Since the late 1940's and 1950's the American diet has moved to a high protein diet that relies on red meat as the main source of calories.
“Increased dietary protein is considered to be the main reason why humans have increased their height and muscle mass from other eras,” says Michael S. LaPointe Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology at Indiana University Northwest. “The ‘western diet,’ however, is associated with increased obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancers. Some of this is associated with red meat. Much is due to increased consumption of processed foods.”
According to LaPointe, because red meat is high in cholesterol and saturated fats, an increase consumption of red meat is associated with the dangers of high cholesterol and fat - increased arthrosclerosis, cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer.
“Perhaps the biggest risk of eating red meat may not in eating it per se, especially lean red meat, but from the lack of a balanced diet,” he says noting that the increase in red meat consumption often means eating less fruits, vegetables and grains.
Red meat is high in iron and the B vitamins says Carol Bliznik, a registered dietitian with Franciscan St. Anthony Health-Crown Point. And it also contains B vitamins as well as essential lipids and amino acids our bodies need.
“Instead of cutting out red meat all together, eating lean cuts and using cooking such as braising and broiling that reduce the fat content are good for your health,” she says.
“I think the main part when eating meat is consume less processed meats,” says Kim Kramer, a wellness dietitian at Ingalls Hospital and the Illinois Dietetic Association’s media spokeswoman. “That includes lunch meat, hot dogs and sausages. It’s important to reduce the amount of these meats, especially those obtaining nitrites because recent research from the World Cancer Funds link nitrates to certain cancers.”
Kramer feels that red meat takes the blame for processed meats and fast foods which are truly evil in terms of healthy eating.
“Eating fast foods means adding extra sodium to your diet and also the meat isn’t really going to be lean,” she says. “You can eat red meat, it just has to be a lean red meat particularly cuts from the loin or the round.”
Processed foods and food that have a high glycemic index should be consumed in small quantities, says LaPointe, adding that processed foods not only typically contain excessive amounts of sugar, salt and unhealthy preservatives but also lose many of their nutrients during the processing.
Carbs, on the other hand, actually are an important part of our diets.
“In my opinion, carbohydrates should make up the bulk of our calories, not fats or protein,” says LaPointe. “Their bad reputation comes from sugars which have a very high glycemic index. Complex carbohydrates from grains including whole rice and whole wheat have lower glycemic indices. Whole grains have lower indices than processed grains and also contain other nutrients that are loss in processing.”
Likewise, he continues, not all fats are equal. Fish oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids which lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease. Cholesterol and saturated fats increase those risks. The food pyramid that many of us learned in grade school has been changed over the years on how it looks, but the content and message has remained very constant. Most calories should come from grains and other complex carbohydrates, followed by fruits and vegetables, then proteins and lastly little fats and oils. Unfortunately a typical American diet is high in sugars and fats and low in fruits, vegetables and grains.
“Study after study that I've read demonstrate that the Mediterranean diet provides excellent health benefits,” says LaPointe. “It’s high in the consumption of fish, fruits, vegetables and olive oil and low in red meat. It has shown to lower blood pressure and reduce risks for strokes, heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases. There is also evidence that it may reduce some forms of cancer.”
But there is a caveat. Consumption of fish obtained from waters near industrialized regions should be consumed in moderation. Fish grow their entire lives and incorporate mercury, pesticides and industrial products that can be hazardous, especially those that can be stored in the fat.
Certain foods, such as kale, spinach and low fat milk, are naturally high in assorted vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that the body needs. Increasing their consumption can improve our health.
“I don't believe in a single super food,” says LaPointe. “People should not kid themselves into believing that there is a simple cure-all for obesity, high blood pressure and other ailments. It is important that the diet contains a variety of foods and that we reduce our overall caloric and fat intake. Nutrient rich foods can help accomplish that because one would need to consume less calories to achieve the same level of nutrient as compared to eating foods high in calories but low in nutrients.”
As for supplements, the best vitamins and nutrients come from the foods we eat and if we’re eating a healthy balanced diet, LaPointe doesn’t think we need vitamin pills.
“In our society of fast food diets, however, people often do not get a proper diet,” he says. “A simple multivitamin can provide all the vitamins most individuals need.”
But a fast food meal can’t be offset by popping a couple of mega-doses of vitamins. Too many vitamins pills can have a detrimental effect says LaPointe. It’s just not that easy.