An extremely common question, especially with the bad press on red meat consumption and heart health - is eating meat healthy at all? The short answer - yes and no. There are variables in meat production that are vital to the effects meat will have on your body. Many of us are familiar with the idea that antibiotics are being over-used on animals to keep infections at bay with animals crowded together in confined spaces. What does that mean for us? We're consuming antibiotic residues when we eat that meat, not to mention other inflammatory factors and stress hormones flooding that animal before it's consumed. Thankfully, there are ways around poor farming practices to get good quality, healthy meat. Here are some things to look out for:
#1. Antibiotic and hormone-free
As farming practices have progressed to the industrial methods used today, large companies have discovered that they can use things like antibiotics and hormones to "beef" up their livestock. Of course, antibiotics were originally used to treat and prevent infections in the animals, but they have also been continually used to encourage growth in the animals. Hormones can change metabolism and weight in animals just like they do in us, so that's another way farmers try to get the most out of their product. The issue is that the remnants of both antibiotics and hormones can remain in the meat of the animals, which means they're passed to us when we ingest them. Ingesting these products can cause unnecessary hormone imbalances and disturbances in our gut flora, not to mention discomfort in the poor animals that are getting big doses of them.
Many meat products currently have labels that say hormone-free or antibiotic-free because fortunately some areas have outlawed these farming practices. Let's keep that momentum going by voting with our forks for more availability of good quality food!
Conventionally farmed cows are being fed corn, soy, and grain-based food because it's supposedly cheaper and easier than having the space for them to graze on grass. Do cows out in the wild eat corn, soy, or grains? No, they eat grass...lots and lots of grass. That change in diet has a huge impact on the health of the animal and its meat. We're finding in studies now that animals that are not grass-fed have a higher concentration of pro-inflammatory fatty acids, lower concentration of nutrients like vitamins A, E, & B12, and presence of antibiotic residues (again, animal crowding means more infections). So, your conventionally-raised meat may be contributing to your own inflammation, metabolic issues, and gut problems.
One unfortunate thing about labeling meat as grass-fed is that it may not necessarily be "grass-finished", meaning that animal may have been fed grains and corn toward the end of its life to plump it up for more sales. So, ideally, you want beef that is both grass-fed and grass-finished for the healthiest meat you can get, with the most nutrients.
Keeping animals in confined spaces was again, meant to be cheaper by requiring less land. In humans, we're just breaking into making the mind-body connection a mainstream idea and if we can acknowledge that our mental health is strongly related to our physical health, who's to say animals aren't similar? When we're happy it's much easier to be healthy and we see that animals that experience humane farming practices have healthier nutrient profiles in their meat. Healthy animals are the ones that are able to roam around to eat and poop wherever they'd like, just as they would in nature. And bonus, when they're free to roam, there's a greatly reduced risk of infections since they don't need to be confined in breeding grounds with poop piled up everywhere. Pastured farms are super important for ethically raised, healthy meat.
#4. Heritage pork
The scene of conventional pig farming in the US has gotten unfortunately disgusting. Conventional pig breeds have been bred to make pigs that survive in smaller spaces and make leaner meat. While that may sound like a good thing, it means that these animals are kept in confined spaces with rampant overgrowth of bacteria and parasites - not what you want in your future dinner. Their meat being lean also means that when cooked, it often dries out and is less flavorful. The alternative to conventionally-farmed pork is called heritage-bred. This method of farming provides multiple traditional pig breeds that are each better suited for different cuts of meat and different flavor profiles. Heritage breeding also typically means that those pigs were raised on a small farm with more space. Traditional heritage pig breeds are more robust when it comes to weather, so these guys can roam around outside and don't need to be in confined spaces to survive. And we know that when animals get more fresh air and exercise, they're going to be healthier and happier, just like us! These guys also have a healthier fatty acid profile and more nutrients like vitamins D&E if they are pasture-raised.
Just a side-note on the question of environmental ethics of eating meat: animals are vital to the health of our soil. If we don't allow animals to graze around land and fertilize the soil for us, it becomes deplete of the nutrients we need to then grow plants (which is essential to supporting our health and environment). Putting synthetic nutrients into soil to make up for that depletion is not enough. Healthy soil from nature is extremely complex and cannot be replicated with a few nutrients. The ecosystem is the way it is because Mother Nature already had it figured out. We don't need to re-invent the wheel with food and the environment, we just need to get back to nature and use ethical farming practices that supports happy animals and healthy soil.
With all of this in mind, I’m not saying that everyone should eat all types of meat or a certain amount of meat. It’s all about what your body can handle and what makes you feel best. I, myself, have an intolerance to pork so I do my best to avoid it to make sure I’m not fueling inflammation in my body. Now, back to the original point…
The bottom line is: If you eat sick animals, it's going to make you sick. Good quality meat has health benefits for us as it is extremely difficult to get enough iron and vitamin B12 from a plant-based diet alone. I, personally, don't recommend a solely plant-based diet long-term because it is likely to cause nutrient deficiencies. It's in our best interest to find local small farms whenever possible and support their ethical practices for good quality meat and farming. If that's not an option for you, fortunately there are services now that can deliver high quality meat to your door so you can play your part in environmentally-friendly and healthy farming.