by Kimberly Allen, RN
The controversy over whether or not eating meat is good or bad for your health has been going on for decades. It has been the subject of countless studies, many with conflicting results. While there’s no question that meat is a good source of quality protein it also provides many essential nutrients like vitamin B12, iron and zinc as well as selenium. These nutrients not only supply energy but also support your immune system.
Though there have been numerous studies on the health effects of eating meat (red meat in particular) none of them have said whether or not the participants were eating “organic” meat or conventionally fed meat. This could alter the results because there is a difference. Also, most studies seem to focus on the use of processed meats like bacon, sausage, and bologna as opposed to unprocessed meats like steak or roasts.
In a recent European study, dubbed a “fancy pants European study,” researchers followed over 500,000 men and women in10 European countries over 12 years. When the study was first published, the media as well as some experts read the section that appeared to provide evidence that eating “processed” meats is going to send you to an early grave. So of course the media rushed to earn the public with their usual “Death by Salami” headlines. Unfortunately, it’s what they didn’t report on that is of more significant value. In this particular study the European researchers were not only unable to produce any evidence that eating red meat will kill you they actually showed that NOT eating read meat can lead to an early death. In fact they were able to conclude that red meat was not only “no longer associated with mortality” but “all cause mortality was higher among participants with very low or no red meat consumption”.
For years, the American Heart Association, as well as certain public health advocates, have been warning the public that eating large amounts of meat, especially red meat, can lead to heart disease as well as numerous other health issues. However, the scientific data to support this claim has always been limited and this study is not the first to contradict these assumptions. In fact, the data from a Harvard study showed that people that eat moderate amounts of red meat did better than people that ate little or no red meat. Even in the “fancy pants European study,” researchers were unable produce a definitive link between heavy processed meat eaters and heart disease. In the study, researchers tried to adjust for contributing factors like alcohol and smoking as well as sugar intake and education. The problem was that the number of participants that consumed processed meats and were non-smokers was so small compared to those that smoke made it impossible to determine if it is the bacon or the cigarettes that caused their deaths. In fact, less than 1% of those that died during the 12 years the study was conducted were ones that ate large amounts of processed meat.
There’s still plenty of reasons to avoid processed meats. As most experts will tell you, processed meats are loaded with salt and extra fat as well as carcinogens like nitrates, which should make anyone watching their health wary of them. However, it’s important to remember not all processed meats are created equal. There’s a vast difference between a nice Italian prosciutto and spam.
Then there’s the other issue that is so blatantly missing from the discussion. What about organic or pasture fed meat as opposed to conventionally raised grain fed meats and products? I know it was a long time ago, but there was a time when all meat on the market came from pasture fed animals. There wasn’t nearly the amount of health issues and controversy. And it’s not just organic pasture fed beef or red meat that has been shown to be more beneficial to your health. Poultry, eggs and dairy products that are naturally-raised in pastures and not fed grains have also been shown to offer significant health benefits.
Not only are organic or pasture fed meats, poultry, eggs and dairy products lower in calories and fat, there are many other nutritional benefits to consuming organic instead of conventionally raised meats. Organically raised products are higher in antioxidants like beta carotene as well as vitamins C and E. They also have as much as 4 times more omega-3 fatty acids than products from conventionally raised animals. Even eggs from hens that have been pasture fed has approximately 20 times more omega-3’s. Omega-3 fatty acids are the most heart friendly of all the fats. People that consume an abundant amount of omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduce their risk of developing hypertension or an irregular heart beat, in fact they reduce their risk of suffering a heart attack by 50%. A diet high in omega-3 fatty acids also reduces your risk of developing numerous other health problems ranging from depression, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s disease to cancer.
So why are pasture fed meat products so high in omega-3 fatty acids? Because omega-3 fatty acids are formed in the green leaves, grass and algae. In fact 60% of the fatty acids in grass are omega-3 fatty acids. Animals that are “certified organic” are required to be pasture fed for the entire pasture season. They are then fed hay and a minimal amount of grain until the can return to pasture. They are “fattened” naturally roaming the pastures of green grass. On the other hand conventionally raised animals start in the pasture but are then sent to feed lots where they are “fattened” on grain, given hormones and antibiotics before going to slaughter. For everyday animals are in the feed lots they lose more and more of their omega-3 fatty acids so by the time they are slaughtered there is only minimal omega-3’s in the meat.
Another significant consideration is whats NOT in pasture raised beef that you do find in conventionally raised beef. One thing that has never been found in pasture fed beef is mad cow disease, e-coli a very dangerous bacteria is also highly unlikely to be found in pasture fed meat products. Also, you won’t find any “extra hormones and no traces of antibiotics”. So what do you get with organic pasture fed meat? A meat that is by far cleaner and more wholesome and healthier for you than conventionally raised beef.
Again, certain groups that are pushing the “meat is bad for you” theory have produced a couple of small studies that they say shows that it’s not the fat in red meat that kills you, it’s the L-carnitine. There are several flaws with both of these studies. For one thing they don’t say anything about the fact that red meat isn’t the only food source with significant amounts of L-carnitine. It can also be found in significant amounts in poultry, milk and other dairy products as well as fish. Both studies were also very small and in one, the study published by the journal Nature Medicines there were only six human participants, the rest were mice. Of the six humans only one didn’t eat meat. Not only that the health status of the 5 meat eaters is not included, so did they already have heart disease, do they have any potential contributing factors? It’s not stated, but for some reason the media pounces on these small studies as good health information to pass on. There is much more significant evidence that L-carnitine is actually good for you.
So what is L-carnitine? L-carnitine is a nutrient that is synthesized from lysine and methionine, 2 essential amino acids. This occurs naturally in the liver and kidneys. At least 98% of your L-carnitine supply is stored in your muscle tissue. Approximately 80% of the amino acids your body needs are produced with in your body the other 20% are considered essential amino acids and must be received from outside your body either in the food you eat or in the form of a supplement. A certain amount of L-carnitine must be obtained from the food you eat or supplement. In a recently published issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings a multicenter group of investigators was able to definitively show that “L-carnitine significantly improves cardiac health in patients after a heart attack.” In addition to that their findings indicate that L-carnitine was associated with a significant decrease in death from all causes as well as a very significant decrease in ventricular arrhythmia’s and angina attacks after a heart attack. L-carnitine is responsible for transporting long-chain fatty acids across the mitochondrial membrane of your cells. This fat is then metabolized as fuel or energy for your body. Your heart receives 60% of it’s fuel from fat. This means that L-carnitine is crucial to your cardiac health. L-carnitine stops the build up of fat metabolites by improving the metabolism of fatty acids.
L-carnitine also improves the vascular function of people that are obese with type 2 diabetes. In fact a study done at Indiana University School of Medicine researchers determined that increasing levels of L-carnitine may even delay the progression of cardiac disease in obese participants. However, of all the positive effects the most impressive aspect found was that by using L-carnitine supplements they discovered it’s ability to help coenzyme Q10 and D-ribose in decreasing mortality from end stage congestive heart failure.
Taking L-carnitine supplements with omega-3 fish oil will improve your energy levels and help with weight loss. A study recently published in The Journal of Physiology provides evidence that taking L-carnitine supplements can improve athletic performance , which is something researchers have been trying to prove for years. In this study researchers were able to show that L-carnitine can improve your high intensity work out capacity, increase athletic performance and speed your recovery from intense exercise as well as make your brain function better and inhibit the oxidative stress that leads to chronic health problems.
The richest food source for L-carnitine is red meat though it can be found in high quantities in poultry, milk and other dairy products as well as fish. However, it is better to choose organic meats. L-carnitine is also available in supplements. Overall it is considered a safe supplement with exception of the medication pentylenetetrazol which can interact with L-carnitine supplements.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.