By Dr. Mercola
In terms of health risks from eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, most people think of vitamin B12 deficiency, as vitamin B12 is present in natural form only in animal sources of food.
But while this is a real risk -- studies show insufficient amounts of vitamin B12 can elevate your homocysteine levels, potentially increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke -- it is not the only one.
New research suggests that excluding all animal foods from your diet leads to a low dietary intake of protein and sulfur amino acids, which increases vegetarians' risk of heart disease.
Eating Only Plant-Based Foods Might be BAD for Your Heart
Plant-based foods like vegetables are obviously excellent for your heart and your overall health, so there is absolutely no reason to worry if you eat loads of plant foods as this is a healthy goal that most of us should ascribe to. The risks come in if you also exclude all animal proteins from your diet, as these are also valuable sources of nutrients that cannot be obtained elsewhere.
Research published in Nutrition shows that people who eat a strictly plant-based diet may suffer from subclinical protein malnutrition, which means you're also likely not getting enough dietary sulfur. Sulfur is derived almost exclusively from dietary protein, such as fish and high-quality (organic and/or grass-fed/pastured) beef and poultry. Meat and fish are considered "complete" as they contain all the sulfur-containing amino acids you need to produce new protein.
Needless to say, those who abstain from animal protein are placing themselves at far greater risk of sulfur deficiency and its related health problems.
Sulfur also plays a vital role in the structure and biological activity of both proteins and enzymes. If you don't have sufficient amounts of sulfur in your body, this deficiency can cascade into a number of health problems as it will affect bones, joints, connective tissues, metabolic processes, and more. As Dr. Stephanie Seneff, senior scientist at MIT, discusses in the video above, areas where sulfur plays an important role include:
- Your body's electron transport system, as part of iron/sulfur proteins in mitochondria, the energy factories of your cells
- Vitamin-B thiamine (B1) and biotin conversion, which in turn are essential for converting carbohydrates into energy
- Synthesizing important metabolic intermediates, such as glutathione
- Proper insulin function. The insulin molecule consists of two amino acid chains connected to each other by sulfur bridges, without which the insulin cannot perform its biological activity
Researchers also concluded that the low intake of sulfur amino acids by vegetarians and vegans explains the origin of hyperhomocysteinemia (high blood levels of homocysteine, which may lead to blood clots in your arteries -- i.e. heart attack and stroke) and the increased vulnerability of vegetarians to cardiovascular diseases.
Heart Disease May be a Cholesterol Deficiency Problem...
The other misconception plaguing the vegetarian community (and actually conventional nutrition recommendations as well) is the notion that animal foods are bad for your heart because they contain cholesterol. Conventional medicine tells us that heart disease is due to elevated cholesterol and recommends lowering cholesterol levels as much as possible, including in your diet. But according to Dr. Seneff, it's difficult to get "too much" cholesterol in your diet, particularly in the standard American diet. But you may very well be getting too little, especially if you eat only plant foods, and that can cause problems.
"Heart disease, I think, is a cholesterol deficiency problem, and in particular a cholesterol sulfate deficiency problem..."
She points out that all of this information is available in the research literature, but it requires putting all the pieces together to see the full picture. Through her research, she believes that the mechanism we call "cardiovascular disease," of which arterial plaque is a hallmark, is actually your body's way to compensate for not having enough cholesterol sulfate.
"The macrophages in the plaque take up LDL, the small dense LDL particles that have been damaged by sugar... The liver cannot take them back because the receptor can't receive them, because they are gummed with sugar basically. So they're stuck floating in your body... Those macrophages in the plaque do a heroic job in taking that gummed up LDL out of the blood circulation, carefully extracting the cholesterol from it to save it – the cholesterol is important – and then exporting the cholesterol into HDL – HDL A1 in particular... That's the good guy, HDL.
The platelets in the plaque take in HDL A1 cholesterol and they won't take anything else... They take in sulfate, and they produce cholesterol sulfate in the plaque.
The sulfate actually comes from homocysteine. Elevated homocysteine is another risk factor for heart disease. Homocysteine is a source of sulfate. It also involves hemoglobin. You have to consume energy to produce a sulfate from homocysteine, and the red blood cells actually supply the ATP to the plaque.
So everything is there and the intent is to produce cholesterol sulfate and it's done in the arteries feeding the heart, because it's the heart that needs the cholesterol sulfate. If [cholesterol sulfate is not produced]... you end up with heart failure."
So, in a nutshell, high LDL appears to be a sign of cholesterol sulfate deficiency—it's your body's way of trying to maintain the correct balance by taking damaged LDL and turning it into plaque, within which the blood platelets produce the cholesterol sulfate your heart and brain need for optimal function.
So is it Healthier to Eat Meat?
From a clinical standpoint, I do believe virtually everyone benefits from some animal protein. However, this doesn't have to be meat, as there are other healthy animal proteins like raw organic dairy and organic pastured eggs. The evidence suggests that raw organic milk is actually one of the healthiest options as it has the highest biologic value and utilization of any protein. The only caution is that it is loaded with lactose, which can disrupt insulin sensitivity, so I would advise to consume it cultured in yogurt or kefir where the bacteria will predigest the lactose and also help optimize your gut flora.
If you are sincerely objective and honest in seeking to understand what diet is best for you it will be important to trust your body to guide you. It is my recommendation to abandon any previously held convictions you might have about food and instead carefully listen to your body as you experiment with different food ratios and including or excluding animal foods.
So let me make it clear that I'm not advocating that everyone should, or even needs to, eat meat. However, there are health consequences of abstaining from animal protein entirely.
Further, if you do eat meat one of the primary questions you need to ask is how was it raised? This makes all the difference in the world when it comes to nutritional content and the health benefits of meat.
There's no question in my mind that we should all avoid factory-farmed meat from CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), as the harm likely outweighs the benefit for most. Factory farming is not only inhumane in the extreme, but it also produces inferior meat. Organically raised, grass-fed and free-range meats are a whole other animal. Nutritionally, they're just not the same. And you certainly cannot compare the stress- and disease levels between a pastured cow and one stuck in a feedlot.
So, when eating meat the following three factors need to be considered:
- How it's raised, i.e. factory farmed or raised organically. Conventional meat is loaded with pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals and should be avoided.
- Whether or not it's grass-fed. This is an essential requirement of healthy meat.
- Whether or not it contains nitrates, preservatives linked to cancer. Processed meats are not a healthful choice for anyone and should be avoided entirely, according to a review of more than 7,000 clinical studies examining the connection between diet and cancer.
Next, how you cook the meat will also influence its health benefits because any time you cook meat at high temperatures, dangerous chemicals are created, including:
- Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs): These form when food is cooked at high temperatures, and they're linked to cancer. In terms of HCA, the worst part of the meat is the blackened section, which is why you should always avoid charring your meat, and never eat blackened sections.
- Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs): When fat drips onto the heat source, causing excess smoke, and the smoke surrounds your food, it can transfer cancer-causing PAHs to the meat.
- Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs): When food is cooked at high temperatures (including when it is pasteurized or sterilized), it increases the formation of AGEs in your food. When you eat the food, it transfers the AGEs into your body. AGEs build up in your body over time leading to oxidative stress, inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease.
To sum up, eating factory farmed, grain-fed beef that's been charred to a crisp will NOT improve your health. In order for meat to be its healthiest, it should be organic and grass-fed, and it should be cooked as little as possible. You can, for example, quickly sear the meat on both sides, leaving the inside quite rare. This gives the illusion that you're eating cooked meat, while still getting many of the benefits of raw.
Can You Get Enough Dietary Sulfur if You Don't Eat Animal Protein?
It's important for your heart health to have adequate dietary sulfur, and this comes almost exclusively from dietary protein. As such, high-quality (organic and/or grass-fed/pastured) beef and poultry are ideal complete sources, but if you don't eat meat you can also get sulfur from coconut oil and olive oil. Other dietary sources that contain small amounts of sulfur IF the food was grown in soil that contains adequate amounts of sulfur, include:
✓ Organic pastured eggs
✓ Brussel sprouts
✓ Wheat germ
As for supplements, methylsulfonylmethane, commonly known by its acronym MSM, is an option. MSM is an organic form of sulfur and a potent antioxidant, naturally found in many plants. Keep in mind, however, that if you're a vegetarian who relies on grain-heavy processed foods in lieu of animal protein, you're likely not getting all the sulfur you need. Any diet high in grains and processed foods is likely to be deficient in sulfur because once whole foods are processed, sulfur is lost.
If You Avoid Animal Protein Because You Think it's Healthy, You Should be Avoiding THIS Instead
Many of the health problems attributed to fat and cholesterol in animal foods are in fact caused by SUGAR, not fat!
Your liver can make cholesterol, but it requires effort. As Dr. Seneff points out, it's a complex process involving some 25 to 30 steps. Now, one factor that most people are unaware of is that when your liver is busy processing fructose (which your liver turns into fat), it severely hampers its ability to make cholesterol. This is yet another important facet that explains how and why excessive fructose consumption is so detrimental to your health.
According to Dr. Seneff:
"If you're eating a high fructose diet, which most people in America are, one of the things your liver is going to have to do is to turn that fructose into fat... and it needs cholesterol to store the fat but it can't make cholesterol while it's processing fructose... So when there are high levels of glucose in the blood, your liver is kind of caught in a hard place because it can't make the cholesterol it needs to store the fat that it is producing from the fructose...
I think in many cases, people are facing a cholesterol deficiency because they don't have it in the diet, [and] because the liver is working overtime on other things."
This cholesterol deficiency can lead to plaque formation to compensate for cholesterol sulfate deficiency, which in turn increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. So if you are a vegetarian because you believe it to be healthier for your heart, you have been led astray. Limit your intake of fructose instead and your heart will thank you.