As a vegetarian I’m very suspicious of food from restaurants and will often check for hidden meat ingredients. People I’m with often think that this is due mostly to a moral fear of ingesting fleshy parts, and yet while I don’t want to eat meat, I’m more concerned for my intestinal tract (and really, I’m doing my company a favour). The lovely lady of Pawsitive Life recently asked if eating steak after a hiatus of 14 years would make her sick. Having always just assumed it would I suppose further investigation is required.
This is what I learned:
There is very little (and by little I mean nothing) to be found in scientific journals on this subject. Apparently the gastrointestinal misfortunes of lapsing vegetarians are not of imminent importance to the scientific community. Information that is available is decidedly unscientific and usually extremely biased one way or the other. For the most part the web abounds with blog reports on how to slowly reintroduce meat into your diet – not the effects of mainlining a medium-rare Chateaubriand steak. So what did this mean? More work for me – mainly learning how humans digest food (and meat) and coming to a quasi-scientific conclusion.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s skip the mastication. Protein, and thus meat, is mainly digested by proteolytic enzymes produced by the pancreas and released after eating into the small intestine (interestingly some of these enzymes may be released as soon as one smells food). These enzymes are very picky – a specific enzyme is needed for each type of amino acid linkage. Additionally, the pancreas only produces these enzymes as needed, and there seems to be a delay period of approximately 3 days. This means that people who haven’t eaten meat in a while won’t immediately have the proper enzymes to digest it.
So for a vegetarian eating a lot of meat for the first time in say 14 years, it would create a type of temporary food intolerance. Your intestines will (most likely) become swollen, inflamed and irritated, causing stomach pain, cramping, bloating, gas, vomiting, diarrhea and nausea. Fun.
Again, if there is any research data out there, it is well and truly hidden. I struck out with the American Journal of Physiology, the Journal of Nutrition, and EVERYWHERE ELSE. Anecdotal reports suggest the unpleasant reaction described above, but as we all know the plural of anecdote is not fact. Plus too many unanswered questions remain: are animal and vegetable-sourced protein fractions really so different? How does saturated fat content contribute; would lean meat or fish be OK? What about intestinal bacteria, what role does their presence or absence play? Needless to say, the search continues.
If I was a more dedicated scientist I would have eaten some meat and arduously recorded the horrific details for everyone. However, we all know what I’m holding out for:
And by special request – here’s a link to some cute puppies.