I used to worry about the health effects of eating meat, and in fact was a low-fat vegetarian for about 15 years. I was concerned about the living conditions and treatment of commercially raised meat animals, and I was concerned about how the saturated fats found in meats were believed to affect health. What happened was I gained weight. Somehow that didn’t make me feel healthier.
In my locavore eating (eating only foods grown in Whatcom County as much as possible), I focus on supporting farms using sustainable farming practices, Raising animals in factory farming conditions relies heavily on chemical and pharmaceutical use, especially hormones and antibiotics, and is definitely not sustainable. In fact, a lot of meat and dairy production is heavily subsidized with tax dollars. The price on the supermarket package leaves a few things out. Trust me–you’re paying more than you think for meat.
By buying from local farms, I can find out exactly how animals are being treated and what chemicals or drugs, if any, are being used. If I have questions, I can ask the farmer or arrange to visit the farm. It seems like common sense to me that a happy, healthy animal would equate with better quality meat as an end product.
Sorting out nutritional health effects of eating meat is a lot more complicated. Some years ago, fats and dietary cholesterol were publicly touted as harmful to health, supposedly increasing the risk of cancer and heart disease. A plethora of new “low fat” food products have flooded the market since then, generating a lot of income for food processing companies.
Eliminating or greatly reducing cholesterol in your diet was said to be “heart healthy” and reducing fat intake was thought to be beneficial, too. But how has that played out over the years?
I recently found a couple of articles on the Harvard School of Public Health web site which summarize current research and recommendations on the subject (short version or long version). They are written in plain language without scientific jargon, and I highly recommend reading one or both of them.
First, here’s what they say about dietary cholesterol vs. blood cholesterol levels:
“The total amount of fat you eat, whether high or low, isn’t really linked with disease. What really matters is the type of fat you eat.
“The ‘bad’ fats–saturated and trans fats–increase the risk for certain diseases. The ‘good’ fats–monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats–lower disease risk. The key to a healthy diet is to substitute good fats for bad fats–and to avoid trans fats.”
“Although it is still important to limit the amount of cholesterol you eat, especially if you have diabetes, dietary cholesterol isn’t nearly the villain it’s been portrayed to be.”
Turns out, for example, that eating butter is likely to be healthier for you than eating margarine, because margarine contains trans fats. That’s true of many low-fat, low-calorie diet foods, too–full of trans fats. Read the labels. It also seems that eating a diet high in cholesterol doesn’t necessarily mean your blood levels of cholesterol will be higher, too. For most people, the two appear to be unrelated.
Pork and other meats contain saturated fats, so nutritionists still recommend eating them in limited quantities. However, an increasing amount of evidence suggests that the chemicals and drugs which tend to concentrate in the fats of animals may possibly be the worst culprits, not the fat itself.
As with most things, moderation seems the healthiest route. After considerable study, I’ve come to the conclusion that–for me–occasional meat in my diet will most likely not be harmful and may in fact be good for me, especially local meat raised in healthy ways. That said, what’s true for me may not be right for you. I encourage you to read, experiment with how you feel, talk to your health care providers, and decide for yourself.
Whatever you choose to eat, my holiday wish for you is that you thoroughly and wholeheartedly relish the experience and take delight in the people with whom you share it. Eating joyfully may turn out to be the most important health factor of all.
This week’s recipe:
- Apple Glazed Pork Chops
- Leeks sauteed in butter