How to eat meat: your health, the environment, and animal welfare
"Fat isn't a dirty word, but actually an essential life-sustaining nutrient that serves as a building material for cells, hormones, and even vitamin synthesis."
“I’m cutting down on red meat” – it’s something I frequently hear when I ask people what they’re doing to eat better. Contradicting that line of thought are people focusing on a high protein, higher fat diet, noting that our ancient ancestors probably hunted and ate meat from many animal sources. Of course, vegetarianism is a completely nutritionally-adequate choice (partly because we have a global food system that provides nearly any ingredient we could desire), and it’s the right decision for people who are morally opposed to eating animals. But, if you do eat meat, there are some considerations you can make to be conscientious of the life of the animal, the environment, and your own health.
When it comes to eating meat, my recommendations are to consider the two Q’s: quantity and quality. Quantity is easy to understand. The amount of meat we eat as a country is high, estimated to be over 132 lbs a year…more than any country except China. One “serving” of meat should be about equivalent to the size and thickness of the palm of your hand – roughly 4-6 ounces. If we are generally aiming for around 20% of your diet to be protein, that comes to about 100g per day, and spread out evenly through your meals and snacks (which is a good idea), roughly 25-35g per meal is ideal. An ounce of meat has about 7g, so your 4-6oz serving is pretty much on target! And that 20oz steak is way. Too. Big. Simple enough? Then let’s move on to the real conversation. Quality is a little more complicated to pin down, but here are the biggest reasons to choose grass-fed and pastured animals:
Here, I continue the crusade to convince people that fat isn’t a dirty word, but actually an essential life-sustaining nutrient that serves as the building material for cells, hormones, and even vitamin synthesis (see? Rolls right off the tongue!). I encourage increasing diversity, not decreasing quantity, when it comes to fat. The types of fatty acids found in grass-fed beef favor the balance we need between omega 3 and omega 6, which is highly skewed in the wrong direction (too much omega 6!) in the standard American diet. This imbalance can cause systemic inflammation (though some omega-6 fatty acids are also linked with positive health outcomes) and is also linked to diseases like heart disease, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and arthritis.
It’s not just an issue with beef – chickens that are pastured lay eggs that may contain 20 times the amount of omega 3 as their fellow non-pastured flocks. Grass fed animals also contain less total fat (and therefore more protein, ounce for ounce) than those that are grain fed or finished. When it comes to total omega-3’s volume, your top sources will always be cold water fish like salmon and tuna, but aiming to find foods that occur in nature with the right ratio is a good idea!
While there is debate about whether grazing cattle are better or worse for the environment, the most convincing and easy to understand example I’ve seen is from Gabe Brown, the farmer of 5,000+ acres raising chickens and beef cattle. His video, though almost an hour long, is well worth your time for an excellent crash-course in biodynamic farming that improves everything from soil fertility and microbial life to rain water retention. It’s important to note that he isn’t certified organic, since most people consider organic a gold standard of agricultural practice, when in fact many farms are not certified but still use practices that favor biodiversity and soil health. And he’s not a small farmer – just making all the considerations that he can to better his land and profit margins, which he makes a good case for being inextricably linked. Stewardship for the land and ecosystems can happen at farms of all sizes!
Some research indicates that grass-fed animals live healthier lives. If how the animals are raised matters to you, sourcing from (and thereby supporting) farms that you are familiar with is the best way to stake a claim with your dollars. No two farms are the same, so the best source for info straight from the producer. Which means going to farmer’s markets, visiting websites, and asking questions! DC has more farmer’s markets per capita than any other city; find the one closest to you or explore a new neighborhood to meet the food producers.
To summarize – eating meat as part of a diet high in vegetables and whole grains, balanced with exercise and plenty of water is a perfectly healthy eating pattern. But when making choices, remember to keep the two Q’s in mind: quantity and quality.
Sarah Waybright MS, RDis the owner and founder of WhyFoodWorks and the team dietitian for Vegetable and Butcher. WhyFoodWorks does nutrition education through food in Washington, DC in corporate seminars. Vegetable and Butcher is a subscription-based service that delivers chef designed, dietitian approved, thoughtful prepared meals to health-conscious people in Washington, DC. You can find Sarah on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram to get food tips and nutrition - and of course, healthy recipes.