Getting to the 'meat' of the matter: Is eating meat good for you?

Last week, a 105-year-old Texas woman announced the secret to her longevity: eating bacon with every meal. While this story is worth mentioning for the sheer audacity of her claim, it conjures up the debate over meat’s role in the American diet and just how essential it is – or isn’t – for our bodies and our environment.

I have made no secret about being a devoted vegetarian for decades; my husband is too, and we have raised our teenage son accordingly. Over the years, emerging data has validated this very personal decision, including rising chemical levels in chicken and recent research regarding a compound found in red meat and how it affects the gut and the heart.

Red meat is chock full of saturated fat and has for years been linked to high cholesterol. But just last month, Dr. Stanley Hazen of The Cleveland Clinic published a study implicating red meat for yet another component: lecithin. Found in egg yolks, liver, beef, pork and wheat germ, lecithin turns into an artery-clogging compound called Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) when exposed to certain bacteria and microbes in the human gut.

Dr. Hazen and his team found that blood levels of TMAO predict heart attack, stroke, or death “independent of other risk factors.” This means that even if your cholesterol and blood pressure are under control, you have no family history of heart disease, and you exercise regularly, simply eating a slab of steak may up your risk for a dangerous cardiac event.

Only avoiding red meat won’t do you much good either. A recent study out of Johns Hopkins University found arsenic in chicken at levels exceeding naturally occurring amounts. According to researchers, this could lead to a small increase in the risk of cancer for consumers over the course of a lifetime, adding to other known health risks of eating chicken, like salmonella poisoning and antibiotic resistance.

Meat production also takes a toll on the environment.  A 2011 article in Scientific American noted that the production, processing and distribution of meat requires huge outlays of pesticides, fertilizer, fuel, feed and water while releasing greenhouse gases, manure and a range of toxic chemicals into our air and water.

Choosing a meat-free diet – whether for your own benefit or that of the Earth – is a very personal decision and one that can seem overwhelming to many people. Finding a holistic nutritionist or doctor can do much to alleviate these concerns and help start you on the path to better eating.

“How in the world will I get enough protein in my diet?” is an oft-repeated concern.  Beans, grains, and even certain fruits and vegetables contain varying amounts of protein, fiber and other health-promoting properties to boot – like calcium, iron, and antioxidants.  In his new book My Beef with Meat, Rip Esselstyn, son of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, the plant-based diet pioneer, aims to convince carnivores to change their diets once and for all. He challenges people to give up meat for 28 days, replace it with whole grains, vegetables, and beans, and keep track of how they feel throughout this four-week period. My suspicion is those who do this won’t be disappointed.

Meat pervades the diet in most Western countries, but that doesn’t mean it has to. Alternatives to meat-centric meals exist and are as close as your local food store.  By closing the door on meat, even one day a week, you open yourself up to a world full of exciting new spices, flavors and textures. For many people, the side effects of this diet include better overall health, improved energy, and the lowering of your carbon footprint. Aside from another study highlighting the dangers of eating meat - what are you waiting for?