Low fat, high protein, essential for kids’ growth and for muscle in athletes! You can’t get a better marketing image than that. Sadly, it’s just another of the myths that has bedevilled the national diet for decades says senior nutritionist Amanda Woodvine, as she explodes the chicken myth.
In the early 20th century came the belief that we should all eat more protein – in fact, good health depended on generous amounts of the stuff and nothing provided it better than meat. It was reckoned that hunger and child malnutrition in the developing world was caused by protein
deficiency due to a lack of meat.
This myth reached epic heights in the 1960s. A UN report recognised there was worldwide protein deficiency and called for a “global strategy to avert the impending protein crisis”. International aid focused on the so-called protein gap and the US subsidised dried milk powder to provide protein for the world’s poor.
Next came a report on diet and heart disease in 1976 by The Royal College of Physicians which
encouraged people to eat white meat rather than red on the grounds that it contained less saturated fat and was therefore less damaging.
Speed up history to the present day and the shift in nutritional knowledge is astounding. We now know that the average Brit gets far too much protein – it makes up 15 per cent of the daily
calorie intake when the maximum needed, according to leading health bodies like the World Health Organisation, is only eight per cent.
In truth, the protein gap had disappeared ‘at the stroke of a pen’ in 1969 when researchers concluded that almost all staple foods we eat contain enough protein for our needs.
Good nutritionists know that by not eating meat – or dairy, for that matter – you can obtain all the protein you need, including plenty of amino acids. Get enough calories and you get enough protein!
Ironically, excess protein is the modern day concern. It’s linked with kidney disease, osteoporosis, cancers, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease – and getting too much is usually a result of eating too many animal products. Animal products, even lean-looking white meats, are often associated with large amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol – artery-clogging substances that are a main cause of heart disease, kidney failure and stroke as well as many cancers. But putting these hidden nasties aside, there is strong evidence to suggest that it is excess protein per se which plays a part in all of these diseases.
There is a compelling case that animal protein – even ignoring all the other nutrients that come with it – increases the risk for cancer, clogged arteries (atherosclerosis), crumbly bones (osteoporosis) and type-2 diabetes. Powerful evidence came from the China Study, one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever undertaken on real people to examine the links between diet and disease. Big differences were seen in disease rates when the amount of animal-based foods people ate were compared with plant foods.
As for meat being essential for sportspeople, vegan Carl Lewis won six Olympic Gold medals! Other veggie athletes include Martina Navratilova, six-time Wimbledon tennis champion; Ironwoman Ruth Heidrich and London Sports Nutritionist Gareth Zeal, a champion weight lifter who could haul up four times his own body weight.
Five million people suffer agonising food poisoning every year and hundreds die from it. Most European cases can be traced back to chicken. If you want to avoid food poisoning or any potential risk from bird flu then you’re advised to cook white meat properly. But here’s the killer – thoroughly cooked chicken can increase your risk of cancer.
Last year, the US organisation, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, filed a lawsuit against seven high street restaurant chains over carcinogens in grilled chicken.
Called heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs), these hazardous chemicals are directly linked to cancer in humans. They arise during the cooking of many meats, including chicken, beef, pork and even fish. In January 2005, they were officially added to the US federal government’s list of
HAAs form when sugars and creatine, a protein building block found mostly in muscle, are heated during cooking. Both are naturally present in meats. Some of the highest concentrations are in grilled meat – especially chicken – which contains more than 10 times the amount in grilled beef. Frying often produces large amounts of HAAs, too.
As creatine is found mostly in muscle tissue, grilled plant foods such as veggie burgers, veggie sausages or portabello mushrooms tend to contain either no HAAs or negligible levels.
HAAs can bind directly to human DNA, causing mutation and initiating cancer. One common HAA, called PhIP, has been shown to damage DNA even at the low concentrations found in home cooking. Alarmingly, the pan scrapings often used for gravy contain up to 500 parts per billion of PhIP – hundreds of times higher than the concentration in meat!
And there’s more! New research suggests that eating just one serving of meat a week could significantly increase your risk of diabetes. Published in March 2008, the study looked at
the link between the amount of meat eaten and rates of diabetes in adults. More than 8,000 people took part and none had diabetes at the start.
Those who ate even modest amounts of meat over the 17-yearlong study period had a staggering 74 per cent increased risk of developing diabetes compared to vegetarians. Allowances were made for weight gain, which can also increase diabetes risk, but independently of that, meat intake was an important risk factor.
The links between meat and weight gain are well documented. The American Cancer Society
followed more than 75,000 people for a decade and found that the one food most linked with weight gain around the waist – the most harmful place to store fat – was high meat consumption. Even after allowing for other factors, the men and women who ate more than a single serving of meat a day were 50 per cent more likely to put on weight around the middle than those who ate meat less often.
Which begs the question – does lean meat exist? Not according to researchers at London Metropolitan University, who analysed chicken thigh meat from several supermarkets and organic suppliers. They found it contained more than twice as much fat as it did in 1940, a third more calories and a third less protein. So much for it being a ‘high-protein’ food. Someone eating 100 grams of chicken would get more calories from the fat than the protein! – 207 as opposed to only 64 from protein.
Organic chicken didn’t do much better – 154 calories from fat and 74 from protein. Despite having more space than factory-farmed chickens, they’re subjected to the same regime of high-energy feed, little exercise and selective breeding for rapid weight gain.
The team found that a chicken carcass contains almost a pint of fat – and we’re talking fat in the bird’s tissues, rather than the stuff which runs off into the grill pan!
Chicken is the main white meat eaten in the UK but others include turkey, duck and goose.