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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

The Meat of the Matter!
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Fariba K. Roughead

Is eating meat good or bad for our bones? This seemingly simple question happens to be the subject of heated debate in scientific circles. At the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, we felt that we should try to settle this important controversy.

With the help of 17 dedicated postmenopausal women in our community and our unique facilities, we compared how much calcium stays in the body on a low-meat diet compared to a high-meat diet, or 1.5 ounces versus 10 oz daily.

The women cheerfully ate each diet for two months (that's dedication!) and let us make several measurements related to how much calcium stayed in their bodies. We found that it was almost the same on the two diets. There was slightly more calcium in the body after the high-meat diet, but the difference was very small.

The idea that meat may not be good for our bones goes back all the way to the 1920s. A scientist who was curious about how food affects our health added some meat to a diet of bread, butter and fruit and found that the person he was testing lost more calcium through his kidneys than before meat was added. Since that first study, several human and animal studies have come up with a mixed bag of answers to this seemingly simple question.

We need to know how meat affects our bones. Meat is a very good source of high quality protein, zinc and iron. These are essential nutrients for bone development while we are young and for its maintenance as we get older. However, as you would guess, losing calcium on a daily basis may mean that we jeopardize bone health. Some have even blamed eating meat for the development of osteoporosis.

The irony is that while meat has been suspect for causing weak bones, if we do not get enough protein in our diet, we tend to have more fractures. Also, when the elderly recovering from hip fractures are given protein supplements they recover faster.

So, what is the verdict? What kind of advice would you give your young daughter or your aging grandma about eating meat?

We have concluded that we can eat meat without worrying about losing extra calcium. Of course, you should choose lean cuts of meat, as we did in this study, to keep from eating too much fat.

As we fine-tune our understanding of how foods affect our bodies, one piece of advice never changes: Eat a variety of foods including lots of fruits and vegetables (which can includ some meat), practice moderation and don't forget to exercise!

Last Modified: 10/23/2006
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