In Praise of Meat – with its Fat!

Because I am interested in what works to sustain life, health, and vitality, I face the fact that when all is said and done, human beings are omnivores: we thrive by eating both animals and vegetation. Modern science makes that abundantly clear, even if our particular genetic inheritances result in variations in how much of either we need. A descendant of the Aleutians thrives on a diet different from a descendant of the Mayans, for example, which is in turn different than what helps a descendant of a Georgian or Zulu thrive.

Now, in the modern world no one is making a case for avoiding vegetation, but many people and organizations are making the case for avoiding meat. So I need to speak in defense of eating meat, and to do so in the face of the most recent Food Pyramid recommendations to severely limit the quantity of meat we eat, in the name of managing cholesterol, while dramatically increasing the quantity of vegetables and grains we consume.

Unfortunately, that’s bad advice. It further exacerbates the biggest cause of human ailments in the modern world: an excess of omega-6 fatty acids, which – in the quantities modern first world peoples consume them – is a significant cause of ill health. The problem is compounded by our modern restriction of omega-3 fatty acids. The current Food Pyramid perpetuates the dietary mistake, and so contributes to ill health, rather than helping our bodies to build healthy cells and overall vitality.

The fat of animals is a particularly essential source of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as the source of essential fat-soluble vitamins, like A and D. Furthermore, animal fat is essential to proper brain functioning. So, if you’ve felt (as I did) that your mental abilities are slipping, eat animal fat! It facilitates neural connectivity and function. (I experienced greater mental clarity and improved memory function within 5 days of giving myself permission to eat as much animal fat as I desired. That’s  a significant change from my fear that my cognitive functions were declining to the point that early onset Alzheimer’s was not far away.)

That is as far as I am going to go to make the case. Here are other voices: a series of quotes from researchers, reaching back as far as the 1930s, and continuing to the present.

“There is no society in the world that is entirely vegetarian. The Hindus of India come closest. Dr. H. Leon Abrams reports on India, ‘…the greater percentage of the population, who subsist almost entirely on vegetable foods, suffer from kwashiorkor,  other forms of malnutrition, and have the shortest life span in the world'” (Quoted in Fallon, 331).

“A tragic illustration of what a strict vegetarian, no-cholesterol diet may do to you is the case of famous basketball star, Bill Walton. Walton was a fanatic about what he considered to be good nutrition. No animal food – dairy or otherwise – passed his lips. He developed severe osteoporosis and consequent foot and ankle fractures from the constant jumping on hard wood floors required of his sport. A brilliant career was finished. Walton, learning from his mistake, became a spokesman for the meat industry” (Quoted in Fallon, 332).

“The experts on the Senate Select Committee claim that countries with a high animal fat intake have higher rates of colon and breast cancer. This is simply not true. In fact, the opposite appears more likely.

“Take Finland and the Netherlands for example. Their per capita daily animal fat consumption is the same. But the Dutch consume four times as much vegetable fat as the Finns, and they have twice the rate of colon and breast cancer. Many other examples could be cited.

“… In plain language, you are more likely to get cancer from vegetable fat, such as margarine, than you are from animal fat, such as butter” (Quoted in Fallon, 346).

“An English institution for boys ran a nutritional experiment in 1938. A group of boys were fed one and three-fourths ounces of New Zealand ‘grass-fed butter.’ Another group was fed margarine. The margarine proved ‘worthless for growth,’ but the butter group grew an extra .38 inches during the experimental period. The investigators had previously done a similar test on rats. They concluded, ‘There is something in butter that isn’t in margarine and it works on boys the same as on rats'” (Quoted in Fallon, 286).

Similarly,

“Both Weston Price and Francis Pottenger accurately predicted that western man would develop more and more diseases as he substituted vegetable oils for animal fats, and that reproduction would become increasingly difficult. By some estimates, 25 percent of American couples are now infertile….Infertility treatments are problematic, painful and expensive compared to the primitive prescription: more animal fat” (Quoted in Fallon, 228).

It is a myth that heart disease is caused by consumption of cholesterol and saturated fat from animal products. The truth is that

“during the period of rapid increase in heart disease (1920-1960), American consumption of animal fats declined but consumption of hydrogenated and industrially processed vegetable oils increased dramatically” (Fallon, 203).

And that’s the key: not all fats are created equal. It turns out that natural fats – from animals – is far healthier for us than non-natural fats created by either denaturing animal fats (like reducing whole milk to skim milk, or by pasteurizing milk) or manipulating vegetable fats into concentrated products like margarine. It also matters how the animals are raised:

“Most commercially available red meat comes from animals that have been raised in huge feedlots on grains laden with pesticides – or worse on soy feed which is too high in protein and therefore toxic to their livers – injected with steroids to make their meat tender and treated with antibiotics to stave off infections that inevitably result from poor diet and crowded conditions” (Fallon, 329).

By contrast, animals allowed to graze in pastures in non-crowded conditions and without steroids usually don’t need the antibiotic regimen. If they are then fattened on grain prior to being butchered, the beef will have proper amounts of nutrients and a healthy amount of fat. That practice imitates nature and the ancient practices of traditional peoples around the globe, and provides high-quality nutrition (Fallon, 329).

Natural animal fats contain long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to health and vitality.

Vegetable fats contain omega-6 fatty acids. They are also important to human (and animal) health, but only when they are consumed in the proper ratio to omega-3 fatty acids.

In traditional cultures, people eat ten times as much omega-3 fatty acids as do people living in modern cultures, and far less omega-6. Moderns eat so little of the “good” fat because omega-3 fatty acids come from “eggs, cold-water fatty fish, and plants [that first world] people don’t eat any more, like flax.” By contrast, omega-6 fats “are hard to avoid as they are prevalent in corn, soy, animals fed these grains, and the vegetable oils inside just about every package on the food store shelves” (Shanahan, 235). That upside down balance is exacerbated by the emphasis today’s eating guidelines place on the consumption of less meat, and then lean meat, and on the increase of “meat substitutes” like soy, grains, and nut milks.

But when cancerous tumors in rats were directly fed equal calories of omega-3 and omega-6 fats to their cancer cells, omega-3 caused the tumor cells to slow and even reverse their growth, while cancer tumor cells injected with omega-6 fatty acid accelerated their growth (cell division) fourfold (Shanahan, 235).

What does that mean? It means we need to eat in more traditional ways, which includes plenty of meat. But there is more to eating in traditional ways than just consuming more meat and less grains. We also need to eliminate most of the oils we typically cook with, and cut sugar/starch from our diets. Those are topics for other posts (or, read Shanahan, chapter 8).

But, happily, we thrive on meats – red and white – as well as other high-protein foods like eggs, dairy, and fish. I say “happily” because you know as much as do I that our bodies crave meat. We crave it because it’s essential for our physical and mental health.

Ideally, we’ll eat high-quality, grass-fed, pasture-raised, hormone and antibiotic-free, local beef. But even if we can only get, or only afford, commercial beef, it is better to eat it than to avoid it. And remember:

 “Whenever eating meat..one would be wise to eat part of the fat, as it is essential to good health…of prime importance for balanced nutrition” (Quoted in Fallon, 353).

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