As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I’m regularly asked if I eat meat. Drum roll… Yes, I do. My family and I enjoy meat, seafood, and plant-based proteins.
I’m happy to report my dietary preferences don’t get “in the way” of helping those with differing opinions either because of my thorough and well-rounded education (masters degree in science/nutrition). I’m able to support my patients regardless of dietary preferences and deliver research-based information and recommendations without judgement or ulterior motives.
I personally believe eating meat and animal products is not a problem for those that choose to as part of a balanced, whole foods diet. The bigger problem is when we consume too much and when it’s poor quality. Let me explain.
Americans have made meat and other animal products, mostly red meat and processed meats, the centerpiece of their meals and diets for decades, and we now have evidence that high consumption of both is associated with increased risk of chronic diseases including diabetes, coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke, cancer, and even mortality.
The current recommendation from the USDA for protein intake for adults is somewhere between 5.0-6.5 ounce-equivalents depending on your sex and age. The average meat-eating American is consuming closer to 10 ounce-equivalents of meat (beef and poultry specifically) or other animal products daily which translates to approximately 222.2+ pounds per year. This amount is nearly double the protein recommendation for optimal health and doesn’t even include other sources of protein one may consume throughout the day. Consuming this much meat and animal-derived products not only increases the risk for chronic diseases, but it also takes the place of other healthy and sustainable food choices like beans and legumes or whole soy foods.
How did we get here? Science and technology have been driving factors in the way food is grown, processed, preserved, and transported in the U.S. since the Industrial Revolution. As the demand for more animal-based foods such as beef, cow’s milk, and chicken have increased, agricultural production has intensified and, unfortunately, the quality of these commercial products has decreased.
Technological advances in the 20th century mechanized farming, and animal production specifically, replacing small and medium sized independent family farms with factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Currently, factory farms account for 99 percent of all farm animals raised in the U.S. and the goal of these farms is to produce as much meat in the shortest amount of time possible which has brought some serious consequences.
Decreased nutritional value, sad and intolerable treatment of animals, and devastating effects on the environment are only a few of the detrimental effects of factory farming in the U.S. and worldwide.
But, there are different choices you can make when it comes to buying and consuming meat to positively influence and combat the negative outcomes of the current system. Prioritizing certified organic, grassfed, and humanely-raised meat has the power to promote your personal health and vitality, animal welfare, the environment, and so much more.
Click on the labels to learn more about these certification standards and regulations.
These are the 5 reasons why I eat organic, grassfed, humanely-raised meat…
More nutrient dense: Research shows that organic meat and other animal products like dairy may actually contain more nutrients, specifically omega-3 fatty acids or “healthy fats” compared to conventional alternatives. Grassfed or pastured animals, regardless of organic certification status, have also been shown to have increased nutrient content, specifically the fat quality containing more vitamin A and E, higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, a better ratio of omega-3 fatty acids/omega-6-fatty acids, higher quality saturated fat, and more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)–a beneficial fat shown to reduce inflammation, support immune function, improve bone mass and blood sugar regulation, and reduce body fat.
The overarching theme here is that animals who have access to the outdoors and are able to eat natural, foraged, plant-based diets seem to produce more nutrient dense meat, milk, and eggs. Organic, grassfed, and humanely-raised certifications all require these standards.
Avoid toxins: USDA Organic certification requires that all farms, plant and animal, cannot include synthetic fertilizers, sewage, pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irradiation, and antibiotics or growth hormones which may negatively influence meat and dairy quality and, subsequently, human health.
Animals raised on factory farms are fed mostly grains, oils, ground animal parts (from dead, dying, diseased, and disabled animals), animal waste, antibiotics and other drugs and plastics. Preliminary studies show that these toxins and chemicals may actually be found in the meat although more research is needed to confirm the negative side effects of such practices. I recommend erring on the safe side and avoiding exposure whenever possible until we understand more about how farm animals process these toxic materials.
Support animal welfare: You don’t need to be an animal activist to get behind this one! Factory farms are responsible for some fairly intense and cruel practices regarding the treatment of animals. Factory farm animals are often raised in poor quality environments where they’re confined, overcrowded, have limited or no access to the outdoors, fed inexpensive and unnatural diets to increase muscle and fat stores, and are given growth hormones and/or are physically altered to produce higher yields. Detailed information about these practices and more is readily available online and in print, however be warned that what you’ll find is likely very graphic, and frankly, disturbing.
Choosing to support farms that uphold animal welfare standards, such as the Certified Humane label, is extremely important in my opinion. And although we don’t have a lot of data currently on how the treatment of animals might change the nutrient composition of their products, I believe we eventually will. We already know and understand that animals who are slaughtered under stressful conditions actually release stress hormones that affect the overall quality and flavor of the meat, so changes to nutrient composition can’t be that far of a stretch. But again, no research is currently available to substantiate this claim.
Improve environmental impact: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the biggest source of pollution of lakes and rivers comes from agriculture’s impact and specifically industrial farms that use chemical fertilizers and pesticides on a large scale. Disposing of animal waste on the land, often untreated, gets absorbed into the soil and then runs off into natural waterways exposing them to toxins including antibiotics from the animals. And did you know that 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. comes from animal waste on a large scale? Also, clearing land to create large factory farms has led to increased deforestation and carbon emissions.
Organic practices ensure drastically decreased use, if any at all, of fertilizers, pesticides, and other unnatural toxins. Grassfed or pasture farming has been shown to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from larger green spaces while producing less carbon dioxide. Buying products with organic and grassfed certifications are not the only way (and may not be the best way) to reduce damage to the environment, but it’s a great place to start!
Promote community food system: Choosing to buy organic, grassfed, and humanely-raised meat focuses our attention on small local farms since they make up the majority of the producers with these certifications. Buying from these farms then directly supports your local economy and community. Research has actually shown that small farmers who sell their products at farmer’s markets are 10 percent more likely to stay in business compared to those who don’t. And to find these local products, you likely have to shop at smaller grocery stores or farmer’s markets which also contribute to your local economy, expose you to seasonal produce and local products, and promote a more quality, wholesome food system. Win-win.
So, now what? Now don’t get me wrong, choosing to buy organic, grassfed, and humanely-raised meat and animal products is only one place to start. What may actually have the most impact would be for factory farms to improve their practices considering they currently dominate the industry by a serious majority, but the demand has to be there first. As the saying goes, we vote with our pocketbooks, so it’s up to us to inspire this change. By refocusing our support (and money) to organic, grassfed, humanely-raised products, we can hopefully show factory farms the value (and business potential) of these practices.
Some of you may be thinking, this sounds expensive. And, I won’t lie, it can be. Organic, grassfed, humanely-raised meat and animal products aren’t usually the cheaper options. But this won’t change either if the demand isn’t there. Replacing all animal protein you consume now with equal parts organic, grassfed, and humanely-raised products could be cost prohibitive for many, but have you considered buying less meat of higher quality? Quality over quantity, right? This also takes the focus in your diet away from meat and animal products and gives you the opportunity to eat more plant-based foods, which is never a bad thing.
I attended the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference in 2018 hosted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where I first heard someone share the concept of “meat as a side dish” and instantly loved the idea! Consider treating meat and animal products like a smaller portion of your meal–a side dish–rather than the entree which is more common in the U.S. Celebrate all other food groups as your main dish and serve them with a small side of meat. Shifting our perspective in this way has the potential to significantly benefit our health while consuming higher quality animal products.
At your next Taco Tuesday, choose to make sweet potato and black bean tacos with sauteed veggies. You can sprinkle on a small portion of organic, grassfed, humanely-raised ground beef or chicken at the end and treat it almost like a garnish rather than the main filling. Or when you make lasagna next, only add meat to one layer rather than interspersed throughout multiple layers. Remember, this is not about eliminating meat or animal products, but rather consuming less amounts of higher quality.
You still with me? Hope so! Ok, so the main take-aways are:
- Eating meat isn’t the problem—it’s more about quantity and quality.
- Choose organic, grassfed, humanely-raised meat and animal products whenever possible and look for certified labels.
- There are many other benefits outside of improving your health for consuming organic, grassfed, humanely-raised products.
- It’s not all or nothing! If concerned about the cost of organic, grassfed, humanely-raised products, prioritize quality not quantity.
- Enjoy a plant-based meal or entree with a side of meat!