The Healthy Way to Integrate Meat Into Your Diet

This post is part of an on-going review of the recommendations of celebrity doctor Joseph Mercola, D.O. For an overview, see Monday's post.

As I have explained over the last few days, see The Meat and Butter Diet. I believe Dr. Mercola is aggressive beyond reason in recommending meat as a health food.

There is, however, some reasonable evidence in the scientific literature to support the idea that people should include some animal products in their diet. There are primarily three weaknesses of a vegan diet, they are:

  • Plant foods do not contain B12 (all vegans should take B12).
  • Some people have a need for more taurine, and may not get optimal amounts with a vegan diet. (Some vegans need to take a taurine supplement, or they could get a blood test to assure adequacy).
  • Some vegans may not produce ideal levels of DHA fat (from the conversion of short-chain omega-3 fats) found in such foods as flax and walnuts, if they don't eat fish. I advocate that vegans and people who do not eat fish should supplement with DHA or get a blood test to assure adequacy.

Obviously, these three areas of potential deficiency on a vegan diet are easily remedied by taking a few supplements. There are loads of advantages of a vegetarian diet however that also should be considered, but that is not the topic of this article. And clearly a poorly designed vegetarian diet or one that is not supplemented properly with B12, Vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin), can be dangerous for one's health, but that still cannot be used as an argument to justify dietary recommendations with lots of high saturated fat animal products.

Meat in a Vegetable-Based Diet
Ignoring the ethical and environmental benefits to a vegan diet, which undoubtedly are substantial; claiming that a vegan diet-style is healthier and will make one live longer than a diet-style that contains even a small amount of animal products is not an argument that can be made with good scientific integrity.

We have substantial evidence from not only the China Study, but thousands of other studies to conclude that animal products when consumed in even moderate amounts such as 20 ounces a week can contribute to the development of chronic disease and are not health promoting. Many of these studies are referenced in my book Eat To Live and some can be reviewed elsewhere on this blog. However, these studies and the China Study cannot be used to validate the necessity of a strict vegan diet for optimal health as vegan populations were not studied in this enormous project. The lowest ranges of animal products consumed in the China Study were in the range of 1.7 servings per week or about 10 ounces per week.

Below that level of animal product consumption supplementation with B12 become critical for populations. If there were studies with large populations on vegan diets, a J-shaped* curve would likely be experienced, showing that as diets get lower than one serving of animal products per week, later life morbidity and mortality would start to be increased. The reason for this is that strict vegans who don't take supplements will likely develop B12 deficiencies (rural villagers do not take supplements) leading to life shortening events, lessening the reduction in heart attack or cancer deaths achieved by the reduction of animal foods.

Besides B12, there are also nutritional advantages to a small amount of animal products for some individuals, as there are individual differences in the production of non-essential amino acids, and reduction in the absorption and metabolism of essential amino acids that makes the ingestion of additional amino acids beneficial for some individuals, such as those with digestive impairments. For others, the addition of pre-formed DHA from fish or fish oil may be beneficial because the enzymes converting short-chain omega 3 fatty acids (obtained from plant) to these longer chain fats (what is already present in fish) may not be as efficient in some individuals. It also may be possible that some people have heightened needs for DHA, taurine or other protein components as they age and digestion and conversion is decreased. I have counseled thousands of individuals on vegan and near vegan diets over the last 15 years and have found these recurring issues when investigating patients with health problems and health concerns after doing extensive evaluations to discern a cause of their complaints.

A Research-Based Approach
It is too frequent that writers on both sides, the vegan proponents and those advocating inclusion of substantial amounts of animal products as health supporting, have pre-formed biases and try to defend their views, rather than evaluating all the evidence with logic and clarity. Nevertheless, the reality is that for the majority of individuals, allowing under 10 - 12 ounces of animal products per week does not appear to have disease risks as long as the animal products are low in saturated fat and not contaminated with parasites or toxic pollutants. Certainly, I have no desire to promote the consumption of animal products, and I am always willing to modify my recommendations if more science suggests that this guideline is not accurate in any way. However, we have to go with whatever data we have available today, and I suggest that for those who want to include animal products in their diet, we cannot with good science insist that this small amount is cancer or heart disease promoting.

I argue that either way of eating (vegan or non-vegan) can be made health-supporting (and should be supplemented appropriately to assure nutritional adequacy) and that debating which is better is not a valuable exercise. Therefore, I advocate a plant-based (vegetable-based) diet that is either vegan or one that is near vegan with a small amount of animal products, and my food pyramid designed for public guidance contains two to three servings of animal products permitted per week, assuming that the total ounces per week is under the 10 - 12 ounces range. Beef and cheese are too high in saturated fat and should not be considered health-supporting foods to be utilized on a regular basis in one's diet. Plus those animal foods rich in fat are much higher in environmental pollutants.

FISH: Not the Easy Answer
Even though some fish in the diet has been shown to be beneficial at reducing heart disease risk, presumably because of those beneficial fish oils, and there are studies that indicate some fish in the diet is longevity promoting.1 I still do not recommend people eat much fish. We do not need to eat fish to get those benefits from fish oil, we can take a supplement for that and there is too much good evidence linking fish consumption with higher rates of breast cancer, plus the pollutants in fish are of a major concern. Whether it is the pollution in fish or the cancer promoting effect from the high level of animal protein, eating fish is linked to a higher rate of breast cancer. When 23,963 women were followed as part of the Diet, Cancer and Health study, what stood out most was the link between fish consumption and breast cancer. The conclusion of the researchers was, "this study showed that higher intake of fish was significantly associated with higher incidence rates of breast cancer."2 Surprisingly, women consuming little or no fish were found to have approximately half the incidence of breast cancer compared to high consumers of fish. This study should not be ignored. It received scant media attention. Frequent fish consumption has also been linked to increased occurrence of thyroid cancer.3

If fish are consumed on a regular basis it should be a maximum of once per week and it should be of the cleanest variety, not those in the highest range of mercury or other pollutant contamination. That limits the choice in most cities in the continental US to ocean perch, shrimp, haddock, scallops, talapia, hake and trout, eliminating swordfish, pike, mackerel, shark, lobster, tilefish, grouper, sea bass, marlin, snapper and halibut as simply too high in mercury and bluefish, herring, clams, crab and oysters as simply too polluted. Most other fish are in-between these two categories.

EGGS, WHITE MEAT FOWL, FAT FREE DAIRY: Guidelines
Therefore, I do not recommend the eating of fish more than a few times a month, and I would much rather people who eat some animal products utilize eggs, (especially those high omega-3 eggs) and white meat fowl, such as turkey, chicken or fat-free dairy.

To conclude, if you want to eat animal products on a regular basis, limit the consumption to one or two servings of two eggs or egg whites, or one serving of eggs and one serving of white meat turkey a week, or one serving of eggs and one serving of low-fat dairy and one serving of white meat or an occasional fish. Do not eat fish for the supposed health benefits of fish. It is not advisable to consume enough fish to get enough omega-3 fats for your heart health. (It is much more reasonable to just take a daily amount of DHA to assure nutritional excellence and adequacy, such as my DHA Purity, which is algae-derived DHA and refrigerated to maintain freshness.)

1. Pauletto P, Puato M, Caroli MG, et al. Blood pressure and atherogenic lipoprotein profiles of fish-diet and vegetarian villagers in Tanzania: the Lugaiawa study. Lancet 1996;348:784-788.
Key TJ, Fraser GE, Thorogood M, et al. Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies. Am J Clin Nutr 1999;70(3):516S-524S.

2. Stripp C, Overvad K, Christensen J, et al. Fish intake is positively associated with breast cancer incidence rate. J Nutr 2003;133(11):3664-3669. J Urol 2004 Apr;171(4):1402-7.

3. Glattre E, Haldorsen T, Berg JP, et al. Norwegian case-control study testing the hypothesis that seafood increase the risk of thyroid cancer. Cancer Causes and Control 1993;4:11-16.

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Comments (14) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Eric Maurette - March 24, 2006 4:23 PM

Congrats
very good article !

Linda Popescu - March 26, 2006 2:00 PM

I don't understand why a study linking high fish consumption to breast cancer would not receive significant media attention. People have been encouraged to eat fish as a healthy alternative to other meat products. They should be made aware that the risks could outweigh the benefits.

row - March 27, 2006 11:02 AM

thanks for all those great articles on Dr Mercola and his meat and butter diet!!!!
Dr Mercola is one of the #1 spokes persons for the Price pottenger foundation. Before him there was Dr Stephen Byrnes of www. powerhealth.com. Dr byrnes was also very critical of the vegan diet as Dr mercola is now.
On www.power health, the pictures of Dr byrnes made him look like a picture of health. He was good looking, fit and had a very convincing writting style, very similar to Dr Mercola. He wrote many articles saying how his animal product diet would prevent heart disease and many other health problems. Dr byrnes, a few years ago, died of a stroke, He was in his early 40's when he died. Very little is mention about Dr byrnes death on the pottenger web site and nothing is mentioned on the cause!!!! DR Mercola has replaced Dr byrnes as there new poster boy of health..

Susan - March 28, 2006 2:53 PM

This is a good practical guideline to show to friends who are interested in ETL but are reluctant to give up animal products.

Even though I am vegan, I find that veganism and vegetarianism are too politically charged unfortunately. Dr. Fuhrman, you've definitely managed to defuse the politics by talking instead about a vegetable-based diet.

Linda L. - March 28, 2006 10:13 PM

I love this post as well because it is balanced and centered in reality.
However, as a vegan, I disagree that one diet is not greater than the other: A vegan diet encompasses health for us, yes, but also the health of the earth and the health of our fellow beings who share it with us: That's a triple threat. This, I think, does make us healthier -- mentally, physically, and emotionally -- all of which are of greater benefit than merely physically healthy with a diet consisting of a few animal products. We need not only optimal nutrition for optimal health.

marisa - April 12, 2006 10:44 PM

I disagree with the last comment, as someone who has really tried to be vegan or even veg it is not possible for all to do. I like this article because it bioindividuates nutritional needs. And I am not surprised about the fish studies, I have been very doubtful of the mediteranian diet proponents who advocate eating fish. Hello, the oceans are dead and many fish cannot renew their species, so farm fisheries have been the result for the last 10 years or so. Wild fish may be a good choice but not always. I think if people ate less meat of curse and prcessed foods as well, more veges and organically grown everything, would be much healthier for the planet and our body/mind/spirit.

David Shields - July 15, 2006 10:59 AM

The decision to simplify nutritional things into "plants vs. animals" is way too limiting. It skews interpretation of the research results. In the discussion above, no distinction is made between the various types of animal products. In the future, more sophisticated research will begin to give better answers. However, I want to offer some opinions that people can take advantage of right away. Start with a predominantly plant-based whole food diet like Dr. Fuhrman recommends, and add a small amount of clarified butter (ghee) to it. (If you can tolerate milk, consider adding a small amount of non-homogenized whole milk too.) See if you get the needed "boost" in energy or well-being that you think you are missing from not eating meat. I propose that it is not the meat or fish that you are missing from your diet. Take a look at the article on my site for more details.

I would like to hear from people who have earnestly tried healthy vegetarian diets like Dr. Fuhrman's in the past without success. My own experience is that no amount of B-12 or DHA or other vitamin supplementation, no amount of dedication, and no amount of sticking to the best quality whole foods would make the pure vegetarian diet work well - especially for someone who is an athlete or active person. I have seen this hundreds of times in all types of people.

At this point, most people assume that animal protein (specicially meat or fish) is what they need to add to the diet. I want to propose that this is an untested and unproven assumption.

It could be just as likely that micronutrients found in animal fat (specifically butter or cream) are the missing ingredient. It may be instructional to look at old traditions that ate predominantly plant-based diets. The Ayurvedic tradition comes to mind. In this tradition, clarified butter is considered a very important supplement. It is even used as an ingredient in many Ayurvedic herbal supplements. Could it be present for reasons more than as a simple carrier?

Let me hear from you if a vegetarian diet has failed you in spite of your best intentions. How many of you automatically assumed you needed to add poultry, fish or other meat to your diet? If you are willing to try a mostly plant-based diet again, this time try adding ghee (clarified butter) and a bit of non-homogenized whole milk. I propose that you don't need the animal protein, so don't worry about using a lower fat milk - it's more likely that nutrients in the animal fat are what you need a bit more of. I bet you will feel a lot better, and you will still have a diet that meets the guidelines derived from the China Study and the other good research.

David Shields - July 17, 2006 9:19 PM

Is it true that plant foods do not contain Vitamin B12, as Dr. Fuhrman says?

It is not a totally correct, 100% true statement. I go into detail in this article (http://blog.freeradicalfederation.com/archive/2006/07/17/12.aspx). However, Dr. Fuhrman is correct is advising vegans to be cautious.

Vegetarians who have Vitamin B-12 deficiency symptoms must be especially informed about the B-12 analogs that appear in certain plant foods.

Mario Quesada - April 16, 2007 10:17 PM

I didn't read anybody mentionning a raw vegan diet as an alterative.
I'll be brief, I'm vegetarian for more than 23 years, vegan for 8 years and raw-vegan for 4 1/2 years. I'm a fitness instructor and young dance students in their 20 have a hard time following me physicaly.
B12 vitamine can be produced by the intestinal flora if our intestins have a good environment and it can even be produced by bacteria in the gums.
I won't explain much here, but just that cooked vegan food is unhealthy as well as non vegetarian food. But raw food with lots of greens has more nutrients than any of the other diets and ithout the negative consequences.
I know that I'm not giving enough arguments here but just get informed.
If you want more information you can write to me.

Sue Hull - July 4, 2007 5:16 PM

Another thing that I don't think has been studied is the addition of small amounts of meat/fish to a vegan diet such as the one Dr. Fuhrman promotes. Simply studying vegans vs. non-vegetarians really tells us nothing. Both can be equally unhealthy!

And another way to look at is is: Are large amounts of green vegetables, raw and cooked, somehow protective when one also eats small amounts of meat?

I would love to study these questions, but I need more letters after my name! Thanks for letting me add.

Jason - December 13, 2007 1:11 PM

I've been a vegetarian for a year and recently I tried to become more active and have found myself lacking in stamina and endurance. I briefly endulged in some chicken breasts and found that frankly I could not even digest the stuff anymore. So now I'm back to being a vegetarian but am armed with some better knowledge.

I would encourage all veg's especially newcomers to read Ballentine's classic 'A transition to vegetarian'. I realize now that I probably made the transition a bit too abruptly.

I'm getting sick and tired of nutritionalists and others recommending no-fat dairy products to vegetarians for gods sake. I mean we don't eat any meat and virtually no other source of saturated fat and yet we are supposed to eat 'no-fat' dairly products. Give me a break the stuff is toxic. It tastes terrible. If you are big on 'skim-milk' then mix up a whey protein supplement with water. You would probably get a better taste.

I believe that occasionally one has to have some rich foods. For example, I cook my steel-cut oatmeal with part water and part 'whole milk'. Yes I said it 'whole milk'. Ya the kind with 5 grams of saturated fat. I can eat that oatmeal and not be hungry again for 5-6 hours. That sh*t has some staying power.

I'm becoming better educated and starting to feel better as well. The more I learn the more disgusted I am with the typical american diet (that I once ate mind you)!

So to veg's and potential veg's have some eggs and some real milk and yogurt. Even butter is probably o.k. to cook with in extreme moderation.

Charles Corum - January 31, 2008 4:42 AM

I was a strict vegetarian for almost two years. For me, it was a disaster: my weight went from 190 to 220, my HDL dropped 20 points, my blood glucose went from 75 to 105, and my triglycerides from 110 to 195. I was also eating very little fat at the time, and essentially no saturated fat.

I find I do much better on a Mediterian diet.

leanne - May 21, 2010 10:48 PM

In my 50 yrs of living I have met a lot of very pale vegans with a personality to match. Then one day I watched a dvd called A Delicate Balance. It blew my mind as the research was amazing and the people speaking were either professors scientists or Drs in particular fields. One of the Drs was part of the China Study also. The bottom line was veganism/raw food diet was the only way to be diesease free.I gave up animal flesh and dairy but not eggs and feel great. David Wolfe to me and Dr Fred Bisci are great examples of great health with the vegan/ raw diet.Its called BALANCE

lisa09calgary - July 2, 2011 5:17 PM

Who knows which way of eating is absolutely right? We shouldn't bash Dr. Mercola too much as I believe each race, or culture has it's own best, unique way of eating dictating by genetics. My ancestors were fish and meat eaters, my mom would eat a couple extra pieces of meat for dessert after her meal, besides having devoured half of the families meat as she cooked supper and she was energetic, beautiful, and healthy until dying a few months short of her 90th birthday. My friend who is a daily meditator has been a vegetarian/no sugar/no coffee/non-smoker/non-drinker is in the hospital dying of cancer as I type this and is in his mid 70's. So who knows? And what about all the beef eaters in Argentina -- are they dying young? And the fish eaters in Japan? Are they passing away from diseases young? It's my thought that perhaps we just need to use common sense in North America and eat whole, natural foods and skip all the junk foods, microwaved foods, foods in packages, foods in plastic, over eating, under eating of nutritous vegetables. No matter what we do, eat, or think everyone last one of us is programmed to sooner or later die, there is no other way out of here.

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