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How Grass Finished beef reduces heart disease risk

Updated: May 9


Cows in Pasture

Isn’t it satisfying when everything just clicks into place.   Like the last piece of a jigsaw or the final screw into the carburetor you refurbished.   It also happens for me when all the pieces come together with diet, health, farm practices and medicine.


Who would have thought that moving beef cattle to factory farms, even if only for “finishing”, could have such a serious impact on the health of your arteries and your bones.  So much so that your level of bodily stiffness, cardio vascular disease risk, arthritis, osteoporosis risk and stroke risk are increased dramatically.


Here is how grass finished beef reduces heart disease risk. Let me explain how this happens.


When green grass and other green plants use sunlight and photosynthesis to produce energy, they also produce beta-carotene and Vitamin K1.  Vitamin K1 ( Phylloquinone ) was identified in the early 1930’s and is important for blood clotting.  Most people get plenty of this from eating greens and because the body recycles it, thereby maintaining healthy supplies.


When cows eat green grass, they ingest the Vitamin K1 and then they have the ability to synthesize Vitamin K2 from the K1.  Humans are not able to do this in any meaningful quantity and so must get their Vitamin K2 ( Menaquinone ) from their diet.  Good sources include meat, cheese and egg yolks.  Perhaps humans lost this ability due to an ancestral diet that was predominantly animal based and therefore provided  dietary Vitamin K2 regularly.


There is an excellent vegetarian source from a Japanese delicacy called natto, which is made from fermented soy in which the introduced bacteria make Vitamin K2.   However I hear that with its slimy consistency and unpleasant smell, it can be hard to eat.


Vitamin K2 was only identified in the 1970’s when it was realized that it had totally different actions within the body.  Weston A. Price had identified much earlier that something like it must exist as he had found something extra in traditional diets that was contributing to healthy teeth and jaw development which he called it activator X.   


In 1975, The Harvard Medical School discovered that the osteocalcin proteins, which are critical for driving calcium into bones and teeth, were dependent for activation on Vitamin K2.  Osteocalcin is the major non-collagen protein found in bone. When activated by Vitamin K2, osteocalcin is converted to a carboxylated protein which can then bind to calcium and this is what the body uses to build teeth and bone.  Activated osteocalcin binds free-floating calcium in the blood and transports and integrates it into the bone matrix.  So if there is no Vitamin K2, (plus vitamin D) then all the calcium supplements in the world will not build stronger bones or teeth.


So what happens to the calcium if the level of Vitamin K2 is low?  Without Vitamin K2 calcium finds other places to build up in tissues within your body with the most critical one being your arteries.  You may have heard of hardening of the arteries and this is the mechanism that does it.  One of the best tests for cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a coronary artery calcium (CAC) scan which measures the level of calcium build up in your arteries.  Unlike cholesterol, this measure seems to directly correlate with the risk of cardiovascular disease.


The statistics showing that more than half the people admitted to hospital for CVD have normal or low cholesterol levels shows that your CVD risk has little relationship to your cholesterol level.  ( https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amjcard.2013.05.050 ), (https://www.uclahealth.org/news/most-heart-attack-patients-cholesterol-levels-did-not-indicate-cardiac-risk).


As you can see, your level of Vitamin K2 is very important for your heart disease risk.  Alarmingly, only in 1975 were the very low levels of Vitamin K2 in overall western diets identified, and surprisingly not much is being done about it.  Perhaps the problem is just inconvenient, because here is a major problem that is keeping levels very low.   If a cow is taken off grass and moved to a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) for its final fattening up prior to becoming food, it is usually fed corn.  This is fattening and is low cost due to US government subsidies, so is a most profitable feed for the factory.


Corn has zero Vitamin K1 so the cows body is forced to stop making Vitamin K2.  After a short period on corn based feed the cow’s level of Vitamin K2 has plummeted to a very low level.  Just eyeballing a cow carcass from a CAFO shows much whiter fat which is currently considered desirable in meat on the table.  In comparison a grass fed carcass has a more yellow coloured fat due to the beta-carotene in the grass it has been eating and this also signals a higher level of Vitamin K2.  This beta-carotene is the same substance that makes healthy butter yellow, carrots orange and egg yolks orange.


Not only are factory cattle farms implicated in this health disaster, but also eggs.  When chickens are fed corn without access to any green vegetable matter or proteins in the form of grubs, worms, insects, etc, their eggs cease to have adequate levels of Vitamin K2.  Unfortunately the old method of using the color of the yolks to verify egg quality is not reliable.  Farmers can add chemicals to chicken food to make the yolks more orange.


There is also a, perhaps even more, critical function of Vitamin K2.  Not only does it activate calcium so that it can be used to build and repair bone and teeth, reducing the risk of bone fracture, osteoporosis and cavities, but it also activates another protein called “Matrix Gla Protein” (MGP) that removes calcium build up from soft tissues, gradually restoring arteries to their former suppleness.  This may reduce blood pressure and may help remove small calcified plaques that might be just starting in your arteries.  Animal studies have shown that Vitamin K2 supplementation can produce dramatic reductions in arterial calcium in just 6 weeks.  The relationships among Vitamin K2, MGP and arterial calcification are well-established. Studies show that high levels of non-activated MGP are correlated with lower vitamin K2 intake and lower survival rates among cardiovascular patients. (https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2796.2010.02264.x)


Based on this information we should be leveraging the action of Vitamin K2, but most people do not know about these health benefits.  Doctors often don’t know this and are guilty of putting people on calcium supplements which, without Vitamin K2 plus adequate Vitamin D, are likely to be making arteries harder, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease while doing nothing to assist with bone density and osteoporosis risk. 


What is perhaps quite alarming but also not talked about, is this statement from the research paper below: "Statins inhibit the synthesis of vitamin K2, the cofactor for matrix Gla-protein activation, which in turn protects arteries from calcification." In other words this natural protective mechanism to reduce calcification of your arteries is suppressed by statin drugs. ( https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25655639 )


Many “health” publications on the internet about the value of calcium and vitamin D for bone health, overlook this very critical Vitamin K2 piece of information despite it being known now for many years.  This perhaps indicates an article published without full knowledge of the way in which calcium works.


Can Vitamin K2 supplements help. Yes.  But a little knowledge is necessary.  Vitamin K2 comes in a few forms with the most common being MK4 and MK7.  Firstly Vitamin K2 (Menaquinone) is fat soluble, so you must take these supplements with fat or they will be wasted.  This is one of the benefits of eating good quality animal fats, they come with vitamins A,D, E and K2 prepackaged.  Secondly if the vitamin is not labelled as K2 them it is probably K1 and this is likely to be of little value to you as it has a very different function in your body.


Menaquinone-4 or MK4 is synthetic Vitamin K2 and has an extremely short half life.  It only lasts a few hours in the body before it is broken down and looses any benefit.  If dosing on this it is necessary to take it multiple times during the day.  I read that 45 milligrams is the recommended dose.


Menaquinone-7 or MK7 is natural Vitamin K2 and made from natto.  This has a half life of a few days, so a single dose per day is adequate.  I read that 120 micrograms or more is the recommended dose.  Can you overdose?  Apparently not.


If you are on blood thinners for any reason speak to your doctor before taking any of these supplements.


For Vitamin K2 to work it must be paired with adequate levels of both Vitamin D and Vitamin A.  These 3 vitamins are only available from the fat of animal foods.  You may be surprised by this but in the USA, foods containing beta-carotene are allowed by law to claim they provide vitamin A.


This is not actually correct and your body must convert beta-carotene to vitamin A before it becomes available.  Unfortunately this conversion is not efficient in humans (up to 48 molecules for 1 being required) which means that nutrition information labels can be hugely optimistic for the real amount of Vitamin A produced.  Compounding this, the absorption rate of beta-carotene can be as low as 20% plus the conversion rate declines as the amount of beta-carotene increases.  ( https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(95)92111-7  )


The scientific name for Vitamin A is retinol as it was first identified as necessary for vision, with the early signs of Vitamin A deficiency being poor vision in dim light.


Vitamin D as you probably know can also be made in the body from cholesterol when you get adequate sunshine.  A research project in 2007 found that Vitamin D supplementation may also be a major factor in reduction of cancer risk for women. ( https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/85.6.1586 )


I read that Vitamin K2 has other benefits such as reducing wrinkles, reducing the impact of Alzheimer’s disease, slowing aging, and may assist with Arthritis.  Researchers have identified an important inverse relationship between the level of ingested Vitamin K2 and the risk of developing Cancer and death from Cancer.  In other words more Vitamin K2 means a lower risk of Cancer. ( https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.28691 )


Find my book at https://amzn.to/3uiehfv,  Seek professional medical advice before making dietary changes, particularly if you are on medication.  

Contact me if you have questions.

Good health,  George Elder, Diet Researcher, Dip. Nutrition



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