Is Meat Unhealthy? Choosing the Right Meat for a Healthy Diet

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As an athlete, you are likely keenly aware of what you eat. After all, each meal can fuel – or counteract – your training. And, for this reason, you probably eat a fair amount of vegetables. Of course, if you’re like most Americans, this might be little more than a hopeful assumption. According to the American Council on Exercise only about 20 percent of American adults actually eat enough greens.

Which is unfortunate for all sorts of reasons. It is worth noting, though, that the most recent version of the US Dietary Guidelines – released in 2015 – recommends a plant-based diet for general health. So, does this mean that the official recommendations rule out meat altogether? Is meat inherently unhealthy? Or is there a way you can continue to fuel your runs with bacon?

Balance and Sustainability

Clearly, this issue is pretty divisive. Looking at the research, the headlines and the recommendations, it’s easy to assume that meat is bad and should therefore be shunned. And, indeed, this is precisely what vegans and vegetarians do.

There is a middle-ground, however. Sometimes called flexitarianism, this semi-vegetarian dietary style relies on plant-based foods as the primary source of energy but does allow for some meat as well. Rather than cutting out an entire class of food, then, flexitarianism simply represents a shift in emphasis. The current dietary guidelines essentially amount to backing this strategy.

But, why? What are the benefits of flexitarianism?

To be fair, vegetarianism is a perfectly healthy option. A well-designed plant-based diet can provide all of the nutrients that you need, although you might need to make a special effort to get enough protein, iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12.

Because meat is a ready supply of these nutrients, though, flexitarianism makes it easier to meet these particular dietary needs. There’s also the issue of preference. You might just really like meat. Which is actually a pretty important point.

In the same way that you will not continue to follow an exercise routine for very long if you hate it, you aren’t likely to stick with a diet that you don’t enjoy. And reaching your athletic goals is all about establishing and maintaining long-term habits. Since flexitarianism is less restrictive then traditional vegetarian diets, then, it could be easier for you to maintain.

Of course, this does not mean that all meat is inherently a good, healthy choice. So, if you do decide to include meat in your diet, what should you know?

Whole Foods

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to pick whole, minimally-processed foods. This same principle applies to meat, as well. For one thing, processed meats – by their very nature – include lots of artificial ingredients which could carry with them a host of harmful side effects. Processed meats, like hot dogs, bacon and ham, have also been associated with a higher risk of developing certain types of cancer.

It is important to point out, though, that no clear cause-and-effect relationship has been clearly shown in the research. Instead, this connection is more likely related to something called a “healthy user bias” – a principle which states that people who participate in one healthy activity are more likely to participate in others. Similarly, individuals who spend their weekends cramming down hot dogs are statistically more like to smoke, drink more and exercise less.

Grass-Fed

Over the past several years, grass-fed beef – and other similar meats – have rapidly gained popularity. Rather than living on a processed or otherwise unnatural diet in crowded feed-lots, these animals are allowed to move and graze freely on their natural food of choice.

When it comes to dietary benefits, though, what’s the difference? Although the research is somewhat controversial, grass-fed beef does appear to have a healthier fat profile than it’s standard counterpart – containing more omega-3 fatty acids and less saturated fat.

Fatty Fish

Although it’s usually separated from “meat,” fish is a protein-rich, healthy option that can easily supplement a plant-based diet. If you pick the right ones, at least.

Unfortunately, many waters are heavily polluted, making the fish caught in them potentially dangerous to eat. A similar effect can also occur in fish farms, where the animals are often kept in unnatural and unsanitary conditions.

But the factors involved in picking a healthy fish run even deeper than that. The more popular fish – like salmon, mahi mahi and tuna – are large predatory species that feed on smaller fish. As a result of their elevated position in the food chain, these species not only contain larger concentrations of mercury but they are also not nearly as sustainable. According to the American Council on Exercise, eating one tuna is equivalent to consuming 100 total pounds of seafood.

For both these health and environmental reasons, you’re much better off staying near the bottom of the food chain. Seafood like sardines, anchovies, clams, trout and even lobster can provide all of the nutrients you need without carrying the negative effects associated with other fish.

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