Feb. 4, 2015

Meatless Monday – Hyped or Helpful?

Unless you stay away from Facebook or Twitter, I'm sure you have noticed a lot of posts referring to Meatless Monday. Does a national plea to consider abstaining from meat at least one day a week make any kind of difference or is it just a lot of fluff? Personally, I believe it is a worthy practice. Whether you have ever considered vegetarianism or not, this could be great for you. 

Clearly, I am not speaking to people who are already practicing vegetarians, of any variety. In fact, I'm positive there are a number of these folks who would absolutely scoff at the notion that abstaining from meat one day a week can make any kind of meaningful impact. I beg to differ. The goal here is not to try to convince all the world to become vegetarians eventually. My goal is to explore options that lead to healthy people, healthy communities, healthy animals and a healthy planet. Whether to live a vegetarian life style or not has actually been a personal struggle for me. There has been times in my life when I abstained from meat for long periods of time. It is a complex subject which I actively study and explore all the options. 

So – what possible good can come from skipping meat one day a week? Here are a few ideas.


 Eating less meat and meat fat may be good for your health

This statement is absolutely fraught with contradictions. If you stick with the conventional medical wisdom of the last thirty years or so, this statement would be backed up by tons of literature and medical practice. We have been told for years that eating meats loaded with saturated fats increase cholesterol levels, which is thought to encourage fatty plaque deposits to form within arteries (atherosclerosis) and therefore, the greater your risk of heart disease. People bailed from red meat left and right in favor of lower fat white meats and seafood. But hold on to your hats. That big ol' tanker ship which has been slowing down for years is making a u-turn. There is more and more literature now, that is suggesting it is not the fat dissolved in the blood that is the problem; it's the inflammation within the arteries that attracts the fatty plaque to lay down to begin with and build over time. What's causing the inflammation? That is the hot debate right now. 

What about the claims that humans “can't digest meat and it just rots in the colon”? Fact or fiction? I don't know. What I do know is that humans produce enzymes in our digestive tract to digest protein and another for emulsifying fats. Our digestive system is designed to break down anything that can be broken down from macro-molecules to micro-molecules to make available for use by the cells. This is a grossly over simplified explanation of the digestive system because I still break out in to a sweat when I remember how hard it was to learn the digestive process in Anatomy and Physiology. We seem to have an omnivore type of digestive tract. We only have one stomach because we are not breaking down hay all day and it's longer than that of a dedicated carnivore because, we need some extra transit time to let the friendly bacteria break down all of the fibrous stuff we eat. I personally have never seen compelling evidence that meat remains in tact long enough to reach the colon and then sit there to ferment. What I suspect does happen though, people are notorious for not taking in enough water and fiber. Stool made up of a lot of meat and very little fiber is going to be like mud (sorry for the visual). Plus, your body requires a certain amount of fluid 24/7, regardless of your intake. If you are deficient in your fluid levels to maintain proper function, the large intestine is taking it from the food you consume. So now, last nights steak is today’s clay (you get the picture). I do know there is a lot of literature that links red meat and colon cancer but what I don't know is, if chronic constipation is part of that equation. 

What about processed meats. Well, sorry to disappoint all the bacon lovers out there. So far, everything I read still suggests that eating meats that are highly processed, charred or smoked (like hot dogs, smoked sausages, bacon) are still suspect for increased risk of heart disease and cancer. Thankfully there are more and more products on the market that are made without the harmful chemicals. As far as the charred meats, unless you are a grilling fanatic, exposure is probably somewhat minimal compared to the days of direct fire cooking. 

I cannot honestly tell you that eating meat is outright bad for you. The truth is that lean meat is nutritious. Meat is considered a "complete protein" and contains all nine of the essential amino acids needed by humans. That does not mean you cannot get your protein needs met by plants. Most plant foods like beans, peas, nuts, seeds, grain and vegetables have "incomplete"proteins because they are missing one or more of essential amino acids. However, your body can combine amino acids from the variety of foods you eat to make the proteins it needs. Meat also provides some of the antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals we need. I think that in the average American diet we just might have a little too much of a good thing. Meat is certainly not the only thing to blame for our big bellies and butts. It just happens to be that meat is a somewhat calorie dense food as opposed to say, a carrot. Adjusting our caloric intake here and there to allow for more plant based options may allow for more nutrient diversity. One caveat; replacing your steak with a pile of heavy sauced pasta is a wash. No...worse than a wash...but that's another subject. 


Reducing the heavy demand for meat allows for better animal husbandry. 

This particular subject is a sticky wicket. It also happens to be a subject that I am particularly passionate about. I really do not want to barrage you with the horrible images of gruesome practices in the meat industry. If you are interested in learning about this, there are no end of websites to enlighten. What I do want to address is the reality of where America's farming industry (many other countries as well) has gone to meet consumer demand. In this country, we want our meat and we want it cheap. Unfortunately that has been addressed by the factory farm. Massive numbers of animals are housed in unnatural conditions, restrained from natural movements and fed unnatural diets. Because of these stressful conditions, they have to be treated with antibiotics and other chemical treatments to deal with diseases and parasites that go hand in hand with close living conditions. Often the animals have to be altered in some ways, such as debeaking, to discourage hurting themselves and each other. The amount of toxic waste from these facilities and feed lots are environmentally disastrous.

Raising food to feed animals that are converted back in to food is not very efficient. The rush to get an animal to slaughter size has led to a rise of the modern mass-scale feed industry. Rather than the natural grazing that large animals like cattle have evolved to eat, they are packed in to massive feed lots which rely primarily on grains (mainly corn) and legumes like soybean meal, combined with tubers, food-processing residues and many additives and antibiotics. Large animals have inherently low efficiency of converting feed to muscle with a range of 5-20:1 feed to Kg of muscle, depending on the feed. Smaller animals are a little better with pigs being roughly 3:1 and chicken 2:1. So it is not hard to imagine what the demand on the grain industry is. You also need to factor-in water demands, fertilizer, fuel for machinery, electricity and transportation. The impacts of raising, processing, storing, and shipping of meat products in enormous. It only stands to reason that less demand equals less impact. If consumers lessen the demand for meat products and shift to sustainably farmed, organic products, we may see a reduction in such harmful practices. What it won't be is cheap. But maybe we are paying too high of a price for cheap.

Dollars and cents (sense)

Even with all the abundant “cheap” meat available in our supermarkets, it is still one of the more expensive items we place in our carts. I honestly do not know how some young families afford groceries these days. Favoring meatless meals here and there will definitely help the pocket book. In addition to making meatless meals, I try to use less meat when I do use it. Grocery store packaging encourages us to purchase a certain amount at a time. Typically, we will use all of it when preparing our meal. Consider using half the amount and fill out the dish with other vegetables nuts, grains or legumes. This works well in dishes like spaghetti, lasagna, or casserole type of dishes. Chances are, no one will even miss it. When the meat itself is the main event, consider serving smaller individual amounts and increase your sides. Either divide up your meat and freeze some for future meals or seek out smaller cuts to begin with. Little by little you may find that you are swapping out your meat dollars for a larger amount of plant based groceries. Another thing I will do from time to time is extend ground meat by combining it half and half with a meat replacement product. This however is not a money saving option at this time because these items are processed, packaged and therefore about as expensive. If you know your family are big fans of say beef, pork, or lamb and you have a large freezer, consider buying a quarter or half of an animal. People who raise animals on small farms often advertise to sell all or a portion of a animal designated for slaughter. Typically you pay a set dollar amount per pound plus the cut and wrap fee. Typically you get to order your cut and packaging preferences with the meat packers. At least where I live, the slaughter truck comes to the field and expertly dispatches the animal on the spot, eliminating the very stressful transport and slaughter house experience. Depending on how long it sits in your freezer, frozen meat is just fine if you take care to thaw it slowly in your fridge. It is the rapid thawing of frozen meat or freezer burn that can make it so dry and tough. Buying your meat this way means that you will have a sizable dollar amount up front but your supply can last you all year, depending on your usage. Plus, you can find out just where your meat came from and who handled it.

Do the math

Do you still find it hard to believe that lessening your meat consumption will make an impact? Let's just say a person eats three meals a day and at least two of those meals contain some kind of meat. In a year that person will have consumed 730 meat-containing meals. If they just abstained one day a week (presuming they only ate two meat-containing meals) that number is reduced to 626. That is 104 servings of meat that never had to be produced. Now imagine that person is one of a family of four. Now there are 416 servings that never had to exist. What if they doubled that, 832. That is a lot of meat that never had to exist, just by a family of four passing on meat two days a week. Now imagine if even half the population did this. The ripples would get bigger and bigger and eventually cause a shift in our country. Now imagine if those of us with little children established these habits in the future adults. Not only do they stand a better chance of growing up healthier but the systems that will produce their food will have a better chance of being healthy. What more could we want for our future generations?