As a dietitian, I completely get why some people want to decrease their meat intake for health reasons. And as a person, I can understand the ethical reasons for eschewing meat as well. I even comprehend the environmental reasons for moving meat off the center of the plate. However, there are some good things about meat, nutritionally, that I think some people forget about. How you choose to fashion your own plate—whether with some meat or without—is your choice, of course. I’m just here to mention the nutritional merits of meat for your consideration…
I’m not sure why consumer attention to this nutrient seems to have waned—it’s just as important as ever! Why? Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the US, and is especially prevalent among people with increased needs: pregnant women, infants and toddlers, and people who lose blood frequently from medical disorders, frequent blood donations or menstruation. Iron deficiency can also occur when the body isn’t absorbing enough iron.
There can be a number of reasons for this, but primary among them is the fact that iron from meat, poultry and fish (called heme iron) is absorbed much more efficiently than iron from plants (called non-heme iron). Including heme-iron sources in the diet a few times a week goes a long way toward helping maintain body iron stores. Iron is needed by every cell in the body, and helps deliver needed oxygen around our bodies via hemoglobin and myoglobin. Without enough iron you risk developing iron deficiency anemia, which makes one feel weak, light-headed, short of breath as well as more serious symptoms.
Red meat is a major source of zinc in the Western diet—3 ounces of cooked beef provide nearly half the daily value for zinc. It also happens that zinc from meat is more readily available to the body than that from plants. In fact, vegetarians who eat lots of legumes and whole grains, which contain phytates, (natural plant substances that bind zinc) do not absorb as much zinc from these foods and therefore may require substantially more zinc in their diets in order to compensate.
Pregnant women, people with gastrointestinal diseases and those with sickle cell disease also require higher amounts. Zinc is important for a healthy immune system, proper taste and smell, and wound healing (among many other functions). These are especially important functions for older people, who may be more susceptible to immune, healing and sensory problems anyhow. And some studies indicate that folks over age 60 may not be getting enough zinc.
Vitamin B-12 is only available naturally from animal products (and is added to some fortified foods as well). Vitamin B-12 is used in every body cell and is an important part of many body chemicals. Getting enough B-12 is important for preventing a type of anemia which reduces the transport of oxygen to body tissues due to insufficient and immature red blood cell development. Vitamin B-12 deficiency affects up to 20% of Americans, and can damage the nervous system if not treated when symptoms are first apparent.
Those at risk for B-12 deficiency include vegetarians (especially vegans), those who have had weight loss surgery, people who take certain prescription drugs or use antacids long-term, and those born with a condition called pernicious anemia, which inhibits the body’s absorption of the vitamin. Supplemental vitamin B-12 is necessary if adequate amounts are not consumed through the diet.
So there are my reminders about why meat can be a very healthy food. Choosing leaner meat cuts and eating a wide variety of meat, poultry and seafood is recommended because no one food provides every nutrient that one needs.