How was the weekend for you? Mine was kinda tough. Great weather beckoned all weekend, and my paddleboard and I shared mournful glances full of longing, but I was stuck inside working on my talk for the upcoming Ancestral Health Symposium at UCLA. I think it’s going to be a good one, though, so hopefully the work pays off. Okay, enough complaining. It’s Monday, which means another round of questions and answers. This week, we’ve got a pair of scary studies that seem to condemn fat and red meat as the nutritional factors ultimately responsible for all that ails us as a society (what else is new?). I also field a question on teff, a grain used in traditional Ethiopian cooking, from a reader who plans on moving there.
Could you comment on this study? Family members have been smugly forwarding articles about it, and I can’t take it anymore.
Sure. It’s a pretty interesting one. Rats were “sham fed,” which means they were fitted with a tube that kept swallowed food out of the gut. Since the rats could swallow and taste food normally, this allowed the researchers to test whether the food was acting on the gut or on the taste buds. They either got a vanilla Ensure shake, a high sugar drink, a high protein drink, or a high fat drink. Only sham feeding the high fat drink caused a response by the endocannabinoid system. The tongue tasted fat and relayed a message to the brain, which then sent word to the gut to begin producing anandamide, a potent endocannabinoid that attaches to the same receptor sites as the exogenous cannabinoids found in marijuana and, like marijuana, gives us the munchies. Since the endocannabinoids make us feel good, a food that prompts their release is a food that we are driven to eat. That’s why they’re there: to promote certain beneficial behaviors.
Okay, but can this be extrapolated to humans eating a diet of real food? I remain unconvinced. The real kicker lies in the fat that they used – it was corn oil, which is an industrially-produced food high in omega-6 linoleic acid that simply doesn’t appear in nature. If you want to extrapolate the results of this study to humans eating a diet of fried corn chips, Hostess cupcakes, and other seed oil-enriched fare, be my guest. I’d even agree with the possibility that high omega-6 junk food is inducing mindless, endocannabinoid-induced bingeing. But I’m not worried about your butter, your olive oil, or your coconut oil. Each are wildly different foods composed of various fatty acids in varying amounts. Each has a different effect on the animal that consumes it. “Fat” is not a monolith.
I’ve been getting this article emailed to me by multiple people.
What are your thoughts on it?
I’ve seen this floating around, too. It’s nothing new, and I mean that quite literally: this “report” consists of old epidemiological data drawn from pre-existing studies that I’ve probably dissected before. The main thrust of the “Meat Eaters Guide” is the environmental impact of various animal foods – it was put together by the Environmental Working Group, after all – with the “health effects” tacked on.
I have a real problem with the studies that condemn meat, especially red meat, for several reasons:
1. The studies almost invariably conflate red meat, processed meat, and any food that contains meat. The headlines scream “red meat,” but the prose slips in “red and processed meat,” as if the two are interchangeable. So, red meat includes such fare as hot dogs (with white flour buns), hamburgers (with white flour buns), and Oscar Mayer bologna sandwiches. I’ve even seen studies where they include any food that employs meat as “meat,” like pizza (it’s the wafer-thin pepperoni, I guess). When they do make a distinction between fresh red meat (steaks, roasts, stews) and processed “red” meat, things look a whole lot different. Now, why didn’t the EWG include that last study in their report? For an example of what they mean by “meat,” see the photo used in today’s article up above. Is that your idea of eating meat?
2. Since red meat is a reviled, evil food, the people most likely to indulge are also doing loads of other unhealthy things, like smoking, not exercising, eating sugary junk food, eating fast food, and drinking more heavily. Primal folks are an aberration, what with their red meat-eating, heavy thing–lifting, junk food-avoiding ways.
3. They rarely take cooking methods into account. The way you prepare meat can affect its potential for carcinogenicity. Overcooking at high heat is very different from braising at low heat. A burnt sausage is entirely different than a pork shoulder dressed in anti-oxidative herbs and marinated in wine.
4. They ignore the protective, anti-carcinogenic compounds inherent in meat. We know that CLA protects against cancer and we know that carnosine, an amino acid found in red meat, protects against DNA damage. Why are these never mentioned?
5. They conflate CAFO meat with grass-fed meat. The two are not the same. Grass-fed has more minerals, more CLA, and more omega-3 fats… and those are just the differences we know about! That said, I’m not even convinced conventional meat is a big health risk, especially compared to processed meat.
And that’s why I’m not alarmed, and, in my opinion, nor should you be.
My husband and I are planning to move to Ethiopia in a few months. Ethiopian food is served almost ubiquitously with injera, a spongy, sour bread-like substance made from the grain Teff. Where does Teff fall on the “grain continuum”? Just how non-Primal is it? Given how popular Ethiopian food is becoming in the U.S., I would think a post on Teff would be of interest to your readers!
Teff appears to be one of the “better” grains. It contains no gluten (which is the most problematic anti-nutrient), is lower than most grains in phytic acid (which binds to minerals, making them essentially useless when eaten), and its most common incarnation – injera – is always fermented (which breaks down any residual phytic acid load). A quick look around the celiac community finds that teff is pretty popular there. If full-blown celiacs are using it, you can probably get away with some every now and again.
Whenever I eat Ethiopian, I’m the guy who asks if they use real teff flour and if the injera is fermented traditionally. Be aware: many, if not most Ethiopian restaurants now use wheat flour in their injera, since it’s cheaper than pure teff. If you ask, they’ll sometimes have traditional injera made with all teff, so be sure to ask. As teff is more readily available (and cheaper) in Ethiopia, I don’t think you have to worry about sneaky wheat when you’re living there.
So, good for an infrequent cheat, and absolutely essential when eating Ethiopian food (not necessarily because of the taste, although that too, but because the injera is used in place of silverware – to actually pick up and eat the food).
Keep the questions coming, folks. I love to answer them.