If you are thinking about eating healthier, you may want to pass on foods like bread, potatoes and pasta and consider taking a second helping of meat instead.
That's according to medical doctors Michael and Mary Dan Eades. The Eades are co-authors of the national best- selling book Protein Power that promotes beef and other protein sources as a mainstay to a healthy diet.
Contrary to the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet that's become popular in the last decade, the Eades propose a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet - meaning you can enjoy steaks, burgers and roasts.
Protein Power is just one of several books on the best-sellers' list, including Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution, Sugar Busters and The Zone, that are helping boost beef's nutritional reputation.
"There are lots of good things about beef besides the fact that it tastes good," says Michael Eades. Among beef's attributes are that it is:
* A complete, hypo non-allergenic protein (meaning no one is allergic to it).
* A conjugated linoleic acid that helps fight cancer.
* High in vitamin B-12, which your body can't get from plant sources.
* Contains lipoic acid - an antioxidant.
* A good source of zinc - a major component of the immune system.
* High in heme iron (see sidebar).
But one thing beef - and other meats - have few of is carbohydrates. And that, say the Eades and other authors, could be one of meat's best attributes.
Their reasoning: when we eat carbohydrates, whether they're from chocolate or whole-grain bread, they are broken down in the body into a sugar called glucose that affects the body's blood sugar levels.
"Metabolically, a can of Coke and a potato are the same thing to your body - about 11/44 cup of sugar - because they are all turned into glucose," says Mary Dan Eades.
Your body likes to keep blood sugar on a very narrow range. So the arrival of glucose in the bloodstream signals the pancreas to secrete insulin - a major hormone that controls metabolism. Insulin regulates blood sugar by helping shuttle glucose into cells.
Foods that break down quickly - typically those high in carbohydrates - release a lot of glucose at once. (Bananas, rice cakes and carrots are examples.) They dump so much glucose into the blood so fast that the pancreas has to pump out extra insulin. After a while, cells become less sensitive to insulin and require more of it just to get the glucose transported. This is called insulin resistance or hyperinsulinemia syndrome.
"When you are insulin resistant and you eat sugar, your blood sugar goes up, the pancreas releases insulin and nothing happens," says Mary Dan Eades. "So the pancreas releases more and more insulin, until it overcomes the resistance, pumps the sugar down and everything is OK again, except that you end up having too much insulin most of the time," she adds.
"When we age, 75% of us become resistant to the affects of insulin," she says. Excess insulin has been implicated in a range of diseases including adult-onset diabetes, hypertension, stroke, cancer and heart disease.
"People have long thought that when they gain weight, then other health problems start to occur. But that is only because they see the weight gain first," says Michael.
Almost all people who have a weight problem actually have an insulin problem, say the Eades.
Less Carbohydrates, More Protein The solution, say the Eades, is changing the diet to fewer carbohydrates and more protein. "Protein replacement is what it takes to keep the body healthy," says Mary Dan. Protein is necessary to maintain lean tissues including hair, skin, bones, blood and organs.
"Food is composed of carbohydrates, protein, fat and water. All food is one or more of these things," says Mary Dan. "If we understand what these basic four things do to our insulin, it puts us back in the driver's seat of our own health.
"Food is the balancing tool. It's the most potent medicine you can use against health problems, if you do it right," she adds.
There are three methods to reduce insulin levels:
* Decrease carbohydrate intake.
* Decrease caloric intake.
* Increase exercise.
"The easiest thing to get people to do is to decrease their carbohydrate intake," says Michael.
Lower carbohydrate intake reduces blood sugar levels and decreases insulin production - allowing cells to become sensitive to insulin once again. In turn, you can control high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglycerides, and even obesity, all directly caused by an overabundance of insulin, say the Eades.
But Sachiko St. Jeor, a nutritionist who serves on the American Heart Association's nutrition committee, cautions against replacing carbohydrates with too much protein.
"There is a role for protein in the diet, but protein in excess can be harmful because of the associated fat," St. Jeor says. "Adequate protein is very important, especially in diets with fewer calories, but the exclusion of fruits and vegetables can lead to a dietary imbalance," she adds.
St. Jeor suggests a well-balanced diet from a variety of foods, with about 12-15% of calories in the diet coming from protein.
But Michael still contends, "The low-fat diet has been a total failure. Everybody tells you to eat less fat because fat causes obesity, diabetes and heart disease. And people are listening because in the last 20 years fat consumption has dropped by 30 percent."
But we haven't seen a corresponding decrease in health problems, Michael adds.
Instead, U.S. beef consumption has continued to decline. Meanwhile, our total consumption of sugar and other sweeteners is now 150 lbs./person annually, up 28 lbs. since 1970.
"Beef producers have got to become more proactive. Emphasize the virtues of beef and de-emphasize the low-fat diet," says Michael.
Doing so may be one more way to add value to beef and take back market share.
To follow the protein plan, the Eades suggest the following:
* Set your carbohydrate level at 7-10 effective carbohydrate grams/meal. Passing on a roll and potato and eating more vegetables or protein can easily take you from 80 carbohydrates to 10 carbohydrates.
* Calories don't count - but you shouldn't get below 1,000/day.
* Don't worry about fats, but choose healthy fats such as olive oil, nut oils and even butter. However, avoid "trans fats," or partially hydrogenated fats, like margarine or Crisco.
* Never let yourself go hungry - keep snacks on hand and eat regular meals.
* You can drink alcohol, but count the carbohydrates. A glass of wine has 3 grams of carbohydrates.
* Drink lots of water and exercise regularly.
Promoting just one of beef's many nutritional attributes has helped the Australian beef industry sell more pounds of beef.
Since 1992, Meat and Livestock Australia, the red meat industry organization for that country, has positioned lean beef as a superior source of iron. Iron is essential to carry oxygen in the blood, and a lack of it causes fatigue.
Australian television and magazine ad campaigns have targeted women and the fact that seven of 10 women are deficient in iron.
The new awareness is boosting beef sales, says Andrew Ralph, business development manager for Meat and Livestock Australia. Overall, the iron campaign has had an estimated $240 million impact on Australian beef sales a year since 1993.
Why Iron? With a continual decline in red meat consumption from 1978 through 1992, the Australian beef industry wanted to find a new, radical strategy for marketing lean beef.
Consumer research identified women as a key factor driving the decline in beef consumption, primarily because red meat was associated with health concerns, specifically fat, says Ralph. With women responsible for 80% of meat purchases, a campaign was designed to position beef as essential for health.
A number of beef's nutritional attributes were considered (protein, zinc, vitamin B-12), but iron was chosen for the following reasons:
* 70% of women do not reach their recommended intake of iron.
* Beef is a better source of iron than vegetables like spinach. You need to eat a 50-lb. fish compared to a 6 oz. steak to get your daily recommended allowance of iron, says Ralph.
* The iron in lean beef (heme iron) is more easily absorbed by the body. Twenty-five percent of iron in lean beef is absorbed vs. 2% in other sources such as vegetables.
"When we looked at beef's nutritional attributes, it's obvious that it is a great source of iron," says Ralph. "We wanted to raise awareness of that."
Most recently, the iron campaign has targeted lean beef as an essential source of iron for toddlers, with the message that iron is critical for their normal development and health.
Research for the campaign has been funded in part by the Australia beef checkoff, which is $3.50/hd. each time an animal is sold. Plans for the iron campaign are scheduled to continue.