What You Can’t Eat Can’t Hurt You

There is no getting around that humans have evolved with meat consumption as a way of life.  To our hunter-gatherer ancestors, meat had quantities of protein, fats, and calories that were hard to find elsewhere, and with no regularity in meals, getting as much of these nutrients as you could in one sitting was inexorably valuable.  However, while this evolutionary trait allowed us to develop the amount of strength in muscle and mind to get to where we are today, it’s left us with the baggage of over-consumption.  Thousands of years ago, a hunter might have sought meat because he or she would not eat again for three days.  Today we consume a 24-piece Chicken Nugget meal because we might not eat again for three hours.  The impulse is long past the need.

Perhaps ironically the same components of meat that once helped our ancestors survive are now damaging our health.  It is a well-known fact that the Center for Disease Control has listed heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States; and while fatalities due to obesity are hard to directly pinpoint, in 2001 the Surgeon General released a “call to arms” against obesity, writing that “overweight and obesity are among the most pressing new health challenges we face today,” and, “approximately 300,000 U.S. deaths a year can be associated with obesity.”  In this obesogenic climate the health risks involved in meat consumption deserve our immediate attention.

While meat, as in all things, consists on a range, the major grievances listed against it fall into three categories:

  • Meat and cholesterol: Cholesterol is a waxy substance our body produces and procures to maintain the permeability of our veins, and it plays an important part in our body’s ability to make hormones and break down fats.  However, high amounts of cholesterol can lead to fatty blocks in  veins and weakens the heart, which in turn can lead to cardiovascular disease and attacks.  Maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol can be difficult while eating meat because animal products are so full of cholesterol that it is easy to overload.  Beef, for example, can have as much as 80 mg cholesterol per 100 g of meat, and this is even before cheese, oils, and other cholesterol-filled substances are added to its cooking.  Some dairy products, on the other hand, are still high in cholesterol but a nice step down, such as whole cow’s milk with 10 mg per 100 g. However,  cheese can get up as high as 90 mg.  Vegetables and grains have negligible amounts of cholesterol, and most are not even listed on charts.  Considering that the body only needs (at the very most!) 200 mg of cholesterol per day, cutting out meat while still eating dairy products and eggs is a sound way to ensure that you’re not overdoing your cholesterol without realizing it.
  • Meat and fats: Fats tell almost the same story as cholesterol.  You need fats to help your body run smoothly and to keep your body weight at its correct level, but too much can lead to weight gain, heart disease, skin problems, and more.  Meat (especially untrimmed or non-lean) has high amounts of fat by nature: fish ring in around 50% of your daily value, but even lean beef can reach into the mid-80s.  In contrast, most vegetables have only trace amounts, although vegetarians consume healthy fats through foods such as avocados, nuts, and oils.
  • Meat and chemicals: Other complaints against meat usually deal with preservatives and food additives: unfortunately, vegetarian food is not exempt from these.  Whether you’re eating a Boca Burger or a can of green beans, the food has been altered to make it last longer, look better, and taste a certain way.  Most of these additives and preservatives are considered to be perfectly fine by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Of course, we don’t really know their full effect yet, but eating them is a choice you have to make regardless if meat is involved or not.  But the worst culprits in the case of preservatives are the foods that need to look the best, taste always the same, and be ready in the least amount of time…which is the equation for fast food.  Fast food is full of coloring and chemicals (not to mention sky-high amounts of salt and fats!), but again, eating these things is your choice.  But vegetarians are not in as much danger of the fast food temptation because, let’s face it, there’s not a lot of fast food vegetarians can eat.  Despite sandwich shops and Taco Bells, driving along the highway offers little chance to stop and chow down on something terrible for our bodies.  Like how taking out meat leads to a diversification of the amount of nutrients you consume, it’s an indirect side effect of vegetarianism.  I’ve noticed that by not having the option of fast food, I’ve cut out a huge area of unhealthy eating by default.

These health benefits seem obvious, but for me, they came as a wonderful surprise.  My initial conversion had been fueled by a desire to try a lifestyle change, to strengthen my agency in my decisions, to explore new ways of cooking, and to act upon my growing feelings of discomfort at the thought of animal cruelty.  Therefore, when I began to experience healthy amounts of weight loss, a clearer complexion, and a cleaner internal feeling, it felt like someone had come knocking on my door with balloons, cameras, and a four-foot-long winner’s check.  Of course, I started with healthy eating habits (an aversion to packaged food, limited dairy intake, and love of a variety of fruits and veggies), but once I had made the initial jump into vegetarianism, the rest of the health benefits followed seamlessly.

Yet it is important that a switch to vegetarianism shouldn’t be led by general health benefits alone.  Like all weight-loss diets, cutting out meet to cut back on calories will only eventually end in a relapse; likewise, viewing a halt in meat as a punishment or a terrible downside to a health problem will make all other food taste unsatisfying.  And of course, if you are unwilling to take on full vegetarnism, watching your meat intake will also improve your health, even if by a lesser degree.  Make sure to buy lean meat, and take care to limit your intake to the prescribed serving size (one volume of meat the size and weight of a pack of trading cards per day).  Also important to remember is that we don’t need meat anymore.  Gone are the days when it was our best source of nutrients: now that we have a full range of resources available at any given moment, the conscious vegetarian who maintains a balanced, carefully-monitered diet can be just as healthy (or healthier!) as his or her meat eating neighbor.

For the full article by the Surgeon General about obesity, click here:

http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/news/pressreleases/pr_obesity.htm

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