How to Choose Meat that is Good for Your Body and the Planet

by Samantha Suarez | photography by David Specht

It’s hard to be a meat lover nowadays; with doctors and health nuts urging us to banish fat from our diets and cut down on red meat, focusing on things like tofu, quinoa and veggies instead, it’s no surprise people don’t associate meat with clean eating.

While it’s true that excessive consumption of red meat can lead to heart problems and other conditions, that doesn’t mean you should entirely give it up. In fact, when America made the shift toward less fatty foods, stocking the shelves with nonfat milk and yogurt, it didn’t make us any healthier, most likely because
we cut back on the healthy fats as well as the
harmful ones.

What people may not realize is that meat, and red meat in particular, is rich in muscle-building amino acids.  Plus, the fatty acids found in all types of meat help build your brain, which is 60 percent fat. Additionally, fat is a major source of energy, helps us absorb vitamins and minerals, and is essential for blood clotting, muscle movement and inflammation. This could be the reason that subscribers of the popular ketogenic diet (low carb, high fat) report weight loss, more energy and sharper mental focus. Just some diet food for thought!

Our advice? Buy meat that contains more of the good fats and less of the bad ones, so you reap all the benefits and avoid the unhealthy stuff. While you’re at it, why not buy meat that is better for the planet?

Don’t Panic, It’s Organic

How can you separate the good fat from the bad when it’s all in one slab of meat? It’s actually quite simple. Instead of overthinking things like white meat over red meat or lean cuts over marbled, we argue that you should consider the source of that meat instead.

You may have seen terms like “free range” or “grass fed” on food packages in the past and never thought
anything of it. But just as there’s a difference between eating a home-cooked organic chicken and fast food chicken nuggets, there’s a difference between buying commercially-produced meat and naturally-raised meat from a butcher or specialty store.

Once you understand the difference, you may think twice the next time you go grocery shopping.

Husband and wife team Matt Smith and Cynthia Esch, owners of Louise Earl Butcher in Eastown, are big believers in the sustainable and pastured meats movement, working exclusively with local farmers who raise their animals naturally and free of antibiotics and hormones.

Smith had this to say on the subject of fat and red meat: “People are starting to move away from the misconception that fat and red meat are bad for you. They’re also starting to understand that there are
good fats and bad fats and that the fat from animals
raised commercially is different than fat from well-raised animals.”

Beef Off: Grass Fed VS Grain Fed

When an animal eats the food it was naturally designed to eat, their meat ends up with significantly more nutrients. Cows, for example, are meant to eat grass and live on open pastures. Those raised this way not only live better lives, but are healthier, less stressed, and have higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (which is good for brain function, weight loss, and cancer prevention), beta-carotene (good for your eyes), and essential fat-soluble vitamins (good for everything!)

Because of the high demand for meat, however, many cows are born and raised in gruesome conditions known as “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFO). These massive facilities are where most “grain-fed beef” comes from. The cows live in filthy, confined conditions and are forced into an unhealthy diet of grains, and at times corn, soy and candy (to

cut costs). There have even been instances where they are fed a byproduct of the remains of other animals that died in the feedlot. Because of this, they get sick often and require antibiotics. They are then fed growth hormones to get as fat as possible.

These poor living conditions cause the animal to have high levels of stress, leading to tougher, flavorless meat. The poor diet leads to inflammation, which means less nutrients and a high amount of inflammatory omega-6 fats in the tissues. All these chemical compounds and unhealthy fats are then passed down to the consumers.

“Cows are meant to eat grass, so when you introduce grains to them, it causes all sorts of health problems,” Smith said. “Then they have to give them all these antibiotics and hormones to combat the side effects of a diet that’s not natural to them.”

In addition to having more healthy fat, grass-fed beef is higher in protein, leaner, lower in saturated fat and rich in Vitamin E, which wards off aging and keeps your immune system healthy. According to Jo Robinson in his book, Pasture Perfect, if you eat a typical amount of beef in a given year, which is about 67 pounds in the United States, switching to grass-fed beef will save you 16,642 calories a year!

Just Wing It

This same applies to chickens. “In some areas, it’s difficult to raise chickens outside because they have so many natural predators like hawks or foxes,” Smith explained. “One of the farmers we work with raises his chickens in coops that don’t have floors on them. Every day he goes out into the field and pulls the coop onto fresh grass.

That way, they’re still contained, but they get to be outside on fresh grass.”

There’s a reason chicken is the go-to protein choice for fitness enthusiasts, and it gets even better when it’s naturally raised: it’s lower in saturated fat, richer in protein and loaded with B vitamins. Commercially-raised chickens, on the other hand, have tested positive for low levels of arsenic, a carcinogen that speeds growth, as well as caffeine, antidepressants and painkillers, which are given to them to keep them alert to eat more and grow faster.

What’s in a Label?

When purchasing grass-fed beef, beware of a sneaky marketing tactic used by some retailers, where the beef is labeled “grass-fed,” when it is actually “grass-fed, and grain finished.” This essentially means that the cows were brought to feeding lots to get plumped up with grains right before being slaughtered, leading to a drastic increase in inflammatory acids and destroying the previously high levels of omega-3s.

Speaking of labels, most consumers may not be aware that the term organic-certified is a label highly regulated by the USDA and is a costly and lengthy process for farmers.

“A lot of our farmers use organic practices but aren’t necessarily certified,” Smith explained. “…You can still raise a high-quality product without necessarily being certified organic. On the flipside, you can also take chickens, stuff them in a barn, give them organic feed and call them organic.

You can practice these organic methods well or you can do them poorly. There are all sorts of buzzwords and focus terms in the industry today, but the best way to confirm you’re getting the best product is
to have a relationship with your butcher and have
that conversation.”

Smith urges all meat shoppers to have relationships with their retailers, regardless of where they shop.

But What About My Wallet?

Despite the additional health benefits of pastured meat and the fact that you’re supporting more ethical approaches to farming animals, some people still steer away from it, in favor of commercial meat, because of the price tag.

“I think the pricing is a bit of a misconception,” Smith expressed. “Our ground beef, for example, is a dollar or two less than the big box stores. A lot of that comes from them having to truck beef from across the country, instead of the farmer down the road.”

If you don’t live near a specialty store with more affordable pricing, there are still ways to be cost-efficient about it, such as buying in bulk or buying whole animals.

“We like to teach people that you don’t have to just buy a chicken breast or leg,” Smith said. “From an efficiency and cost-effective standpoint, if you buy a whole chicken, you can make multiple meals out of it, and it won’t be a detriment financially.”

Can’t fit a whole cow or pig in your freezer? Find some friends or coworkers to split a whole, half or even a quarter of the animal. Don’t forget to make soup stock out of those bones!


Samantha Suarez

Sam was born in Chicago, grew up in the Philippines, attended college in Australia and is now living in Grand Rapids. She loves cheese, video games and music, and will quote a movie or TV show every chance she gets.


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