Why Red Meat Is An Essential Part of My Healthy Diet

Red meat

Updated Apr 24, 2020 @ 2:03 pm

By Beth Lipton

Red meat and I were on again-off again for most of my life. It was never that I didn’t love meat; I always have, especially beef and lamb. But I’ve always made a big effort to be a healthy eater, and up until about 6 years ago, I thought eating meat and being healthy were at odds.

My “healthy” diet tracked with the conventional wisdom about what we’re supposed to eat: Tons of vegetables, little and often no meat, plenty of poultry (though I don’t really love chicken all that much), fish, lots and lots of whole grains and legumes, and very little fat.

I also had health issues that, looking back on it, I can’t believe I just accepted. I suffered with digestive issues for literally decades, including several ER visits for gastritis (inflammation and/or erosion of the stomach lining) and even an ulcer in my early 20s. I went to specialists, none of whom ever asked what I was eating. One of them told me I had a “bad stomach.” That was his diagnosis, and I accepted it.

Face palm.

If I didn’t eat every couple of hours, I got really foggy and light-headed, so I also was told I was borderline hypoglycemic.

I dutifully avoided meat most of the time—but when I did let myself have a steak or a burger, I relished it. The aroma of meat cooking, the texture, the flavor, the richness and umami—I really love it. And after eating meat, I felt good. Like, really good, so satisfied and happy (yup, it’s a thing, red meat can help improve mood). At the time I didn’t pay much mind to all that (again, face palm). I figured my cravings for meat were unhealthy, just as people crave Doritos or cake. I mean, everyone knew meat was bad for you, right?

“If you’re afraid of eating meat because you think it’s bad for you, that’s the wrong information,” says Dr. Gabrielle Lyon, a New York-based physician with 7 years of nutritional training. “What we’ve been told is wrong. The narrative has been very toxic and incorrect. The idea that protein is bad, that animal protein specifically causes heart disease or other illnesses, is based on very low-quality evidence. Red meat—beef, bison, lamb—is highly nutrient dense. It’s high-quality protein because of its bioavailability. Animal protein has the correct percentage of essential to nonessential amino acids, and it has the most bioavailable form of B12, iron, zinc and selenium.”

About 6 years ago, while I was the food director at Health magazine, an editor asked me to write about the then-brand-new Bulletproof Diet. I interviewed the author, Dave Asprey, and read the book, which is essentially a paleo diet with an emphasis on eating lots of healthy fats (it’s not as count-your-macros specific as keto). Around the same time I read Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis, and my mind was blown by the idea that wheat could actually be bad for you. With my curiosity piqued, I also read The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz, and was well and truly shocked by the thorough evidence she presents that all the information we’ve been given about fat is totally wrong. Decades of avoiding fat and meat, even though I wanted both, and all of it because of a theory that was never really proven. I became not only more curious, but also kind of pissed off that so much of the information about nutrition that we take as gospel is actually based on incredibly weak science.

With all of this new-to-me information in my head, I decided to test it out. I went on a two-week elimination diet with the help of a nutritionist, cutting out grains, beans, sugar, coffee (that hurt), soy, corn and a few other things. It was nothing short of life changing, and that’s not hyperbole. I’ve always been energetic, but when I eliminated those irritants, not only did my energy soar like crazy, all of my digestive issues disappeared. Just like that. I didn’t have a “bad stomach” (whatever that means), I was just feeding it wrong.

During the elimination diet, I craved meat like crazy. Alllll I wanted was steak, like a giant ribeye, or a cheeseburger, or bacon. Or all of them. I had craved meat before, but during that diet, it felt less like a “want” and more like a “need.” It seemed strange to me—here I was trying to get healthier, and all my body wanted was red meat. Turns out, it makes sense. “According to the protein leverage hypothesis, humans and other mammals will seek to eat a certain amount of protein in their daily diet. And they will keep eating until they reach the right amount,” Dr. Lyon says. “If a person’s diet is really high in carbohydrates, they have to eat a lot more to reach the amount of protein they need.” I had eliminated all those grains and beans, and my body was driven to seek protein directly from the optimal source—meat.

I reached out to the nutritionist who was running the diet and asked her about the meat cravings. She told me it was pretty common (!) and to go with it. So I did—that week I ate more meat than I had allowed myself to ever before. Essentially whenever I wanted it, I ate it. And I felt amazing. Which, in retrospect, also makes sense. “You’re getting all those nutrients in their most bioavailable form,” Dr. Lyon says. “Plus, protein is necessary for neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine. All of these contribute to mood and energy, and better blood sugar regulation. When you get enough high-quality protein, you don’t go through the ebbs and flows of blood sugar regulation. You’re no longer dependent on your meal-to-meal glucose, instead you train your body to generate its own glucose. Otherwise you’re a slave to your meals, you need each carbohydrate meal to maintain your blood sugar.”

So yeah, I also wasn’t borderline hypoglycemic before—I just wasn’t eating enough protein, and avoiding the most nutrient dense and bioavailable kind: meat.

My diet has evolved a bit over the last six years; I’ve played around with how much fat I eat vs. protein, I’ve tried to add back some legumes and grains (and found that with very few exceptions, they just don’t work for me), and I’ve been more consistent about eating fermented foods. But one thing has stayed consistent throughout: I eat a lot of high-quality animal products, and I’ve never enjoyed better health. I almost never get colds, I sleep well, I’m building and maintaining lean muscle and I’m annoyingly energetic—and I’m in my late 40s, a time when many of my peers are gaining weight, feeling exhausted, seeing the beginnings of chronic illness.

There’s nothing special about me, I just got curious and then did the work; reading, trying the elimination diet, tweaking and experimenting. Nutrition is individual and personal, and eating meat is an emotional topic—I would not tell someone else that they have to eat meat to be healthy if they have a moral reason for not doing so. But for me, it is absolutely an essential key to my good health.

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