After a long day, it’s natural to feel a deep pull of desire for a rich, juicy burger; a fragrant dish of slow-cooked short ribs; or a massive, seared steak. And when that dream becomes a reality, you practically purr like a satisfied lion, right? Have we lost the vegetarian readership by this point? Sorry, this story isn’t for you.
Beyond the desire to feel like a dominant predator or some kind of old-school Texas tycoon, what is it about a good, carnivorous meal that makes us feel so very good? Turns out, there are some real, scientific answers to that question.
1. Meat is basically a nutritional one-stop shop.
Meat has all the nine essential amino acids you need to consume in order to build and rebuild every cell in your body. And it’s got some other good stuff you need too.
“Meat is packed with vitamin B12, a nutrient that’s essential for providing long-lasting energy,” says Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, and author of Eat Dirt. “Meat also provides a range of other important vitamins and minerals that your body needs, many of which are more bioavailable and easily absorbed than the nutrients found in plant sources.”
Of course, as most vegetarians will tell you, there are plant-based foods that contain all the essential amino acids too (quinoa, for instance), and you can combine foods to get all you need.
2. It’s filling (and makes you stay full longer).
From the moment you begin chewing until long after your meal is finished, your body takes longer to digest the components of a high-protein food than it does anything else. While you use up the sugars in carbohydrates right away, the amino acids found in meat have to make their way all through the liver before they’re of any use to you.
“Due to the nature of amino acids—the building blocks of protein—they take longer for your digestive system to break down, compared to something like a carb,” says Dana White, RD. “It’s more complicated from a digestive standpoint, versus carbs, which is an easy-peasy process. Eating meat, you’re going to feel satisfied for a longer period of time.”
3. It goes to your head.
Not only do those protein building blocks, like branch-chain amino acids, go into creating muscle, some of them feed your brain too, in the form of neurotransmitters.
“Imbalances in these neurotransmitters can result in an array of problems, such as depression and anxiety,” Axe says. “Including meat in your diet may protect against neurotransmitter imbalances to help prevent these types of issues.”
A recent study found that people under 30 who eat meat less than three times per week (and exercise less than three times per week) are more likely to report feeling mental distress. This could be because they’re missing out on the pleasure of dopamine and the soothing power of serotonin, both made from amino acids (tyrosine and tryptophan) found in meat.
4. Bacteria are controlling you.
When you crave a big, juicy sirloin, you could be dreaming of its taste and smell, or you could be simply doing the bidding of your gut bacteria. The latter theory seems pretty convincing to Michael Roizen, MD, Chief Wellness Officer at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute.
“Red meat’s carnitine, lecithin, and choline specifically select out certain bacteria in the gut,” Roizen says. “The bacteria produce a waste product from the red meat, and you absorb that waste product.” That waste product is a stimulant to which we effectively become addicted, Roizen explains.
The microscopic overlords in your intestines don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart, either. Two of the byproducts of this meat-craving bacteria, trimethylamine and trimethylamine-N-oxide, have been associated with atherosclerosis in mice. (We know, studies involving mice aren’t exactly as relevant as those performed on humans. But the results are food for thought, no?)
5. You miss your mama’s meatballs.
Paleo diet enthusiasts like to argue that we love meat because cavemen did. Whether that’s true or not, White thinks your past does affect your appetite.
“What’s more powerful to me than your ancestry is how you grew up eating,” she says. “The household you grew up in, what meals were served at your table as a kid, how those food cues and behaviors were established—that has a much stronger impact on your daily life.”
So if you grew up associating meat-based dishes with a sense of reward or coziness, that psychological link can be powerful stuff.
“Some of the most classic comfort foods are meat-based, so for a lot of people, they can represent a feeling of comfort, happiness, or excitement over eating a dish that you’re looking forward to,” White says. “As a dietitian, I never want to abandon the idea of that personal relationship with food, because everybody has one.”
6. You have just enough of the good stuff.
Unfortunately, as a whole lot of scientific literature will tell you, meat’s benefits can easily be outweighed by excess saturated fat or the nasty stuff that comes in processed foods.
“Food should be a relationship,” Roizen says, who, as you might have guessed, thinks you should probably seek love elsewhere. “You wouldn’t be married to someone who doesn’t love you back, and food should be the same way.”
But White and Axe are confident that the right kind of lean meat can treat you right—in moderation.
“There’s a lot of information being thrown at people: Meat is good, meat is bad, meat is great, meat is horrible,” White says. “I think it comes down to making a personal decision.”
Sabrina Rojas Weiss lives in Brooklyn, surrounded by her fellow freelance writers and competitive stroller-pushers. Follow her on Twitter @shalapitcher.