When I was growing up, red meat became public health enemy #1. Well, red meat and crack cocaine. The government declared a war on drugs and another war on fat. My grandparents started reading all the labels on their cereal and cracker boxes. “Chauncey, I can’t read this! Does this have palm oil in it? Phil Donahue said that palm oil is bad for our hearts!” And then someone linked heart disease to the consumption of red meat, and it all went downhill from there. Anytime you ate a steak you were taking your life into your hands! Red meat eaters became pariahs, and big, busty chickens became America’s new first love.
I grew up in Texas where red meat was a religion…or a sport. Or both. I think it still is. There’s a restaurant in Houston that serves chicken fried steak the size of your head. I’m not kidding. You could wrap that thing around your entire head and wear it as a helmet, and that’s considered to be one serving! Texas is the 19th most obese state in the nation. You can’t ignore the state’s love of huge portions, meats of all sorts, and their current health predicament, but correlation isn’t necessarily causation. With the rise of the Paleo diet and the return of “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner,” what’s really true? Am I going to die trying to improve my health by allowing the notorious bovine back on my dinner plate, or is Ron Swanson right? There should be steak at every dinner course.
So, with that in mind, let’s talk about our bodies for a moment, ferritin in particular. What is it? Ferritin is a protein in the body that stores iron and then releases it into the body. When ferritin levels are low, the stage is set for iron deficiency anemia, but that’s not all. Low ferritin levels in brain tissue will not necessarily be detectable in serum blood tests. In other words, one can have measurably normal levels of hemoglobin in the blood but low ferritin levels in the brain, thus, causing poor dopamine production. Ferritin levels affect dopamine in that sufficient levels of iron are needed to synthesize dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for cognition, movement, emotional response, and the ability to experience pleasure and pain. Dopamine is involved in addiction. It is also responsible for Parkinson’s Disease in that the brain’s ability to produce dopamine is impaired causing dopamine production to cease altogether. What does this mean? It means that low ferritin levels can can be related to depression (The relationship between depression and serum ferritin level). Low ferritin stores in brain tissue caused by iron insufficiency are the leading cause of Restless Leg Syndrome (Causes of RLS, Johns Hopkins). Because our bodies are so complex and the systems so interdependent, other systems will be affected when another is deficient. The thyroid is dependent upon iron to synthesize its hormones so if ferritin stores are low, then the thyroid will not be able to do its job properly; hence, the body becomes vulnerable to hypothyroidism if one is anemic longterm.
What does this have to do with red meat? Red meat is one of the best sources of heme iron. Heme iron is found in foods that contain hemoglobin and is the easiest for our bodies to absorb. It’s true that our bodies will absorb non-heme iron, found in plants, but not as easily. We absorb approximately 15-35% of the heme iron we eat whereas we only absorb approximately 2-20% of the non-heme iron we eat. Also, if there is inflammation present in the body, then iron absorption will be reduced making the source of our iron intake all the more important. So, if one wanted to fortify their diet by eating a big ol’ spinach salad, for example, they wouldn’t really absorb that much iron from the spinach because the iron found in that spinach is bound to phytic acid. Phytic acid is the form that phosphorus takes in plants, and it binds to many minerals, iron included, in the gut and prevents absorption. This is the primary reason advocates of the Paleo diet are not fans of grains and legumes–those pesky phytates. So many people are trying to heal their guts and are utterly reliant on ease of absorption and digestion. Phytates hinder absorption and digestion. This is not to say that we don’t eat vegetables. Far from it. It’s just harder to get some of the more essential amino acids and minerals from those necessary fruits and vegetables without taking extra steps like soaking, roasting, etc. If we are trying to raise our ferritin stores in our brain tissues, for example, by increasing our intake of iron due to a history of RLS or iron deficiency anemia, our thyroid function will, in turn, be affected for the better as well as our mood. If one has an active health condition like RLS, poor thyroid function, or iron deficiency anemia, then one would want the most absorbable form of iron. Eating red meat seems like an effective strategy.
But what about all this talk about cancer and kidney disease? There is that new study.
Well, if you’ve got bad kidneys or kidney disease, then you should follow a low-protein diet. Taxing your already deficient kidneys isn’t a good idea. If you’re a healthy adult, however, then you’re good to go if you’d like to introduce more protein into your diet (Effects of a High-Protein Diet on Kidney Function in Healthy Adults).
What about cancer? I’m going to defer to Chris Kresser on this since he did all the legwork. Basically, if one doesn’t eat ‘nose to tail’ and simply eats the prime cuts of meat, thus, depriving themselves of the vital amino acid glycine, then one does open themselves up to the risk of cancer. Well, that’s shocking. Why? Well, if you’ve watched the documentary “Forks over Knives”, then you would have heard mention of a study done on rats involving the dairy protein casein. When casein was increased to a certain level in rats, a certain hormone, IGF-1, was turned on. IGF-1 is a hormone that stimulates cell growth in the body. When it was lowered past a certain threshold, IGF-1 was turned off causing tumor growth to stop. The hypothesis then was that protein restriction was the solution to restricting IGF-1’s activity. This was the hypothesis of the “Forks over Knives” documentary–strict vegetarianism is the solution to health and longevity. If you want to watch a very entertaining and informative documentary, I do suggest this film. Even if you don’t agree with all of it, it was very well done. Something, however, was missed, and that something goes by the name of methionine. What is methionine? It’s another amino acid found in muscle meats and eggs. Newer research has suggested that protein restriction isn’t the solution to knocking out IGF-1 but methionine restriction instead. How does one do that without restricting protein? Ah, well, here’s the interesting part. Someone got the bright idea to supplement with glycine and, suddenly, methionine’s activity was neutralized (Do High Protein Diets Cause Kidney Disease and Cancer?) as was IGF-1’s. No more cell growth. Down with cancer!
Let’s ponder this. Glycine is found in the parts of the animal that we Americans generally don’t adore eating–connective tissue, bones, tissue, organs, and skin. You know, that stuff that ends up in that weird gelatinous mess called “Scrapple”. Or head cheese. Or cat food. I gotta admit, it doesn’t sound appealing. I’d rather eat a nice piece of tenderloin over my Aunt Esther’s Scrapple Sandwich, but what if the Scrapple Sandwich was better for us in the long run? I think we must consider, at a minimum, changing how we eat the animals that provide us with those select cuts of meat. Taking the bits we like and leaving the rest behind clearly affects us and not for the better. It’s akin to what Americans have done to green tea. We all found out that green tea was chock full of awesomeness, but we Westerners don’t have a taste for it. So, some companies tried to isolate the ingredients in green tea that make it healthful and then sell it under the name “green tea extract”. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work because what those companies did was try to isolate a few ingredients that are actually dependent upon the rest of the ingredients in the tea leaf. It’s synergy. They amplify each other. As Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Until we figure out how to eat skin, organ meats, and noses, I’ll recommend this:
I’ll also close with an article recommendation:
Perhaps Ron Swanson is right after all. Of course, I’d recommend adding a spinach course, too, with perhaps some blood orange slices because vitamin C enhances iron absorption. Oh, but pass on the iced tea because caffeine interferes with it.