour Zibdeh November 7, 2014, 4:46 am

      Thanks Dixya for the comment. All of our health decisions are personal choices and respecting that is how the best patient-health professional relationship develops!

  • Lily November 6, 2014, 5:21 pm

    I agree completely. If a vegan diet requires the use of supplements to obtain necessary nutrients, then it’s not well-balanced, nor the ideal diet for humans.

    And aside from the obvious vitamin B12, you mention some other nutrients that are inadequate on a diet completely devoid of animal products, including glycine, which is finally getting some attention in research.

    • Nour Zibdeh November 7, 2014, 4:48 am

      Thanks Lily for the comment. Yes, glycine is another one since it’s important for detoxification, another point I didn’t mention… we need amino acids for the liver to detox and vegetable/fruit-only detox programs (without a good source of amino acids) can hurt more than help.

  • Sue Akersten November 6, 2014, 5:34 pm

    Your headline is misleading as many studies have shown the deleterious effects of meat, especially red meat, in the diet (google it), and it also plays on fear as it states that vegetarianism is unhealthy. Maybe you are a shill for the meat industry? WebMD explains that consuming eggs and dairy products supplies vitamin B12. HealthAlaciousness lists eggs, milk and cheese among the top ten sources of B12 and that the liver stores this vitamin for use when it’s needed. Both sites explain that many foods, including cereals and soy products, are fortified with B12. WebMD also warns that 10 to 30 percent of people over 50 no longer have the ability to aborb dietary B12 and need supplementation.

    • Nour Zibdeh November 7, 2014, 5:12 am

      Thanks Sue for the comment. First, I’m not a ‘shill’ for the meat (or any other) industry. I have no ties nor have I ever had any ties with any meat producing entity, farm, association, etc. It’s been my professional stance to not work with any industry groups so that my professional opinions are not biased.
      I will be talking about any studies that link meat to deleterious health effects. I was expecting this comment but couldn’t fit the answer in this blog post. I tried to support my opinion with research as well.
      I like to use the NIH website for information on vitamins and minerals. Here’s the vitamin D Fact Sheet (http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/). All of the foods high in vitamin B12 are animal-based or fish (remember that eggs, milk, cheese, and fish are animal based and many vegetarians/vegans don’t consume them).
      Breakfast cereals can be fortified with vitamin B12 but the type of vitamin B12 used for fortification is not known (my guess is that it’s the inexpensive inactive form that many people can’t even utilize in their bodies). And the other problem with breakfast cereals is that they are highly processed, high in sugar, low in protein and not real foods. As a dietitian, I don’t support breakfast cereals.
      Many soy products are highly processed too (check ingredients list) and I don’t recommend them either. The only types of soy food I may suggest are tempeh, miso, or soy sauce (fermented) and they’re not a good source of vitamin B12 and often consumed in small amounts.
      People over 50 also need quality protein to prevent muscle wasting, zinc to maintain skin integrity and immunity, and iron to prevent anemia, and animal proteins are great sources of these.
      Thanks again for stopping by!

  • Stacey November 7, 2014, 12:32 am

    I love this Nour – I know for me personally, being a dietitian also, I could not survive on a vegetarian diet. Not only do I have PCOS, which requires a higher protein intake to maintain my weight and lose a few pounds here and there, but fruit makes me hungry and crave sugar. And what would a hearty serving of vegetables be without a side of some animal protein…so that is my personal and professional opinion, and every body is different, so what works for me may not work for another.

  • Sarah Moran November 7, 2014, 7:51 pm

    I love your point that eating meat doesn’t mean you don’t eat vegetables. It’s such a misconception that only vegetarians and vegans are veggie lovers. Showing that a diet can be plant centered AND include properly raised animal products is so important.

    • Nour Zibdeh November 7, 2014, 8:33 pm

      Thanks Sarah for the comment. Have a great day!

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