by Dr. Mercola
There’s tremendous controversy about what type of diet is best – and whether or not meat is an essential part of anyone’s diet. Many promote vegetarianism for everyone, but this one-size-fits-all diet advice will do some people far more harm than good.
Personally, I would never argue with someone refusing to eat a particular food based on their spiritual convictions. It’s your right to choose what you want to eat. However, I strongly believe there are health consequences for opting to avoid all animal protein. There’s strong clinical evidence indicating that few people can maintain optimal health on such a diet.
To me, a major anecdotal clue is the observations of people who actually seek to implement this practice. If it were what their body needed and they were thriving why would, 75 percent of vegetarians revert back to eating meat—oftentimes due to declining health? This does not mean that many who follow a vegetarian diet aren’t healthy and thriving, but it certainly is a major indication that many find problems with it.
Why Vegetarianism Isn’t the Best Diet for a Majority of People
While I’ve previously discussed my own experience with vegetarianism, I’m not the only one who has experienced a decline in health as a result of shunning all animal protein. As mentioned above, many vegetarians who revert back to eating animal protein do so because they start having health problems. This isn’t all that surprising, considering the fact that protein is one of the basic building blocks your body needs to build, maintain, and repair your body tissues.
That said, I am not saying that everyone needs red meat, fish or poultry to stay healthy either… Other sources of high quality protein include raw organic dairy and eggs, which would not violate any ethical concerns about sacrificing animals for meats.
And regardless of your ethical leanings on animal rights, I strongly recommend avoiding meat from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). This type of meat is significantly inferior in quality and nutrition, and the harm will likely outweigh the benefit for most people.
When making a decision about which foods to eat, there are a number of factors to consider:
- Everyone needs fats, carbohydrates, and protein in order to thrive. However, the ratios of each of these will vary from person to person. For example, some thrive on very large amounts of vegetables and very little animal protein, while others need more protein and less vegetable carbs. The people who fare the worst on a vegetarian diet are those who require higher amounts of protein, as they’re depriving their bodies of essential fuel.
- The quality of the meat (which is primarily determined by the way it was raised), and the way it is cooked will impact its health benefits.
- The types and amounts of vegetables chosen, because not all vegetables are created equal either. For example, increasing your vegetable intake with salads is a good start, but iceberg lettuce has minimal nutritional value. Red and green leaf lettuce, along with romaine lettuce and spinach, are more nutritious options. Eating a wide variety of vegetables is also important to ensure optimal nutrition.
Not All Meat is Created Equal
The movement toward “ethical and sustainable meat eating” is in large part fueled by former vegetarians, who have realized there’s a better way to promote humanitarian treatment of farm animals than total abstinence. After all, if you avoid meat because you object to factory farming conditions, you’re not really helping to change the system at all. Your decision has very little impact… But by supporting small farms that raise their animals in a humane fashion, you’re promoting the proliferation of such farms, which in the end will benefit everyone, including all the animals.
Organic, grass-fed meat that is humanely raised and butchered is really the only type of meat worth eating, if you want to maintain your good health.
I’ve previously written about the atrocities that take place in some U.S. CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), where animals are raised in filthy, crowded conditions, and I think we can all agree that such animal abuse is inexcusable, even if they’re “only” being raised for food. But that’s not the only reason why I recommend avoiding these types of meat. Most CAFO’s pump the animals full of hormones and drugs, and feed them unnatural diets consisting of pesticide-laden and oftentimes genetically modified (GM) grains.
It would be foolish to think that the end result—the meat from these animals—would have any major health benefits…
In fact, the differences between CAFO beef and organic grass-fed beef are so vast; you’re really talking about two different animals, and two separate industries with entirely different farming practices and environmental impact. The latter also tends to favor far more humane butchering practices, which is also a very important part of “ethical meat.”
A More Humane and Healthier Option
Grass-based feeding is a very efficient and ecologically sustainable method of farming. Instead of producing tons of grain for feed — which requires extensive land, fertilizer, pest management, and large equipment for cultivating, harvesting, drying, storage and feeding — pasture-based farming lets the cows do the work. They harvest, fertilize, and feed themselves, overseen by the farmer in a carefully managed system. The net result is significantly less fuel consumption, less erosion, less air and water pollution and greater soil fertility. The animals also get to live a natural life outdoors, grazing off the land as they were intended to.
Most importantly, this natural and harmonious way of raising animals also leads to a superior food product. Grass-fed beef, for instance, is lower in fat than regular CAFO-raised beef. It also contains three to five times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid. The milk from grass-fed cows is also higher in many nutrients, including CLA, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fats.
Health benefits of CLA include:
|Fighting cancer||Promoting fat loss||Increasing your metabolic rate||Promoting normal thyroid function|
|Delaying onset of diabetes, and improving management of adult-onset diabetes||Helping maintain normal cholesterol levels||Helping maintain healthful triglyceride levels||Enhancing your immune system|
Why Choosing ‘Grass-Fed’ Beef is More Important than Choosing ‘Organic’
Keep in mind that grass-fed, and particularly grass-finished, beef is almost always preferable to certified organic. There are two primary reasons for this:
- Most grass-fed cattle are fed on grasslands with limited pesticides, fertilizers, and other harmful chemicals, and the animals will never see the inside of a feedlot. Hence it’s often comparable to organic even if it’s not marked as such.
- Most organic beef is still fed organic corn, which is what causes the myriad of health problems associated with eating CAFO-raised beef. Grain diets create a much higher level of acidity in the animal’s stomach, in which E.coli bacteria can thrive.
The term “grass-finished” means the animals were grass-fed throughout their life. Some producers feed their herds grass only in the beginning, and then finish them off on grains.
Grass-fed and finished beef not only trumps grain-fed beef in terms of nutrition, but also in food safety. It has a minimal risk of contamination compared to grain-fed beef due to the difference in stomach pH in the two diets. And since grass-finished animals live in clean grass pastures, this superior level of sanitation greatly reduce the risk of E.coli infection as well. If you can find certified organic, grass-fed and grass-finished meat, you’ve essentially struck gold…
What You Need to Know about the USDA Grass-Fed Label
On November 15, 2007, the USDA enacted new standards for the grass-fed label. According to this new USDA marketing claim standard:
Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state.
Animals cannot be fed grain or grain byproducts and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources…
This sounds all good and well. However, there are few loopholes. Most importantly, these standards are voluntary, so in order for you to confirm that this standard is actually being met, and the animals were indeed grass-fed until the end, the meat must also carry the “USDA Process Verified” label in addition to the “grass-fed” label.
Additionally, as pointed out by the American Grassfed Association, the definition of “growing season” means that animals could be confined indoors for long periods, and can be kept off of pasture even when there is grass growing. The rules also do not restrict the use of antibiotics and hormones in the animals.
Another issue frequently overlooked is that of cost to the farmer. USDA certification is costly, which prevents many small farmers—who are often raising food in traditional, healthy ways anyway—from legally calling their products “USDA grass-fed,” because they can’t afford to pay for the certification. However, if you go to your local farm and talk to the farmer, you can determine whether or not they fulfill the criteria of ethical and sustainable grass-fed and finished meat production for yourself. By going straight to the source, you’re likely getting the absolute best meat there is, USDA-certified or not.
Are You Ready to Make the Switch?
If you’re currently a vegetarian, and your diet allows you to function at the highest level of energy and fitness and you rarely feel hungry or crave sweets, then you’re likely on the right track. These are signs that you are eating foods that are appropriate for you.
However if you avoid animal protein for ethical reasons, and are struggling with health challenges, then I encourage you to consider changing your diet to include ethically-raised animal proteins. That may actually be the best form of animal activism, because it benefits not only yourself and the animals, but your entire community and the environment as well. The more people start demanding humanely-raised, grass-fed organic meats, the more farms will spring up to meet the demand, which will make it easier and less expensive for everyone to get access to these superior foods.
If you happen to live in an area that doesn’t have at least one local farm, look for a farmer’s market or community-supported agriculture program in your area. LocalHarvest.org is a good source. Simply enter your zip code to find nearby farmers’ markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food.
Switching from supermarket to local farmer allows you to get superior food from a safer, more humane source, while supporting your community and the environment at the same time—it’s truly a win-win-win-win proposition, and what could be better than that?