Meat: Grows the Brain or Rusts the Body?

Back in the day, in 1946, we were right to
like meat, it was the fun way to get our proteins, it came in cans. Sometimes with a sack of
sauce! And people knew meat was good, but thanks to the American Meat Institute, they
then learned that it was this good. Fast forward to 2019, for one reason or another
various public figures from celebrities, companies and even New York Public Schools want people
eating less meat. There are many studies showing that people who eat more meat seem to have
more heart disease, more diabetes more cancer and other health issues. And when it comes down to the specifics of
why meat is bad, compounds in meat are often investigated – things like heterocyclic amines,
TMAO, Neu5GC, Arachadonic acid, and the list goes on. Too much iron in your blood. In the first Chapter of “Survival of the
Sickest,” Dr. Sharon Moalem tells the story of how long distance runner Aaron Gordon found
himself in a very peculiar situation while training for a 150 mile race across the Sahara
desert. He was tired all the time. His joints hurt and his heart seemed to be skipping beats.
After 3 years of trying to figure out the cause, his doctors found that An abnormal
buildup of iron in his blood and liver was rusting him to death. He had 5 years left
to live. So, the first “bad” compound in meat we’ll
have a look at is heme iron. You may be familiar with news headlines like this: ”Breaking
news linking meat and cancer. The World Health Organization publishing a report on the dangers
of processed and red meat.” The WHO’s IARC report identified heme iron as one of the
suspect compounds in meat. Heme iron is said to increase your risk for heart disease, and
even cancer, particularly colon cancer. But, I think everyone knows that we need iron. The WHO estimates 25% of the population to
be anemic. Plants provide non-heme iron whereas meat
and fish gives us heme-iron which is absorbed much more easily. Depending on the person
and their lifestyle, iron stores can deplete rapidly when you stop ingesting heme iron. Youtuber Liam Thompson tried eating no meat
or fish for one year. Near the end of the first six months, he noticed he was a bit
tired and was requiring more sleep, so he went to get a blood test. The test showed
his iron level had halved. Liam happens to run alot, so his iron requirements are higher,
but in the last 3 months of his diet experiment, despite having taken supplements and using
other strategies for increasing his iron, his iron level halved …again. Sure, iron absorption is great, but what about
cancer? Well, one of the initial studies looking at that idea that heme iron causes cancer,
fed calcium deficient rats a heme iron rich diet and found that indeed these rats developed
precancerous lesions in their colon. …but if you gave these calcium deficient rats some
calcium, they had no such increase in precancerous lesions. There’s another interesting thing
about this study, as it says: “[the rats were] given control diet before being injected
with .dimethylhydrazine (Dimethylhydrazine is a carcinogen, a cancer causing substance).
…We chose to initiate all rats with the carcinogen, [because another study found]
that a [high heme iron diet] does not [cause colon cancer] in rats.” In fact, in that WHO report that told us processed
meat causes cancer, is a study that found that bacon protects against azoxymethane induced
colon cancer. Actually, the report even says “There is inadequate evidence in experimental
animals that red meat or processed meat cause cancer,” “As of this coming September, Meatless mondays
will be in effect in all 1800 New York City public schools. And we are proud of that.” A different WHO report found that globally,
47% of iron deficiencies come from pre-kindergarten children. Unfortunately, iron deficiency anemia
in growing children has been associated with cognitive deficits due to abnormal brain development “Supper time, boys!” “Oh Boy, liver! Iron
helps us play!” Bradley Peterson, director of the Institute
for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in California, wanted to see why
low iron levels in children are correlated with lower IQ and poor concentration. Peterson
and his colleagues used an MRI to see what was happening in the brains of newborn infants
and 40 healthy adolescent mothers — a group known to be at high risk for iron deficiency. The brain images that his team took showed
a correlation between neuron complexity in an infant and the amount of iron in the mother’s
diet, meaning: “The higher the iron intake throughout pregnancy, the more complex the
grey matter [of the brain] was at the time of birth.” Clearly, iron is especially important for
mothers and their children. And, the iron source is very important too. As this paper
explains, “…during pregnancy there appears to be preferential fetal use of maternally
ingested iron derived from a dietary, animal-based heme source…” Unfortunately, it looks like iron supplements
don’t cut it for pregnant women. Despite taking prenatal vitamins with iron, 58% of
the women had iron levels below normal. Due to heme iron’s superior absorption,
this review found that despite heme iron constituting only one third of the iron that is actually
digested, it makes up two thirds of the average person’s total iron stores. This review of 13 studies found that people
who don’t eat meat, people who don’t have a steady supply of heme iron, had consistently
lower levels of iron and had consistently higher rates of anemia – this was especially
the case for women who could become pregnant. OK So what about the iron overloaded guy with
only 5 years to live? The long distance runner Aaron Gordon was suffering from a genetic
condition called “hemochromatosis.” where your body holds onto too much iron. Iron is
good, but we really don’t want our bodies overloaded with it – hemochromatosis causes
various problems like metabolic issues, liver damage, heart palpitations and more. This
condition is found commonly adult men with North or West European ancestry – but around
only 0.5% of those men actually suffer from the condition, though the risk does increase
with age. However, there is evidence that iron accumulates
can accumulate with age, even in people without hemochromatosis genes. Dr. Leo Zacharski says
increasing concentration of body iron is common with aging. Though accumulating too much iron might be
the consequence of an unhealthy lifestyle. There seems to be an association between iron
and obesity. Two studies, one looking at a Japanese population and a Mexican population
found that the body’s storage form of iron, ferritin, correlated with visceral fat and
insulin resistance – two hallmarks of the metabolic syndrome. Paul Adams, professor
of medicine at the University of Western Ontario says “In a large multiethnic population,
the most common causes of elevated ferritin, [the storage form of iron] levels are likely
obesity, inflammation, and daily alcohol consumption.” So, should adult men or post-menopausal women
avoid meat or iron rich plant foods to prevent iron overload just in case? Well, Chris Masterjohn,
PhD in nutritional sciences recommends specifically not to lower iron rich foods in your diet
even if you have hemochromatosis because those foods often have very valuable nutrients packed
with them like copper, zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin B12. Now The reason hemochromatosis is more prevalent
in men is because premenopausal women lose a lot of iron through a natural monthly loss
of blood. The key treatment for people with iron overload is phlebotomy – therapeutic
blood removal or blood donation. So, the rusting long distance runner Aaron Gordon had his
life saved and his health returned to normal with one of the oldest medical practices – blood
letting. But here’s the thing: Why was bloodletting
so popular in so many places for so long? It’s thought to have been around as a medical
practice for as long as 5000 years up until the late 1800’s. In the 18th and 19th century,
pretty much any ailment you had from hypertension to headache to shortness of breath, the cure
would be to bleed you. In the earlier mentioned book, survival of
the sickest, Dr. Moalem says that surely blood letting must have conferred some benefit since
it was so widespread and practiced for so long. In this short book by P.D. Mangan, prefaced
by Dr. Leo Zacharski, he lists various studies on the detrimental effects of excess iron
in people without hemochromatosis, for example studies that show blood donors have lower
rates of heart disease and cancer. One study showed therapeutic blood letting improved
biomarkers for patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition that commonly
appears with diabetes.[R] Maybe all those blood letting patients from
the past didn’t understand what improvements in biomarkers meant, but found that they felt
a little better. So, why wouldn’t the body be adapted to
deal with excess iron? For 99.6% of human’s existence we were hunter
gatherers until we figured out how to do agriculture. And, back when we were still hunter gatherers
we had to have ingested a ton of heme iron in the form of hunted animals. A paper by
Loren Cordain, supported by fossil isotope data, found that a majority of hunter gatherers
were getting 56 to 65% of their nourishment from animal foods with at least 20% of calories
and as much as 50% of their calories coming from animal protein. That’s a lot of heme
iron. So there’s two ideas to consider:
First, it could be the case paleolithic humans were at far higher risk of being low on iron,
so having a mechanism by which the body could dispose of excess iron wouldn’t be worth
having. Being infected by hookworms, roundworms, bacteria like H. Pylori and other pathogens,
getting wounded from accidents or animal attacks, ticks, leeches and so on would all be great
ways to lose blood and iron for paleolithic humans. In fact, the inuit, have a big concern for
anemia despite and abundance intake of heme iron in the form of fish and animal meat. Some of the proposed reasons are flatworm
and hookworm infection, H. Pylori infection, gastrointestinal bleeding and their vitamin
intake being disrupted by the incorporation of modern high-starch foods to the diet. On the other hand, this paper suggests that
after the agriculture gave us iron poor diets 10,000 years or so ago, our genetics started
developing ways to hold on to that iron for dear life. There are still several question marks orbiting
the topic of iron overload but we can safely say a nuanced approach to dietary iron is
very important. Growing people and people who are growing people, surely need more easily
absorbed iron, but older people might be tempted to avoid good sources of heme iron for some
of the reasons I talked about. Though, older people are at risk for sarcopenia, muscle
wasting, which is linked to a higher risk for death from all causes. Iron isn’t the
only thing in meat that’s easily absorbed. Several studies have shown that the more easily
absorbed animal protein is good for maintaining muscle mass in the elderly. Before we forget about the heme in heme iron,
let me just add that heme itself is essential for a ton of things. Heme of course is the
reason your blood can carry oxygen, it’s also essential for many other things like
regulation of your circadian rhythm and it is important for several enzyme systems for
example the detoxification enzymes in your liver. In fact, one component of cognitive
decline and Azlheimer’s disease is thought to be a heme deficiency . Research has found
that hemoglobin and heme itself help reduce inflammation in the brain and clear out the
problematic amyloid plaques found in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients. But you don’t have to get your heme from
the diet, your body makes it. Though process to create heme requires 8 enzymes
and uses up the main protein for collagen, glycine, as well as vitamin B6, zinc and of
course, iron. What’s funny is all those nutrients are in meat. In any case, it seems like the times have
changed. Whereas a doctor from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
said in 2017 that yes absolutely you can have a healthy pregnancy without meat, a 1946 paper
from the Journal of the American Medical Association was recommending pregnant women to add an
extra generous portion of meat to their typical daily diet.


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