There are so many fad diets and recommendations for what and what not to eat that it can easily become overwhelming trying to decide what’s right for you. Apart from diets, food groups in and of themselves can become demonized or celebrated depending on current research and trends. The goal of this blog is to take a closer look at the science behind eating meat and the impact that it can have on our mood.
In recent years, the conversation around meat has centered more and more around climate change. Scientists now are recommending that people across the globe eat less meat because its production is a major cause of climate change and because it is an unsustainable food practice for our growing global population. But the environment and global food sustainability are just a couple of reasons why someone may choose to limit meat consumption.
Others choose to limit or completely avoid meat out of ethical considerations, or because research increasingly links meat to poorer health outcomes. Studies show that conventional and especially processed red meat consumption contributes to a variety of health problems and can even shorten the average person’s life-span. It is important to note that we are talking about conventional meat, such as beef from a corn fed cow exposed to poor living conditions, antibiotics and hormones, and not about grass-fed, organic or wild meat, which may have far less negative and potentially even some positive health effects.
Should everyone stop eating meat? Or is it best to have it only occasionally? Is eating meat everyday a risky practice given new research? We hope to shed light on these and other concerns so that you can make an informed decision when it comes to eating meat.
Meat: A Brief History of Human Consumption
Early homo sapiens began eating meat around 3 million years ago. While subsistence on plants alone would have been sufficient for basic survival, eating meat allowed the human brain to grow at a faster rate and to a size much larger than any other species. Meat is very nutrient dense and would have provided a rich energy source that required less digestion than plants (plant matter is harder to break down and more energetically costly for humans). Scientists have found that the human brain evolved the fastest during a time when homo sapiens were eating very large quantities of meat in conjunction with plant based foods like nuts and berries. The advanced cognitive functioning of early humans would have allowed them to develop more advanced hunting and gathering techniques, agriculture practices, complex social structures and so on, further cementing the survival of the species.
Meat consumption for humans has gone through periods of boom and bust dependent on a host of factors including ecological availability and social and cultural norms. Today, we are witnessing both extremes, with more affluent countries having extremely high rates of meat consumption and poorer countries have very low rates. Eating too little or too much meat both carry health risks: high conventional meat intake has been linked to modern diseases such as cancer and diabetes, while low meat intake without proper nutrient replacement can lead to certain deficiencies such as Omega 3 fatty acids and Vitamin B12. If, however, a non-meat eater has a diet rich in all necessary vitamins and nutrients, we see more positive than negative results.
Arguably, any one person’s decision to eat or not eat meat is also mediated by culture. Have you noticed that people tend to have strong opinions when it comes to eating meat? The same enthusiasm is not given to, say, a decision around eating beans, for example. Why is this? Did we develop a biological imperative that induces meat cravings and our desire to ensure a steady meat supply? Or has our culture developed around certain meat practices that make us protective of it as a food source?
Whatever the reason, we hold strong feelings about meat eating and today we see these views played out in the nutrition arena. Paleo diets include meat and embrace the idea that it is “natural” for humans to eat meat based on the evolution of our species. On the other side of the spectrum we have veganism, a diet that restricts all animal products in favor of a plant based diet. Many vegans will also argue that it is more “natural” for us to be eating plants over animals because of some aspects of our physiology and ethics.
So which is it? To eat or not to eat meat?
Health Benefits of Meat
As noted above, meat is energy and nutrient dense. The protein from meat gives us long lasting energy and is also a complete protein, which means that it provides us with all the essential amino acids we require for optimal functioning (i.e. the ones our bodies cannot produce on its own). It is possible to get all of these amino acids from a plant based diet, but with meat it is one stop shopping. With plants, you have to eat a variety to ensure you are getting all of the essential amino acids (although with a diverse plant based diet, you are also getting tons of other nutrients our bodies need that are otherwise not found in meat!).
Essential and Non Essential Amino Acids
Amino acids are critical for many different body processes and play an important role in mental health. Turkey, for example, contains tryptophan which is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is believed to play a key role in anxiety and depression and manipulating brain serotonin levels is the basis for the most popular type of antidepressant medications known as SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors). Amino acid blends are used by various natural medicine providers for the treatment of depression.
Aside from protein and amino acids, meat contains Vitamin B12, which also plays a role in protecting from anxiety and depression. Meat provides other necessary nutrients, such as Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Iron, and Zinc, each of which plays its own role in physical and mental health. Meat contains omega- 3 fatty acids, deficiencies in which have also been linked to depression and anxiety.
It is true that meat can contribute to health problems when quality is poor or intake is too high; however, to not consume the nutrients meat provides and become deficient in them can also be dangerous to one’s health. With very good planning and supplements, it is possible to eliminate meat from the diet entirely without experiencing negative side effects. If you are someone with food sensitivities or restrictive food preferences, or if your access to a wide variety of high quality plant foods is limited, it may be difficult to avoid developing nutritional deficiencies on a strict vegetarian or vegan diet. If you are wondering if your vegan or vegetarian diet is leaving you at risk for nutritional deficiencies, consult with your doctor or a nutritionist for guidance.
Current Practices with Meat
One problem with meat today is sourcing and quality control. Early humans hunted their meat and knew exactly what they were getting. Meat was not kept for long periods of time without being eaten or properly processed (salted, for example), and it certainly was not being shipped hundreds of thousands of miles from where it was killed. Today, the meat market looks very different. The fish you had for dinner last night may have come from China or Mexico. The steak on your steak sandwich at lunch may have come in a week ago or yesterday- did you ask?
The quality of meat has also declined with the modern food era. Cows today are housed in factory farms, fed corn instead of grass, and given antibiotics and growth hormones. These changes affect the nutrient profile of the meat that we get from these animals and the additives might make today’s meat products less savory, less satisfying, and less healthy. Research is being done to identify which additives are safe to consume, but many people have sensitivities to the additives in meat that are deemed generally safe.
Another concern surrounding meat consumption today is that often the food preparation adds unnecessary calories. Slathering meat with sauces and frying it until crispy may add flavor and enjoyment, but it also adds calories and unnecessary fats and sugars.
It is ideal to eat meat that is grass fed, local, organic and humanely raised. This will provide you with nutrient-dense protein free of various unnecessary add-ins. Of course, most of us do not have consistent access to this kind of meat, if at all. The reality is that many factors including cost and location have to be considered when choosing what to put on your plate. In general, when eating meat, eat it in moderation. For health reasons the serving size of meat should be somewhere around 3 to 4 ounces, and no more than 6 ounces per day. Some of the recent books that discuss this approach of including meat in the diet but in smaller doses are Plant Paradox, Grain Brain and The End of Alzheimers and the Mediterranean diet includes meat but in small doses. It is important to use cooking methods that can enhance the natural flavors of the meat without adding unnecessary calories. Pair meat with vegetables and other healthy sides for a well-rounded meal. Ideally the majority of the diet and plate is taken up by plants and meat is an extra on the plate.
Meat or No?
Like most things in life, our physical and mental health depends on variety of factors. If you decide that eating meat is right for you, remember that it should be just one part of a broader healthy diet, one rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and plenty of water! If you choose to avoid meat, take a look at the nutrients it provides and make sure you are getting these from other sources. Pay particular attention to amino acids, Omega 3 fats, Vitamin B12, and other micronutrients. If you are avoiding meat completely you should strongly consider taking supplements to protect from nutrient deficiencies. While anyone who opts for a meat free diet may benefit from consultation with a nutritionist or other specialist, it is recommended particularly for someone who struggles with mental health conditions.
Research today shows a strong link between the food you put in your body and your physical and mental health, yet it can be difficult to know what to eat and what not to eat. Everyone’s situation and needs are different. Good dietary choices can promote mental health while the wrong dietary choices can diminish it. Using diet to manage your mental health can even be an alternative to medication for some individuals. Consuming meat or particular types of meat can be a part of that plan. In general a diet that includes small quantities of very high quality meat is likely safer in terms of avoiding nutritional deficiencies that contribute to mental health problems than a vegetarian diet. Yet in situations of not being able to access very high quality meat, it may be safer to generally stay away from meat for health reasons. In this situation it is key to be thoughtful and proactive in making vegetarian or very low meat diet be of amazingly high quality, and taking supplements to avoid deficiencies.
Many choose to eat meat for cultural and social reasons. When gathering around the table for a holiday celebration, there are often meat dishes being shared amongst friends and family. Taking part in these rituals holds significance for many people.
If you want to know more about your specific situation and identify ways to adjust your diet to improve your mental health, consider consulting with an Integrative Medicine or Functional Medicine Psychiatrist or a nutritionist with an interest in mental health and diet. If you do not have access to this kind of practitioner, consider talking to your primary care doctor, naturopath or other holistic provider about your diet. When you find a provider who understand both mental health and nutrition ask them to help you develop a personalized dietary plan that will be most optimal to promote your mental health.
There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to meat. Every person and situation is different and the best thing you can do for yourself is gather the evidence and make an informed condition. What special needs does your body have? Do you have pre-existing mental health concerns? What food options are available in your area? Is meat central to your culture’s food traditions? All of these factors may impact whether or not eating meat may be best for your mental health. Good luck and remember to have fun! (Try the tofu- it might not be so bad!)