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Is Eating Red Meat Really Bad For You? Is it Ethical? [The Brouhaha Over Red Meat Intensifies]

Posted Jun 06 2013 12:47am

cowtongue (1)

I’ve heard cow tongue can be a delicacy but I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean on the first date.

“Mom?” My freshly bathed son snuggled into my lap as we read through Moo Moo Brown Cow with Jelly Bean before bedtime.

“Yes, honey?” I answered, prepared for one of his silly existential questions he likes to pose right before lights out. (“If I had a googleplex of licorice would you make me share it with my brothers?”)

His big sweet brown eyes looked up at me through those long lashes he got from my husband. Laying one little hand on my cheek he asked, “Do baby cows taste as delicious as mommy cows?”

Cough, choke, splutter. My baby wants veal?!? All this time I thought he loved Brown Cow because of the snuggly baby animals and the cute way I sing the text (I do a very fancy trill on the last “No kittens, no kittens, but many many friends!”) but apparently he was reading it as a cookbook. I panicked – you do realize there is a goose in that book, right? How am I supposed to explain Foie Gras to a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old? But in the end, what could I say? The boy has always loved his meat. He once ate five bratwursts at friend’s birthday party; he called them “meat sticks” and carried one in each fist, alternating bites.  That would be another thing he got from my husband – I was a vegetarian then.

My history with meat and with dead cow specifically has been long and tumultuous. I was a vegetarian for years, then a vegan, then  I realized one day that for my health I did need to eat some meat . Then I went on a meat bender for a few months. I’ve tried the Primal Blueprint which has you eat meat at essentially every meal.  I investigated Gary Taubes ‘ (of Good Calories Bad Calories) claim that one could eat nothing but meat – yes you read that right, no fruits and veggies necessary – and be perfectly healthy. And then I embraced Intuitive Eating which may have ended up teaching me more about what meat eating means for my body than I learned from 100 books.

And I’m not the only confused person out there. These days it takes much less than a children’s book though to bring out people’s mixed feelings about meat. There are two main controversies surrounding red meat: Is it healthy? Is it humane?

Is Eating Red Meat Bad For You?

One of the things I’m lamenting about leaving behind in Minnesota is Farmer Bob, my dealer for all that amazing grass-fed, grass-finished, pastured, kissed-by-angels beef we got from a local farmer – seriously that stuff was so amazing I didn’t even bother seasoning it when I cooked it. So I asked a new acquaintance here if she knew of a local farmer where I could get my next beef hit. She gave me a funny look and said, “Ew, no! I don’t eat red meat. It’s so bad for you!

But is it?

For years the advice given us from everyone from our doctors to the government to celebrities was to “eat lean meats” like the perennial favorite, the Almighty Boneless Skinless Chicken Breast. (See what I did there? I proper-noun’ed it!) We were told by our doctors to avoid red meat especially because of the “artery clogging saturated fat” and told that if we must eat it then to stick to the leanest cuts we could find. Indeed it seemed that the research backed up this position with studies linking red meat consumption to higher incidences of cancer and heart disease. A report issued by the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research  concluded , “red and processed meat increases the risk for colorectal cancer, and the evidence that foods containing fiber offer protection against the disease has become stronger.” in reporting a different study,  declared definitively , “Want to live longer? Cut back on red meat.” It became one of those nutritional facts that everyone just “knows.”

But when you really look into the research that knowledge becomes a lot less sure. The main problem is that most studies are looking at people who eat factory-farmed animals whose meat has an entirely different nutritional profile than cows raised as they were meant to be. Conventionally raised cows  are fed  a diet of grains, sugar (seriously), and a melange of other things that can include beef blood, chicken feathers and even arsenic. They are also injected with hormones and antibiotics to help speed their growth and for infections brought on by crowded, unsanitary conditions.

However, left to their own devices cows prefer to eat grasses and roam Home On The Range style (no word yet on if the deer and the antelope want to play today – I hear they’re under investigation for becoming rowdy neighbors now that we’ve killed off the wolves that used to shut down their redneck parties.) The  end result is a meat that is naturally  “lower in fat, calories, and omega-6 fatty acids linked to heart disease. It’s also higher in vitamin E and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. (But not that high: You’ll get two to five times more omega-3 fatty acids from grass-fed beef than regular beef, but you’ll get 5,000 percent more from salmon.)” It also contains more CLA, a known cancer-fighter.  The research supports  that people who eat grass-fed beef get less cancer and have lower blood pressure and better lipid profiles than people who don’t.

The second issue with a lot of these studies is that they don’t differentiate between processed and unprocessed meats. Nitrates and nitrites among other preservatives commonly used in hot dogs, sausage, bacon and lunch meat have been linked to cancer but when you look at beef that has been naturally cured  the link between cancer and red meat disappears  again and it even reduces your risk of diabetes.

The third issue is that the link between saturated fat and heart disease has not held up under scientific scrutiny. I’ll give you a few minutes for that to sink in. I wrote about this before when I shared how  I learned to embrace eating fat  (all kinds of fat except man-made ones!) and how it increased my health but saturated fats are not the villains we’ve been taught to believe. A lot of that advice was based on Ancel Key’s 7 Countries Studies – a great body of research but his conclusions didn’t account for some important variables.  Mark’s Daily Apple debunks this one  more thoroughly and intelligently than I ever could.

A third consideration that I found buried in the studies is that ancient populations like the Inuit and Masai who subsisted almost entirely on meat, prized the fatty organ meat and often discarded the leaner muscle meat – which is exactly the opposite of how we eat it.  Unless you’re a zombie (the apocalypse is here!) you likely have never eaten braiiinnnnnssss. When I asked on FaceBook and Twitter the best way to cook liver, the majority of cheeky answers said “Remove from fridge, throw directly in garbage.” (And no Naomi, I still haven’t had the guts – ha! – to try your liver recipe yet. But I’m going to, I promise!!)

My Personal Conclusion

It appears to me (remember I’m no expert in this, just a neurotic speed reading overthinker) that it is the type of red meat you eat that makes the difference to your health. Indeed it seems that eating some grass-fed beef, especially the offal (organ meats), can provide a wide range of important health benefits that are difficult to get from other food sources. I eat it. Not every day. I love it.

Is Eating Red Meat Humane?


From here on out I’m only taking of my sweatshirt by sliding it down over my hips.

Remember when Mark Zuckerberg (creator of Facebook for any of you that aren’t geeks or Justin Timberlake fans – although there is a surprising overlap between the two groups. Venn diagram anyone?)  announced  that he will only eat meat that he has killed by his own hand? He says,

“My personal challenge is around being thankful for the food I have to eat. I think many people forget that a living being has to die for you to eat meat, so my goal revolves around not letting myself forget that and being thankful for what I have. This year I’ve basically become a vegetarian since the only meat I’m eating is from animals I’ve killed myself. So far, this has been a good experience. I’m eating a lot healthier foods and I’ve learned a lot about sustainable farming and raising of animals. I started thinking about this last year when I had a pig roast at my house. A bunch of people told me that even though they loved eating pork, they really didn’t want to think about the fact that the pig used to be alive. That just seemed irresponsible to me. I don’t have an issue with anything people choose to eat, but I do think they should take responsibility and be thankful for what they eat rather than trying to ignore where it came from.”

Zuckerberg also makes it a point to eat all parts of the animal including the organs and even used chicken feet to make stock.

Have you ever killed an animal that you then ate? Other than a few fish as a kid, I haven’t. Honestly I don’t know if I could. I remember my dad deciding one day that he wanted to hunt a deer, kill it, skin it and butcher it (my dad’s big on survival skills). He was successful – a fact I discovered when I came face to face with the dead animal hanging by its feet under our deck as I tried to sneak in past curfew late one night (saying I screamed like a girl does not do justice to that scream. or girls.) – and it took us an entire year to eat all that venison which he insisted we do because it would be inhumane to kill an animal for sport and not nutrition. This is the house I grew up in.

You know who has killed a cow? Gym Buddy Krista. And not with her car, either. (I’m telling you, this girl has got stories. And they’d come out at the most random times in the gym.) As a practicing Muslim, she can only eat “halal” meat which means it must be slaughtered in a particular way with specific prayers. “ Ḏabīḥah (ذَبِيْحَة)  is the prescribed method of slaughtering all animals excluding fish and most sea-life per Islamic law. This method of slaughtering animals consists of using a well sharpened knife to make a swift, deep incision that cuts the front of the throat, the carotid artery, wind pipe and jugular veins but leaves the spinal cord intact.” You catch all that? Big knife, throat slitting, lots of blood – and she’s done it. When I looked like I might faint she told me to stop being such a baby. And I think she’s right. While it sounds awful, I think that it is a powerful way to connect people with what they are eating. Most of us who eat meat like to pretend it magically appears on store shelves in shrink-wrapped irradiated (there’s another issue for another day) packages. But every time we have “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner!” or “Pork, the other white meat!” or even “Chicken, we don’t need no slogan ’cause we make tasty nuggets!” we are, in effect, causing the death of another living being.

I take that very seriously. Even after examining all the health issues and research, this still weighs heavily on me. I know some of you are going to think I’m nutty (not that you need another reason) but for me when I decided to eat meat again, I also decided to stay as connected to the animal as possible. I’m not going to go slaughter my own cow – Krista, I’m getting pale again – but I can say a prayer of thanksgiving both to the animal who gave up its life for me and to the God who made it (the same God who  notes the fall of every sparrow  is surely going to miss something as obnoxiously flatulent as a cow). It also means that it’s very important to me to find a farmer who cares about his animals and raises them in ways where they thrive, even if I have to pay more for it and drive home with a minivan stuffed full of bloody cardboard boxes like the dumbest serial killer ever. (Although price wise I’ve found it pretty economical when I buy 1/4 of a cow at a time.) Farmer Bob always kind thought I was unbalanced but I always asked him how the cow was doing, what it weighed, if it was happy and if it had a name. (For the record, he does not name his cattle.)

Hippy-dippy feelings aside, a lot of people are very concerned about the economic and environmental impact of raising animals for food and rightly so. Animals, but beef especially, are very inefficient food sources and therefore take a lot of natural resources like water and grain that could be used to help a huge number of hungry and thirsty people. In a world where millions, including 15 million children,  die of starvation  every year it seems we should be focusing more of our attentions on how to best raise enough food and the most efficient ways to get it to where it needs to be. (Often, sadly, the issue isn’t so much a shortage of food but an issue of politics and logistics that keeps the available food out of needy mouths.) The environmental cost is also large. Pasturing cows is awesome  as I pointed out yesterday  but just like conventionally raised cattle, they take up a lot of land, contaminate water sources and – I swear I’m not making this up – cow farts (methane) account for  18% of global warming . In addition we accrue environmental costs in the methods we use to farm animals, butcher them and transport them not to mention the antibiotic resistances that we’ve introduced by injecting our food sources with antibiotics.

My Personal Conclusion

These reasons are exactly why I will never ever tell someone they “should” or “need to” eat meat. The larger ethical questions of whether it is humane to eat meat and whether it is acceptable to do that kind of damage to the environment will have to be answered by each person in their own way but for me I need to eat some meat. And I will do it in the kindest, cleanest way that I can. It’s an uneasy compromise.

And just in case you don’t think fish are cute enough to warrant existential angst, check out this adorable vid of a toddler catching his first fish. (He names the fishy “Free” because he’s “beautiful” and then asks his dad “Does it like me?” The father wisely does not answer, “Well you put a hook through his mouth and are now suffocating him with air so he probably hates your guts right now.” because that would not have been adorable.)

Do you eat red meat? Is there any particular meat or meat dish you avoid? Have you ever killed an animal? Do moral/ethical concerns change the way you eat?

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