Eating meat is one of the most highly disputed topics in nutrition. There are many different reasons why someone might choose to not eat meat, and ultimately the decision is completely up to you.
This article however, will clear the waters on the current research and understanding of if humans should be avoiding meat for the purpose of better health.
Before I get into it, I want to point out that most of the meat we consume around the world (about 97%) unfortunately comes from factory-farmed animals that are subjected to cruel, unsanitary and inhumane conditions.
This is not only unacceptable and needs to be changed, but also significantly affects the health and safety of the meat (discussed below), contributes to climate change and pollutes the environment. This is a much larger issue than most people can even begin to realize, although it doesn’t have to be.
Meat Is One Of The Most Nutrient Dense Foods Available
Let’s start by realizing that meat is jam-packed with nutrients that are essential to human life. We often here of its protein content, but meat also contains an abundance of micronutrients that are vital to our health.
Animal foods are our only source of Vitamin B12, while also offering vitamin E, D and the other B vitamins. They have critical minerals like iron, zinc, selenium, magnesium, sodium, phosphorus and potassium.
Meat even has cancer-fighting antioxidants like beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin as well as important enzymes that allow humans to access these nutrients.
Yes, most of these nutrients are available in different plant foods. However, the nutrients are more bioavailable and easier to access in meat. In plant foods, our body needs to work to convert them into a form we can use, lowering the absorption rate (1).
So Why Do We Think Meat Is Bad?
Saturated Fat & Cholesterol
The knock on meats, especially red meats, begun when news came out that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol are bad for your health (started in the 70’s).
We were told that eating these types of fats would clog our arteries, cause heart disease and make us fat. This is still a common belief today even though recent research has disproven this link and in-fact some studies have even shown a lower risk of heart disease and death from eating saturated fat (2).
It’s also well established that dietary cholesterol has little effect on blood cholesterol levels and again no link with heart disease (3, 4). Finally, eating good fats as part of a balanced, whole food diet can actually help you lose weight, rather than gain weight.
We Are What We Eat Eats
Outside of the fat content contained in meat, there’s a big concern surrounding what farm animals are fed, the medications they are given and the conditions they live in. This is where meat can seriously go wrong
Conventionally raised animals are fed cheap, mass-produced grains that are GMO and covered in pesticides. It’s also completely normal to put additives in their food like “recycled” animal waste (animal poop), plastic fillers, sugary candies that were damaged and couldn’t be sold in stores, and even bacteria and toxic chemicals (5).
The animals are fed this way and pumped full of hormones so they can grow as fast and as cheap as possible. Finally, because of the way they eat and the horrid conditions they live in, they are given antibiotics to try to limit sickness and disease.
Of course, eating animals that are fed and treated like what is described above can have a significant impact on our health, but it also changes the nutrient content.
Nutrient Differences in Grass-Fed, Pasture Raised vs. Grain-Fed, Factory Farmed
According to Dr. Mark Hyman, Chairman of the Institute of Functional Medicine, “Grass-fed meat is so nutritionally superior to factory-farmed meat that it is practically a different food”.
Grass-fed meat has up to 5 times as many Omega 3’s (anti-inflammatory fatty acids) and much fewer Omega-6’s (pro-inflammatory fatty acids) compared to grain-fed meats (6).
Finally, animal meats contain an unusually healthy and rare natural trans fat called Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), which improves brain function, helps with weight loss and reduces risk of cancer (9). Grass-fed meat contains up to 500% more CLA than grain-fed meat (10).
What’s Not In Grass-Fed, Pasture Raised Meat is Important Too
Pasture-raised, grass-fed animals are generally free from antibiotics, hormones, pesticides and other chemicals that are often found in large amounts in factory-farmed animals. Because properly raised animals eat a nutritious diet that is meant for their digestive system they have a stronger immune system that is better prepared to fight disease and illness.
Conventionally raised animals on the other hand are much more susceptible to developing disease and infections as well as containing harmful bacteria that remain in the meat, which we then eat (11).
The difference between eating grass-fed, pasture raised meats vs. factory-farmed meats is like night and day for our health, but it also makes a huge difference on the pollution of our water supply, chemicals in our atmosphere and rate of climate change.
How Much Meat Should We Eat?
Eating meat from animals that were properly raised and fed can provide humans with a nutrient dense food that is high in protein and good fats. When combined with vegetables it creates the perfect, well-balanced meal.
For those who already do eat meat however, we typically consume too much of it. Vegetables should always be the bulk of our meals, regardless of any health-related goal.
4 – 6 ounces or a palm size of meat in a meal that contains mostly vegetables is typically the ideal amount. When eating meat always go for high-quality over high-quantity.
What Kinds of Meat Should We Eat?
Pasture-raised, grass fed meats are the best, however when that is not available, go for organic.
Limit processed meats as much as possible as you can’t control what is put in them. They often contain fillers, additives, corn syrup, nitrates and other chemicals that can be harmful to your health.
Here is a list of good meats:
- Grass-Fed Beef
- Grass-Fed Lamb
- Pasture-raised pork
- Organic pasture raised Chicken and Turkey
- Organic and Nitrate/sugar free bacon or ham (in smaller amounts)
- Organ meats are the best meats!
Eating meat is your choice, but it’s important to recognize what you’re missing out on if you choose not to. That said, the meat industry is in a real bad place at the moment and it’s destroying a lot of things in our world.
The only way to change this is by choosing to purchase meats from humanely raised and properly fed animals. Doing so will shift the demand from cheap factory-farmed animals and force farmers and food corporations to start improving their practices.