On Oct. 1, vegetarians once again celebrated World Vegetarian Day. Founded by the North American Vegetarian Day in 1977, this annual event both commemorates the “health-supporting and life-affirming benefits of vegetarianism” plus kicks-off Vegetarian Awareness Month, according to this year’s PR touting both events.

Every year after reading publicity on this event, I wonder why there isn’t a Global Meat Day or a Meat Appreciation Month. Lean meat and poultry are wholesome products that play a critical role in a balanced diet — and they deserve to be celebrated just as much as vegetables and fruits.

In recent decades, industry too often has found itself playing defense instead of offense regarding a number of issues tied into raising animals for food and consuming animal protein. Several years ago, the American Meat Institute did a good job defending the importance of meat and poultry in the diet in comments it submitted to the US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services in response to a release of a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Technical Report. Under the US government’s “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010”, consumers should include 5.5 oz. of protein from poultry, meat, nuts and beans in the daily diet, based on an average consumption of 2,000 calories per day.

Meat and poultry is allocated a relatively small part of the Food Pyramid, yet their benefits are significant, pointed out Betsy Booren, Ph.D., AMI director of scientific affairs, in her testimony. Both are also important and rich sources of micronutrients, such as iron, selenium, Vitamins A, B12 and folic acid, she added. These nutrients are either absent in plant foods or, if available — they have low bio-availability.

Despite some finger pointing done at several meat and poultry product offerings regarding their alleged contribution to the growing obesity crisis in the US, talks during the May 2010 meeting of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded the meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts food group is consumed at, or less than, the current recommended amount. Bottom line: Many people wrongly believe Americans over-eat meat and poultry products, Booren said.

When it comes to making more healthful products, industry is no slouch. It is continuously involved in efforts to improve product quality. For example, it continues to reduce sodium in its products with more than 50 percent of the processed meat and poultry market undergoing recent sodium-reduction reformulation, Booren said at that time. Some companies are promoting their efforts through labeling “reduced sodium.”

Each animal protein touts healthful benefits. Last December, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association announced Pennsylvania State Univ. researchers, in a first-of-its-kind study, demonstrated eating beef daily as part of a heart-healthy diet can improve cholesterol levels. The Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet (BOLD) study proves lean beef plays an important role in a heart-healthy diet, said Richard Thorpe, a Texas medical doctor and cattleman.

“The BOLD study is further proof Americans should feel good knowing the beef they enjoy eating and serving is not only a nutrient-rich, satisfying food that provides 10 essential nutrients in about 150 calories but is good for their heart health as well,” he said.

Funded by the Beef Checkoff, the BOLD study appeared in the January 2012 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It shadowed 36 men and women with moderately elevated cholesterol levels who consumed four diets for five weeks each to measure the impact of each diet on heart-health risk factors, such as LDL (low-density lipoprotein—or otherwise “bad”) cholesterol levels. The four diets evaluated were BOLD, which included an average of 4 oz. of beef per day; BOLD-PLUS, which included an average of 5.4 oz. of beef per day; the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which included an average of 1 oz. of beef per day; and the Healthy American Diet (HAD), which included an average of 0.7 oz. of beef per day.

People following the BOLD and BOLD-PLUS diets experienced a 10 percent decrease in LDL cholesterol from the start of the study. And after five weeks, there were significant reductions in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in the BOLD, BOLD-PLUS and DASH diets compared to the HAD.

Literature from the National Pork Board points out that pork is a good source of potassium. One 3-oz. serving of pork tenderloin, which is also certified as Heart-Healthy by the American Heart Association, has 49 mg of sodium and 350 mg of potassium, the latter of which is a key electrolyte in one’s body. A balance between sodium and potassium helps regulate blood pressure and heartbeat.

One 3-oz. serving of roasted, trimmed pork tenderloin is a great source of B-vitamins, which can help patients maintain a healthy cardiovascular system, and selenium, essential for the proper functioning of the immune system and thyroid gland. It also features only 6 percent of calories in a 2,000-calorie diet.

Protein from lean meat, such as pork, is high in nutrient density and low in energy density. And pork tenderloin is just as lean as a skinless chicken breast, the NPB relays. Seven of the most common pork products — pork tenderloin, pork boneless top-loin chop, ground pork, pork boneless top-loin roast, pork bone-in center-loin chop, pork bone-in rib chop, and pork bone-in sirloin roast — have, on average, 16 percent less fat and 27 percent less saturated fat than 20 years ago, thanks to the efforts in feeding and management practices by pork producers.

Although there is limited research on the specific effects of protein intake on diabetes health outcomes, one body of research suggests protein intake may offer beneficial effects for people with type-2 diabetes. This includes improved glycemic regulations; lower blood glucose levels after meals while following a higher-protein diet; reduced post-meal glucose and overnight fasting glucose concentrations when on a higher-protein, lower-carbohydrate diet; decrease in body weight, fasting glucose and insulin concentrations, and reduced low-density lipoprotein cholesterol while consuming a higher-protein, reduced-calorie diet.

The National Chicken Council reports protein is particularly key to the diet of younger people because the body uses it to create new cells and maintain or repair existing cells. The body also uses protein to produce enzymes, which help catalyze processes such as digestion, metabolism and storage of fat.
Chicken contains the eight essential amino acids and a relatively low amount of fat. Fat in chicken is primarily unsaturated, which protects against heart disease. Chicken breast without the skin has less fat than sirloin steak, pot roast, 80 or 90 percent lean hamburger, pork chops or ham, NCC relays.

The federal government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage consumers to eat protein that is low in saturated fat. A serving of 100 grams (about 3 oz.) of cooked skinless, boneless breast has only one gram of saturated fat and less than four grams of total fat. One-hundred grams of skinless, boneless breast has 31 grams of protein — more than half the recommended daily allowance of 46 grams of protein for an adult female.

Chicken is naturally low in sodium. Skinless, boneless chicken has only 74 mg of sodium per 3.5-oz. (100-g) portion. One single, 3-oz. serving of chicken (an amount about the size of a deck of cards) provides more than half the protein recommended under the US government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 for a typical day.

Chicken is also a good source of niacin (vitamin B3), which aids in metabolism; vitamin B6, important to immune system and blood-sugar level maintenance; biotin (vitamin B7), which helps cell growth; and vitamin B12, which is involved in nerve cell and red blood cell maintenance. Chicken also contains iron (oxygen transport and cell growth) and zinc (immune system functioning and DNA synthesis).

The guidelines recommend that a person consuming 2,000 calories per day should eat no more than 20 grams of saturated fat. Since skinless chicken breast has only one gram of saturated fat per 100-g (3.5-oz.) serving, chicken helps keep consumption of saturated fat to a minimum, NCC points out.

Dark meat features a little higher fat content than white meat and contains more connective tissue. But dark meat holds up to the heat of outdoor grilling because some of the fat and collagen melts during the cooking process and keeps the meat moist.

The highest-fat portion of the chicken is the skin, with 41 g of fat (and 454 calories) per 100 g. However, only a small portion of skin is normally consumed except in dishes, such as wings; removing skin eliminates those calories. The skin can be left on during cooking without adding calories to the meat. One whole chicken will have a fat pad near the opening to the cavity, which can be removed if desired. Otherwise, fat in the chicken is primarily in the meat itself (especially dark meat); attached to the underside of the skin; or located between the skin and the muscle.

The National Turkey Federation (NTF) has a nutritional comparison chart titled Turkey Nutrition Facts posted on its web site (www.eatturkey.com), which shows the many merits of consuming turkey and how like amounts of turkey stack-up against competitive animal proteins.

The NTF declares turkey is healthier than any other protein source. It features less fat, calories and sodium per serving than beef, veal, pork and lamb. One 3-oz. serving of boneless, skinless turkey breast contains 26 g of protein, 1 g of fat and 0 g of saturated fat. That's 8 percent more protein than the same size serving of boneless skinless chicken breast or trimmed top loin beefsteak, the group points out.

Equally important, meat and poultry tastes great and can be used in a wide range of recipes for any daypart. So, as those who work in the industry have known for a long time, there are many reasons to celebrate the importance of these proteins in one’s diet. Why not finally formalize such a celebration in 2013?