When it comes to following a cleaner, healthier diet, meat tends to be a rather polarizing food, with proponents and critics on both sides of the health spectrum. Meat processing has been directly linked to cancer.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a plant-based diet, but this does not rule out meat consumption. Instead, many people opt for a semi-vegetarian approach—a flexitarian diet, as some have termed it—that may provide the most health benefits. This term conceptualizes a way of eating that places more emphasis on vegetable-based meals and less emphasis on meats.
In other words reverse the consumption table. Eat more vegetables and eat less meat. If you choose to include meat in your diet, it’s important to know what health benefits you might be getting and how to choose the healthiest meats.
Here are some well-known benefits of meat consumption:
Protein. Meat provides complete, high-quality protein (roughly 7 grams per ounce).
Iron. Unlike protein, iron is deemed an under-consumed nutrient and iron deficiency is considered a public health concern for adolescent, premenopausal and pregnant women.
Vitamin B-12. Vitamin B12 is only available from animal sources and plays an important role in digestion (stomach acid) and energy production. People who do not eat meat, dairy or eggs must supplement their diets with B12.
While meat does contain cholesterol, the newest Dietary Guidelines has removed the cap on cholesterol consumption. Research suggests that dietary cholesterol has very little effect on blood cholesterol.
The body treats saturated fats from processed meats and unprocessed meats differently. That is, a small steak from the local butcher and a few slices of deli meat (laden with nitrates and other preservatives) may each contain 5 grams of saturated fat, but the latter will have a greater, negative impact on our health.
Which Meats are the Best?
Non-Processed Meats. As a rule of thumb, it is best to buy foods with the fewest ingredients as these tend to be less processed and closer to their original form. Make these types of food the nucleus of your meal planning and preparation.
Grass-fed Beef. You are what you eat, but you are also what your food eats. Put another way, when we consume healthier animals, we become healthier ourselves.
Eggs. People often classify eggs as dairy, but eggs are the “fruit” of chickens, whereas dairy comes from cows (and a few other animals). Eggs are completely void of dairy products such as whey, casein and lactose, and offer the highest biological value of protein. Eggs are also high in vitamin A, various B vitamins, minerals and phyto-nutrients. And yes, eggs are safe to eat again, despite their high amounts of cholesterol.
Small Fish. Many types of fish offer high levels of omega-3 fats. But small fish (bottom feeders), offer an additional benefit—sustainability. The environmental impact of our food sources is often overlooked and predators are the least sustainable.
Overall, a plant-based diet with meat appears to offer the most health benefits. Think of the ideal plate with a 2:1:1 ratio of vegetables, meats and fruit/starches. For most Americans, this means cutting total meat consumption in half, but it is even more important to consume quality meats such as grass-fed beef, eggs and small fish.
Additionally, look for the words local and free-range when purchasing meat and poultry. Eating a little less meat overall, while also emphasizing, unprocessed, higher quality meats, will have no net change in your budget, but will make meals more enjoyable and have lasting health benefits.