Hindu scientist makes case for eating beef

Nutritional study shows people who eat beef are less likely to suffer from vitamin or mineral deficiencies

EDMONTON — Sangita Sharma does not eat beef, but she may be one of the best friends the industry has.

“I am a Hindu and I don’t eat it, but as a scientist I am promoting beef,” she said.

She has become such a strong advocate for beef that she believes retail beef should labelled as a good source of iron, zinc and B12.

“I don’t understand why the beef industry is not putting labels on that saying this is a nutrient dense product,” she said at the Livestock Gentec conference held in Edmonton Oct. 18-19.

The University of Alberta nutritionist has spent nearly 25 years assessing the nutritional needs of people in 22 countries. She has found too many people are not getting essential nutrients from the food they eat and are suffering zinc, iron and B12 deficiencies.

“Those who ate beef were more likely to meet the dietary requirements of iron, zinc and B12,” she said.

She advocates a balanced diet with adequate servings of dairy, vegetables, fruit, whole grains and meat. Beef is high on her list of recommendations.

“If half of the schoolchildren in this province brought home information on the benefits of beef and influenced family shopping to include just two roasts per month, it would result in an additional $135 million per year in roast beef sales,” she said.

There is a general lack of nutrition information available. Teachers do not have the information and many families have not learned which foods are most beneficial.

“Kids don’t know what to eat,” she said.

Sharma, who is chair of indigenous health at the university, has looked at the diets of Aboriginal people, new Canadians, pregnant women, children, teenagers, seniors and people living in isolated or remote locations. Many are not eating nutrient dense food such as beef.

“There is very little data in Canada that identifies whether the children are meeting the nutrient requirements and what they may be inadequate in,” she said.

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Those inadequacies were confirmed after she and her team conducted interviews with more than 500 children in Edmonton that showed many did not meet dietary requirements.

Those interviews found that a quarter of the girls and 10 percent of the boys were not meeting their iron requirements. The study also discovered that 55 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys were not getting enough zinc and 45 percent of girls and 25 percent of boys were not getting enough vitamin B12.

The next step was to launch an initiative called Why Act Now, which has turned into an education program. It has expanded across Edmonton public and separate schools to teach young people the benefits of eating meat, eggs and dairy as part of a healthy diet. It includes educational material, cooking classes and contests.

The goal is to expand the program to all Alberta schools.

Dietary imbalances are serious.

Children who do not receive enough iron suffer from poor cognitive performance, poor growth and development, impaired immune response, decreased resistance to infection, tiredness, dizziness and poor fetal development.

Spinach is rich in iron, but 3 1/3 cups would be needed to match the iron content of 75 grams of beef, which is the recommended serving in Canada’s Food Guide.

Menstruating girls need more iron.

“Every month they are losing blood and if they do not meet their iron requirements they do not meet their intellectual potential,” she said.

Low body weight, shorter stature, poor immunity and skin problems are linked to zinc deficiencies.

A lack of B12 causes poor energy, muscle weakness, trouble concentrating, depression, confusion, loss of memory, weight loss and nerve damage resulting in loss of feeling. Damage can be irreversible or the person may develop pernicious anemia.

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A person would have to eat two and a half chicken breasts to get the same amount of B12 in one serving of 75 grams of beef, which is the necessary amount.

Seniors are more susceptible to deficiencies because they may live alone or do not want to buy or cook beef because they feel it is expensive.

B12 deficiency in seniors can mimic dementia or Alzheimer’s symptoms.

“One percent of over 60 year olds do not have sufficient B12,” she said.

Sharma wants to research what seniors are being fed in long-term care facilities and develop recommendations to provide more nutrient dense food to those preparing meals.

Young people who decide to eliminate meat from the diet suffer the consequences.

“Teenagers who have these food fads and decide they are vegetarian or vegan don’t actually replace that meat with another source of B12,” she said.

“A B12 deficiency can be fatal.”

New Canadians who have arrived in the last five years probably do not eat beef. They have less money, access to medical care or healthy food. They may not know where to buy meat or are unfamiliar with preparation.

She also wants to work with commodity groups to promote healthy eating, she said in an earlier interview.

“I want to work with people that are providing nutrient dense foods, whether that be milk, eggs, chicken or beef,” she said.

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“We want to work with industry partners who are producing those foods so we can show that the children need to have more nutrient dense foods and less of the pop, chips. We would like to work with anybody that we see is producing food of value to children to address the inadequacies we found.”