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Jo Robinson is a bestselling investigative journalist who has spent the past 15 years examining how we can restore vital nutrients to our foods. Her insights into the benefits of raising animals on pasture have been featured in numerous magazines, newspapers, and radio shows, and are reflected in her website, www.eatwild.com. She is the author of Pasture Perfect and Why Grassfed Is Best! Her newest book, Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, explores the health benefits of eating select fruits and vegetables that come closest to the nutritional content of wild plants.
Yaakov Levine: How did you first get interested in the subject of raising animals on pasture?
Jo Robinson: While researching the book Omega Diet in the 1990s, I came across a study from a British researcher who compared the fatty acid content of feedlot meat to that of wild game. The study showed that these two types of meat were very different from each other, in terms of the amount of fat they contained and their ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Since I had been doing research on health benefits of omega-3s and I saw that there was so much more of them in wild game, I thought I would look into this. I discovered that when you raise cattle on pasture, their meat is very similar to that of wild game, which is much healthier for us than the meat of animals raised in industrial feedlots. I asked myself, what are other key differences between grassfed meat and feedlot meat? That led to a ten-year exploration of the scientific literature, learning more and more about the benefits of raising animals on a natural diet – what it does for the animals, the people who consume them, the farmers who raise them, and the environment. That one British study inspired the research I have done for many years!
YL: Why are grassfed meat, milk, and eggs better than their factory-farmed counterparts?
JR: These are three different foods, but they have certain things in common. Grassfed meat is higher in omega-3s, lower in omega-6s, and higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) – the cancer-fighting fatty acid – than grainfed meat. It is also higher in antioxidants and lower in calories and total fat. As a whole package, it is much less likely to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease than meat from animals raised in feedlots. Grassfed milk products also have a much healthier ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s than grainfed ones, as well as more vitamin E and other antioxidants, and far more CLA. Eggs from pastured hens can contain as much as ten times the omega-3s found in eggs from factory-raised hens.
Pastured cows foraging on grass are much healthier, they live much longer, and they don’t have the diseases common to feedlot cattle, since they have fewer environmental stresses and are eating the food they are designed to eat. When we drink their milk and eat their meat, we are eating the food we are designed to eat.
YL: Your website, www.eatwild.com, is a great resource for information on grassfed meat. Can you tell us how it came to be and describe its purpose?
JR: From early on, my research was about the wild diet in its totality, but the work I did in the late 1990s about the benefits of raising animals on pasture generated so much interest that I stayed on that path for years. I looked at well over 1000 studies, and wanted to make what I learned available to the public. I also wanted to locate local sources of grassfed products. When I started my investigation, I conducted a nationwide search for producers of grassfed meat who were selling it to the public. I advertised in magazines and newspapers, and came up with only 50 ranchers across the country who were doing this.
I started talking with ranchers about the benefits of raising animals on pasture in 1999. At my first talk, I believe there were 400 beef ranchers in attendance, and their response to the information was amazing. They were raising their cows on grass and then sending them to feedlots to be fattened up on grain, soy, and other supplements. They began to say, “Hey, we already have the pasture and we have the cows. What if we start holding back some of these cattle and raise them to maturity on grass because this lady says that pastured meat is better for us to eat, it’s better for the environment, and it’s better for the animals? Let’s give it a try.”
One of my website’s main functions has always been to connect consumers with producers of grassfed meat. We started out with those 50 ranchers, and our numbers grew year by year as more ranchers came on-line, offering meat from grassfed cattle, sheep, lamb, bison, and poultry, as well as eggs from pastured hens and dairy products from grassfed cows. The ranchers do not treat their livestock with hormones or feed them growth-promoting additives, so the animals grow at a natural pace. The animals live low-stress lives, and are so healthy that there is no reason to treat them with antibiotics or other drugs. By now, we have 1600 listings, and we are adding more every week.
YL: There is a lot of media buzz about the recent study published in Nature Medicine showing that intestinal microbes metabolize L-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, into trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), which can increase the risk of atherosclerosis. What would you say to concerned meat lovers about this?
JR: Most people who lived off the land thousands of years ago consumed significant amounts of red meat. Physical exams of present-day hunter-gatherers who also consume large amounts of wild game show that they have almost no cardiovascular disease, cancer, or hypertension. They are not diabetic or obese. So the question is: What is different about the meat that we eat today – and our total diet – compared to that of the hunter-gatherers? Even though the researchers showed an impressive correlation between carnitine and heart disease, all the existing evidence shows that it is true only for people eating our modern diet, not our original diet.
This study makes me wonder even more how our modern diet affects us. You can’t just look at the meat that we eat, you have to look at what we eat with the meat compared with what we used to eat as hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors consumed wild plants that were very high in antioxidants compared with the fruits and vegetables in our stores. A few studies have shown that eating high-antioxidant foods along with feedlot meat reduces some of its negative health effects. For example, nitrosamines found in overcooked beef can cause DNA damage – but one study determined that eating spinach or other high-antioxidant greens along with the meat greatly reduced the amount of damage. Heme iron, which is high in red meat, can irritate the lining of the colon and help create conditions conducive to cancer, but if you eat a high-antioxidant food along with the meat, there is less irritation. As hunter-gatherers, we ate meat that was less likely to cause cardiovascular disease, and we accompanied it with plants that had an estimated 2 to 50 times more antioxidants than those we eat today. For optimum health, we need to find food that has more of the nutritional profile of wild game and plants.
YL: What have you heard from others about the study?
JR: I have seen what is in the press, which is basically: “It’s another nail in the coffin for red meat; we really can’t eat that now!” The people who write the newspaper and magazine articles do not see food in a historical context; they don’t know about the differences between what we eat today and our hunter-gatherer diet. They don’t know that eating high-antioxidant fruits and vegetables can counteract some of the negative effects of consuming red meat. The same can be said for most researchers and health care practitioners.
YL: Researcher Chris Masterjohn, PhD, has written a response to the study, stating that carrots, peas, peanuts, potatoes, soybeans, and tomatoes generate more TMAO than beef does. Would you comment on this?
JR: All of these foods were part of various traditional diets that supported health, so there is something at work in those diets that prevented people from having heart disease. The premise of my new book, Eating on the Wild Side, is that we have been breeding out the polyphenol antioxidants from our diet for 10,000 years, ever since we turned our backs on our wild diet and became farmers. The lack of those antioxidants and other phytonutrients has made us more vulnerable to all the diseases of civilization. You can’t just eat any fruits and vegetables if you want optimal health; you have to eat those that have retained more of the wild plant nutrients. Fortunately, I’ve been able to identify dozens of these fruits and vegetables in supermarkets and farmers markets. You just need to know which ones to choose.
YL: Chris Masterjohn also noted that consumption of seafood increases TMAO levels at a much greater level than red meat, although studies show that seafood consumption decreases the incidence of cardiovascular disease. What do you think about this?
JR: As hunter-gatherers, we went for food that was easy to catch, and we ate lots of it. Very early on, we developed ways to catch fish in nets. The hunter-gatherers of the Pacific Northwest had a multitude of clever ways to gather fish; they dried the fish on huge racks and ate it year round – and it appears that they were in good health until the Europeans came along and gave them infectious diseases.
The Inuit in Canada are a good example of people who consumed a lot of fish and sea mammals and were in excellent health. In the 1960s, two researchers visited them and found that 60 percent of their calories came from seafood. They were also eating tundra berries and seaweed, as well as the entrails of animals – which would have contained a lot of greens. Much to the surprise of the researchers, there was no cardiovascular disease among these people. They even searched hospital records and found no evidence of a heart attack or advanced cardiovascular disease among thousands of Inuit.
I don’t think we should worry about short-term studies of individual nutrients found in meat and fish that might have a connection with disease, when we know that there are traditional diets that were high in red meat and/or seafood that did not lead to health problems.
YL: The TMAO study only lasted three weeks. Does this raise questions as to the long-term validity of its conclusions?
JR: Yes, especially when you compare it to the counterevidence of our more than 100,000 year history of being on a hunter-gatherer diet. We have evidence that the kinds of meat and plant food that we ate as hunter-gatherers resulted in an extremely low incidence of diabetes, obesity, and atherosclerosis. This is from an analysis of over 50 hunter-gatherer tribes that have survived to the present day. Members of these tribes were given physical exams by physicians, and the results showed that they had low blood pressure and low cholesterol, even in old age. Cancer was non-existent.
All of this suggests that we are setting our health standards way too low. We think that reducing the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes by 20 or 30 percent is commendable, but if we were to adopt more of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we might be able to eliminate them. They are not an intrinsic part of the human condition but an artifact of the kind of diet and lifestyle that we have created. If we go back and start recapturing some of the nutrients that were formerly part of our diet, we have the potential to be the healthiest people who have ever walked this planet – healthier even than the hunter-gatherers because we have so many modern medical advances, such as excellent surgery for trauma-related injuries. That’s the possibility that is in front of us, now that we are gaining an understanding of all the nutrients we have lost and where we can find them in our present culture.
YL: Do you have any closing words about grassfed meat?
JR: The reason grassfed meat is so great for us is that it is so close to wild meat. It’s one of the foods that our bodies are designed to eat and that we can thrive on. We were on a wild diet for millennia, and the people who survived were ideally suited to eating this diet. Although some people have evolved to be able to eat a few things that we could not eat before, we were profoundly shaped by the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We have changed our diet so radically that our food is no longer good for us, because it does not fit our physiology. I am convinced that grassfed meat is the way to go, and that we should also eat fruits and vegetables that come close to the nutritional profile of wild plants.
About the Author
Yaakov Levine, NTP, is a Nutritional Therapist with offices in Eugene, Oregon. He received his certification from the Nutritional Therapy Association. He has a healthy lifestyle column in the weekly Springfield Times and Creswell Chronicle, and writes for several alternative health journals. Yaakov can be reached at [email protected] or 541-895-2427, or readers can send him a tweet @yaakovntp.
The TMAO Controversy: Solid Science or Media Hype?
A recent study investigating the effects of dietary L-carnitine found in red meat was published this spring in the journal Nature Medicine. Lead investigator Stanley L. Hazen, MD, PhD, and colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic (in Cleveland, Ohio) concluded that dietary carnitine is metabolized by intestinal microbes into a compound known as trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), believed to promote atherosclerosis. A 2011 study by the same group concluded that choline—derived from the consumption of foods including red meat, fish, liver, and eggs – is metabolized into TMAO in a similar manner.
In the carnitine study, a small group of human subjects who consumed sirloin steak and a carnitine supplement showed increased TMAO formation, with omnivores evidencing higher TMAO levels than vegans or vegetarians.
When antibiotics were administered for a week prior to carnitine consumption, the increase in TMAO was almost completely suppressed, showing the role of microbes in the TMAO production. The researchers also found that carnitine supplementation of mice raised TMAO levels and increased atherosclerosis – but not when intestinal microbes were suppressed.
Responding to this study, Chris Masterjohn, PhD, states, “The problems with this study and its portrayal in the media are the often-times incomplete reporting of data in the paper and the wild runaway inferences published all over the press, particularly the conclusion that red meat contributes to heart disease by generating TMAO, and the even stranger notion that we should eat less red meat for this reason.” Masterjohn cites a 1999 study that compared 46 foods and found that many commonly eaten vegetables – and, more dramatically, seafoods – resulted in higher levels of TMAO excretion in urine than did beef. He observes, “If the carnitine in red meat were promoting atherosclerosis through its conversion to TMAO…, then red meat should be no more dangerous than potatoes and carrots and the real killer should be seafood.”
According to David Williams, DC, medical researcher and biochemist, “This small study has been hyped into fear-mongering headlines that have no basis.” He points out, “This study involved only six people and some mice. Most of the data and conclusions came from the mice, which were genetically engineered to develop heart disease.” He also explains that “previous studies have shown that eight ounces of carnitine-rich foods, including red meat, produced no more TMAO than common fruits and vegetables. In fact, one study showed that tomatoes, soybeans, potatoes, peas, peanuts, and cauliflower produced more TMAO than beef.”
In his rejoinder to this study, cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, MD, suggests that “obviously more research needs to be done when one considers the fact that there have been so many well-designed and replicated studies confirming the efficacy and safety of L-carnitine for human consumption.” Dr. Sinatra has used carnitine as a nutritional supplement in his practice for many years, successfully supporting his patients’ cardiovascular health. He states that “there are multiple human studies confirming the benefits of L-carnitine in documented heart disease, i.e. heart attack, angina, congestive heart failure, and atherosclerotic vessels.”
In a recent interview, Dr. Hazen was asked if the findings from his studies on carnitine and choline had implications for nutrition. He responded, “That was just the media hype; we never really pushed that point at all. We have been focusing on the biochemical determinants of atherosclerosis and following where the chemistry and biology lead us, and it happened that some compounds involved are part of the foods we eat on a regular basis.” He later added, “Our approach is not to say or not to make recommendations on different food choices; instead it is to determine what the pathway is.”
-Yaakov Levine, NTP
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- Koeth RA,Wang Z, Levison BS, et al. Intestinal microbiota metabolism of l-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, promotes atherosclerosis. Nat Med. 2013:19,576–85.
- Tang WHW, Wang Z, Levison BS, et al. Intestinal microbial metabolism of phosphatidylcholine and cardiovacular risk. N Engl J Med. 2013;368:1575-84.
- Masterjohn C. Does carnitine from red meat contribute to heart disease through intestinal bacterial metabolism to TMAO? Mother Nature Obeyed: A Weston A. Price Blog. http://www.westonaprice.org/blogs/cmasterjohn/2013/04/10/. Posted April 10, 2013.
- Williams D. Eat your meat, take your L-carnitine. Available at: http:// www.drdavidwilliams.com/eat-your-meat-take-your-l-carnitine. Last reviewed June 4, 2013.
- Sinatra S. L-carnitine is not only safe, it’s essential. Available at: http://www.drsinatra.com/l-carnitine-is-not-only-safe-its-essential. Posted April 15, 2013.
- Brookes L. Beef, microbes in the gut, and heart disease: an expert interview with Stanley L. Hazen, MD, PhD. Available at: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/806542. Posted June 19, 2013.
Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Spring 2013 | Volume 37, Number 2
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