Where’s the Beef (from)?

By: Dr. Michael S. Fenster, MD, F.A.C.C., IACP

For many years I have preached the Grassroots Gourmet Gospel about eating fresh and avoiding adulterated products, yet many people are still unaware that this goes beyond simply avoiding fast food or junk food. Simply because something is purchased at a supermarket does not mean it is free from prior manipulation. The act of altering foodstuffs by adding or subtracting compounds and/or altering the form of the food by cooking, irradiating or freezing has some effects. The vast majority of these effects may be negligible, some only have significance with long cumulative exposure or critical combination, and others are altered, for better or worse, by a tincture of time. Other effects may only manifest in the setting of susceptible genetics or physiology. These are the great unknowns regarding the Law of Unintended Consequences. What is clear is that the variables and thus the results operate in equations much more complex than simple addition and subtraction.

It is also an oversimplification to label groups of foods as simply good or bad. Red meat, as a group, contains the entire gamut of possibilities. There are fresh lean game cuts and grass fed free range beef steaks. At the other end there are industrialized, geometrically, symmetrically processed patties with a list of additives longer than Keith Richards’ toxicology report. As a chef and an interventional cardiologist, I am often asked my opinion about red meat consumption. My choices are driven by my taste buds and several million years of evolutionary hardwiring. Yet I find adjudication for these choices within the halls of medical science. As an example, several recent studies, including a meta-analysis comprising over a million participants worldwide performed by Harvard, have failed to demonstrate a correlation between consumption of fresh red meat and increased cardiovascular risk. However, there did appear to be increased cardiovascular risk and an increased risk of developing diabetes when highly processed meat products were regularly consumed.

Why? How? Is there a difference?  Isn’t eating any red meat the cardiovascular equivalent of an improvised explosive device in your coronary artery? The answer is there appears to be major differences between types of meat. It’s time we moved beyond bovine bigotry by regarding all red meat as a single class of foodstuffs. It’s like lumping a Pinto and a Ferrari together as simply “cars”.

The largest study to date examining red meat consumption and stroke risk was recently published. Over 40,000 Swedish men aged 45-79 were studied over a ten year period. The researchers found that consumption “of processed meat, but not of fresh red meat, was positively associated with risk of stroke.”  The increased risk was over twenty percent. Dr. Robert Eckel, a Professor of Medicine at The University of Colorado and a past President of The American Heart Association also noted that the group with the highest intake of processed meat in the Swedish study also had a healthier diet overall, including more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. He commented that this “suggests that the effects of processed meat may confound the benefit of a heart-healthy diet."

This study follows on the heels of a very large and interesting study demonstrating the increased cardiovascular risk when the dietary ratio of sodium to potassium is greater than one. This may explain why previous studies have failed to definitively link increased absolute amounts of sodium to cardiovascular morbidity and mortality. The effect may lie in ratio, not absolutes. The processing of a piece of fresh pork, with a sodium to potassium ratio less than one, to produce a slice of ham (even low-fat ham) inverts that ratio.

Fresh grass-fed, naturally raised meat also tends to have a lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. This resembles the ratio found in meat from wild game. The typical Western diet has a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the range of 15-17:1. While the ideal ratio is unknown, estimates place it in the 1:1 or 2-3:1 range. Meat produced by industrial means tends to have a significantly elevated ratio. The causative possibilities are intriguing, but the important question remains:

Where’s the beef from?

If it’s from a place that comes from the heart, then you know it’s good for yours.

-Dr. Mike, The Grassroots Gourmet
(Dr. Michael S. Fenster, MD, F.A.C.C., IACP)


For more information visit www.whatscookingwithdoc.com and check out the upcoming book, Eating Well, Living Better: A Grassroots Gourmet Guide to Good Health and Great Food (January 2012, Rowman and Littlefield) available for pre-order at Amazon and other fine book retailers.