A team of scientists are advising people to eat meat, after conducting a nutritional and anthropological study into the dietary role of fat in the ancient hunter-gatherer societies.
Led by Professor Bruce Watkins, university faculty scholar at Purdue University and director of the Center for Enhancing Foods to Protect Health, and anthropologist Loren Cordain, professor of health and exercise science at Colorado State University, researchers conducted detailed chemical analysis of the meats eaten 10,000 years ago and compared those results to the most common meats people eat today.
They found that wild game, such as venison or elk meat, as well as grass-fed beef, contain a mixture of fats (omega-6 and omega-3) that are actually very healthy and essential in proper nutrition, and, the researchers say, lower cholesterol and reduce other chronic disease risk.
Watkins explained that wild elk, deer and antelope from the Rocky Mountains region have greater amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and a lower, and therefore healthier, ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in muscle meats, compared to grain-fed beef.
This, he says, is good news for people who need to reduce their cholesterol: “The fatty acid ratio in wild ruminants is consistent with the recent American Heart Association recommendation to increase the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids found in certain fish in order to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Watkins explained that the balance of fats has changed dramatically in the past century: “Generally, our modern diets, especially in the past 100 years, have changed to where we’re consuming excess amounts of omega-6 fat. Omega-6 is found in high levels in many of the oil seed crops that we consume. It’s also found in the meat of the livestock that eat these grains, as this study shows.”
Cordain, author of “The Paleo Diet” (John Wiley & Sons, 2002), added that studying the foods eaten in the Paleolithic Era (the Old Stone Age) 10,000 years ago has important implications for deciding what is the proper mix to eat today. He has studied the few isolated hunter-gatherer societies remaining, such as the Nanamiut of Alaska, the Aborigines of Australia and the !Kung of Africa, and found that modern maladies, such as heart disease, high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes, are rare in these populations.
“Over the past several decades, numerous studies have found that indigenous populations have low serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels,” Cordain said, adding: “Previous studies by myself and colleagues had found that 97% of the world’s hunter-gatherer societies would have exceeded recommended guidelines for fat.”
As Watkins explains, this shows that “with the decline of fat in the [modern] diet, the amount of fat isn’t as important as the relative amounts, or ratio, of specific fats in your diet. It’s a qualitative issue, not a quantitative issue.
“By eating more of the good fat you can lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Watkins added that the study could sugggest new directions in agricultural production. “There are opportunities for ranchers and producers to develop niche markets for grass-fed beef that fit consumer interest in beef products that deliver special nutrients,” he said.
The study was published in the January issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Purdue University Office of Research Programs and the Pope & Young Club, a US conservation organization.