If you’ve been following my blog or Facebook page for a while, or especially if you’ve read my ebook, you’ve probably picked up on a running theme around here: it doesn’t do you any good to freak out over eating a perfectly healthy diet.
I’m anti-perfectionism. Anti-food-obsession. Anti-dogmatic, puritanical following of any particular diet religion. I don’t think you should try to only eat the right foods, because you will fail. You will stress out. And you will be doing more damage than good as a result. You can’t out-eat a stressful lifestyle.
So, with that said, there are just a small handful of things that I personally am a bit of a stickler about, when it comes to avoiding unhealthy foods. Excessive polyunsaturated fat, particularly industrial PUFA-heavy vegetable oils, are a big one. GMOs are another. Completely fake and harmful non-foods like diet soda and processed tofu.
And y’all KNOW I don’t tolerate anything low-fat, like—*shudder*—watery skim milk.
But one I haven’t really talked about much is still a biggie to me on my list of foods I think ought to be avoided—conventional, factory-farmed meat. Of course, I am a huge fan of grass-fed animal products, including meat. But what if that’s out of the budget? Is meat so critical to a healthy, traditional diet, that it should be included regardless of where it comes from?
Factory-farmed meat: better than nothing?
I’ve actually been asked several times about this recently—about what my position is regarding whether or not conventional/industrial/factory-farmed meat is ever acceptable to buy and/or consume.
This has coincided with my discovering that according to a number of internet diet gurus out there—even though pasture-raised meat is best, CAFO meat is a-ok to consume, because any meat is better than no meat. I think they may be taking this position in an attempt to make their otherwise very expensive dietary regime appear to be more affordable or attainable for the average person or family.
I think that’s bad advice. I honestly do not think it’s acceptable to be supporting conventional animal agriculture when you are an informed consumer who understands the environmental, ethical, and health repercussions of the despicable practices of factory farming. And I most certainly do not think that any health benefits of (factory-farmed) meat consumption outweigh these.
Why Conventional Meat Isn’t Worth it
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume you’re already aware of just how horrific the practices of factory farming are. We’re talking, animals knee-deep in their own feces, often never seeing the light of day, and suffering shocking cruelty and abuse. Widespread, rampant disease among the animals as a result of the atrocious diet and living conditions they barely survive in, and the tons of drugs and antibiotics administered just to keep them alive long enough to slaughter. Millions of pounds of waste polluting water and air, farm workers suffering chronic illness from the toxic environment, and local communities suffering from damaged ecosystems. Corporate takeover of the industry, causing the loss of thousands of small farming businesses every year, and corruption of the government that allows these practices to continue.
It’s as bad as you’ve ever thought it to be, and then some. What I want to address here, is why the nutritional value of conventional meat doesn’t make up for these seriously negative effects. And why I really don’t think there’s good reason for anyone to be eating it.
It would be different if meat was just so intrinsically healthy for you, even if lower-quality, that it would be best to get whatever kind of meat you can afford, and leave it at that.
Butter is, arguably, one of those things. Even Sally Fallon says that any butter is better than no butter. I for the most part agree. Bodies desperately need saturated fats, and aside from coconut and palm oil, animal fat is the only way you’re going to get it.
So, yeah, definitely buy whatever box of real butter you can find at the store, as opposed to the tubs of PUFA-laced “buttery spreads.” Conventional butter is a better-than-nothing-because-you-really-need-it food.
But meat is not.
First, I don’t need to convince you that conventional meat, red meat in particular, is bad for you. There is so much research and so many studies out there that prove this point beyond a shadow of a doubt that there really shouldn’t be any need for me to elaborate on the issue here. The studies are right. Conventional meat can be harmful to your health.
Of course, those of us in the real foods camp argue that those studies about meat’s harmful effects only apply to conventional meat, and that grass-fed beef is an entirely different ballgame. And I’m with y’all on that. Grass-fed meat is undeniably more nutritious, not to mention infinitely more ethical, and the only sustainable and environmentally-sound option for animal farming.
What we are failing to recognize here, is that muscle meats in general are not the protein panacea they’re made out to be.
Are animal proteins superior to plant proteins? YES. But muscle meats rank at the very bottom of the list for animal-protein-healthiness.
Muscle meats are actually highly inflammatory—by far the most inflammatory animal source of protein you can get. That’s because muscle meats are extremely high in the amino acid tryptophan. When tryptophan gets converted into serotonin, it causes serious inflammation and other stressful effects on the body.
This becomes a very serious problem when your primary source of protein is muscle meats, no matter the source. Traditionally, muscle meats were always consumed alongside foods that are plentiful in gelatin—the collagen found in the animals’ bones, cartilage, skin, and other connective tissues. People also used to make good use of the organs, too, which are much less inflammatory than the muscles.
Basically, the modern diet has extremely unbalanced sources of protein, because it eschews all that good stuff—everything but the muscles. When you eat more of the animal as a whole, the amino acids which make up the protein become much more balanced. Glycine in particular is necessary to counter the inflammatory effects of tryptophan. And glycine makes up about a whole third of the amino acid content of gelatin. That’s why it’s so beneficial to eat your meat with bone broth, sauces or gravy made with reduced bone broth, or with foods made with a quality powdered gelatin made from grass-fed animals.
Point is—meat in and of itself isn’t exactly all it’s cracked up to be, especially when you’re missing out on the nutrition and amino acids you need from other parts of the animal. Your consumption of inflammatory protein from muscle meats may be way out of balance as it is, regardless of whether or not it’s grass-fed.
There are, of course, many other well-known issues with CAFO meat that cause me to put it firmly in the “not worth it” camp of food compromises. From added hormones and antibiotics, to a way-out-of-whack omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, to all the various diseases and pathogenic bacteria CAFO meat is commonly contaminated with—the meager nutritional benefits start to sound pretty pathetic when you really take a look at these things. Sure, CAFO meat has some key B vitamins, D and E, iron, zinc, and other trace minerals, but nowhere near the amount that you’d find in grass-fed meat.
Instead of choosing a nutritionally-inferior and irresponsibly-farmed form of a highly-inflammatory source of animal protein, it’s a much better idea to simply get more of your animal protein elsewhere.
What to do if you can’t afford grass-fed
I do think that a moderate amount of good-quality meats from sustainable sources can be a great addition to the diet. Especially since pastured meat gets you more many more nutrients pound-for-pound than its conventional counterparts.
But what do you do if grass-fed or pastured meat is unaffordable for you?
Well, truthfully, the best solution isn’t to turn a blind eye to the horrific realities of factory farming and just get the more affordable kind. This is not a situation in which I believe in simply doing “the best you can,” by buying conventional.
There are much better ways to help ease your food budget than to compromise on this. For those who are of the mindset that a very meat-heavy diet is best, it’s even more important to choose your animal products wisely. Making a significant portion of your diet CAFO meat is a poor choice and benefits no one, least of all the consumer.
Quite simply, if you can’t afford grass-fed meat, eat less of it. (Or none at all! You can be a vegetarian without being any less of a “real foodie.”) Because grass-fed meat is so much more nutrient-dense, you can eat much less of it and still get the same amount, if not more, of the nutrients meat provides, without the negative aspects of CAFO production.
But as we’ve established, muscle meats on their own really aren’t all that nutritionally impressive, especially compared to other forms of animal protein which also happen to be cheaper. So, here are my suggestions to add to your protein intake without blowing your budget.
- Eat more grass-fed dairy. That list I mentioned of healthiest animal protein sources, where meat was at the bottom? Quality dairy products are at the top. Dairy provides not only a complete protein, but a complete food balanced in all the macronutrients. If you have access to raw, get it. If not, opt for grass-fed, which often comes from small, local dairies. If you’re eating less meat, you’ll have more room in the budget for quality dairy. Check RealMilk.com for local dairy farms near you.
- Eat more pastured eggs. They deserve all the praise they’re getting from us real foodies. Eggs are nutritional powerhouses. Check around for local farms, or even Craigslist for families raising backyard chickens. Even the most expensive pastured eggs are a cheaper source of protein than CAFO meat. And again, if you’re cutting that out, you’ll have more to spend on good eggs.
- Eat more organs. They are WAY more nutritious than muscle meats, between 10 and 100 times more, in fact. And, they are also dirt cheap! I used to get grass-fed beef heart for a little over a dollar per pound, and mix it in 50/50 with ground beef. Couldn’t tell the difference!
- Eat cheaper types of pastured meat. Ground beef is usually reasonable enough to afford, as are whole chickens, since you can use every last bit of them—by making broth out of the bones! Buying grass-fed beef in bulk is a very economical choice, if you have the freezer space. Find a local farmer from EatWild.com, or by contacting your local chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation. And if there are no sources available nearby, ordering online is another option to consider.
- Eat plant proteins. Potatoes, greens, properly-prepared beans and sprouted whole grains are some good and cheap plant-based protein sources.
- Eat more gelatin! Gelatin truly is nature’s most perfect source of protein. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Not only is it an excellent source of protein and counters the inflammatory effects of muscle meat, gelatin promotes healthy thyroid function and metabolism, gorgeous skin, hair, and nails, and even helps fight cellulite. And about a million other benefits. (But I’m sure you were sold at the “cellulite” part.) Get your gelatin from homemade bone broths, and consider supplementing with gelatin powder. I love making jello and fruit snacks and other treats out of it, and I try to eat some every day. Find quality, grass-fed gelatin here:
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Is it really NEVER okay?
Now, I don’t want anyone to walk away from this thinking that I’m just sitting over here a-wagging my judgey finger at you for buying or eating CAFO meat. For one thing, it’s none of my business what you feed yourself or your family. My only job is to help put the information out there so you can make more informed choices.
And if eating meat is really that important to you, and if you really cannot afford even a lick of pastured meat, and if you really can’t get any of the other options I’ve suggested, well—it’s your call. You do what works for you.
But it is my stance that an informed consumer should be avoiding this stuff. And I know I certainly do my best to avoid it, personally.
However, my exception to the “don’t ever buy/eat CAFO meat” rule is when I’m outside of my own home. It’s not always practical, or even possible, to only consume pastured meat when you’re in the company of others—either at a restaurant, or someone else’s home. So in those situations, I do not stress about it. If I want a burger at the family barbecue, I’ll eat one. That’s my version of doing the best I can, and you’re free to make do with your own.