To the anguish of the nation's cattlemen, five years ago the surgeon general noted that Americans would be healthier if they ate less meat. Last year the American Cancer Institute and the American Heart Assn. supported the surgeon general by telling us to cut back on fatty foods, mentioning meat.
Meat is a major source of fat and cholesterol in our diets, but it's also a major source of blood-building iron.
During every minute of life in a normal human adult, about 150 million red blood cells must be manufactured, released and stocked with iron-rich hemoglobin. That's more than 2 million cells a second and calls for lots of iron, most of it recycled from the 2 million cells that disintegrate each second, so a balance is maintained. But iron losses do occur--especially among women during their reproductive years. And when iron deficiency develops, it produces anemia.
The most recent major iron-status survey of Americans revealed that 6% of teen-age girls and young women have iron-deficiency anemia. That's lower than expected (10% was the incidence in earlier studies) but still too high. Women continue to be the principle victims of iron-deficiency anemia, a condition that causes chronic fatigue.
Nutrition Fairy Tale
Beef is a good source of iron and protein. The notion that beef gives strength, however, is a nutrition fairy tale probably derived from the misconception that because muscles are made of protein, eating beef will promote muscle development and strength. Muscles, in fact, need workouts, not beef-ups.
The nutrition bonus in beef and meat in general is iron. It is present in its greatest concentration in the leanest meat, the kind we ought to be eating rather than high-fat hamburger. Very lean meat, however, tends to be dry and tough. It can be moistened and made easier to chew by being slivered and worked into vegetable dishes, as the Chinese do with stir frying.
Since 1975 beef consumption has fallen by 20%. Back then we ate about 100 pounds per person per year, thanks to feedlot corn-feeding practices that lead to cheap beef and depended on cheap petroleum that will not be available again. A growing source of beef in the future will be grazing cattle, animals eating otherwise unusable foliage or thriving on otherwise unusable land.
Grazing animals convert plant carbohydrates to protein in the productive jungles of their several stomachs as a result of fermentation. In the process resident microorganisms link a compound called urea with sugars to make the amino acids that are absorbed to produce the protein muscle that we then eat.
Tenderize Lean Meat
Producing meat is a slow process and it will always be expensive, but lean meat deserves a place in the week's diet. In an energy- and food-short world, meat products will continue to be available for solid ecological and nutrition considerations. Cattle do not necessarily take land out of edible plant production, and we can derive benefit from the iron and protein they produce. But we must learn to tenderize and moisten it with the slice of knives and the juice of vegetables, rather than the marbling or blending of fat.
A daily serving for people with cholesterol on their minds is usually too much.
Dr. Lawrence Power studied endocrinology and metabolism at the University of Michigan and was on its faculty for five years. He is author of more than 100 health and scientific publications. Questions may be sent to him at P.O. Box 1501, Ann Arbor, Mich. 48106.