In defense of meat
Thursday, November 2, 2017. Author Matthew Kershaw
Thursday, November 2, 2017. Author Matthew Kershaw
When it comes to health and fitness, meat often gets a bad rap. Aside from the obvious environmental and ethical issues (which will not be the subject of this article), meat has been lambasted with links to weight gain, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer. Nevertheless, as part of a balanced and varied diet, meat offers many nutritional benefits.
For many searching for an effective, satiating diet, protein is the macronutrient of choice. Studies show that high-protein meals are more filling over longer periods compared to diets with protein intake levels following official recommendations (e.g., Dietary Reference Value) (1). It has also been shown that a high-protein/lower carb diet can increase resting metabolic rate. As a response to replacing carbohydrate with protein, your body is required to use non-carbohydrate sources to produce glucose instead - a process known as gluconeogenesis (2). This increase in gluconeogenesis replenishes muscle glycogen (which cannot be obtained from the inadequate carbohydrate in the diet) and results in more calories burned at rest - helpful, if you’re looking to burn fat, lose weight or get lean.
Sources of protein are extremely varied, from the obvious, such as eggs, to the less obvious, such as garden peas. Both the quality and content of protein in meat, however, make it the go-to option for many following a high-protein diet, as meat products typically contain higher quantities of protein per 100g compared to other sources. Also, meat-derived protein contains all the EAAs (essential amino acids, which are required from the diet as we can’t synthesize them ourselves), whereas plant-derived proteins are usually an “incomplete” protein source, as they lack at least one of these EAAs. However, we’re not disparaging the quality of plant protein; a varied diet is essential to health and plants possess many nutrients that animal products do not!
Aside from an increased “complete” protein quantity, what else can you gain from animal-based products to help you achieve your goals and why?
Animal products (and fortified cereals) are the only dietary sources of vitamin B12 without supplementation. Vitamin B12 plays an important role in the production of red blood cells and a deficiency in this vitamin may lead to anemia if untreated. Common symptoms of a lack of B12 include tiredness, rapid-fatigue and a lack of appetite, which impacts your ability to train and recover post-exercise.
Animal-based products (particularly eggs and oily fish) are good sources of vitamin D, which is important in the process of calcium absorption in bones. When undertaking weight-bearing exercise, weakened bones put you at risk of injury, so a good intake of calcium and vitamin D is essential to ensure you can continue to ramp up the intensity without damaging your skeleton. Dietary vitamin D is particularly useful for ethnicities with darker skin, or those living in areas with reduced exposure to sunshine. While vitamin D is present in some vegetables and mushrooms, this is typically in the D2 form, which is around 3x less effective than the D3 form found in animal products. Nevertheless, it is difficult to meet your Vitamin D requirements through dietary intake (meat or otherwise) alone. The greatest source of Vitamin D3 is naturally produced when sunlight hits the skin (3).
Dairy, eggs, and liver are good sources of vitamin A, which is essential for immune function. Being struck down by the flu halfway through a workout plan is detrimental to your training and can set you back a few paces, so maintaining a healthy immune system is important. Vitamin A is also beneficial to your eye health, so it can help you see your body transformation in the mirror! While it is well-known that vegetables contain carotenoids, which are pro-vitamin antioxidants that the body turns into vitamin A, these are inefficiently converted. Current estimates suggest that 12µg of β-carotene is required for every 1µg of vitamin A produced. For some, a vegetable-only diet can result in a deficiency of vitamin A if consumption is inadequate, or if healthy fat consumption is low (4).
Iron is available in two forms in the diet: haem- and non-haem iron. Meat products contain both forms, whereas egg, plant and dairy products only contain non-haem iron. Haem iron is more readily absorbed across the gut than its non-haem counterpart, meaning that our body is more capable of utilizing it efficiently. Those who choose not to eat meat are potentially at risk of an iron deficiency, which affects your oxygen carrying capacity and reduces the time at which you can work at higher intensities. This could limit the benefits you see from your workout.
Unlike their plant-based counterparts, naturally-occurring meats contain no carbohydrate. This is ideal if you’re following a low-carb diet, as it is then easier to control the proportion and quality of carbohydrates in your daily intake.
Meat-based diets tend to be higher in calories than vegetable-based diets due to the higher fat content. This can be detrimental to your overall goal if you aim to lose weight. It’s possible, however, that the higher caloric content of meat can be offset by the increases in resting metabolic rate and satiety engendered by the rise in protein intake. By contrast, someone looking to gain weight may be thankful for the increased calorie consumption from a meat-based diet, as it reduces the amount they would otherwise have to consume to achieve their daily energy intake.
While advocating the consumption of meat, it is also important to note the potential drawbacks of a meat-based diet. Depending on the animal and the type of cut, meat can be a source abundant in saturated fat. For those of you that don’t respond well to a diet high in saturates (check your APOA2 gene result from FitnessGenes), this can have a detrimental effect on your bodily transformation and your overall health. Saturated fat is typically high in low-density-lipoprotein (LDL), which is the “bad” form of cholesterol. This attaches and soaks into artery walls, forming plaques which cause inflammation and narrowing of the lumen - a process otherwise known as atherosclerosis. If a plaque ruptures, it can cause scarring of the tissue of the arterial wall and can lead to a thrombus, or blockage of the artery. Choosing leaner cuts of meat and oily fish helps reduce this risk.
There has been a lot of publicity recently on the risks of colorectal cancer in relation to high intakes of red and processed meat. The World Health Organisation declared that red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans”, and processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans”. They have insisted that the link between red meat and colorectal cancer is based on limited evidence and more studies are required to determine a causal link between the two. It’s your personal choice as to whether you eat, limit your consumption of, or abstain altogether from red meat. Avoiding processed meats, such as sausages and bacon, is always recommended to help you achieve and maintain a lean figure!
You can still obtain all the necessary nutrients from a diet that excludes meat and meat-derived products, as long as your diet is varied and thoughtfully structured. The potential risks associated with a lack of consumption of meat can be managed and counteracted by a carefully controlled diet and supplementation for those nutrients that might otherwise be missed out. Therefore, during your transformation into your ideal body, whatever your choice is: keep it lean, keep it clean and enjoy your food!
Matthew Kershaw has recently joined FitnessGenes. He has a Bachelor's degree in Nutrition, Exercise, and Health and is currently working on his Master's degree in Applied Sport and Exercise Nutrition
Try these delicious, nutritious, and easy to prepare vegetarian side dishes with your favorite meat main course:
1 . Leidy, H.J., Tang, M., Armstrong, C.L.H., Martin, C.B. and Campbell, W.W. (2011) The Effects of Consuming Frequent, Higher Protein Meals on Appetite and Satiety During Weight Loss in Overweight/Obese Men. Obesity. 19(4) 818-824
2. Westerterp-Platenga, M.S., Lemmens, S.G. and Westerterp, K.R. (2012) Dietary protein – its role in satiety, energetics, weight loss and health. British Journal of Nutrition. 108(S2): S105-S112
3. Group, E. (2014) Vitamin D3 vs. Vitamin D2 – What’s the Difference? https://www.globalhealingcenter.com/natural-health/vitamin-d3-vs-vitamin-d2/#1 [18th October 2017]
4. Haskell, M.J. (2012) The challenge to reach nutritional adequacy for vitamin A: β-carotene bioavailability and conversion – evidence in humans. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 96(5): 1193S-1203S