Vegetarianism, Meat & Health: Another Perspective

Maybe meat’s not so bad after all
By Jeremy Gordon



Photo iStock.com

Editor’s Note: In the August 2010 issue of FireRescue magazine, Jeff and Martha Ellis’ Survival of the Fittest column addressed vegetarian lifestyles, and some of the negative aspects of including meat in your diet. This article is in response to that column and is published here to encourage dialog among firefighters about diet, nutrition and health. It’s not FireRescue’s intention to come down on one side or another of the vegetarian issue, but rather to highlight multiple arguments and viewpoints. The bottom line: Regardless of how you ultimately fashion your diet, thinking seriously about and discussing the foods you eat, and why, will make you more likely to make smart decisions that prepare your body for the rigors of the fireground.
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Last year, FireRescue published an article purporting the benefits of the vegetarian lifestyle. Although I do not judge an individual for choosing vegetarianism, I felt that the article did not tell the whole story, and in some cases presented misleading information about meat. Accordingly, this article presents some alternative perspectives and information for all firefighters to consider.

First, a brief personal history of my experiences with food. I was raised in a “Weight Watchers” house, where calories were king and low-fat was gospel. In college, I was a vegetarian (and an endurance athlete) and hypertensive. After college, I ate what could be considered the standard American diet (SAD), consisting of lots of grains and pasta, various meats, seed oils (often misnamed as vegetable oils), some vegetables and fruit, standard desserts and “low-calorie” granola and meal replacement bars. 

About six years ago, I began a slow process of refining my diet and views of food based on the influence of researchers and doctors such as Art Devany, Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf, Kurt Harris, William Davis, Loren Cordain and Matthieu LaLond. They use the clues of evolution left by our ancestors as a framework in which they apply modern biochemistry, endocrinology and physiology to determine the effects of food on our body.

The baseline premise of this mindset is, in the words of Angelo Copola, “the human species is not, by default, broken.” We are not destined to a lifetime of prescription medications to cure a slew of modern ailments. We own the right to eat in a manner that does not make us sick; to opt out of a modern industrialized food industry. As Dr. Kurt Harris puts it, the human body can fix itself “if we just stop ruining it” with the foods we eat. This combination of science and evolution, in the view of these scientists and doctors, points to the following: Foods such as wheat and other nutritionally poor grains and legumes, fructose (i.e., sugar) laden foods and drinks (soda, sports drinks, fruit juices), and excess linoleic acid (Omega-6) from seed and grain oils are largely responsible for many modern ailments and a baseline “diseased” state as humans age. Replacing these foods with saturated fats (found in animal and coconut sources) and proteins from ruminants (beef, bison, lamb), eggs and fish can allow the human body to return to its intended metabolic state and can reduce the risk of many modern ailments.

This is not a prehistoric re-enactment. It is not a “caveman” diet striving to live like our ancestors. It is not eating certain foods solely because our ancestors did nor because that one food can have one intended beneficial effect on the body. It is developing hypotheses based on the foods our ancestors ate and testing those hypotheses using modern science to re-establish a baseline of human health as “not-broken.” It is learning the science behind what made our ancestors (of 2.5 million years) successful, and applying that to modern humans.

My current relationship with food is actually a small part of a relationship with my body, mind and wellness.  A previously published paper of mine outlines much of my journey.

Is Saturated Fat Bad?
The FireRescue article stated that animal products are “generally high in saturated fats, cholesterol and animal proteins, which can increase the cholesterol produced in your own body—which can in turn lead to cardiovascular disease.” This chain of thought is one of the most pervasive (yet misunderstood) views of heart disease. Here’s a bit of history and data that highlights why this statement (and its implications in indicting meat as the cause of heart disease) is outdated and misinformed.

In the late 1950s, physiologist Ancel Keys published his “Seven Countries Study” implicating dietary fat as the culprit for increased levels of heart disease in the seven nations presented. The problem: Dr. Keys’ goal was to prove that dietary fat caused heart disease, not to find out what role, if any, it may play in heart disease. This is flawed science—his aim was to prove he was right, not to find out if he was right. His preconceived conclusion that fat caused heart disease led him to discard data from 15 additional nations he studied that did not fit his hypothesis and to ignore other dietary and lifestyle variations in his subjects (Tabues, 2008).

Keys’ hypothesis was highly debated for two decades but still made its way into the Dietary Guidelines for the United States (DGUS) in 1977. In 1984, the vilification of fat and cholesterol went public following a cover story in Time magazine. Since then, the hypothesis that dietary fat and cholesterol are the cause of heart disease is espoused as unquestionable fact and elicits images of our arteries clogging like sink pipes as we eat meat. But that’s not how the body works.

Although an in-depth physiology discussion is beyond the scope of this article, a baseline introduction to cholesterol and saturated fat is important as they are both absolutely essential biochemical structures in the human body. Cholesterol is in every cell membrane in the body. It is an essential precursor to important hormones like estrogen and testosterone, to the synthesis of Vitamin D and to proper brain function. Cholesterol is also the body’s internal Band-Aid, called on to help heal our arteries. Cholesterol is so important that if you eat less cholesterol, your body produces more to make up the deficit. And if you eat more cholesterol, your body produces less. But when you chemically hold your cholesterol levels low (as with statin drugs) and you don’t eat cholesterol, all those critical functions listed above get sacrificed, contributing to common side effects such as CoQ10 deficiency, depression, dizziness, muscle soreness, and Vitamin D deficiencies (Fallon, 2004).
 
Many of us are concerned about having high cholesterol. But in fact, total cholesterol doesn’t tell the entire story and it doesn’t even necessarily indicate risk for cardiovascular disease (Sisson, 2010). Although some studies show a correlation between elevated cholesterol and heart disease, six decades of research have not shown elevated cholesterol (up to 330) to be a cause of heart disease (Mercola, 2010). In fact, these same studies show a stronger correlation between low cholesterol and chances of dying due to things like cancer and stroke (Guyenet, 2010).

On the contrary, a vast array of current evidence points toward excess refined carbohydrate intake (such as wheat, pasta and breads) and heated grain and seed oils (safflower, sunflower, canola oil, etc.) as the primary culprits in instigating heart disease (Guyenet, 2010). 

Data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the British Heart Foundation’s HEARTSTATS, and the World Health Organization Statistical Information System (WHO-SIS) from a 2003 analysis of 86 countries showed no correlation between how much cholesterol is eaten and how much cardiovascular disease a nation has (Sisson, 2010; see graphic).
     
The same applies to saturated fat. It is absolutely essential to proper functioning of the human body. Nearly half of every cell’s membrane is composed of saturated fat. Some authors believe that significantly reduced dietary saturated fact has direct correlation to neurological dysfunction (ADHD and dementia) and depression (Gedgaudas, 2009). Aside from supplement pills, animal saturated fat sources are the only way to get essential fat-soluble vitamins like K2 and A (Sisson, 2010). Full bio-available fat-soluble vitamin structures are not available in vegetable products. Example: Vitamin A is available in two forms—retinol, which is found only in animal products, and beta carotene, which is found in vegetables (Gedgaudas, 2009). Note: Ovo-lacto vegetarians can obtain long-chain saturated fats from animal products, such as milk, cheese and eggs, without eating meat. But vegans, who eliminate all animal products from their diets, have more limited options. Lacto-fermented products such as unpastuerized pickles, sauerkraut and natto are possible vegan sources of some forms of Vitamin K2.

Over the past three decades, saturated fat has been vilified along with cholesterol. The notion of saturated fat clogging up the arteries like grease in a drain isn’t taken seriously by researchers anymore, but it still drives a fear of saturated fat (Sisson, 2010). And as with total cholesterol, there is neither physiological nor clinical evidence that dietary saturated fat causes heart disease. Another comparison of saturated fat intake and instances of cardiovascular disease among 86 countries found no correlation between the two (Sisson, 2010). 

The study of modern hunter-gatherers and review of anthropological data identify a range of saturated fat intakes, dependent upon location. The one constant is that saturated fat from animal sources has been a part of the human diet for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of years. That alone, however, is not sufficient justification to say saturated fat is important. What’s more important is the physiology behind our body’s use of saturated fat. It is, in essence, the body’s designed primary fuel source (yes, glucose is used preferentially, but that is by design for survival, not as a persistent 24-hour-a-day fuel source). In essence, there is no limit to saturated fat intake unless you are not getting enough of other nutrients, such as protein (Harris 2010). In other words, excess saturated fat is not “toxic.”

Optimal saturated fat sources are long-chain saturated fats (found in the meat and milk of ruminant animals, and also the form in which the human body stores internal energy) and medium-chain saturated fats (found in coconut products and breast milk). For an in-depth review of fat structure and sources, click here.

This is a very cursory-level discussion of a massive topic. If you’re interested in more information, I recommend Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Tabues. The bottom line: Vilifying meat because of its saturated fat and cholesterol content is flawed based on misinformation and insufficient knowledge of human physiology.

Does Meat Contribute to Digestive Disorders?
The human digestive track is a marvelous and complex structure. Macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are all broken down and absorbed from the small intestines into the bloodstream. The FireRescue article states that protein sits in the intestines longer than other macronutrients because the human body has difficulty digesting it. I disagree, and here’s why: Unless a person has a digestive disorder, pretty much everything is digested and moves through the bowels within 18–24 hours. Digestion of plant and animal matter are relatively similar except when fat is eaten; here, other digestive enzymes and bile salts are involved. In fact, the human stomach is better designed to digest protein than plant matter (Sisson, 2010).

If a human has a disorder preventing proper digestion of proteins or fat, it is often tied to insufficient digestive enzymes or hydrochloric acid production (usually due to other dietary irritants, such as wheat, or due to lifestyle stressors). Years of insufficient saturated fat or animal protein intake can also affect meat digestion because the enzymes and bile-salts necessary to digest fat have not been used enough. This doesn’t mean meat sits in your intestines, though; it just means you won’t absorb as much protein, fat, vitamins and minerals from it during digestion. That is not the meat’s fault, however.

Correlating meat to digestive disorders like diverticulitis and colitis is also a strong accusation without supportive data. Delayed or poor digestion of any macronutrient (protein, fat or carbohydrate) is the sign of a malfunctioning digestive system and is rarely (if ever) tied specifically to animal protein. A large field of study is pointing to a damaged gut lining (called leaky gut) as a primary cause of auto-immune dysfunction and the digestive disorders listed above. The damaged gut lining can be caused by infections, but is more commonly caused by gluten and lectins (Gedgaudas, 2009). Gluten is a plant protein found in nearly all grains (wheat, oats, barley, etc.). Lectins are plant proteins found in many foods but the most damaging forms come in grains, legumes and beans like soy. More than a decade of research from Dr. Alesio Fasano, Dr. Loren Cordain and others has uncovered the gut-damaging mechanisms behind gluten and lectins.

The claim that delayed digestion of protein causes certain cancers is also problematic. This statement is often tied back to observational studies as opposed to controlled clinical trials. Observational studies, in the end, are merely guesses as to the cause of a problem; they do not determine exactly why things happen. For instance, observational studies generally rely on food surveys in which participants are asked to track what they ate over a period of a year or more; sometimes, such studies ask participants to track what they ate over a short period of time and then extrapolate that over a year or longer.

Protein’s implication in cancer is also often backed by data from the The China Study by vegetarian Dr. Collin T. Campbell. Although an enticing argument is made in the book, analysis of all data from the China Study has revealed serious flaws, omissions and inaccuracies that refute Dr. Campbell’s claims. In fact, The China Study reveals a stronger statistical tie between wheat and heart disease than between protein and cancer (Minger, 2010). Here are several different analyses of the China Study that highlight just how misleading its conclusions are:
  1. http://www.cholesterol-and-health.com/China-Study.html
  2. http://rawfoodsos.com/2010/07/07/the-china-study-fact-or-fallac/
  3. http://www.proteinpower.com/drmike/cancer/the-china-study-vs-the-ch...

Does Eating Meat Create an Acidic Bodily Environment?
Because meat is acidic rather than base, some people conclude that it creates a more acidic environment in the body, thus leaching calcium from the bones. But this argument ignores the fact that as omnivores, humans can and usually do consume base foods (the opposite of acidic) like vegetables and fruits, too. A person who eats meat doesn’t have to eat only meat. Pretty much all meats, grains and beans (except green beans) are acidic. And pretty much all fruits and vegetables are base. A diet of animal protein, animal fat, vegetables and fruit can easily be net alkaline, thus avoiding the maladies associated with a net acidic diet (Cordain, 2009). Eating a vegetarian diet of primarily beans and legumes can be just as acidic as eating only meat.

Can Vegetarians Get Enough Protein?
Can vegetarians get enough protein, especially firefighters who are vegetarians? Although a vegetarian diet can provide enough dietary protein to survive, some researchers argue that it doesn’t provide the correct composition of complete fatty acids and amino-acids to thrive as humans (Gedgaudas, 2009). This is a much debated topic. Vegetarians can compile a list of vegetable, grain and legume-based proteins that, when eaten in the right combination, can provide most amino acids. But some researchers argue that to achieve daily protein sufficiency from vegetarian sources requires a primarily carbohydrate and starch-based diet resulting in “disastrous implications for blood sugar regulation” (Gedgaudas, 2009).

The FireRescue article suggests that herbivores, such as horses, cows, moose and elephants, develop muscular bodies because of the protein they eat in the form of plant matter. But herbivore and human digestion are different. When grazing on their natural diet, the animals listed above are eating primarily cellulose (plant fiber). Herbivores, unlike humans, can break down this cellulose fiber and convert it into fat and protein. With multiple stomachs (ruminant herbivores), hind-gut fermentation (non-ruminant herbivores) and cud chewing, herbivores ferment cellulose with the help of microorganisms. Basically, bacteria digest the cellulose for the herbivore, turning the cellulose into fat and protein, which is then absorbed into the herbivore’s bloodstream. So although they eat mostly carbohydrate plant-matter, the herbivore absorbs mostly fat and protein because bacteria pre-digested the carbohydrate. For a more in-depth look at the differences between human and herbivore digestion, click here.

Ovo-lacto vegetarians can obtain protein through eggs, cheese and dairy products. But protein becomes even more challenging for vegans, who don’t consume any animal products. This pertains to other critical dietary constituents as well, such as Omega-3 DHA/EPA, L-Tryptophan and the full form of fat-soluble vitamins, which cannot be obtained without eating animal products or taking supplements and cannot be effectively absorbed without dietary fat. Much evidence points to the fact that the human brain evolved to its size and complexity specifically because of DHA and EPA Omega-3 fatty acids in animal meat and marrow. DHA and EPA are essential fatty acids because our body cannot produce them (we must consume them). They are necessary for our survival (this affects every cell in the body and especially brain function). Vegan sources of Omega-3 (plant-based) do not contain full DHA/EPA necessary for brain and body function. Without animal fats, we starve our bodies of sufficient DHA/EPA (Gedgaudas, 2009). 

Odds & Ends
The environmental impact of eating meat has become a heated issue in the last few years. I completely agree that feedlot-finished cattle and industrially raised pork, chicken and fish products are full of bad stuff (hormones, antibiotics, altered fatty acid profiles due to their feed, etc.) and incredibly harmful to the environment. But not all animals are raised this way. There is now easy access to humanely raised grass-finished cattle, truly free-range chicken and turkey, and wild-caught fish. Here are a few references about some sources of sustainable, humanely raised animals:
  1. http://www.texasgrassfedbeef.com/index.htm
  2. http://www.grasslandbeef.com/StoreFront.bok
  3. http://www.eatwild.com/

Finally, we must remember that there are subtleties in all of these issues. For example, we’re often told that soy protein is good for us because many Asian societies who consume large amounts of soy have lower rates of cardiovascular disease. But these societies almost exclusively ferment soy before eating it (LaLonde, 2010) to deactivate the anti-nutrients such as phytic acid (which strips your body of calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium) and lectins discussed above. Those societies also include whole protein sources (like iodine-rich fish) in their diet to get the full complement of amino acids and to offset any affects of the soy on thyroid function. This is not how Western vegetarian diets traditionally use protein sources like soy. Instead, they often incorporate copious quantities of soy milk, soy protein isolate and textured vegetable product (the things used to make meat substitutes such as veggie burgers), which can have severe health impacts including reduced thyroid function, reproductive dysfunctions and cancer (Gedgaudas, 2009).

When considering the fact that 50 percent of firefighter fatalities are due to cardiac-related complications, it’s easy to assume that the cause is related to diet, and, based on their vilification, to make the jump to saturated fat and meat. But other factors must be considered, including psychological stressors, sleep patterns, trans-fats, excess dietary Omega-6 and systemic inflammation. 

Final Thoughts
Entire books have been written arguing the pros and cons of a vegetarian diet. In my opinion, the most thorough discussion of all facets of the vegetarian argument is The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith, who was a vegan for 20 years. She presents the most common arguments for vegetarianism (environmental, political and nutritional) and discusses the downfalls in these arguments and the potentially severe physical and mental implications to adopting a vegan or strict vegetarian lifestyle.

It is easy to repeat claims that “meat is dangerous” and to leave it to others to research it. I hope the data I’ve provided opens the window for firefighters and their families to educate themselves about their nutritional choices to achieve a long, healthy and fit life.
     
Jeremy Gordon is co-owner of CrossFit Hampton Roads (www.CrossFit-HR.com) in Yorktown, Va. He is a CrossFit Level 2 Certified Coach and a fitness and nutrition coach for the City of Hampton (Va.) Fire Department. He is a fighter pilot in the Virginia Air National Guard with 12 years of service. Gordon has been published in the CrossFit Journal and Optimize Fitness e-newsletter.

Works Cited
  1. Cordain DL. (n.d.) Acid-base balance and your health. In The Paleo Diet. Retrieved 2010 from www.thepaleodiet.com/nutritional_tools/acid.shtml.
  2. Fallon S. (2004). Dangers of statin drugs. In The Weston A. Price Foundation. Retrieved 2011 from www.westonaprice.org/modern-diseases/cardiovascular-disease/581-dan....
  3. Gedgaudas N. Primal Body-Primal Mind. Primal Body Primal Mind Publishing: Portland, 2009.
  4. Guyenet S. (2009). MRFIT mortality. In Whole Health Source. Retrieved 2010 from: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2009/07/mrfit-mortality.html.
  5. Guyenet S. (2009). The diet-heart hypothesis: oxidized LDL, part II. In Whole Health Source. Retrieved 2010 from: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2009/08/diet-heart-hypothesis....
  6. Harris KG. (2010). Statins and the cholesterol hypothesis, part I. In PaNu. Retrieved 2010 from www.paleonu.com/panu-weblog/2010/7/21/statins-and-the-cholesterol-h...l.
  7. Harris KG. (2011). There is no such thing as a macronutrient, part 1. In PaNu. Retrieved 2011 from www.paleonu.com/panu-weblog/2011/1/29/there-is-no-such-thing-as-a-m....
  8. LaLonde DM. (2010). Dr. Mathieu La LaLonde interview. In Livin La Vida Low Carb Show. Retrieved 2010 from www.thelivinlowcarbshow.com/shownotes/.
  9. Mercola DJ. (2010) The cholesterol myth that is harming your health. In Mercola. Retrieved 2010 from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/08/10/makin... (registration required).
  10. Minger D. (n.d.). The China Study, fact or fallacy? In Raw Food SOS. Retrieved 2010 from http://rawfoodsos.com/2010/07/07/the-china-study-fact-or-fallac/.
  11. Sisson M. (2009). The definitive guide to saturated fat. In Mark’s Daily Apple. Retrieved 2010 from www.marksdailyapple.com/saturated-fat-healthy/.
  12. Stanton J. Does meat rot in your colon? No. What does? Beans, grain and vegetables! In Gnolls.org. Retrieved 2011 from www.gnolls.org/1444/does-meat-rot-in-your-colon-no-what-does-beans-....
  13. Tabues G: Good Calories Bad Calories. Random House: New York, 2008.

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Comment by Jeremy Gordon on March 31, 2011 at 11:53am
@Daniel. I chose consolidated sources of research. The works I cited were written on a breadth of research. I included the links so you could see their works cited as well. Dueling research papers is often nauseating to digest and not much for for the average reader. Too often, the study is so epidemiological that it's easy to raise questions or its' so focused on one macro or micronutrient that it ignores the confounding factors of eating "whole" foods (ala Campbell's China Study and casein). So, here are a couple of bigger picture peer-reviewed publications for you to checkout. Both links are work and family friendly. The first was recently published in JAMA (http://www.canibaisereis.com/download/mozzafarian-dietary-guideline...). The second comes from Clinical Cardiology (http://www.dovepress.com/the-western-diet-and-lifestyle-and-disease...).
Comment by Larry Elsevier on March 30, 2011 at 6:02pm
Thank you for taking the time to write this.
Comment by Daniel Luechtefeld on March 28, 2011 at 6:56pm
I would find the author's argument more convincing if he had used some peer-reviewed primary sources. It is not at all clear which of the citations are based on peer-reviewed science. FWIW, I'm an omnivore.

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