Beef and Broccoli

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As a dietitian, I am neither for nor against vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. I have seen too many people take different paths to health to pretend that one road is right for everybody. I am for whatever works for the patient sitting with me at any given time. What I am against though are misleading oversimplifications, such as a meme I saw that posed the question, “Do you really need to eat meat to get protein?” followed by single bites of beef and broccoli and the accompanying statistics that beef contains 6.4 grams of protein per 100 calories in comparison to broccoli, which contains 11.1 grams of protein per 100 calories.

Let’s look closer at the numbers. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, 100 calories worth of raw broccoli contains 8.31 grams of protein (or 6.83 grams if cooked), not the 11.1 grams reported in the above meme, but let us pretend that the protein content in the graphic is correct and go with it. Broccoli is so low in caloric density that it would take eating 3.25 cups of raw broccoli in order to ingest 100 calories of the vegetable. That means that a 150-pound individual, whose protein needs are likely at least 68 grams per day, would need to consume 20 cups or more of raw broccoli in a single day in order to meet his or her protein needs. Good luck.

In comparison, one would only have to consume 1.75 ounces of steak to reach 100 calories. According to the USDA Nutrient Database, that amount of steak would provide 13.66 grams of protein, not the 6.4 grams reported, although I can imagine that variables like the specific cut of beef and utilized preparation method are possible explanations for the two-fold discrepancy. Either way, the math shows that steak is a much more concentrated source of protein than is broccoli.

By showing one bite each of steak and broccoli side by side, the picture leads one to assume that the protein contents being compared are found in those two forkfuls of food. Think of how fast we breeze through our social media feeds. Honestly, how many people do you think pay attention long enough to disconnect the text from the graphics and realize that grams per calorie are being compared, not grams per bite? Conversely, how many viewers do you think take a quick glance and then move on, left only with the false impression that broccoli is a source of concentrated protein?

Changing the illustration to one that shows a piece of steak approximately half the size of a deck of cards next to a pile of raw broccoli almost the size of two Ben & Jerry’s pints would better represent reality, but that would not look so good for the vegan argument. I think we can safely assume that the creators of the meme realized this, hence their decision to instead opt for the misleading fork graphics.

The issue at hand is not one of animal versus vegetable. The point is that in our culture of fast-paced memes, Tweets, headlines, and soundbites, true meaning often gets skewed, either unintentionally or purposefully in order to fit an agenda. Despite the inconvenience of vigilance, taking the time to really consider and understand a post before clicking the share button can spare ourselves and our connections a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding.

Philosophy and Ethics

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The following blog entry appeared as a guest commentary in the Wellesley Townsman on November 14, 2013.

Early Saturday evening, I was driving home from the office after seeing my day’s last patient and the car immediately in front of me struck a deer.  We were in the left lane of a divided highway going east.  The deer ran across the west-bound lanes, jumped over the barrier into our lane, and got hit immediately.  There was nothing the driver could have done to avoid the collision.

While the driver was able to pull over into the breakdown lane, the front side of his vehicle completely demolished, I was stuck in the left lane.  I slammed on my brakes to avoid running over the deer and I put on my hazards in hopes that nobody would crash into me.  Everybody else just kept on driving, and as such I was not able to move over.  I had a close-up view of the deer dying right in front of my car.

The deer tried to get up, which I hoped might signify that it was miraculously okay, but then it fell over and was kicking its legs.  The flailing slowed and became almost nothing.  Eventually there was an opening in the traffic and I was able to pull around the deer.  As I did, I looked out my side window to the animal on the ground just a couple feet away.  It was bleeding profusely from its mouth, still alive, still moving its legs ever so slightly.

I pulled into the breakdown lane and called 911.  In addition to reporting what happened and the exact location, I made a point of telling them that the deer was hurt really badly and needed help.  (The driver who hit the deer, by the way, appeared to be physically fine as he stood outside his car making a phone call of his own.)

After hanging up with 911, I had no idea what to do.  Getting out of my car and going to check on the deer crossed my mind, but the chances that I would get hit by a car myself were high and who knows how an injured wild animal would react to a human approaching it.  Besides, I am not a vet, and even if I was I had no medical supplies of any sort and no way to transport the animal.  In other words, the best I could have done anyway would have been to keep it company.

Feeling completely helpless, I left.  As I drove away, I saw a single police cruiser approaching the scene.  Traffic continued on, squeezing through the bottleneck caused by the dying deer in the road.  (I did later follow up with the police, who termed the deer’s injuries “catastrophic” and confirmed that it did not survive.)  Angry at what I perceived to be an underwhelming response, I thought to myself, “If a human ran out into the road and got hit like that, an ambulance and fire truck would have been here immediately, not just a lone police cruiser, and other drivers wouldn’t be passing by the body like it was nothing more than a nuisance.”  One of my friends who is a veterinarian later explained to me why there was nothing that could have been done to save the animal even if the entire staff of Angell instantaneously arrived on the scene.

When Joanne and I met up at home, she could tell that I had been crying.  We love animals.  Any of you who have seen our waiting room pictures know how important our pet bunny is to us.  Our honeymoon largely revolved around animals: snorkeling with marine life in Fiji, spotting mountain goats, dolphins, seals, and penguins in New Zealand, and getting close up with kangaroos, wallabies, emus, parrots, casuaries, and koalas in Australia.  We like deer too.  Helplessly watching one die in front of me in obvious pain was very, very difficult.

Although I am still am omnivore, my eating pattern has been trending towards vegetarianism in the last few years for reasons that have nothing to do with health benefits or supposed virtue.  At first, I started eating less animal products just because they tend to be more expensive and require more care in food preparation than vegetarian alternatives.

Then ethical questions came into play.  We nearly went to an Italian restaurant once before discovering that they serve rabbit, a decision that is certainly within their rights, but one that we felt we could not support by giving them our business.  From that evolved several questions: Why was I okay eating other animals, but not rabbits?  If I owned a pet fish, would I still eat seafood?  If chickens were cuter, would I still eat poultry?  If I like feeding the pigs at the local farm, what am I doing eating pulled pork sandwiches?  How can I find cows funny, stop to take their picture when I drive by them, and then eat a hamburger as if the patty grew on a tree somewhere?  Given that I criticize steak houses and BBQ joints that decorate with pictures of cows and pigs, respectively, because I do not want to be reminded of what I am really eating, aren’t I just turning a blind eye to reality by seeking out restaurants without such decor?  Where do we each draw the line between the animals we value and protect and those that we are okay sacrificing to feed ourselves in the face of perfectly fine plant-based alternatives?  No answer is right or wrong; these are questions of personal philosophy.

After Saturday’s accident, we went out to dinner as planned to a nearby Greek restaurant that we like.  I ordered a bunch of side dishes: tatziki and pita, butternut squash, and rice pilaf.  Someday, fad-diet aficionados will no doubt focus their fear on protein, just as they once did on fat and now do on “carbs,” but until then I don’t think anybody will deem my meal anything close to balanced.  Still, the idea of ordering my usual Mediterranean salad with a skewer of chicken on it after what I just witnessed felt disgusting.

I tell my patients all the time that they are not lab animals or homework assignments from some nutrition textbook.  Real life is complicated, messy, and far from perfect.  I know all about the advantages of eating meat (complete proteins and essential amino acids, heme iron, zinc, B12, and the like) but being a dietitian and having that knowledge does not make me exempt from the complexities that influence the way we eat.  Our food choices are about way more than just nutrients and calories.

He Said, She Said: Vegetarian vs. Omnivore

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Due in part to the rise and fall of the Atkins diet as well as the current popularity of the paleo diet fad, we frequently receive questions about which is healthier, eating meat or being a vegetarian.

He Said

Eating healthy and eating animals are not mutually-exclusive behaviors.  However, a vegetarian lifestyle offers several advantages compared to living life as an omnivore.

  1. Vegetarian protein sources tend to be lower in saturated fat, the type of fat that experts across the world agree raises the risk of cardiovascular disease.  For example, a three-ounce grilled steak contains approximately five grams of saturated fat while an equivalent serving of tofu has less than half that amount.
  2. Vegetarian sources are much higher in fiber.  One cup of black beans contains 15 grams of fiber, whereas one cup of chicken breast contains none.  Among fiber’s benefits are bowel regularity, cholesterol management, and reduced cardiovascular disease risk.
  3. Vegetarian options are typically cheaper in comparison to meats.  For example, most meat-based burritos with guacamole at Chipotle cost $8.45, while a vegetarian burrito with guacamole is only $6.25.
  4. A vegetarian lifestyle reduces the environmental impact that comes with raising animals for their meat.  According to a 2011 report from the United Nations Environment Programme, “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products.  Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives; people have to eat.  A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”
  5. A vegetarian diet spares the lives of countless animals that would otherwise be slaughtered for their meat.  According to statistics that the USDA released in September, 2,820,000 cattle, 64,500 calves, 9,560,000 pigs, and 208,100 lambs were slaughtered in the month of August alone.

Nothing says one has to declare himself or herself a vegetarian in order to reap these benefits.  Consider incorporating more meatless meals and snacks into your routine in order to improve your health, the environment, and the welfare of animals.

She Said

While vegetarianism definitely can be a very healthy lifestyle, life without meat can come with consequences.

  1. Meat, fish, and poultry are packed with a number of nutrients that are important for the body.  All of them are excellent sources of protein, which is essential for numerous body functions, including building tissues and fortifying the immune system.  While one can get proteins from plant sources, they tend to be less concentrated; that is, you would need a lot more of the plant to get the same amount as found in meat.
  2. Meat also is an important source of iron, which is essential for the formation of red blood cells.  And again, while one can get iron from non-meat sources, it is not as readily absorbed by the body as iron from meat sources.
  3. Finally, vitamin B12, found only in meat, fish and poultry, is essential for a myriad of functions, including cell differentiation and fetal spinal cord formation during pregnancy.  Vegetarians need to be extra careful about getting enough B12, as it can result in a type of anemia.  Most doctors would suggest that those who do not eat any meat, fish or poultry should receive monthly B12 shots administered by a health practitioner.

Bottom line: If you lead a vegetarian lifestyle, you will need to be especially careful about getting enough protein, iron, and B12 in order to be healthy.