Getting mindful about meat

CEO Shaun Francis is trying, mostly successfully, to diversify his protein intake 

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It is a dilemma that confronts me pretty often, week to week. I was downstairs at 150 York, at the Drake Mini for a lunch meeting, and for whatever reason the menu item I found most appealing was steak tartare.

Call it a craving.

Which gave me pause. Because I’m trying to eat less red meat. Not entirely successfully, I’m afraid. And I want to talk about it, because I think a lot of people are finding themselves in the same position.

Red meat’s been controversial for years, for reasons more nuanced than the ethics-related “eating-animals-is-bad” sense that turns a lot of people vegetarian.

I don’t have any particular feeling about the ethics of meat. It’s the health impact that worries me, as well as the environmental effects.

Leslie Beck mentioned the health aspect in the newsletter last month. “High intakes of red meat have been tied to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer,” she wrote. She also observed that eating more protein from plants rather than meat is associated with lower risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease.

The health effects have spurred the new Canada Food Guide to de-emphasize meat from its recommendations. “Choose protein foods that come from plants more often,” the guide suggests, studiously avoiding the mere mention of steak, ham or hamburger. “Choose foods with healthy fats instead of saturated fat.”

Meaning, essentially, limit your intake of red meat.

Another thing the Medcan RDs tell me is that red meat is bad for the environment. As I wrote in my book, “Producing beef, pork, and lamb creates greenhouse gases at a rate 250 times greater than production of legumes because meat is so inefficient to produce.”

So you can see why I’m trying to limit my consumption. I think a lot of people are.

On the other hand, the trainers at Medcan tell me I need to be consuming protein to resist the sarcopenia, that is, the decline in muscle mass, that comes naturally as a result of human aging. And red meat is a great source of protein.

Plus, no matter what my brain says, there are times that my stomach says something else. Like: “Eat red meat.” I get these cravings for the stuff, and they’re hard to stave off.

It’s a situation that Josh Broun empathizes with. Broun is the cofounder of Impact Kitchen, an expanding Toronto restaurateur that specializes in serving healthy food options, many of which are paleo or vegan.

If you heard about Broun’s fitness-trainer background, you might think that he exists on a diet of legumes and leafy kale. The wall of Impact Kitchen provides a similar impression: “Eat real food,” it says, echoing the famous Michael Pollan edict. “Embrace healthy fats.”

But Broun cops to being as fallible as the rest of us when it comes to his eating. “If there’s a bag of chips in the house,” he says. “I’m going to eat it.”

So Broun tries not to allow himself the option of unhealthy. He keeps his fridge full of healthy options, and avoids allowing things like processed meats through the front door. The same is true of his restaurant menu. What he calls his power bowls are dominated by healthy plants, whole grains and vegetables—and red meat is just one protein option among many. What red meat he offers as an option is a high-quality grass-fed flank steak.

Nourish by Medcan follows a similar strategy. Most of our protein is provided by fish, poultry, legumes or other plant-based options. If there is red meat in one of our dishes, it’s a complement to the vegetables that form the greatest part of the serving.

That’s how I try to approach my own eating as well. When I’m out at a restaurant, I peruse the various options on the menu, and I try to select something healthier and sustainable. Fish and chicken I eat four to five times a week. Red meat I try to limit to four times a month—and when I do have it, I keep the serving size less than the size and approximate thickness of my palm.

And then there are those times that I get a craving. Like the lunch I mentioned at the Drake Mini, when the steak tartare seemed so appealing. I thought about it for a moment. I’d eaten well that week. I’m sure the Drake is as selective about where it gets its beef as Nourish or Impact Kitchen. And so I splurged.

I’m trying to eat less red meat. But sometimes you have to live a little. I ordered the tartare, and you know what? It was delicious.

Shaun Francis is Medcan’s chair and CEO.

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