By Solaade Ayo-Aderele - NigeriaIn this part of the world, it is seen as a mark of affluence when foods are accompanied by generous servings of beef. The average beef aficionado also prefers what Yoruba call 'orisirisi.' The 'orisirisi' is the mouth-watering and appetite-inducing potpourri of beef, skin (ponmo), and organ meats like tripe, liver, lungs, kidneys, appendix, heart, intestines and everything else. Indeed, when you talk of authentic efo riro (vegetable soup), the dish can't be regarded as complete without the presence of 'orisirisi,' which usually makes the vegetable a 'foreigner' in a dish named after it! As if to underscore the importance of efo riro in Yoruba diet, some high-profile hotels serve efo riro elemi meje (literally, vegetable soup with seven lives; in reality, well seasoned vegetable soup with assorted meats). Yet, in recent times, scientists, cardiologists and physicians are beginning to draw attention to the possible dangers in eating too much animal protein, of which meat is an integral part.
As if to drive home the point, just last week, the Internet community went agog with the report of a study published in the online journal,Nature Medicine, warning that a compound abundant in red meat - carnitine - has been found to promote atherosclerosis (hardening or clogging of the arteries).
The researchers were led by Dr. Stanley Hazen, the section head of Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation, Miller Family Heart and Vascular Institute, Cleveland Clinic, United States of America.
They found that increased carnitine levels in patients predicted increased risks for cardiovascular disease and major cardiac events like heart attack, stroke and death.
Says Hazen, "The bacteria living in our digestive tracts are dictated by our long-term dietary patterns. A diet high in carnitine actually shifts our gut microbe composition to those that like carnitine, making meat eaters even more susceptible to its artery-clogging effects."
Worse still, the researchers contend, carnitine is not an essential nutrient; as the human body naturally produces all the carnitine it needs. What this means, in simple logic, is that if ever we must eat meat, it must be in hugely small quantity.
Does that mean there are no benefits in eating red meat? Nutritionists say red meat sure has nutritional benefits to overall health. As explained by dietician, Dr. Rosemary Ogbebor, "Red meat is high in iron, which is very important to teenage girls and women in their childbearing years. The heme iron in red meat is easily absorbed by the body.
"Again, red meat supplies vitamin B12, which helps the body to make DNA and keep nerve and red blood cells healthy. It also contains zinc, which keeps the immune system working properly. Moreover, red meat provides protein, which helps build bones and muscles.
"Calorie for calorie, lean red beef is one of the most nutrient-rich foods, because a small serving of lean beef contributes only 180 calories, but you get many essential nutrients such as omega-3, niacin, vitamin B6, phosphorus, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, selenium and possibly also vitamin D."
Ogbebor also notes that lean red meats are mostly low in fat and sodium, and they are sources of a range of endogenous antioxidants and other bioactive substances, including taurine, carnitine, carnosine, ubiquinone, glutathione and creatine.
Indeed, nutritionists are of the opinion that red meat should not be cut off totally from a regular diet. They advocate portion control, and also counsel that it should not be allowed to crowd out fruits, vegetable and whole grains during any meal.
They also advise that when buying red meat, you should opt for lean meat, instead of fat-ridden parts like the torso and organ meats.
Is this then a licence for bingeing on red meat? Not so quick. Professor of Reproductive Endocrinology and Medical Director of MART Life-Detox Clinic, Lagos, Oladapo Ashiru, warns that excessive consumption of beef could shorten life span. He says though meat is a rich source of protein, too much of it in a diet could pose long-term cardiovascular risks.
He also warns that a diet bathed in excessive red meat could lead to a decline in kidney functions and lead to gout (a medical condition usually characterised by swollen joints); in addition to contributing to increased risks of heart disease and cancer.
Ashiru says, "Eating too much meat, fish and other key sources of protein is bad for health, because they take longer to digest. When you eat a lot of protein and meat, it takes significantly longer for your body to digest them. This is because meat takes longer to be broken down, and that means the enzymes in your stomach and intestines will have to work a lot harder to process them. When this happens, it takes approximately three or four times longer for your body to break down meat, compared to the time it needs to process fruit or vegetables."
A nutritionist with UNICEF, Dr. John Egbuta, is of the view that the real danger is not in eating red meat; rather, he says, it's in its presentation.
"When you fry your foods - including beef - you destroy all the nutritional benefits, even when they taste good. We recommend cooking your food lightly where necessary, and eating those you can in their natural form.
"This is because, with the frying comes excessive absorption of oil, which then increases the fat content and results in health complications, including high cholesterol, which is hazardous to the body."
Consultant cardiologist with Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, Dr. Folashade Davies, recommends eating foods such as beans, nuts and locally-produced rice in order to stay healthy.
She says boiling and grilling are better when cooking generally, instead of frying. She also warns against eating processed foods which, she says, always contain much salt. "This leaves traumatic effects on the heart vessels," she submits.
To stay alive and healthy, therefore, we counsel you to go easy on 'orisirisi.'