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I Eat a Lot of Red Meat and I’ve Never Felt Healthier

January 12, 2021
Photo Credit: Cameron Whitman

Red meat and I were on again-off again for most of my life. It was never that I didn’t love it; I always have, especially beef and lamb. But I’ve also always made an effort to be a healthy eater. And up until about six years ago, I thought eating red meat and being healthy were at odds.

What “Healthy” Looked Like Before

My diet tracked with the conventional wisdom about what we’re supposed to eat: tons of vegetables, plenty of poultry and fish, lots of whole grains and legumes, and little-to-no red meat.

But while my diet was “healthy,” I also had health issues that, looking back, I can’t believe I just accepted. For decades, I suffered from digestive issues, including gastritis and ulcers. None of the specialists I saw ever asked what I was eating; one of them told me I had a “bad stomach.” That was his diagnosis — and I accepted it.

I was also told I was borderline hypoglycemic, since, if I didn’t eat every couple of hours, I got really foggy and light-headed.

I dutifully avoided meat most of the time, but when I did let myself have a steak or a burger, I felt good. Like, really good. At the time I didn’t pay much mind to all that. I figured my cravings for meat, like cravings for Doritos or cake, were unhealthy.

My Nutritional Awakening

Then, about six years ago, while I was the food director at Health magazine, an editor asked me to write about the then-brand-new Bulletproof Diet, which is a paleo diet with an emphasis on eating lots of healthy fats, though it’s not as count-your-macros specific as keto. Around the same time I read Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis. My mind was blown by the idea that wheat could actually be bad for you. My curiosity piqued, I also read The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz. I was well and truly shocked by the thorough evidence she presents that everything we thought we knew about fat is totally wrong.

After decades of avoiding fat and meat, even though I wanted both, and with all of this new-to-me information in my head, I decided to test it out. I went on a two-week elimination diet with the help of a nutritionist. I cut out grains, beans, sugar, coffee (that hurt), soy, corn and a few other things.

It was nothing short of life changing, and that’s not hyperbole. I’ve always been energetic, but when I eliminated those irritants, my energy soared like crazy. And all of my digestive issues disappeared. Just like that. I didn’t have a “bad stomach” (whatever that even means); I was just eating wrong for my body.

What I Learned About Red Meat

During the elimination diet, I craved meat like crazy. All I wanted was a giant ribeye, or a cheeseburger, or bacon. I had craved meat before, but during this elimination period, it felt less like a “want” and more like a “need.” It seemed strange to me, but it turns out it makes sense:

“According to the protein leverage hypothesis, humans and other mammals will seek to eat a certain amount of protein in their daily diet,” explainsDr. Gabrielle Lyon, a New York-based physician with 7 years of nutritional training. “They will keep eating until they reach the right amount.”

And my body wanted more. That week I ate more meat than I had allowed myself to ever before and I felt amazing. Which, in retrospect, also makes sense:

“Red meat—beef, bison, lamb—is highly nutrient dense,” says Dr. Lyon. “It’s high-quality protein because of its bioavailability. Animal protein has the correct percentage of essential to nonessential amino acids, and it has the most bioavailable form of B12, iron, zinc and selenium.

“Plus, protein is necessary for neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine. All of these contribute to mood and energy, and better blood sugar regulation. When you get enough high-quality protein, you don’t go through the ebbs and flows of blood sugar regulation. You’re no longer dependent on your meal-to-meal glucose, instead you train your body to generate its own glucose. Otherwise you’re a slave to your meals, you need each carbohydrate meal to maintain your blood sugar.”

In other words, I wasn’t borderline hypoglycemic before; I just wasn’t eating enough protein.

What Healthy Looks Like Now

My diet has evolved a bit over the last six years. I’ve played around with how much fat I eat vs. protein. I’ve tried to add back some legumes and grains (and found that with very few exceptions, they just don’t work for me). And I’ve been more consistent about eating fermented foods. But one thing has stayed consistent throughout: I eat a lot of high-quality animal products, and I’ve never enjoyed better health. I almost never get colds, I sleep well, I’m building and maintaining lean muscle and I’m annoyingly energetic. And I’m in my late 40s, a time when many of my peers are gaining weight, feeling exhausted, seeing the beginnings of chronic illness.

There’s nothing special about me, I just got curious and then did the work; reading, trying the elimination diet, tweaking, and experimenting. Nutrition is individual and personal, and eating (or abstaining from meat) is individual and personal. I would not tell someone else that they have to eat meat to be healthy. But for me, it is absolutely essential to my good health.

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