What is Nutrition: Is All Meat Unhealthy?

One of the most controversial topics in nutrition has been the consumption of Meat. Rich in saturated fat, Meat includes white meat (e.g. chicken, turkey), red meat (e.g. mutton, pork, beef) and processed meat (e.g. bacon, salami, sausages). It has, in some form and fashion been an integral part of human diet for centuries until the beginning of agriculture 12,000 years back.

 

The publication of the Seven Countries Study by Ancel Keys in 1970 – a systematic multi-nation examination of the relationships between lifestyle, diet, coronary heart disease and stroke – brought the “Diet-Heart hypothesis” or the “Fat hypothesis” to hold.

 

This linkage between blood cholesterol levels and occurrence of heart disease made Meat go out of fashion.*

*Detractors point out that he had data from 15 other countries which wasn't published, possibly as they weren’t in line with his hypothesis. France was excluded from the analysis, which had the highest per capita consumption of fat but amongst the lowest incidence of heart attacks. A later study from 42 European countries in 2016 concluded that higher fat intake was protective. 

 

Additional studies were published from the 70s to the early 2000s with the premise that saturated fats can cause heart attacks. US Dietary guidelines issued in 1977 strongly suggested a low-fat diet for preventing heart diseases and stroke.

What is Nutrition: Is All Meat Unhealthy?

The focus of Cardiology moved towards lowering cholesterol - both through dietary restrictions and usage of statins i.e. potent cholesterol lowering drugs. People around the world started cutting down on fat, replacing them with carbs. Ironically, this coincided with an epidemic rise of obesity and lifestyle diseases in the four decades that followed.

 

However these notions are being challenged since 2000. The old data has been re-evaluated from a fresh perspective and new studies have been conducted to challenge the validity of the “Fat hypothesis”, i.e. is there really a direct correlation between saturated fat consumption and heart disease?

 

Unfortunately, the results are often conflicting. We have reached a point where though we have data on food intake of hundreds of thousands of individuals across multiple countries, some studies show no association of heart attacks and strokes with fats (including saturated fats and Meats), while others demonstrate that fats may be beneficial in preventing these illnesses! Studies concluding there may be a significant disease burden due to fat intake also exist.

What is Nutrition: Is All Meat Unhealthy?

It is beyond the scope of this article to critique or discuss these divergences in detail. Instead, I shall simply share a few objective conclusions:

 

  1. Daily intake of processed red meat (bacon, sausages, salami, etc., over 50 gram / day) is associated with increase in the incidence of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and possibly cancer.
  2. Daily intake of unprocessed fresh red meat (>100 gram / day) is associated with a trend towards harm (heart disease, stroke and diabetes), though less frequent intake (1-2 times per week) has a neutral effect on the heart.
  3. Fatty fish and fish oil are shown to be beneficial in preventing heart attacks (by raising the levels of HDL i.e. high density lipoprotein or the ‘good’ cholesterol).
  4. Unprocessed white meat (chicken, turkey etc.) is shown to be neutral for the heart.
  5. Dietary fat is not directly correlated with serum cholesterol (consisting of HDL, LDL i.e. low density lipoprotein, and triglycerides) levels. Hence, whole eggs were allowed again in 2015.
  6. A large number of heart attacks occur in people who have “optimal” levels of cholesterol, including LDL cholesterol (so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol). An American study involving 136,000 patients admitted with coronary artery disease (80% of them had suffered heart attacks) showed that 77% individuals had LDL < 130 mg/dl (desirable) and 50% had LDL < 100 mg/dl (optimal). More people had low HDL < 40 mg/dl (55%) as a risk factor.
  7. The protein content in Meat and eggs is much higher (over twice as much, per 100 gram) than plant sources. There are only 3 plant sources of all essential amino acids (quinoa, buckwheat and soy), whereas all animal proteins are complete proteins.
  8. Fats are much more filling than carbs, and a meal of eggs or Meat keeps one full much longer than vegetables with chapatti, rice or bread.
  9. Replacing saturated fats in Meats with polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) reduces serum cholesterol levels, but there is no solid evidence showing survival benefit with this intervention.

 

Since fat as a macronutrient has been shown to be neutral for serious lifestyle diseases and mortality, it should no longer be considered a taboo. Still large amounts of fatty foods are not desirable as they will inevitably lead to weight gain.

 

However, it must be acknowledged that Meat does have critical advantages: it is tasty, filling and provides several useful nutrients, including complete proteins.

 

That doesn't mean one has to start eating Meat even if you're a vegetarian/vegan. It is enough to cut down on avoidable sugars and refined carbs and instead focus on healthy carbs (fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds), which provide fats and proteins along with healthy fiber.

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But if one does eat Meat, that’s fine too. Regular consumption of fatty fish (about twice a week) or fish oil are beneficial for our lipids and health. White meat like chicken too can be consumed regularly without much fear. Unprocessed fresh red meat can be safely consumed once a week, however daily consumption should be avoided. Processed red meat should be taken sparingly as they have a stronger association with diseases; these should be taken less than once a week. With most non-vegetarian Indians who prefer consuming Meat only once or twice a week, there should be fewer health concerns other from their physical quality. Whether Meat or vegetables or fruits – going organic is preferred as that means consumption of less harmful chemicals leading to a better health.

 

Given the contrasting data from very reliable studies, any dietary advice is bound to be challenged or criticized. However, one must remember that a moderate approach keeping in mind the basic mechanics of nutrition can never go wrong.

 

It is good to remember that a healthy diet is a balance of nutrients: vegetables and fruits come first, and form the bulk of a meal, but they are to be followed by healthy proteins and fats as well. And Meat is a rich source of these.

 

You think you know what is good for your health and what isn't? Try your luck at these 10 Questions here.

 

This is a recurring column published every Sunday under the title: What is Nutrition. Next week I will do a deep-dive on “How Many Eggs Should I Eat A Day?”. Stay tuned.

 

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