Vegetarians should ‘fess up to being a little dickish about the whole not-eating-animals thing. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of inviting one to dinner, they come to your house like they’re some sort of Christian missionary, sent to your poor, primitive island to save you from paganism, incest, leprosy, and Iguana casseroles.
If vegetarians can’t change your meat-eating ways through guilt, they try using a couple of timeworn, mostly unsubstantiated, quasi-scientific theories.
And things have gotten even worse since that Netflix documentary came out and glorified the vegetarian lifestyle while throwing some pot-roast sized shots at meat eaters.
Somehow, the plant eaters even ensorcelled Arnold Schwarzenegger to become a vegetarian, which was a gut punch to us weight lifters, kind of like it would be to Catholics if the Pope suddenly became a Scientologist, or to dog owners if their Labrador suddenly started huffing catnip.
So it’s no wonder meat eaters (of which I’m one) want to take a swipe at vegetarians, or at least see if verbally tormenting them can bring a little color to their pasty cheeks.
But here’s where I stick up (sort of) for the vegetarians, though. Can they live a healthy life without eating meat? Absolutely. Can they be successful athletes? Sure. Can they be accomplished bodybuilders and strength athletes? Of course.
However, a lot of that depends on what kind of vegetarian they are (see below) and how much work they’re willing to put into their diet.
I’m not going to let meat eaters off the hook, though. They too have been acting a bit dickish about their dietary choices. If someone posts something positive about vegetarianism, either having to do with health or protecting the environment, meat eaters act like someone’s challenging their sister’s honor. They need to remember that steak is what’s for dinner and not an object of worship.
The truth is, muscle meat, while being a terrific source of highly bioavailable protein, is otherwise nutritionally kind of ho-hum; you don’t absolutely need to include it in your diet to stay healthy or be an athlete or even to build muscle.
Now let me present my case, your honor.
Eat Some Frosted Flakes, for Crissake
There are four major classifications of vegetarians. The strictest and most pious are the vegans, who don’t eat any animals or animal byproducts. They won’t even wear clothes made of leather, silk, or wool. Everything is made of 100% cotton… or granola or something.
The other classifications include lacto vegetarians, who don’t eat meat or eggs, but do agree to things like cheese, milk, and yogurt.
Ovo vegetarians won’t consume meat or dairy products, but they will eat eggs. Then there’s the most common type of vegetarian, the lacto-ovo vegetarian. They won’t touch meat, but they’ll gladly partake of eggs and dairy products.
There are also some sub-divisions, like “pollotarians” who won’t eat red meat or fish, but will devour the occasional chicken. “Pescatarians” have beliefs based on the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin… or maybe that’s Presbyterians? Anyhow, they restrict their meat consumption to fish and seafood.
However, the only category that faces any significant hurdles at all is the strict vegan group. Filling their protein needs without meat, eggs, or dairy isn’t that big a problem if they really commit to using lots of pea protein, which, as far as plant proteins go, is fairly respectable. Getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is a little trickier.
In the past, vegans relied on the body’s ability to convert alpha-linoleic acids to EPA and DHA, but a few studies show that the conversion to DHA, at least from eating high-ALA sources like various nuts and seeds, is inefficient at best, non-existent at worst. However, recent studies show that the use of algae oil supplements fit the bill quite nicely as they have a high conversion rate.
But the real struggle vegans face isn’t because of a lack of meat, but a lack of dairy products and eggs. This makes getting vital nutrients like choline and vitamin B12 problematical, but there are plenty of vegan choline supplements available, and the vitamin B12 issue is probably, for most people, a non-issue.
The great thing about B12 is that it’s stored in the liver… for a long time. Most people could stop ingesting any B12 today and still have plenty in reserve for 3 to 5 years. That’s not to say some people don’t have B12 deficiencies, especially older people.
Any vegan who’s worried about it, though, can eat a bowl of Frosted Flakes, which has 101% of the RDA, or any one of a billion other foods that are fortified with the vitamin.
Vegans also might have problems getting enough of the basic, every-day vitamins and minerals. Sure, broccoli has a “lot” of calcium in it, but you’d have to eat a few pounds of it to meet your RDA. My thoughts and prayers go out to anyone who has to sit next to you on an Uber ride from Yonkers to Hackensack.
Even so, any possible deficiencies can likely be made up through the use of supplements. It’s not ideal, but if eating animal products conflicts with their beliefs, its entirely possible to live a healthy life without them – as long as they’re willing to put in their homework and spend some time every day thinking about what they need.
The other categories of vegetarians? They’ve all got it easy, as eating dairy and eggs, or even just dairy, will fairly easily fulfill any dietary advantages to be gained from eating muscle meat.
So Where is the Magic of Meat?
I repeat, there is nothing really special about muscle meat, but there’s a pervasive belief that meat, particularly red meat, makes a person stronger. Now it’s true that meat contains large doses of heme iron, which is typically absorbed at a rate of 7 to 35%, compared to the 2 to 20% of the non-heme iron found in plants.
Without adequate supplies of iron, blood cells can’t make enough hemoglobin to carry adequate supplies of oxygen to the cells. Weakness ensues. This high absorption rate enjoyed by meat eaters is definitely an advantage, but having too much iron is oftentimes more of a problem (especially in men) than having too little, as high levels can increase the risk of stroke.
Then there’s the comparatively high amount of B12 in meat, but this is pretty much a factor only in someone who was truly deficient in the vitamin. Likewise, muscle meat also has appreciable amounts of other B vitamins, but nothing that can’t be obtained from certain non-meat sources.
Meat also contains comparatively large amounts of creatine, but you’d have to eat 2-3 pounds worth to get the amount you’d get in one serving of supplemental creatine.
Then there’s the testosterone connection. Meat has relatively high amounts of zinc, adequate amounts of which are required for production of testosterone, but lots of plant foods contain zinc. Likewise, meat, particularly red meat, contains arachidonic acid (AA), which plays a pivotal role in testicular steroidogenesis, the process that leads to the production of testosterone.
However, the small transient rise in testosterone you’d get from eating a steak (if it even occurs) wouldn’t convey any measureable benefits. You need sustained levels of additional testosterone over days, weeks, and months – not hours – for it to have any effect on muscle, strength, or other good stuff.
Any way you look at it, meat, aside from its highly bioavailable amino acid complement, is just okay. However, if meat eaters were really sincere about eating meat for its nutritional advantages, they’d go one step further.
If It’s Good Enough for Fido…
Back in 1973, the Center for Science and Public Interest (CSPI) published a report on 36 protein-rich foods and ranked them according to nutritional value. There, ranked near the top above such foods as shrimp, ham, sirloin steak, peanut butter, fried chicken, and pure-beef hotdogs, was Alpo.
Yeah, that Alpo – the dog food.
The CSPI put it on their list because they’d heard widespread reports that poor people ate a lot of Alpo because of its low cost, at least when you compared its cost to some of the other protein foods on the list.
But is Alpo a nutritional super star for humans? What in the dog slurping, meaty-fresh canine world of cuisine was going on? All you had to do was look at the top of the nutritional list to get the answer. There, ranked number one by a hefty margin was beef liver, followed closely by chicken liver.
Clearly, liver had something going on, at least nutritionally, and if you read the list of ingredients in Alpo, you see that it contains beef liver, hence the dog food’s relatively high standing on the CSPI’s list.
We really should have known beforehand that there was something important about organ meats. Anyone who’s ever watched a four-legged carnivore in the wild knows that it first eats the liver and stomach of its prey (the liver it eats instinctually because of the nutrients, the stomach because it often contains pre-digested, nutrient-rich vegetation).
The same predilection for organ meat could also be seen among various Indian tribes around North America. They would eat the organ meats of the animals they hunted and throw the nutritionally inferior muscle meat to the dogs.
Today’s much paler, “native” Americans – Dresses in Sports Jerseys or Fumbles with Strippers – might grab a fresh-shucked oyster, drizzle lemon over it, and let it slide down their gullet, but Comanche hunters would cut out the warm liver from their prey, squirt it with gall bladder juice, and gobble it down as a great delicacy.
These organ meats are so nutritionally dense that modern-day Inuit Eskimos treat organs not only as meats, but as fruit and vegetable equivalents. Look at this Vitamin C comparison between beef liver and a few “nutritional powerhouse” foods:
- 100 grams of apple – 8.0 mg.
- 100 grams of carrots – 6.0 mg
- 100 grams of red meat – 0 mg.
- 100 grams of beef liver – 27 grams
Now let’s do the same thing with Vitamin B12:
- 100 grams of apple – 0 mcg.
- 100 grams of carrot – 0 mcg.
- 100 grams of red meat – 1.84 mcg.
- 100 grams of beef liver – 111.3 mcg.
Red meat’s no daisy. Red meat’s no daisy at all. And neither are apples and carrots, at least in comparison to beef liver.
And it’s not much different when you look at other nutrients like phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc, copper, Vitamins A, D, and E, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, folic acid, biotin, and Vitamin B6 – beef liver beats them all almost every time.
The Mysterious “Anti-Fatigue” Factor
Oddly enough, aside from being nutritionally superior, liver appears to have some of that “magic” that people often ascribe to red meat. It’s called the “anti-fatigue factor” and it was discovered in an experiment back in 1953.
Benjamin K. Ershoff, PhD, conducted a study where he compared groups of rats that had all been fed the same diet, except that one group was given B12 and the other had been given some powdered liver.
The B12 rats, when unceremoniously tossed into a bucket of water, swam for an average of 13.4 minutes. Three of the rats that were liver powered, however, swam for 63, 83, and 87 minutes.
But the rest of the liver rats were still swimming vigorously at the end of two hours when the experiment was terminated. They not only survived the experiment, they asked for one of those inflatable pool volleyball sets.
I don’t know if anyone’s bothered to try to replicate that experiment, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.
Too bad the only person who eats liver anymore is crazy old Grandpa. He can remember when people used to eat liver, and much, much worse animal organs, fairly frequently. As recently as 1953, that year’s version of The Joy of Cooking contained recipes for calf brain fritters, “and 10 other brainy recipes,” but no more.
Instead, we’ve convinced ourselves that muscle meat – along, reluctantly, with a few fruits and vegetables – is the key to health, athleticism, and muscle.
So Why Eat Meat?
Back in the 1890’s, the most famous scientist in America was a walrus-moustache wearing chemist by the name of Wilbur Olin Atwater. He devoted his life to figuring out the caloric value of foods and, for a while, he was the most famous scientist of any kind in America.
Atwater figured that the one thing that made one food superior to another was how well it served as fuel. In other words, the more calories something had, the healthier it was. As such, he thought fruits and vegetables were largely garbage foods and that we should instead eat a lot of meat, roughly two pounds a day for a yearly total of about 730 pounds.
Today, we know better, at least a little better, and our meat consumption tops out at about a third of what Atwater recommended and most of us, at least, eat a fair amount of fruits and vegetables.
Vegetarians, on the other hand, have taken Atwater’s advice and turned it completely on its ear. They think that avoiding meat will make them healthier and allow them to live longer.
While that may be true, it’s by no means been proven. After all, it’s a theory that’s difficult to test. We’re not rats or mice with 2-3 year life spans, so proving it would require a group of immortal scientists to recruit multiple generations of humans willing to be divvied up into groups of meat eaters, groups of fruit and vegetable eaters, and groups that served as controls and they’d all have to be monitored and have their cages cleaned nightly until they all died.
I am, however, convinced that people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables will live longer (big surprise), and eating reasonable amounts of meat, purchased or prepared under certain conditions, won’t do anything to shorten their lives. If anything, it’ll make getting a complete complement of nutrients all the easier.
Still, muscle meat is, as mentioned, a terrific source of highly bioavailable protein, but if we were really serious about eating it for its nutritive value and not its taste, we’d sack up and start eating organ meats, at least liver, a couple of times a week.
We might also stop having nutritional pissing contests about the merits of a meat diet vs. a vegetarian diet. As long as you’re aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each, either should suit your purposes and goals just fine.