We've got a beef with today's beef: Your sirloin is suspect, and you'd better check the chicken and peruse the produce, too

Thanks to Robert C. Atkins - may he rest in peace - we live in an increasingly carnivorous culture. Lovers of steak/haters of broccoli are gloating in growing numbers, and Atkins' hi-protein, low-carb diet labels have replaced the old "heart healthy" low-fat flags adorning food items in our grocery stores and restaurant menus.

But before you swear off veggies and grains and sink your face into a plate full of well-marbled protein, consider a few caveats. While we hominids have always needed protein, today's meats should come with warning labels.

An ever-healthy farm girl, I grew up on grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and lots of butter, cheese and whole, raw milk. I ought to love the Atkins diet idea - but I don't, and with good reason. Many folks may be losing weight on the Atkins high-protein diet, but today's meat is not the same as it was 40 years ago. You should be aware of what's changed.

Our food is plumper, juicier, prettier than ever before, but at a cost to our health. Most cows don't graze on sweet, natural grasses anymore; they're crammed into feed lots and fed cow kibbles - a mixture of soy "products," growth hormones and antibiotics. Antibiotics sound good, but they're used in today's industrial meat factories not so much to keep cows, pigs and chickens healthy in crowded feed pens but rather - and more important to the industry - to speed up the animal's weight gain, shortening the time between birth and butchering.

And where do all those antibiotics end up? In us.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the main concern is that the meat we eat is contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Once a kind of miracle cure for all sorts of dangerous infections, antibiotics are losing their effectiveness through overuse - both through over-prescription and also through the meat we eat. Increasingly, this is a national health concern, as new antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains continue to emerge.

What about the veggie approach?

What used to be considered a dietary oddity in this country has become commonplace. Once upon a time vegetarians had to search out a health-food store for their groceries. Now almost every large supermarket carries veggie burgers. Veggie hot dogs often hide among the meat wieners and soymilk can be found alongside regular milk. Most metropolitan food stores also carry tofu (bean curd, a popular alternative source of protein) and some even offer their own brand of dairy-free ice creams.

Interest in vegetarianism has exploded. According to a 1991 Gallup Poll conducted for the National Restaurant Association, about 20 percent of us look for a restaurant with vegetarian items when we eat out. In 1994, a study commissioned by Land O'Lakes reported that more than half of all American households ate two or more meatless dinners each week, and 20 percent of U.S. households ate four or more meatless dinners per week.

Not all vegetarians eat alike. They all skip meats, but some do and some don't do dairy:

* lacto-ovo-vegetarian - eats dairy foods and eggs

* lacto-vegetarian - eats dairy foods but no eggs

* vegan - eats no animal foods of any type, including dairy items

Regardless, everyone needs protein. Protein is comprised of amino acids, essential for growth and tissue repair for all ages. Although traditional vegetarians can get it from vegetables and dairy products, vegans need to be concerned about taking in enough of this essential item. They also need to take special care to get enough calories (for energy), especially during infancy, early childhood and adolescence.

What vegans eat

In addition to their diet of fruits and vegetables, vegans can get protein from certain other foods: oatmeal, peanut butter, lentil soup, macaroni, pastas, guacamole, tofu; also soymilk, yogurt and ice cream; tempeh (made from fermented soybean mash); rice pudding, fava beans, banana muffins, spinach pies, oat nut burgers, falafel (Middle Eastern fried snack, also known as ta'amia, made from chick peas), corn fritters, soy hot dogs, vegetable burgers and seitan (derived wheat protein, or gluten), among many other foods.

The downside of veggies only

Vegans tend to get too little of some nutrients found generously in meat and dairy products, such as calcium and vitamin B-12. A recent report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition notes that vegans had dietary intakes lower than the average requirements of these essentials. Listed with each are some meatless, dairy free sources.

* Riboflavin (vitamin B2) - breads, cereals, pastas.

* Vitamin B-12 - Vegans who don't supplement their diet with vitamin B12 will eventually get anemia (sometimes fatal) as well as severe nervous and digestive system damage. Vegans can avoid anemia by taking supplemental vitamins and iron. Since B12 is present only in animal foods and only a few specially fortified foods, vegans should take B12 supplements prescribed by a physician.

* Vitamin D - The human body can produce its own vitamin D if provided with daily exposure to sunlight - at least half an hour (with UV screen, of course). Sunlight activates a substance in the skin and converts it into vitamin D. The American Dietetic Association says to take a vitamin D supplement if you live like a mole.

Other vegan-friendly sources of vitamins and minerals:

* Vitamin A - vegetables contain beta-carotene, a substance the body converts into essential vitamin A. Good old-fashioned butter is rich in it.

* Calcium - tofu processed with calcium, broccoli, seeds, nuts, kale, bok choy, legumes (peas and beans), greens, lime-processed tortillas, soy beverages, grain products and orange juice enriched with calcium.

* Iron - legumes, tofu, green leafy vegetables, dried fruit and whole grains, as well as iron-fortified cereals and breads, especially whole wheat. Iron absorption is improved by vitamin C, found in citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli, peppers, dark-green leafy vegetables and potatoes with skins.

* Zinc - whole grains (especially the germ and bran), whole-wheat bread, legumes, nuts and tofu.

* Protein - tofu and other soy-based products, legumes, seeds, nuts, grains and vegetables.

About soy

The billion-dollar soy industry has profited immensely from the anti-cholesterol, anti-meat gospel. Not so long ago soy was strictly an Asian phenomenon; now soy products are everywhere in our North American market.

Be aware that while traditionally fermented soy products such as miso, shoyu, tempeh and natto are definitely healthful in measured amounts, the hyper-processed soy "foods" are not. Non-fermented soybeans are extremely high in phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that binds to minerals in the digestive tract and carries them out of the body. Check labels.

Also, be wary of textured vegetable protein (TVP), soy "milk" and soy protein powders, as well as popular vegetarian meat and milk substitutes. They are fragmented foods made by treating soybeans with high heat and various alkaline washes to extract the fat content. This processing completely denatures the beans' protein content, making it very hard to digest.

A final cautionary note: hormones, nitrates and pesticides are found in not only commercially raised animal products but also commercially raised fruits, grains and vegetables. You can avoid these chemicals by consuming only free-range, organic meats, eggs and dairy products.

This approach to eating is better for our bodies: organic foods are more dense in nutrients and free from hormone or pesticide residues. In addition, buying "organic" helps support smaller farms.

Like the one I grew up on.

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