The best thing that most people can do for their own health and humanity is don’t eat meat – especially mass-produced meat. Red meat (beef and pork) contains unhealthy saturated fats that cause smoldering inflammation. This can lead to heart attacks, stroke, many types of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, type-2 diabetes and many other health problems. Meat that is produced in concentrated animal feed operations, or CAFOs, is especially bad. Meat products (including chicken and turkey) that are produced in CAFOs are the leading source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can infect and kill people. More importantly, mass-produced meat damages the environment and contributes more to Global Climate Change than any other factor – including transportation and coal-fired power plants.
Animals (especially hogs and cattle) that are in CAFOs spend their entire lives knee-deep in their own fecal material. This is because they consume antibiotics, in a frequently futile attempt to prevent bacterial infection. They are also fed growth hormones, which can be found (along with fecal material) in many types of meat. In the USA, there is another problem that can occur when meat packing plants use undocumented workers to butcher the meat. They work in very tight quarters, while wielding large, dangerous knives – despite a lack of training. Many of these workers are missing parts of their fingers. Some of these parts could end up in the meat being produced. So, there is not only fecal material, but also occasionally human flesh in mass-produced meat.
There is another problem with eating meat. It is often consumed as part of a large meal that includes fattening foods like fried potatoes and sweetened beverages, followed by a delicious, but fattening dessert. That is, social and economic pressures can make the whole meal very unhealthy. Many restaurants in the USA must serve larger portions with many calories in their menu items just to stay competitive with other restaurants. This leaves little or no room for fresh fruits and vegetables that are so important.
Fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grain bread and pasta provide dietary fiber that helps form a healthy gut microbiome (the collection of all the microorganisms in the gut). In contrast, red meat tends to increase the levels of dangerous bacteria like Fusobacterium nucleatum, which causes DNA damage and genomic instability within developing tumors. This type of bacteria stimulates inflammation and can protect tumors from being identified and destroyed by the immune system. This increases the risk of colorectal cancer. On the other hand, vegan and vegetarian diets as well as the Mediterranean diet help build a healthy gut microbiome. This decreases the risk of not just cardiovascular diseases, but also autoimmune diseases and many types of cancer, as well as metabolic syndrome and diseases linked to it, including neurodegenerative diseases. In a study sponsored by Seventh Day Adventists, who preach the values of a vegetarian diet (the Adventist Study-2), vegetarian diets were found to be healthier than those of omnivores.
Four types of vegetarian diets were tested: vegan, lacto-ovo vegetarian, pescovegetarian, and semi-vegetarian. Vegan diets had a unique advantage in that they lowered the incidence of type-2 diabetes and decreased overall mortality. Others found that when people were placed on a 20-day vegan diet that they had lower amounts of unhealthy fecal Lactobacilli and Enterococci, as well as lower concentrations of bile acids and cholesterol. A subsequent study found that both vegans and vegetarians had more healthy bacteria and less unhealthy bacteria when compared to omnivores. Also, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, the most abundant bacterium in the intestines of healthy adults, was more abundant in vegans than in vegetarians. This species has an especially strong protective role in preventing metabolic disease. Its level is lower in people who have intestinal disorders, inflammation, obesity and type-2 diabetes. That is, the gut microbiomes of obese people are quite different than those of healthy, lean people. That is, a high-fiber diet can increase the level of healthy bacteria, while reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, type-2 diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases and obesity. Moreover, the microbiota of obese people is less diverse and has a fewer healthy, but more unhealthy bacteria. This leads to more local and systemic inflammation.
The composition of the gut microbiome can affect one’s susceptibility to many forms of cancer. While an unhealthy gut microbiome can cause diseases, including cancer, a healthy gut microbiome can act as your personal oncologist and help prevent cancer. Bacteria in the gut produce metabolites that help prevent cancer. Non-digestible carbohydrates are fermented by bacteria in the gut to produce the short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Two of the SCFAs, butyrate and propionate, are especially important in preventing cancer, since they decrease the production of pro-inflammatory substances (cytokines) that are secreted by cells in the immune system.
However, one should not confuse SCFAs with other types of dietary fat and remember that not all fats are the same. Such thinking led to the popular misconception that since excess body fat was unhealthy, people should reduce their consumption of dietary fat and cholesterol. So, margarine and partly hydrogenated vegetable oils were thought to be healthier than butter, while few people in the USA (except those of Italian, Greek or other Mediterranean descent) had even heard of olive oil. Being able to afford butter was a sign of affluence. At the same time, the word ‘fat’ was used as a derogatory term to insult people who were obese.
People (especially in the military) were taught that other people became fat because they didn’t have enough self-discipline. They were fat because they ate too much and didn’t exercise enough. In fact, fat is a type of molecule and nutrient, not a description of a person. In fact, nobody is fat. Obese people are not fat, they are obese. This is not due to a personality flaw or a lack of self-discipline. Often it is due to bad advice. That is, a low-fat diet can be deadly. This was shown in the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) of 125 287 participants from 18 countries in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Participants who cut back on fats had far shorter lives than those enjoying plenty of fats, even if they came from butter, cheese and meats. Even though the British National Health Service (NHS) warned people not to eat too much saturated fat, the group that ate little saturated fat had a 13% higher incidence of death. The group that consumed the highest amount of total fat had a 23% lower incidence of death. More importantly, the group that ate the highest amount of carbohydrates had a 28% higher incidence of death. The authors of the study stated that consuming a proper balance of fats and carbohydrates was best for the health of the population. The conclusion was that 35% of all of one’s calories should come from fats. Still, this is an oversimplification. One should consume unsaturated fats – especially omega fats in many types of seafood and plants – and avoid the saturated fats that are in meat.
At the same time, it’s important to remember the first rule of toxicology – the dose is the poison. That is, consuming too much meat and too much saturated fat is unhealthy. Very small amounts of some types of meat might even be healthy – especially if one considers the alternative. This is important when thinking about what types of fruits and vegetables one should eat. You have your choice between either some man-made pesticides or very small parts of insects that can be found on organic fruits and vegetables. Many people would consider the low dose of bug parts to be healthier than consuming pesticides and herbicides.
Still, this begs the question of whether it is healthy to eat seafood and small portions of meat, as part of the Mediterranean diet. This diet also includes olive oil (a source of unsaturated omega fats), red wine in moderation, whole grain bread, beans, fruits, legumes and vegetables. This encourages the growth of healthy bacteria. It also decreases the incidence of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases (like Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and Parkinson’s disease) and many types of cancer, while increasing one’s lifespan. One study done on nonagenarians (average age 93 years) showed that the Mediterranean diet protected them from developing dysfunctional endothelial cells, which can cause heart disease. So, it appears that consuming small portions of meat may not cause serious health problems to many people. Still, seafood, beans and legumes are usually much healthier sources of protein. However, some types of seafood (like tuna) can contain higher amounts of environmental toxins (like mercury) than others. On the other hand, some fish (like Atlantic salmon) are endangered, so it’s bad for the environment and ecosystem to catch and eat them. Instead, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, oysters, mussels, clams, wild Alaskan salmon and responsibly farmed salmon contain fewer toxins and are not endangered species.
There is another part of the Mediterranean diet that is becoming controversial – the consumption of red wine (in moderation). Red wine does contain resveratrol, a healthy dietary antioxidant that activates our own natural Nrf2/ARE antioxidant system. However, there are many other dietary antioxidants that one can consume, without consuming alcohol. Recent reports have shown that no amount of alcohol improves one’s health and overconsumption of alcohol is a major cause of mortality. Still, the consumption of alcohol in moderation is an important part of many cultures and having close, meaningful relationships is essential for human health. So, the decision on whether or not to drink red wine or any other type of alcohol often depends on the needs and desires of each individual and is affected by the social system in which he or she lives.
Unsaturated and omega fatty acids
Dietary fatty acids are produced by the digestion of triglycerides, which by themselves are not acidic. There are no acids in fish oil or fatty fish. Fatty acids contain an acidic hydrogen that is part of a carboxyl group, abbreviated by COOH. By convention, it is carbon number 1. The COOH is bound chemically (covalent bond) to a hydrocarbon chain of other carbons that each have one or more hydrogens attached, abbreviated as -CH2-. All the bonds between the different carbons are single bonds. At the end of the hydrocarbon chain is the last carbon, in a -CH3 group. This is the omega carbon, because omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. If all the carbons in the hydrocarbon chain are saturated with hydrogens, this is a saturated fatty acid. Unsaturated fatty acids have carbons that are not saturated with hydrogens. Instead, there is at least one carbon-carbon double bond, abbreviated as -CH=CH-. In oleic acid, the -CH=CH- bond is nine carbons from the end, so it is an omega-9 fatty acid, also known as an n-9 fatty acid. If there are several -CH=CH- bonds, it is a polyunsaturated fatty acid. When there is a -CH=CH- bond three carbons from the end, it is an omega-3 (or n-3) fatty acid (DHA). DHA is an important and very healthy component of fatty fish and fish oil. About 97% of all the omega-3 fats in the brain are DHA.
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