Eating is complicated; it’s hard to know what you should or should not put in your -and your family’s collective mouths. Rules and suggestions change, oftentimes flip-flopping from year to year. The rules for eating we grew up with are not the same suggestions we see today. Partly, this is due to the amazing developments scientists have made in the fairly new realm of dietetics (the science of nutrition), as well as leaps and bounds in the knowledge about human development. Partly, this is also due to the changes in the food production industry. Partly, this is also due to the powerful influence of food manufacturers, advertisements as well as laws and regulations. And partly, this is due to fads in food preferences. So what’s a busy person to do?
I can’t take on the entire platform of nutrition in one blog post, unfortunately. There are so many pieces and nuances that require actual conversations. I can, however, give some thoughts on one of the most debated: whether or not one should consume meat (looking at the purely nutritional aspect, and leaving aside any religious or cultural influences). Is meat the merciless mercenary it is painted to be? Should it be part of your diet?
Ah yes, the western diet. Generally defined as a diet consisting primarily of processed foods, meats, fats and sugar. The US food Industry wants you to fully embrace this diet as there is a lot of money in food processing. The more they process, the more you eat, the more profitable it becomes. As goes with all processing, the more they muck around – adding a little here, taking a little there - the less the food ends up looking like what Ma Nature created… or intended. The more syllables the ingredients contain, the more foreign it will be in your body. As much as this applies to grains, fruits and veg, it does as well for the meats one consumes. The bottom line is while humans are indeed omnivores by nature, they benefit greatly from consuming less animal protein, leaning them more towards the vegetarian end of the spectrum. Why? Animal protein contains cholesterols and saturated fats that negatively impact our health profiles as well as our pocket books. Note, though, that I said ‘leaning;’ you need not jump off into the deep end, I assure you.
Historically, the wealthier we have become, the worse our diet is. We can afford to eat in restaurants, to eat convenience foods, and we become too busy to cook meals for ourselves. Wealthier families eat more meat, drink more milk and more refined grains; we also eat fruit and veg that are more processed, stripping them of the nutrients originally to be found naturally occurring. Baby carrots, GMO foods, and bags of salad aside, we eat what we find in the grocery stores, and not a lot of that is farm-fresh goodness, sad to say. Foods are grown based on their transport qualities, rather than the nutritional content. The produce section is a sad state of affairs.
Honestly, though, you don’t have to have a degree in nutrition science to eat well; you can eat well without knowing what a phytonutrient is. Experts can’t agree on what is so great about eating mostly plants. What they know for sure is in countries where diet based mostly on plant foods, cancer rates are significantly lower than in those where foods are more processed. Plant-based diets have more fiber, less calories, and those following such diets tend to live longer. Studies have also shown that for populations who have diets higher in meat, there is also a greater incidence of heart disease and cancer. Is this because there is more meat or because there are fewer fruits and veggies? It’s hard to know, right?
To eat an only-vegetarian diet takes careful consideration and planning. It isn’t so much that you simply remove the meat; instead it is very important to ensure that even without the meat, your body gets the proper protein, vitamins and minerals it requires to maintain your health. Variety, variety, variety. Studies have also shown that the colors found in fruits and veggies are indicators of the presence of a wide variety of powerful nutrients (phytonutrients), each carrying a slightly different health benefit. If we go based on natural colors alone, you can literally eat a rainbow by eating a variety of fruits and veg. Each color contains a gift of health benefits, packaged only as Ma Nature can, and not to be replicated by any sort or human processing or fortifying. Meat? Hmmm, not too many naturally occurring colors, am I right?
Most healthful plant-based foods are those most like they are in nature: not force-grown, not sprayed and picked early for easier transport and longer shelf-life. ‘Wild foods’ are often healthier than their domesticated counterparts; as is true of meat sources. Why is this? Because these plants are grown in soils that are rich in nutrients (and as animals, raised eating these same rich plants). Even the sweets provided by Ma Nature (I.e. fruits) are packaged with fiber that helps you regulate how much you eat; the fiber gives you a sense of satiety before you eat too much.
I’m also not saying that meat is bad for you. In fact, humans have been eating meat for a very, very long time. I would argue, though, that there is a dramatic difference between the Average American Diet where meat is consumed 2 or 3 times per day and what I would recommend which is two or three times per week. I know, that seems like a small amount, doesn’t it? The point is to eat quality meat when you do, getting the most bang for your buck (pun not intended). When choosing to eat meat, choose the meats that are, again, the closest to how Ma Nature grows them: grass-fed, without hormones, and raised at a natural growth rate. These meats do cost more, but they also have a more healthful vitamin and antioxidant content. Adequate intake of protein is important as protein is one of the building blocks of your own tissues (especially muscle); lean sources tend to offer these benefits without the added fat and calorie load of fattier options.
Friends, I’m not saying not to eat meat. I am saying, though, that meat should not be the primary part of your meals. Think of meat more as a ‘flavoring’ rather than a main part of your plate. Be the omnivore nature intended you to be: eat a rainbow of colorful fruit and veg, a variety of legumes, whole grains, healthy fats and quality lean meats, all in the least processed form you can find and afford. And, yes, eat meat. Just keep it to a smaller corner of your plate, and perhaps not every day. Eating a balanced diet means keeping an open mind and trying new foods. It means staying well-hydrated. And it means listening to your cues, and pushing the plate away when you are full. Feed yourself well, and your body will reciprocate by taking you far.