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July 2002 Issue
The Red Meat Dilemma
by Michael Fick
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It's summer, man. Where's the beef? Fire up the grille and throw on some steaks, burgers, chops, Polish sausage, ribs, and dogs ... and, oh, yeah ... some chicken for the wusses in the crowd. It's time to throw back our heads and cram down furry animal flesh and intestines 'til we burst. Put it on a bun and add some tater chips. (Gotta get our grains and vegetables or Mikey will be mad at us. Ooooh!)

OK ... Mikey's turn.

If you've been reading this column for a while, you know what a lot of red meat and the grease in those chips do to people in the long term. You know what appreciable quantities of that white bread bun (even if it says, "wheat buns") may do overnight. You know what the saturated fat in the meat and chips can do within a couple of hours if your arteries are already occluded by too many meals like that.

But despite knowing all this, people still belly up to the grille -- notice how often that's the first part of eager meat-eaters' bodies to reach anything ... and you know what that shape does to them. It's no wonder that we still wolf down red meat by the pound, what with the Beef Council and Robert Mitchum telling us it's "What's for dinner", the "pork council (?)" telling us pork is "the other white meat", and the protein diet gurus telling us red meat is actually a healthy dietary mainstay.

The Great Red Meat Debate continues. Is red meat great stuff, or it is killing us by the thousands? Is its threat real, or just a myth spread by the Bean Sprout Council or the Save the Moo-Cows lobby?

Let's look at its dark side first, because that has received the majority of the publicity for centuries. Women were discouraged from eating red meat in the 1800s because it would "make them too masculine". In the 1900's, statistics and medical science revealed its real threat to be the damage its saturated fat does to the cardiovascular systems of both genders. Red meat has been proven in many large, well-controlled studies in many cultures across the globe to contribute to a wide variety of diseases responsible for enormous numbers of early deaths. Many people say red meat makes them feel bloated and overstuffed (but tests say that's psychological), and it seems to sit there for hours. (I compare that sensation, especially when it wakes me up in the middle of the night, to feeling as though I had just "won" a pizza-eating contest.)

Save-the-earth philosophy says we should all dine lower in the food chain ... i.e., eat plants rather than eat things that eat plants ... for the salvation of the planet. After all, growing a pound of red meat, converting it to food, and distributing it nation-wide consumes far more resources, including land, power, chemicals, fossil fuels, etc. than a pound of plant foods, and the antibiotics used in animal husbandry generate resistant strains of bacteria which threaten us all.

To compound the problem, a recent court decision denied the USDA the authority to close meat plants known to produce large amounts of salmonella-tainted ground beef. (Ground meats are especially subject to contamination because they mix surface bacteria deep into the finished product.) Once again PC rears its ugly head to threaten anyone with weak defenses, such as the elderly, the young, and anyone with a compromised immune system. Unless and until the Congress rectifies this problem, hamburger just got more dangerous than ever. And the conditions in which commercial food animals are bred, raised, and slaughtered range from dismaying to deplorable.

On the bright side, red meat is an excellent source of iron and an even better source of zinc. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the U. S., and zinc -- crucial to our immune systems -- is deficient in something like 50 million U. S. women. A serving of extra-lean red meat has less fat and fewer calories than the same quantity of skinless chicken wings. Beef is a top source of high quality, readily assimilated protein, but only the most strict and least informed vegetarians get insufficient protein. Most other people get more than their bodies can use from their plant foods, and any excess is changed to fat.

The meat industry is producing many varieties of low-fat meats now, but it's largely a sham. Their efforts raise its price by up to 400% but reduce its fat content only modestly. You can do just about as well at one-fifth the cost by buying lean cuts of ordinary meat and trimming its visible fat. Even lean, well-done ground beef is still extremely high in fat.

So what do we do, eat chicken instead? We know how much healthier it is than red meat, don't we?

Sez who? Chicken has the same quantity of cholesterol as red meat, and grilling chicken forms 15 times as much carcinogenic heterocyclic amines as beef produces. Even with its lower saturated fat content, substituting chicken for red meat doesn't lower our cholesterol. But at least skinless chicken breast meat is a step in the right direction.

So how do we optimize the dilemma between the benefits and threats of red meat? Simple: we buy the right types, prepare it properly, and eat far, far less of it than most Americans do.

The right type is not marbled too heavily with fat. It's some version of round steak or tenderloin to start with, or very lean pork, for minimal saturated fat content. It surely isn't ground beef, because that's the primary source of saturated fat on the American plate and in American arteries.

We prepare it right by trimming all of the visible fat, and by cooking it some way that lets the drippings fall away from the meat. If our cooking method requires basting to keep it moist, we baste with water and fruit juices and vinegar rather than fat drippings. If we do use ground beef, we cook it until its center reaches 160 degrees. No exceptions. If part of the meat is blackened during grilling, we discard that highly carcinogenic blackened part.

But most important, we eat a ridiculously small amount, by American standards ... a few bites. A piece of steak bigger than a deck of playing cards is just too much saturated fat for anyone, and too many calories for most people. That "beer" gut is actually a calorie gut, and it's deadly.

So you see, red meat is healthy for us ... in small quantities. It provides nutrients we need, which we must ensure we get from other sources if we eat no red meat. The problem is that almost no one eats it in small quantities. No restaurant and no host who's fed me has ever insulted me with a healthy portion of red meat. It's up to me to eat healthy quantities, and if that insults my host, that's tough. When forced to choose between my heart and his feelings, my heart wins every time.

Which will you choose ... your heart, or your habits?

Some of this information came from Tufts University's Health & Nutrition Letter, which you can subscribe to at www.healthletter.tufts.edu or by calling 1-800-274-7581.



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