I think a lot of people are confused about meat, especially red meat. One day it’s bad for us and clogging our arteries, and one day it’s bad for the environment. Just like anything else, these blanket statements are not telling the whole truth. We really need to take a deeper look at where and how your meat was sourced to know about it’s impacts on you and the environment. While I don’t advocate for a vegetarian or vegan diet, because as a nutritionist, I understand it is impossible to get enough of certain essential nutrients like vitamin B12 (1), omega-3 fatty acids in their most usable form (DHA) (2), heme iron (3) without supplementing, and hard (but not completely impossible if you are very diligent about it) to get nutrients like vitamin D3, iodine (4), and amino acids that make up our connective tissue and gut lining like glycine, glucosamine, L-glutamine and proline (5). However, I have vegetarian and vegan clients and I support them in their decision and will always try to use my knowledge to help them optimize their health on a plant-based diet. I am also not trying to convert vegetarians or vegans into meat-eaters… do your thing! This post is to educate any meat consumer on how they can make sure the meat they are eating is good for them, the animals, and the environment.
plant-based vs. plant-centric
I am also not advocating for a meat-centric diet in this post. There are actually some cultures who live off exclusively animal products, like the Maasai in Tanzania, and have very low incidences of cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, obesity and live long and vibrant lives (10). So it is possible that eating only meat can be good for you. However, these cultures eat the whole animal (blood, bone marrow, organ meat) etc. so it is like they get the nutrient diversity of eating plants as well. I digress… what I am advocating for is voting with your dollar to do yourself and the entire market a favor by purchasing quality meat.
The last P in my PFFP magic foursome (read more about that here) stands for phytonutrients (which are the compounds that give plants their colors and have amazing super powers for those who consume them). Clearly, I am a big fan of plant foods! I think they should make up the majority of your plate at every meal and snack if possible. And therefore meat/animal products should not be the majority of your plate. This is a plant-centric diet. A diet centered around plants, but that includes animal products as well. I believe this is optimal from a nutrition standpoint because of some of the nutrients mentioned above, protein absorbability and other reasons, which, I can get into in a separate blog post (11). A plant-based diet differs in that it does not include any animal products. However, it is really important to talk about and take a deeper look at the types of animal products we consume.
myth 1: meat is bad for us and red meat specifically causes heart disease
The problem with most of the studies that demonize meat in terms of cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk, is that they are correlative studies that rely on food frequency questionnaires. However, there are several large issues with relying on this data: 1) correlation does not prove causation and 2) food frequency questionnaires are not accurate, people either forget or lie about what they eat and 3) a lot of these correlative studies took place in the era when meat consumption, specifically red meat was being recommended against by health officials, so people who were eating red meat were in fact less healthy. And any CVD or other diseases they had were not necessarily caused by the meat (however, the quality of meat is VERY important, more on that to come), but other confounding factors (they exercised and slept less, they smoked cigarettes, drank more alcohol etc.) There are actually no strong clinical studies that show causation with saturated fat (which often comes from meat) and heart disease (6).
In fact, saturated fat, which, can be found in fatty meat, dairy, eggs etc. is actually important for overall health, and if we eat the right kinds it is great for us. It makes up all our cell membranes, is vital for brain health, can improve HDL cholesterol, and is the building block of hormones and neurotransmitters (7). By the way, one of the best ways to reduce your risk of CVD is to increase your HDL cholesterol. A high HDL has actually been proven to be a better predictor of lower CVD risk than a low LDL (8). LDL cholesterol really becomes a problem in the face of inflammation, which, can often result from a diet high in processed foods and yes this includes conventional meat, however, it is not the meat inherently causing the problem. More on what type of meat to buy below. Inflammation can damage our arteries, which is where LDL cholesterol comes in to patch them up. When there is too much LDL patching them up, it can cause a clog and therefore contribute to CVD (7). None of this will happen without the arteries being damaged in the first place (which can be caused by a pro-inflammatory diet). ….So that is the truth behind where LDL got such a bad name.
Moral of the story, it’s important to recognize the studies that link meat consumption to heart disease are not telling the whole picture and we really need to update how we look at cholesterol since it is outdated and is not doing a good job of preventing CVD.
truth 1: conventionally raised meat can wipe out our micro biome and throw off our hormone balance but properly raised meat can be extremely nutrient-dense and anti-inflammatory
Cows are ruminants, their stomachs have 4 compartments, and the way their digestive system works, actually more efficient at converting certain vitamins into the usable form. So cows take foods we can’t eat, like grass, and get all the nutrients out, and then we benefit from those nutrients when we eat grass-fed/pasture-raised meat (9). In many cases, we can actually get more of vitamins A, D, and K than we can from just eating the plants themselves. Most of the nutrients are stored in the fat tissue from meat, so eating fatty cuts of meat can be great for us, as long as we are picking the grass-finished stuff (12). The fat in animals is also where the toxins (like antibiotics and exogenous hormones) are stored (this includes dairy fat), if you are not choosing properly raised meat.
When poultry/fish/cattle are raised in factory farm settings (also known as CAFOs, confined animal feeding operations) (19), they are not raised in conditions natural to the animal’s optimal health. What happens? The animals get sick. To combat this, the farmers need to give them antibiotics to fight off the illness, these antibiotics also make the animals grow larger than they naturally would (but they also use growth hormones for that) (13). Then, the consumers eating the meat are getting unwanted antibiotics, and guess what this does? Wipe out their good bacteria (in their gut, on their skin, in their mouths). Since our gut is in charge of our immune system and is where most of our serotonin is produced, this can have unwanted negative implications on our immune systems, our anxiety/happiness, and wiping out our oral micro biome can impact oral health (hello cavities).
Factory farmed cattle are also given hormones to grow faster and produce more dairy. The FDA has approved many of these hormones so they are totally legal and could be hiding in your conventional meat and dairy (13). However, legal, does not mean good for us. I think most of us would say “thanks but no thanks” to the exogenous cow hormones if we knew we were eating them.
So what can we do?
We can vote with our dollar! The more we all purchase properly raised animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) the more the demand for these products will go up, The more the demand goes up, the more the market will have to respond to the demand and increase the supply, hopefully pushing some of the CAFOs which are the worst offenders to the environment, the animals, and to our own health, to change their practices to become more sustainable for all parties involved. As the supply for properly raised animal products increases, the price will also go down, so the consumers will be rewarded in the long-run.
What to look for:
Looking for “organic”, “hormone-free”, “antibiotic-free” are all important. There are several different types of ratings and classifications for poultry, so see which ones you can find at your local supermarket. The USDA has a branch called the Agricultural Marketing Services (AMS) which has the following ratings for poultry:
Free Range: This just means the chickens were allowed out of the coop at some time. There are no guidelines for how long they get to be out or what they are fed. It also does not say anything about antiobiotics and hormones.
Cage Free: The cage-free label is something that is relevant only for egg laying hens, which, are caged to make egg collection more efficient. It has nothing to do with raising poultry for meat and yet you'll still find the cage-free label on a whole lot of poultry products. It may sound more humane, but it's really just an advertisement of the practices all poultry producers are already employing anyway. Under the AMSdefinition, cage-free simply means that the birds were able to "freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area." So they can be out of a cage but still in a coop the whole time.
Antibiotic Free: The AMS identifies this as birds who were not given antibiotics from birth to harvest. When you find this label, it is much more likely that the birds were raised in better conditions than a CAFO (confined animal feeding operation). Since animals raised in these large factory settings are subject to getting sick, and cannot make it to harvest without antibiotics. Many farms also use antibiotics to make the poultry grow bigger even if they are not sick, as I mentioned, antibiotics will be passed on to the end consumer.
No hormones: Hormones for poultry has been illegal since 1959, after it was discovered that humans consuming the poultry were having numerous side effects from the poultry. However, you will still see a lot of manufacturers put this on the label.
Naturally Raised: this means the poultry was not given hormones or antibiotics AND was only given vegan feed. Vegan feed is not always necessarily better for the poultry (for instance pasture-raised poultry will eat bugs that aren’t vegan) but that is what this classification means. These chickens were only fed corn/grain/soy/wheat/barley/oats etc.) This is different than “natural” poultry which just means that the poultry you are buying is only poultry and no additives (but says nothing about how it is raised). This classification also does not specify that the feed is non-GMO (and 95% of corn and soy in this country are GMO)
Organic: like other farm animals covered under the national organic program (17), this means the poultry are “naturally raised” and have not received antibiotics or hormones AND their feed is all organic and therefore non-GMO and not raised with pesticides or chemical fertilizers. To qualify, birds must be raised this way from their second day of life until slaughter (18).
You can also look at the GAP (global animal partnership) step rating (this is in addition to the USDA rating). The GAP rating will only appear on poultry raised by GAP standards, and lots of poultry on the market is below GAP standards, so if you don’t see it, that’s most likely why. Here are the ratings and what they mean:
Step 1: No cages, no crates, no crowding - baseline standard of 100+ standards to meet. Includes things like space to be chickens and items like straw or bails attached to their barns for pecking and exercise.
Step 2: Enriched environment - this includes everything from step 1 and more. These chickens have two different types of enrichments like straw/bails and hanging branches for pecking and exercise. These chickens must also have natural light.
Step 3: Enhanced outdoor access - these chickens are given different types of enrichments in their barns and have natural light and go outdoors seasonally.
Step 4: Pasture raised - chickens have access to pasture and the outdoors all year round.
Step 5: Animal centered - these chickens are kept in small groups and are always on a pasture.
Step 5+: Entire life on the farm - exactly the same as step 5, except the birds are processed on the farm (14).
In my opinion, if you can buy organic poultry, that’s your best bet. If it’s also step 3 or above I think that’s even better. It is hard to find step 5/step 5+ poultry but not impossible. Remember, it will cost you a little bit more now, but you can save a lot of money down the line in medical bills.
the classification system can also be confusing. The USDA grades beef as prime, choice, or select, which, just tells the type of beef and not the manner in which it was raised (15). Within these classifications, the beef can be further classified to tell you more about how it was raised:
Certified Beef: this just says that whatever the classification is, it has been certified by the USDA.
Certified Organic Beef: means the USDA has certified that this beef has not been subject to the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified feed, or animal by-products in raising the livestock.
Grass-fed Beef: Without human intervention, cattle would eat grass their whole lives. However, these days, most cattle—including those raised to qualify for the organic label—are brought to feedlots and fattened up on grain and other feed (their stomachs are not meant for grains and soy, so this is another reason the animals can get sick). Cattle that are exclusively grass-fed, have a more nutrient dense meat that is actually lower in saturated fat and higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Grain-fed cattle have a higher proportion of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
The USDA labeling for grass-fed is voluntary. Anything that says “USDA grass-fed” has only been fed grass and hay. Cattle farmers can also voluntarily do third party verification for "100% grass-fed” or “grass-finished” beef. This is required to be verified by a third party like the American Grassfed Association, which, is not a government association but still guarantees that the cows have only been fed grass and hay their entire lives.
Feeding cows what they are meant to be fed means a healthier animal, more nutrient dense meat (as I mentioned) AND less need to give them antibiotics and hormones, wow, what a concept!
Natural Beef: The USDA defines “natural” and “all natural” as beef that has been minimally processed and contains no preservatives or artificial ingredients. Since this should be true of all fresh meat, this label is relatively meaningless.
Humanely Raised Beef: Different groups have developed standards for the humane treatment of animals. Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) have the strictest standards and are the most transparent. USDA/Organic, American Humane Certified, and Global Animal Partnership are other organizations issuing humane treatment labels.
No Antibiotics and No Hormones: Producers must submit documentation to the USDA that the cattle were not administered any antibiotics or hormones to use these labels. Note that there isn't any third-party verification or testing for these labels (16).
My recommendation is to look for 100% grass-fed or grass-finished organic beef. This way you know you are doing the best thing for yourself and the cows and like I said, you can think of the incremental difference in price as an investment in your health as well as the health of our planet earth (more on that below). However, if that’s not available to you, do the best you can using your new knowledge. Knowledge is power!
myth 2: producing meat is bad for the environment
I agree with the statement that CAFOs and other factory farming methods of raising meat, are terrible for the environment (as well as the animals and the consumers). However, raising meat is not necessarily worse than harvesting plants. A pound of traditionally raised beef (not 100% grass-fed) takes about 410 gallons of water per pound to produce, this is the exact same amount of water as it takes to produce a pound of rice, and very close to a pound of avocados and cane sugar (20). However, the amount of water required to produce a pound of grass-finished beef is only 100 gallons, less than a quarter of traditional beef and many crops (21).
Rotational grazing, which is how cows should be grass-fed (not left to eat on one pasture and deplete it) can actually improve soil health, and cow manure is an important fertilizer to grow healthy crops. Scientists are actually developing a microbe that can be put into soil to mimmick the benefits of cow manure for growing any kind of plant. When cows go to the bathroom, it adds microbes to the soil, the microbes increase biodiversity underground and help carbon sequestration. Cattle walking on ground can make holes in it for water pockets and allow for natural seed germination. Cattle grazing stimulates grass growth, which is also good for the pasture. Dr Jason Rowntree of Michigan State University reported that regenerative grazing of cattle can produce a 30 – 40% improvement in soil carbon compared to where there was no grazing at all. He also cites that more intensive grazing proved better for soil health than less intensive (22).
The Journal of Soil and Water Conservation actually published several articles and figures that showed if more people employed AMP (Adaptive Multi-Paddock Grazing) which is a type of rotational grazing, it would actually greatly contribute to a large net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (23). Meat production is not the only place where we need rotation, crop rotation is extremely important for greenhouse gas reduction and overall health of the planet. Our current abundance of mono-crops (mostly corn and soy) are producing emissions just as bad as many livestock operations, however, studies have shown this can be reduced with rotational cropping (24).
truth 1: crops can be just as bad for the environment as meat and when meat is raised properly it can actually be good for the environment
I am not saying we should stop eating plants! Like I said, I encourage people to get many diverse, colorful plants on their plates when they can. If you are able to shop seasonally and locally, even better. However, plants can be just as detrimental to our environment as raising animals (if not done properly) and unfortunately so much of the United States is now mono-cropped. A recent study done at Tufts showed that a plant-only diet is not the best environmental use of land nor the most efficient to feed a growing population, since some land can only be used for grazing and is not suitable for crops (25).
As meat has been vilified in recent years, we have spent less and less of our grocery money on meat, but is this really making us healthier? In 1982, about 31% of the average American grocery bill was spent on meat vs. 21% in 2011. Where did that extra 10% go? Well the 1982 grocery bill was about 12% processed foods and sweets vs. 22% in 2011… there is your 10% right there (22).
Hopefully this post will make you think twice and do your research on where you buy your meat. Again, I want to emphasize I am not trying to say anyone’s values are wrong if they decide not to eat meat, everyone can make that decision for themselves. However, knowing that part of the population WILL eat meat, let’s make it the right stuff! One of my absolute favorite resources on this topic is Registered Dietitian and sustainable farmer Diana Rodgers, here is a link to her website.
Axe, J. (2019). Keto diet: Your 30-day plan to lose weight, balance hormones, boost brain health, and reverse disease. London: Orion Spring.
Hyman, M. (2018). Food: What the heck should I eat?New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Niman, N. H. (2014). Defending beef: The case for sustainable meat production. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.