Eat Your Heart Out: The Health Benefits of Organ Meats
When I give presentations on diet and cancer, I often reference an encounter several of my friends had with the Maasai during a trip to Africa. They spent a day at a Maasai village soaking in their culture and observing a day in the life of a modern hunter-gatherer. As would be expected, they enjoyed the experience very much and to thank the tribesman for their hospitality, my friends presented them with a live goat.
The Maasai thanked them for their gift, and then proceeded to slit the goat’s throat and drain its blood into a basin. Several quickly drank the blood. It sounds crazy to us Americans, but blood is extremely nutrient dense with valuable proteins and lipids. If we are truly eating for nutrition, blood is actually quite a valuable meal that we should think twice about disposing.
Before you call me Hannibal Lecter, just hear me out...
In actuality, the Italians have their blood pudding, the Swedes have their blodplättar, and the Finns have their veriohukainen, all showing that the drinking of blood is multicultural and not just for the vampires and Maasai.
The Maasai love their raw blood. Sometimes they even mix a little raw milk with it as well.
The other Maasai tribesmen made a vertical incision along the abdomen of the goat with surgical precision, removed most of the organs, and then immediately ate them raw. The “scraps” were returned to my friends just in case they wanted them. The scraps were essentially the muscular cuts of meat — the same cuts that we, as Americans, seem to favor.
A Maasai man eating the kidneys seconds after removing them.
The Meat of the Issue
The key from the story above is that a somewhat nomadic group of hunter-gatherers who spend much of their day attempting to find food to avoid starvation threw away the muscular parts of a free gift of food while devouring the parts that we often scoff at. These scraps are the same parts that we find at nearly every grocery store. Add on the fact that they ate the organs raw, and this hardly compares to char-grilled muscle meat that most Americans consume during several meals per week.
So why do they eat the organs and throw out the rest?
The Maasai aim to optimize their diet by consuming the most nutritious foods possible containing the largest amounts of vitamins and calories. Our ancestors did the same over the past million years or so, as would any sensible person who had a limited amount of available food. This type of diet supplies two to ten times the recommended daily allowance of vitamins and nutrients for Americans.1
This diet is also high in vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids.2 Compare and contrast this with a typical western diet under the guidance of the food pyramid and other dietary recommendations, and we find that over half the U.S. population is failing to meet the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin A, vitamin B-6, magnesium, calcium, and zinc.3 Even worse, a third of our population is under the RDA for folate.
We apparently have some of the best scientists, researchers, and physicians in the world, yet we have recommended a diet that leaves its citizens with a paucity of vitamins and minerals. Meanwhile, hunter-gatherers in Africa are knowledgeable enough about the human body to know what it needs to consume, including the most nutrient dense foods and parts of the animal available, while we scurry for their scraps.
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To assess the diet of the Maasai and organ meat in general versus those cuts that we typically eat and those meats that are recommended to us, I compared some nutrition facts from nutritiondata.com. It has a nice way of comparing macronutrients as well as showing how nutrient-dense a food source is.
I compared kidney with the fan favorite recommendation of our health leaders: skinless chicken breast. The picture below is just a small example, but it holds over many different organ meats.
Figure: As we move from lean muscular meats to organ meats, the nutrient “completeness” score, which measures vital nutrients like magnesium and zinc, rises significantly.
I also did this over some grass-fed lamb heart, which is chock full of vitamins and minerals like zinc, phosphorous, and selenium along with significantly higher amounts of elastin and collagen than other muscular cuts. Most importantly, it has a massive amount of coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), which by no coincidence is necessary for a healthy heart.
I also graphed out some of the important nutrients to assess how much of the daily value of vitamins and minerals each provides. The differences are striking:
The percent daily value of vitamins and minerals found in chicken breast and sirloin pale in comparison to beef kidneys.
More than liver
When I was joining the healthy world of organ meat eaters, I naturally started with the liver. This was by far my largest mistake. Whereas organs like the heart or even tongue merely taste like tender meat, the liver is a pasty, odd-textured organ with a particular taste that has to be masked with large amounts of onions and bacon.
While bacon can make nearly anything taste good, the texture of liver is still a turnoff for many (including me). In fact, the texture of liver was such a turnoff that it forced me to cut organ meats out of my diet entirely for some time. Once I realized that liver is clearly not the bridge to enjoying organ meat, I began enjoying delicious organs like bone marrow, tripe, tongue, and the heart.
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In my opinion, organ meats are most easily introduced into the diet in this order:
Muscle cuts -> bone marrow -> heart -> tripe -> liver -> kidney -> everything else
After decades of recommending nutrient-sparse foods like skinless chicken breasts and claiming they are healthier than fattier cuts, it is no wonder we are left with a population of hungry over-eaters who at the same time are nutrient and vitamin deprived and malnourished.4 For the calorie counters out there, this may not make sense. But for those of us attempting to eat the most nutritious foods available, we may want to turn to organ meat more often.
Maybe we can learn a thing or two from the Maasai.
To Your Health,
Dr. Colin Champ
Dr. Colin Champ is a practicing radiation oncologist and nutritional expert. He is the author of Misguided Medicine: The truth behind ill-advised medical recommendations and how to take health back into your hands” You can hear more from him as the host of the incredibly popular Caveman Doctor podcast.
1. O’Keefe JH, Cordain L. Cardiovascular disease resulting from a diet and lifestyle at odds with our Paleolithic genome: how to become a 21st-century hunter-gatherer. Mayo Clin. Proc. 2004;79(1):101-8. doi:10.4065/79.1.101.
2. Eaton SB, Konner MJ. Review Paleolithic nutrition revisited: A twelve-year retrospective on its nature and implications. Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. 1997;51(4):207-216. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1600389.
3. Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, et al. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2005;81(2):341-354. Available at: http://www.ajcn.org/content/81/2/341.abstract.
4. Grotto D, Zied E. The Standard American Diet and Its Relationship to the Health Status of Americans. Nutr. Clin. Pract. 2010;25(6):603-612. doi:10.1177/0884533610386234.