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White Meat Myths
In the early 20th century came the belief that we should all eat more protein – in fact, good health depended on generous amounts of the stuff and nothing provided it better than meat.
It was reckoned that hunger and child malnutrition in the developing world was caused by protein deficiency due to a lack of meat. This myth reached epic proportions in the 1960s. A UN report recognised there was worldwide protein deficiency and called for a “global strategy to avert the impending protein crisis”. International aid focused on the so-called ‘protein gap’ and the USA subsidised dried milk powder to provide protein for the world’s poor.
Next came a report on diet and heart disease in 1976 by the Royal College of Physicians which encouraged people to eat white meat rather than red meat on the grounds that it contained less saturated fat and was therefore less damaging to health.
Speed up history to the present day and the shift in nutritional knowledge is astounding. We now know that the average Brit gets far too much protein – it makes up 15 per cent of the daily calorie intake when the maximum needed, according to leading health bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), is only eight per cent.
Most foods can provide us with this eight per cent, the exceptions being fruits (only about five per cent of their energy comes from protein) and most sweets and junk foods. The WHO’s estimate includes a large safety margin so most people’s real needs are even lower than eight per cent.
In truth, the protein gap had disappeared ‘at the stroke of a pen’ in 1969 when researchers concluded that almost all staple foods contain enough protein for our needs.
Good nutritionists know that by not eating meat – or dairy, for that matter – you can obtain plenty of protein, including all the amino acids you need. Get enough calories and you get enough protein!
Protein plays an important role in the body, forming the basis of muscles, hair, nails and collagen – the connective tissue that holds the body together. It also plays a part in regulating the body, causing heart muscle to contract and the body to digest food and is what makes DNA.
To make protein, plants combine sugars, which they make from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water, with nitrogen from the air or soil. The end products are protein building blocks called amino acids (‘amino’ simply means nitrogencontaining). There are 20 or so different amino acids in the body, of which it can make about 11 solely from carbohydrate, fat and nitrogen.
About nine of these amino acids are called ‘essential amino acids’ and these must come from the diet as the body can’t make them. Animal and soya products are sometimes called ‘complete’ proteins as they contain plenty of all of the essential amino acids. Many other plant proteins have relatively low quantities of one or more of the essential amino acids – the socalled ‘limiting’ amino acid. Pulses such as peas, beans and lentils are a major exception to this general rule and contain good amounts of high-quality protein. Nuts and seeds are rich protein sources, too.
almost all staple foods contain enough protein for our needs
There is a persistent myth that vegetarians need to be well educated in order to know which protein foods to choose to make up for the amino acid deficiencies that one food or the other may contain. Research doesn’t support this view and is clear that both vegetarians and omnivores get enough protein, including plenty of the amino acids they need, as long as they are getting enough calories. In fact, almost all foods contain protein.
It’s relatively easy to eat enough protein if you’re a vegetarian and especially so if you choose foods from two or more of these three groups in a given day: wholegrains; pulses; nuts and seeds.
Says Dr Linda Bacon, nutrition lecturer at City College of San Francisco: “Plant products will typically do a better job of meeting your protein needs than animal products, both because they are less concentrated sources of protein, making protein over-consumption less likely, and because they are more likely to be bundled with other great nutrients such as fibre, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and healthy fats.”
Ironically, excess protein is one of today’s big concerns, being linked to kidney disease, osteoporosis, cancers, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Excesses are usually a result of eating too many animal products. Even lean-looking white meats are associated with large amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol – artery-clogging substances that are a main cause of heart disease, kidney failure and stroke as well as many cancers.
Putting these hidden nasties aside, there is strong evidence to suggest that it is excess protein per se which plays a part in all these diseases. There is a compelling case that animal protein alone – ignoring all the other damaging substances that come with it – increases the risk for cancer, clogged arteries (atherosclerosis), crumbly bones (osteoporosis) and type 2 diabetes. Powerful evidence came from the China Study, one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever undertaken to examine the links between diet and disease in people. Big differences in disease rates were seen when the amount of animal-based foods people ate were compared with plant foods.
The average Westerner gets well in excess of their protein needs. British men eat on average 88.2 grams a day, and women 63.7 grams – both getting around double (15 per cent) the WHO’s recommendation of eight per cent of calorie intake from protein. The WHO suggests that protein deficiency is highly improbable in industrialised countries.
Worryingly, an average portion of chicken or turkey meat weighing 100g (3.5oz) provides roughly half a woman’s daily protein requirement and almost half a man’s!
White meat is seen as, and often promoted by producers as being, a low-fat, healthy food. It isn’t even close to being so. Chicken and all meats are muscles, which are made of protein and fat.
Average raw chicken meat is 17.5 per cent fat, rising to 38.1 per cent when roasted. Raw turkey is 13.7 per cent fat in terms of calories. Nearly half of the calories in roast duck come from fat – and that’s only when the skin and excess fat are discarded. Without that, 80 per cent of calories come from fat! Roast goose is not far behind at 63 per cent of calories. This compares with one per cent fat in a baked potato and four per cent in baked beans.
In fact, meat and meat products, including chicken and turkey in all their guises, are the leading source of fat in our diet, including the equally unhealthy trans fats. Not only are we eating meat in unprecedented amounts (see Figure 1) but modern farming methods have ensured that its fat content has doubled.
Professor Michael Crawford of London Metropolitan University found that chicken contains as much fat, gram for gram, as a Big Mac. He analysed chicken thigh meat from several supermarkets – even organic suppliers – and found they contain more than twice as much fat as they did back in 1940, a third more calories and a third less protein. Someone eating a 100 gram portion of chicken would get 207 calories from fat and only 64 from protein – and this wasn’t the breadcrumbed type which is even higher in fat.
A medium-sized chicken contains almost a pint of fat
Even organic chickens didn’t do much better – 154 kilocalories from fat and 74 from protein. This is probably because, despite having more space than factory-farmed chickens, organic birds are on the same regime of high-energy feed, little exercise and being bred for rapid weight gain.
Says Professor Crawford: “This focus on rapid growth has changed the lipid [fat] composition of the chicken meat itself, and you cannot escape that – even by removing the skin and scraping away the subcutaneous fat stuck to the meat.”
The team also found that a medium-sized chicken contains almost a pint of fat!
Researchers at the American Cancer Society followed more than 75,000 people for a decade to find out what is was that caused their weight loss and weight gain. High meat consumption was the food most responsible for their putting on weight. Both men and women who had more than a single serving of meat a day showed a 50 per cent increase in ‘abdominal obesity’ – they put on the pounds around their middles.
From the 1980s onwards, it became common for butchers and processors to trim from meat any visible fat as part of the demand for leaner meat. It didn’t have much effect as people’s fat intake from meat has dropped by a mere five per cent since 1983!
Amazingly, turkey is listed as a superfood in Dr Steven Pratt’s book, Superfoods: 14 Foods That Will Change Your Life. Turkey makes the top 14, along with tomatoes, broccoli, beans, blueberries, tea, oats, pumpkin, yoghurt, walnuts, spinach, salmon, soya and oranges.
Dr Pratt favours turkey because it is the ‘leanest meat source of protein’. However, this position has more qualifications than a university. Readers are advised to eat skinless breast meat only (no more than three to four servings a week), don’t buy self-basting birds as they may contain damaging ‘partially hydrogenated oils’ and only eat ground turkey (minced) that’s labelled 99 per cent fat free!
Even those who have the discipline to stick to the 3-4 ounce portion limit – about the size of a pack of cards – will be ingesting 100 milligrams of cholesterol with each portion – the same as beef – along with a scattering of harmful trans fatty acids.
Cholesterol from white meat does just as good a job at clogging arteries and causing heart disease as any other cholesterol (see The Effect of White Meat on Cholesterol, page 11). The human body produces cholesterol on its own and never needs outside sources. All plant foods are cholesterol-free!
While metaphorically patting turkey protein on the back with one hand, Dr Pratt assassinates it with the other, cautioning against too much animal protein. Excess can lead to a loss of calcium and an increased risk of osteoporosis, kidney damage, raised blood cholesterol levels, heart disease and increased production of the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) – which is thought to boost the growth of cancer cells (see Protein Over-consumption – the Hazards, page 6).
What’s enough? A meagre 45 to 55.5 grams a day and you don’t need to eat any meat or dairy to achieve it, there’s plenty in plant foods.
Despite these hazards, Dr Pratt’s support for white meat is based on it containing some vitamins and minerals such as niacin, vitamins B6 and B12, iron, selenium and zinc. But it certainly has no monopoly on them. Mixed nuts, cereal grains, yeast extracts, vegetables and fruits are all useful sources of these nutrients but without the potential for harmful side effects. It’s even been shown that B12 in fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals, is more easily absorbed than B12 in meat, poultry and fish – particularly for the elderly. This is why the National Academy of Sciences in the USA advises adults aged 50 and over to obtain most of their B12 from fortified foods. It’s pretty good advice for younger adults as well.
All plant foods are cholesterol-free
This begs the question: what is missing from white meat? It has no fibre, complex carbohydrates or vitamin C. Fibre cleanses the digestive tract, keeping bowels healthy and regular, slows the absorption of sugar and fat, carries away excess hormones from the blood and lowers cholesterol.
Complex carbohydrates, found only in plants, are relatively low in calories and boost metabolism. Vitamin C is an antioxidant and is involved in immunity, wound healing and the formation of collagen in skin, tendons and bones. When white meat takes the place of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and pulses you get less vitamins, less fibre, and unwanted dietary fat and cholesterol.
There is a persistent myth that meat is essential for growing children – perhaps more so than for adults. In reality, children of all ages can thrive on a lower concentration of protein in their diets than adults!
One of the main causes of death in children in developing countries is from something called protein-energy malnutrition. It usually develops in those who get too little protein and energy – and these deficiencies tend to go hand-in-hand. Diets that contain enough energy (calories) typically contain plenty of protein (see Origins of the Protein Gap, page 4).
The real problem is usually quantity rather than quality. Wartime studies in the UK found that orphanage children grew faster than the general population when they ate a bread-based diet with only a small fraction (14 per cent) of their protein coming from milk products. These children grew no faster when nearly half their protein was from milk! Bread provided the children with plenty of energy to support their growth, whilst meeting more than double their protein needs.
Protein is the most filling nutrient of all which is why highprotein diets such as Atkins came into being. But there’s no absolute proof that it’s protein per se that’s responsible for weight loss on these diets – monotony and boredom from the tight restrictions on what you can eat and ‘ketosis’ may play a part.
Ketosis happens when the body is short of glucose, the fuel needed to power the breakdown of body fat. Lacking glucose, the liver releases acidic substances (ketones) into the blood, much as happens in type 2 diabetes. But studies have shown that ketosis is unrelated to weight loss. In other words, low-carb diets do not trigger weight loss any more effectively than low-fat, vegetarian diets do.
While a few studies show that high protein, lowcarbohydrate diets do produce some weight loss early on, the long-term health consequences can be very serious.
Most of these diets contain less than 10 per cent carbohydrates, 25 to 35 per cent protein and 55 to 65 per cent fat. Protein comes mostly from meat, meat products and dairy, which are high in unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol. As they contain so much more fat than protein, a better name would be ‘high-fat’ diets.
Over 400 people who followed one of these diets listed their health problems using an online registry.They included constipation, loss of energy, bad breath, difficulty concentrating, kidney and heart problems, including heart attack, bypass surgery, irregular heart beat (arrhythmia) and raised cholesterol.
Of course, plants also contain protein but plants rich in vegetable protein are low in the harmful saturated fat that increases the risk of heart problems. Good protein sources include pulses such as baked beans, peas, lentils and soya products, grains, nuts and seeds.They have the added bonus of being rich in fibre and eating two to three servings of these foods each day is recommended.
A low-fat veggie diet is a successful aid to weight loss. Try the VVF’s V-Plan Diet – order from www.vvf.org.uk/shop or by calling 0117 970 5190 (Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm).
In 2007, the USA organisation, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, filed a lawsuit against seven high street restaurant chains over carcinogens in grilled chicken.
Called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), these hazardous chemicals are directly linked to cancer in humans. They arise during the cooking of many meats, including chicken, beef, pork and even fish. In January 2005, they were officially added to the USA federal government’s list of known carcinogens.
HCAs form when sugars, creatine – a chemical found mostly in muscle – and amino acids are heated during cooking. These are all naturally present in meats. Some of the highest concentrations are in grilled meat – especially chicken – which contains more than 10 times the amount in grilled beef. Frying can also produce large amounts of HCAs.
As creatine is found mostly in muscle tissue, grilled plant foods such as veggie burgers, veggie sausages or portabello mushrooms tend to contain either no HCAs or negligible levels.
HCAs can bind directly to human DNA, causing mutation and initiating cancer. One common HCA, called PhIP, has been shown to damage DNA even at the low concentrations found in home cooking. Alarmingly, the pan scrapings often used for gravy contain up to 500 parts per billion of PhIP – hundreds of times higher than the concentration in meat!
According to Dr Michael Greger, GP, author and a founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine: “There does not seem to be a way to cook meat to an internal temperature necessary to kill off [food poisoning] bacteria without producing at least some carcinogenic compounds. And even low doses have been shown to cause human DNA mutations which could lead to cancer.”
Cholesterol is a type of lipid (fat) called a sterol made by the liver and present in every cell in an animal’s body, including human animals. It is found only in foods of animal origin – white meat, fish, eggs, and every other meat and dairy product. Foods from plants – all types of fruits and vegetables, pulses, wholegrains, nuts and seeds – are cholesterol-free.
Our livers make all the cholesterol we need – approximately 1,000 milligrams per day – and it is used in the manufacture of hormones and cell membranes and in other parts of the body. It follows that we have no need for cholesterol in our diet at all.
Cholesterol can’t be avoided by choosing lean cuts of meat as it’s mainly found in the lean parts. Neither is white meat lower in cholesterol than red meat as chicken contains as much cholesterol as beef. One small, grilled, skinless chicken breast contains around 100 milligrams of cholesterol – an amount that can add roughly 0.13 mmol/L (or 5 mg/dL) to your cholesterol level!
Animal products also contain saturated fat which causes our livers to manufacture even more cholesterol. Unsaturated fats don’t have this effect.
Despite a welter of evidence that a vegetarian diet is the best way to avoid high cholesterol levels and the diseases which go with them, official advice, amazingly, is not to go vegetarian.
But to switch to a lower fat diet – avoiding fatty cuts of red meat, eating white meat and fish and ditching butter for margarine.
Dr Neal Barnard, president and founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, states that: “…chicken-and-fish diets are not low enough in fat or cholesterol to do what vegetarian diets can… The leanest beef is about 28 per cent fat as a percentage of calories. The leanest chicken is not much different, at about 23 per cent fat.
Fish vary but all have cholesterol and more fat than is found in typical beans, vegetables, grains, and fruits, virtually all of which are well under 10 per cent fat.
“So, while white-meat diets lower cholesterol levels by only about five per cent, meatless diets have three to four times more cholesterol-lowering power, allowing the arteries to the heart to reopen.”
When certain foods are digested, acids are released into the blood. The body attempts to neutralise this acidity by drawing calcium from the bones. This calcium is then excreted in the urine (the calciuric response).
The sulphur in high-protein foods such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products is metabolised into sulphuric acid which can cause this acidifying process. Meat and eggs contain more sulphurcontaining amino acids than plant foods – up to five times more. As the sulphur content of the diet increases, so does the level of calcium in the urine. Research suggests that animal protein increases the risk of uric acid stones.
The calciuric response may also be a risk factor for the development of osteoporosis. The traditional Inuit (or Eskimo) diet is made up almost entirely of animal protein. Inuits have one of the highest calcium intakes in the world, hitting as much as 2,500 milligrams per day depending on whether they eat whole fish, including the bones, or not. They also have a high rate of osteoporosis; even higher than white Americans.
How much protein and its type can affect bone-mineral loss in post-menopausal women. The first real evidence came from Andrews University in the USA in a survey of 1,600 women, where meat eaters (omnivores) experienced almost double the bone loss of vegetarian women.
It’s estimated that people’s consumption of acid-producing protein has increased by 50 per cent over the past 40 years and this includes chicken and turkey which are both acidforming foods. Over time, high-protein diets – especially meat- and cheese-based diets – lead to a decrease in bone density.
The good news is that vegetarian diets based on protein from pulses, cereals and other plant foods produce much less acid than mixed meat and vegetable diets – even when the total protein content of the diets are the same. Plant-based diets often produce no unwanted acid or alkaline residues.
In her book, The Chemistry of Success, Dr Susan Lark links an acidic diet to a range of inflammatory conditions:
“As we age, our ability to maintain a slightly alkaline balance in our cells and tissues diminishes… Maintaining the cells and tissues of the body in their healthy, slightly alkaline state helps to prevent inflammation… Overacidity promotes the onset of painful and disabling inflammatory conditions as diverse as… rheumatoid arthritis and interstitial cystitis.”
Fake meats made from wheat gluten have been used in the Orient for hundreds of years at least, partly because the Buddhist tradition used meat substitutes to cater for vegetarian monks.
Gluten is a fairly pure, minimally processed food. It’s also a good source of protein, relatively low in fat and cholesterol-free. Seitan (pronounced ‘say-tan’) is another name for gluten and is available in jars from health stores, such as Yakso or Vegetalia brands, both organic. Vegetarian chicken and duck (gluten) are available in tins from Chinese or similar supermarkets at less than half the price, but aren’t organic. Companion and Mong Lee Shang are the most common brands. They may have a Chinese name but will also be labelled as ‘vegetarian mock chicken’ or ‘vegetarian duck’ or ‘gluten’. As you’ll see in the recipes which follow, gluten is an excellent white meat replacement in just about everything.
TVP (textured vegetable protein) is available in chunky pieces. It’s a good, very economical white meat substitute, particularly in curries and stews. TVP is also available in mince form. Both varieties can be found in large supermarkets and health stores. For best results, soak the chunks in very hot vegan stock until softened. Drain and use in the recipe as instructed. The stock can be re-used in soup or other dishes.
On the Curds
Tofu (or bean curd). The plain variety is a very pure food which is available from large supermarkets and health stores. Health stores increasingly sell other flavours, too. (Taifun brand is particularly good.) It’s often organic and is very good in stir-fries, salads and other dishes. The ready-made deep-fried pieces (eg Cauldron brand) have a slightly more chewy texture and are usually popular with ‘tofu virgins’! Plain tofu is bland but absorbs other flavours very well.
Thai Taste green or red curry paste is our current favourite. Not only does it taste very good, but it is also easily available in large branches of Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury, as well as delis and health stores. And of course, it’s suitable for vegans and vegetarians – unlike some Thai products, it doesn’t include fish sauce.
You may well have your own fantastic curry sauce recipe – however, for those busy nights, we’ve recommended Meridian sauces which are all vegan and readily available in free-from sections in large supermarkets or in health stores. We’ve also listed a few other animalfree curry sauces at the end of the recipe, but do check with your local shop/supermarket, as they may have a list including other suitable products.
Food to go: these recipes are not only delicious and healthy, but much cheaper than buying ready-mades at the local sarnie shop!
Creamy Mock Chicken, Avocado & Tomato Wraps
Coronation Salad Sandwich
Tasty Tofu Salad
Mock Chicken in Mushroom & White Wine Sauce
Mock Duck Pancakes
Quick Thai Curry
Mock Chicken Satay
Mock Chicken & Cauliflower Curry with Pilau Rice
Mock Duck à L’Orange with Steamed Broccoli
Luxury Festive Roast
Chestnut Paté en Crôute
Serve with Neeps & Tatties
Neeps & Tatties
Red Wine & Porcini Mushoom Gravy