When I was 15, my science teacher told me I could change the color of my skin by eating too many carrots. Challenge accepted. For the rest of the semester, I ate a sandwich bag of baby carrots with my brown bag lunch every day. Once a week at dinner I included a carrot soup with ginger, garlic, and yogurt (a recipe I still have). And for good measure, I threw back the occasional carrot smoothie when feeling peckish.
It only took two weeks before the palms of my hands started looking sunburned. By Christmas break, the backs of my ears and neck were orange. At New Year’s Eve, I looked like an oompa loompa. Panicked, but satisfied with my little experiment, I stopped eating carrots, and before winter break was over, my natural color had returned.
What did I learn from this unscientific experiment besides a root vegetable infatuation is bad for dating; or maybe that one can successfully fake tan with carrots? I guest I ended up at the old adage, “everything in moderation.”
And that’s what I think of when I hear the biggest Beef Myth of all.
Myth #4: Red meat and beef specifically are the leading cause of cardiovascular disease.
For more than four decades, beef has been blamed for America’s ill health. A mountain of clinical studies put red meat in the crosshairs for increased heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, colon cancer, diabetes, and even respiratory disease. Understandably, when my friends discuss “getting healthier,” beef is one of the first guilty pleasures they jettison. But if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that data is always being “interpreted.” And when Americans interpret data, especially mass-marketed data, they almost always get it wrong.
Food science myths are the worst. Remember the one about it taking seven years to digest swallowed gum? How about eggs will raise your cholesterol? Or aluminum foil and Teflon are linked to Alzheimer’s disease? Does sugar make your children hyperactive? If you answered yes to any of these, then you best consult Google, because science has made you a liar—although I still challenge that last one about sugar and kids. During birthday season, my 9 year-old goes ape shit about 20 minutes after consuming her piñata booty, never fails.
Let’s bring it back to the ranch.
Beef consumption per capital in the US has decreased dramatically over the last 40 years from almost 100 lbs. per person in the 70s, to about 55 lbs. per individual in 2015. If beef were such a telltale of cardiovascular risk, and its consumption has gone down, shouldn’t we see rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes also going down? Instead, they’re accelerating. Does it surprise you that two recent studies—one at Harvard, one in Japan—found no measurable increase in cardiovascular risk due to unprocessed red meat eating. Doctors have seen a decrease in cholesterol, high blood pressure, and related cardiac events since the 1960s. But paper after paper can’t really attribute this decline to any one item, and most likely, it’s due to medical intervention (i.e. drugs and surgery).
How is it possible that there is so much contradictory data about red meat?
It has a lot to do with the fact that not all red meat is created equal.
Many beef studies, especially those conducted in the US, primarily define meat as factory-farmed, and fed almost exclusively soy or corn for much of its life. Nicolette Hahn Niman and Michael Pollan have made writing careers about the implications and negative health impacts of force-feeding grains to livestock. Chris Gunnar’s well-referenced Healthline article is a good summary. It explains that grass-fed beef is lower in calories, lower in fat, and higher in health-improving fatty acids (like Omega-3s and CLA) than its grain-fed counterpart. Grass-fed beef is also chalk full of Vitamin A and E, and richer in antioxidants.
Although there are no large-scale studies to demonstrate that grass-fed beef is a healthier choice, consider this factoid. Grass-fed beef has fewer calories and less fat than skinless chicken thigh.
Chicken? Grain-fed beef is more than double that fat and calories.
Researchers also fail to distinguish between fresh meats and more heavily processed or canned meats. The result is that an organic steak is considered synonymous with a can of SPAM. Does anyone see a problem here? Besides the fact that SPAM doesn’t even contain beef, it’s also mechanically separated, chemically preserved, and pumped full of salt as well as God knows what. Let’s resolve this with another simple test. Pour out a can of spam onto a plate next to a steak. You tell me which one looks more likely to plug your arteries. Nuff said.
Look, humans are a dynamic organism. Regardless of what you might hear from the world’s most famous vegans, we are designed to eat both meat and vegetables. Like the regal grizzly bear or the wily coyote, our “omnivorance” is our super power. It allows us to adapt, to innovate, and to thrive, especially in times of adversity. And if you’ve been following climate change lately, adversity is the new normal.
When you think about it, the omnivore lifestyle is really about equilibrium. It’s very Zen. It’s like we’re trying to find a caloric nirvana by grazing and nibbling and foraging our way through all the bounties of this beautiful planet. Restrictive, rules-y, legalistic diets simply feel too confining to me, too focused, too constricting, exclusive even. You’re really only going to eat a select few of the delicious things this planet provides? Like my carrot hands experiment, relying on a single definition of food leads to imbalances, ill-health, and worst of all, boredom?
People want a simple mantra to live by when it comes to how and what they should eat. So here goes: start with real food. Eat a reasonable amount of real food. And then when you want to try something different, eat real food that eats real food.