Meat has been a precious food commodity and a great source of complete protein, vitamins and other nutrients since prehistoric times. In fact, many anthropologists think meat may have played a key role in the evolution of our species. And although vegetarianism has become increasingly popular in recent years, meat of some variety is still at the center of the American plate.
PUMPING IRON AND THE B VITAMINS
Red meat in particular is a rich source of iron, which plays an important part in building muscles and healthy blood. Studies of vegetarians have discovered that they risk becoming iron deficient, which can lead to anemia. The B vitamins found in ample quantities in meat are critical for proper energy production.
Our ancient ancestors hunted for their meat and expended a lot of energy chasing it down. Today our animal protein is raised on feedlots and in cages and delivered in great abundance nearly to our door. We eat roughly twice as much protein as we need, according to some estimates, risking injury to our kidneys and livers. Many cuts of meat--red meat in particular--are high in the saturated fats that have been linked to heart disease. Some studies suggest that eating meat may predispose us to cancer.
TAME YOUR INNER CARNIVORE
Go ahead, enjoy your bacon cheeseburger. But make it a once- or twice-a-month extravagance. Go lean if you can, but above all, go easy. Remember that meat doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Many dishes, such as stir-fries and salads, can incorporate small quantities of meat but still satisfy. A pasta sauce can be 25% meat and 75% vegetables. Dr. David Katz of Yale suggests eating lean beef, pork or lamb once or twice a week, chicken or turkey once or twice a week, and fish and other seafood three to four times a week. For most meat eaters, the harder goal will be to bring their portion sizes down to earth. The USDA considers 3 oz. of meat to be one serving. When was the last time you ordered a 3-oz. hamburger or rib-eye steak? Most steakhouses serve portions large enough to fulfill your red-meat rations for a couple of months.
FRUITS OF THE SEA
For a low-fat alternative to red meat, it's hard to beat seafood. Fish and shellfish with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and may reduce men's risk of prostate cancer.
STINKERS IN THE BAIT BUCKET
Seafood, however, is not perfect. Among the problems it presents:
--Fish, particularly oily fish, can concentrate toxins in their flesh. The heavy metal mercury is a particular concern. Among fish with the highest levels of mercury: swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel.
--More bad news: Salmon (both farmed and, to a lesser extent, caught wild) can contain worrisome levels of PCBs.
--Freshwater anglers are advised that their catch can contain various toxins, depending on the waters they come from. In some cases, the Environmental Protection Agency advises anglers to limit their intake to one fish a week. And some species from particularly polluted waters should never be eaten under any circumstances.