As omnivores, we derive from animal proteins certain essential nutrients that are not readily found elsewhere in nature. But this responsibility to support the health of our bodies does not diminish our responsibility to the planet and to the animals that provide us such important sustenance. The important thing is to become conscious of where our meat comes from, the welfare and treatment of the animal, the impact it has on the planet, and the health benefits and risks involved in our consumption habits. Our goal should always be to purchase meat from animals that were raised as nature intended and given a humane death.
The important thing is to become conscious of where our meat comes from.
Becoming conscientious about the way that animals are raised—including what they are fed and the specifics of their living conditions—is not only a socially-responsible way to eat meat, it also provides the greatest health benefits to our bodies. While one should always conduct as much research as possible into local farms, dairies, and pastures, the following is meant to provide a quick overview to healthy meat consumption. Click here to understand more about why going vegan is not the answer!
As a quick aside on the topic of animal protein, I think it’s important to address vegetarian alternatives that come from soy. One should avoid soy as much as possible for a variety of reasons: it’s not good for our hormones, is often genetically modified (so at the very least, go organic!), and has phytic acid, which leaches minerals from the body. It can also affects estrogen levels, which can cause breakouts in the skin. I was a vegetarian for almost ten years (starting in high school) and I feel so much healthier now that I eat an omnivorous diet. To learn more about the health dangers of vegetarian and vegan diets, read this article by Chris Kresser.
Ideally, you want to buy 100% grass-fed and finished beef (which in the colder months, is substituted with hay). Grass-fed beef is higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Find out more about the nutritional superiority of grass-finished beef in this article.
When cows consume good, quality grass and hay, it is unnecessary to supplement with grain, a common practice in feed-lots when farmers want to fatten up cows for butcher. While some supplemental grain might not be a problem, the difficulty with buying anything other than 100% grass-fed beef is that you don’t know what percentage of the diet was grass versus grain. For example, it may be labeled “grass-fed,” even though the cow only ate grass at the beginning of its lifecycle, which most do. Why pay extra for this? Grass-fed beef is expensive, so if you are going to pay more, getting 100% grass-fed means you are getting your money’s worth. Especially given the following information found on the US Wellness Meats website: “Not only is grain-finish counter to the values of grass-fed farming, but a change to a starchy grain diet can undo omega 6:3 ratios and CLA values in 30 days.”
In addition to the cows’ diet, pay attention to the conditions in which the animals are raised. Cows confined to a small space and forced to stand around in their own feces is not only cruel, but leads to disease. Instead, you want a happy cow out to pasture.
Find out where the beef is coming from, and how it was fed and treated. Click here to learn more. If you don’t see yourself buying 100% grass-fed, choose organic so that you know the grain isn’t GMO and laced with pesticides.
Bison, Buffalo, Lamb, Goat
The terms buffalo and bison are often used interchangeably, but technically we only have bison in the United States. High in protein, B vitamins, zinc and iron, bison is likely pasture-raised, as supply hasn’t grown to the point where bison are mass- produced in feed-lots. This makes bison a great choice, particularly at a restaurant, as you can feel confident you are getting a pastured product.
Like bison, lambs and goats are likely pastured and not confined to feed-lots. It is, therefore, not only a good protein source at home, but also when you eat out. My step-dad, Mike Lane, a farmer in Canada, raises lambs on Salt Spring Island, famous for its lamb meat. While his lambs enjoy a wonderful life on the farm, it is not uncommon for farmers to send their lambs to fatten up in a feed-lot near the end of their lives, or while they are awaiting butcher, as demand isn’t high enough to slaughter too many at one time. It highlights the need to not make assumptions and find out where the animal is from, how was it treated, and what was it fed.
Becoming conscientious about the way that animals are raised—including what they are fed and the specifics of their living conditions—is not only a socially-responsible way to eat meat, it also provides the greatest health benefits to our bodies.
I haven’t had experience eating rabbit, but similar to bison, goat and lamb, these are not massed produced animals and therefore likely had a good life able to demonstrate their natural behaviors. Rabbit meat is high in omega-3 fatty acids because they eat so much grass. As Diana and Andrew Rodgers point out in their book, The Homegrown Paleo Cookbook, “If you compare the vitamins and minerals in rabbit meat to those in chicken, rabbit wins by a landslide.” (pg. 47)
Sadly, there seems to be little importance placed upon the welfare of the pigs, and this is something that needs to change. While demand for “grass-fed” and “pastured” beef and chicken is growing, people need to start being more conscious about where their bacon comes from. Pigs naturally root, and it is cruel to deny them this innate behavior by confining them in pens with cement floors. Like other animals, pigs should be let out to pasture. Unfortunately, this type of pork is more expense. But the more we demand it as consumers, the more readily available it will become, which should help drive down the price and make it easier to find. Click here for sourcing information.
Poultry and Eggs
When it comes to chicken, understanding the label is key—and the labels are not always intuitive. Let’s start with the term “cage-free.” When it comes to “cage-free” meat birds, the label is actually misleading because, in fact, no meat birds in the US are kept in cages, though they might be crammed into disturbingly close quarters with thousands of other birds, also known as “confined animal feeding operations” or CAFOs. Sadly, the label “cage-free” tells you nothing about the living conditions of this bird or what it ate.
Another common term, “free range,” reveals certain things, but not others. According to the USDA website, all it technically means is that, “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” As David Maren points out in a blog post for Mark’s Daily Apple:
“In most cases, ‘continuous access to the outdoors’ is interpreted to mean that a cat door or similar contraption is screwed to one end of an existing warehouse-style confinement house where, at least in theory, the birds could venture out onto a dirt lot every once in a while if they pushed their way through the door. Note that the regulation does not specify that the birds need to be taught to actually take advantage of their ‘access to the outdoors.’ Truth be told, most free range chickens and turkeys never make it outside to see the light of day on the imaginary ‘range’ that they have ‘access’ to.”
In addition to telling the consumer nothing about the conditions of the bird’s life, it also tells us nothing about what the chickens were fed.
The best label to look for when buying chicken is “pastured” or “pasture-raised.” Not only does this label go much farther in terms of animal welfare, it also has implications for the bird’s diet because it insures the bird spent time outside, eating grubs and bugs, which chickens need to do for proper nutrition. As always, it is important to find out what the farmer fed the chickens, as you want to avoid GMO soybeans and corn. While the “pastured” designation is the highest, you may also encounter poultry labeled “100% organic.” This means that all the feed was organic, so you don’t have to worry about GMOs. It also means the bird had outdoor access (although, as stated earlier, this does not guarantee much), was given no antibiotics or hormones (which is redundant, as hormones are never allowed for poultry but organic does mean no antibiotics, phew!), and wasn’t fed animal byproducts. As a side note: poultry are omnivores and will eat meat, such as mice, so chickens eating animal products isn’t a problem, but the quality of animal byproducts used in CAFO farming is highly questionable. Also, because it is important for chickens to eat a traditional diet including bugs, the “100% vegetarian fed” label is actually not optimal and I would just skip eating vegetarian chickens. Chickens should eat their natural, omnivorous diet and while this “vegetarian-fed” label may mean you avoid questionable CAFO farming animal byproducts, it also guarantees the chicken didn’t live a peaceful life outdoors. In this regard, “100% organic” certainly has advantages over other labels, but from an animal welfare and nutrition standpoint, you are much better off getting pastured birds.
All that being said, US Wellness Meats, a trusted source for quality animal products, lists a lot of their poultry as “free range”. When I inquired about this, the company responded via email saying, “Some of our chickens are labeled free range and some are labeled pasture raised. The individual farms decide on the preferred labeling term. To us, they are interchangeable because of supplier protocols we require. A decade ago, pasture raised was not a common term; free range was actually the preferred term. As larger corporations continuously enter the specialty food market, we have seen labeling terms vary wildly…Since labeling varies, we always advise our supporters to ask specific questions when buying ‘grass-fed’ and ‘free range’ or ‘pastured meats’ meats! Labels are often not to benefit of the consumer, but rather to the profit of the company.” This is great advice! Ask questions and find a source you trust. Knowing the farming practices from where you buy your meat (as well as eggs, vegetables, etc.) gives you so much more information that labels alone.
The best label to look for when buying chicken is “pastured” or “pasture-raised.”
While it would be fantastic if chickens were raised on such a small scale that they could peck away and get all their food from foraging, this isn’t realistic for farmers trying to make a living. As David Maren explains, “When a farmer has, for instance, ten or fifteen chickens on their farm at a given time the naturally occurring insects in his fields are probably sufficient.” But when you get beyond this, which is essentially anything beyond a hobby farm, there simply aren’t enough bugs to go around! The birds will still get some bugs and plenty of grass and sunlight while out to pasture, but will need to be supplemented with feed. Just make sure it is organic! And my preference would be corn- and soy-free (although I do occasionally buy the non-organic pastured Vital Farms eggs when I can’t get to the farmers’ market). As someone who grew up with parents who raise chickens, I have witnessed the benefits of a well-rounded diet, as long as it is from a good source. My parents give their chickens buckets of food scraps, including lots of fresh seafood.
When it comes to eggs, it’s equally essential to understand the label. Just like with meat birds, the terms “cage free” and “free range” don’t mean a whole lot. Cage free simply means they weren’t kept in cages, but again, this label doesn’t tell you anything about the conditions in which the chicken lived or what they ate. As we now know, “free range” only means that the chickens have access to the outdoors and doesn’t actually guarantee that they ever go outside or were exposed to grass. The label “omega-3 eggs ” also doesn’t tell you anything about the conditions in which they were raised. As with chicken meat, “pastured” is the best labeling option to choose. Ideally, the eggs are also organic so that you know they were fed organic feed, but as mentioned previously, the label organic is less important than getting to know the farmer and finding out what they feed the birds.
Finally, a word about eating poultry: If you only eat skinless, boneless chicken breasts than you are missing out on the enormous benefits that come with eating the whole bird, including the bone, the skin, and the fat. As Nina Planck explains, “Certain amino acids (methionine) are found in muscle, while others are found in the skin and bones (glycine). The fat in chicken skin and dark meat contain the antimicrobial fat palmitoleic acid. The bones contain calcium, the joins gelatin. There is more iron in marrow bone than in muscle.” (Real Food for Mother and Baby, pg. 7-8). Air-chilled chicken is ideal because they haven’t been subjected to chlorinated baths that makes them absorb water and therefore net more when you are paying by the pound. For more on the history of chicken in America, please read this article.
While it is extremely important to purchase humane, environmentally conscious, healthy animal meat, we should also pay attention to how we consume it. This section addresses a dietary practice that doesn’t receive as much attention as it should. But the more research we do, the more we realize that the practice of eating raw meat is grounded in our oldest traditions. Sally Fallon says, “When Dr Weston Price made his pioneering studies of primitive peoples around the world, he was struck by the fact that almost every group he visited ate a certain amount of protein raw” (Nourishing Traditions, 231). As progressive nutritionists now understand, raw meat is a great way to get healthy microbes into your gut. The biggest challenge is overcoming one’s aversion to the idea of it. But if we liken it to sushi, we realize that the first step to embracing raw meat is already well underway.
For those who are open-minded enough to take the plunge, raw eggs are a great way to derive an abundance of nutrients. Not only are they energizing and also help detoxify the body, as the book Raw Paleo explains, “fat in the yolk is good at binding to petrochemically-based toxins…by binding to the toxins and carrying them out of the body through the stools…the protein in raw egg yolks and whites can bind to non-petrochemically-based toxins such as heavy metals…then excreted via the stools” (pg. 48). The nutrients in eggs also help cleanse the body, and the amino acids support liver detoxification. Melissa Henig recommends starting slowly when you’re new to eating raw eggs, working up to three per day for women and four per day for men.
“When Dr Weston Price made his pioneering studies of primitive peoples around the world, he was struck by the fact that almost every group he visited ate a certain amount of protein raw”
I regularly eat raw eggs in my smoothies for breakfast or a quick snack, or I shoot them, like in the Rocky movies! Some of the nutrients in eggs are destroyed when heated—although I do still eat cooked eggs, too. If you eat cooked eggs, ideally leave the yolk a little runny to preserve those healthy fats. There is some controversy over whether it’s a good idea to eat raw egg white because this part of the egg contains “avidin,” which depletes the body of biotin. However, nature being as brilliant as it is, egg yolks are one of the best sources of biotin, which counteracts this problem. Anecdotally, Melissa Henig says that in all her years of talking to raw egg eaters, she has never met anyone suffering from a biotin deficiency.
As far as concerns of salmonella, it is important to do your research and purchase your eggs from a trusted source. But generally speaking, I believe that all food comes with some risk and considering the fact that food-borne illness is caused by everything from spinach to peanut butter, I don’t think any one food should be labeled as unsafe when eaten raw. It’s all about sourcing.
On a final note, we should always strive to eat as much of the whole animal as possible (snout to tail!). Not only is it a great way to save money (a lot of these less desirable parts are cheaper and it means you aren’t just throwing away the roasted chicken carcass), it is also a way of honoring the animal that died by not letting it go to waste. From cooking bone broth, which is amazing for healing digestion and assimilating protein to making gelatin, which is great for hair, skin, nails, and gut health, there are so many interesting, delicious, and respectful ways to practice our meat-eating habits.
- Ask yourself, “where did this meat come from and can I do better?”
- Talk with your local farmer and find out more about where your animal protein comes from; consider doing a farm tour
- Replace conventionally raised beef with 100% grass-fed beef or bison, goat or lamb. Click here to find out where to buy meat.
- Replace conventionally raised poultry with pastured or at least organic. Click here to find out where to buy poultry and eggs.
- Replace conventionally raised pork with pastured pork. Click here to find out where to buy pork.
- Replace conventional eggs with pastured eggs. Click here to find out where to buy eggs.
- Consider trying raw meat and raw eggs; be careful with where you source these to avoid illness
- Start having bone broth a few times a week, ideally daily
- Eat liver a couple times a week; try making a pate or have it raw in smoothies. Beef and chicken liver is incredibly high in nutrients. Read this article by Wellness Mama on the benefits of eating liver. It has anti-inflammatory omega-3s, zinc, iron, choline, copper, folate and is high in antioxidants. A healthy liver processes, not stores, toxins but the fatty liver of an unhealthy animal wouldn’t be wise to eat so make sure you get your liver from a trusted, grass-fed or pastured source. Check out my favorite liver recipes.
- Beef heart is very affordable and works well for making tartare.
- Avoid soy. If you do have soy, make it organic and ideally fermented
Tips from my Kitchen (and the Kitchens of those I admire):
- Make carpaccio by slicing beef very thinly (like sashimi) and then drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. I eat it with avocado or raw butter and kimchi or sauerkraut. Add capers and raw, red onions for a kick. You don’t need much raw beef to feel satisfied. As Melissa says in Raw Paleo, “The calories from raw foods are truly satiating, that’s why you don’t need to eat a lot of food when you eat raw paleo…[it] gives me the nutrition I need without any unnecessary snacking. Eating small amounts of raw nutrient-dense whole foods is the key. Remember to eat for quality not quantity.” (pg.22) Well said!
- Cooked chicken liver has a milder taste than beef liver. While it is nutrient dense so you don’t need a lot, you still want to consume it a few times a week. I’ve found the best way to be eating it raw in smoothies, inspired by Melissa Henig at www.rawpaleo.com. You can check out my liver recipes here.
- Read “Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal” by Jennifer McLagan to get inspired on how you can utilize affordable organ meats like kidneys and heart
- Make your own bone broth by putting beef (knuckles and marrow bones) and chicken bones (feet and backs or the entire carcass), a few tablespoons apple cider vinegar and water in a crockpot. Chicken backs and chicken feet are very cheap and help make the broth “gel”, meaning it has lots of healthy gelatin. And don’t forget the vinegar because you need the acid to draw the minerals out of the bones. I used to cook my bone broth in a large pot on the stove but now I use the crockpot as that feels safer to me. Cook for 24-30 hours. The Whole 30 website recommends two to four pounds of bones for four quarts of water.
- For those that travel or just aren’t going to go to the trouble, I recommend the Ancient Nutrition Bone Broth Protein Powder. This is recommended by Dr. Axe and Daniel Vitalis, two people who I trust and who really do their homework.
- Bone broth is a big component of the GAPS diet. The Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet heals the gut and can help with a number of issues ranging from food allergies to depression and autism. This is a an interesting article by Wellness Mama about the diet. I think the GAPS diet is definitely worth checking out if you suffer from digestive issues or things like depression or ADHD. Even for those of us not following the diet, a lot of the recipes can still be useful in cutting back on sugar.
- Be mindful not to over-cook grass-fed beef or bison, which can become dry and tough. Because it is leaner, use fat when cooking it. NorthStar Bison is a good home delivery source.
- Lard is a very healthy fat from pigs and can be used instead of Cristco in pie crust and is great for frying potatoes or other vegetables. Check out the DIY section on how to make your own lard. Using high quality lard is a great addition to the diet in a society with alarming high vitamin D deficiencies.
- Pastured pork rinds are a good snack. Try these pork rinds on thrive.com.
- I’ve always thought nitrates were bad for you but this article by Chris Kresser made me reconsider that long held belief. The main thing is to make sure you get good quality meat, which most sandwich meat and hot dog brands are not. And unfortunately, pastured bacon is hard to come by but worth it! But according to Chris, we don’t need it to be nitrate free.
- Beef jerky is an excellent snack and great for road trips. My husband really likes Homegrown Meats jerky as it doesn’t contain berries like a lot of jerky brands do. This one is grass-fed and finished but does contain soy (tamari) and is pretty pricey at nearly $10 a package. If you do like a little sweetness with your jerky, I love Tanka buffalo jerky because it’s tasty and doesn’t contain soy. Belcampo is also a great brand.
- Vital Farms eggs are an easy to find pastured brand. Here is a guide to understanding the different types. The company says, “We have over 90 small family farms and the certifications on those farms will vary. All our girls are pasture raised and Certified Humane. We don’t use pesticides or herbicides on any of our fields and none of our birds are given hormones or antibiotics. The main difference between the brands is in the supplemental feed the girls get. The amount of supplemental feed will not vary by brand, rather it is up to the hens themselves how much they choose to eat when it is scattered out on the pastures. While our ladies are out on the pastures from sun-up to sun-down eating all the goodies the pasture provides, they can’t lay on grass and pasture goodies alone. All of our pasture-raised laying hens can get up to 50% of their diet from our pastures, but they’re also given a supplemental feed to ensure they’re getting the right amount of proteins and carbs to keep them happy, healthy and laying. This feed consists primarily of soybean, corn, and alfalfa.” I had been getting the Alfresco eggs but now, knowing this, I am going to at least get the non-GMO option (Lucky Lady or Backyard). Corn and soybeans crops are highly genetically modified.
- Coconut aminos are a great soy sauce alternative. Soy is added to a lot of products so read labels. If you do eat soy, get organic and fermented options (this breaks down the anti-nutrient phytic acid) so tempeh and miso are best.