You are what you eat. In that sense, you’re also what your food ate. The food chain extends further than you’re probably aware, right down to the nutrients in the soil where the very first seed was planted. How can we determine if what we’re putting into our body is the best choice? It boils down to knowing what your food is made of and where the ingredients come from.
And, by this point, you’ve heard it over and over again: cut down on your meat consumption and boost your fruit and vegetable intake. If you’re familiar with my previous blogs, you know that I’m a huge plant-based foodie. However, I know not everyone will, or necessarily should, shun animal-based foods, so when eating meat, try being a “qualitarian” as Ashley Koff, R.D. says, by choosing the highest quality meat possible. Here’s the lowdown on your meat options and the top reasons for choosing your meat wisely.
1) Choose organic
When it comes to labeling meat as organic, it must meet specific criteria: The livestock must be raised organically for a specified period of time; farmers must provide only organically-grown feed (unfortunately, this includes grain feed); the use of hormones and antibiotics is prohibited; certain banned chemicals and substances must not come in contact with organic livestock; and they should have access to the outdoors where they can graze (sometimes, but not always the case), have access to shade, shelter, sunlight, exercise and fresh air.
Is organic meat more nutritious?
While this has been an ongoing debate, the most logical conclusion from studies today shows that organic foods contain nearly the same nutritional profile as conventionally raised meat. However, the missing hormones, antibiotics, and chemicals may be advantageous to reduce future disease risk. And if you are lucky to have access to grass-fed, organic beef, then some nutritional benefits may apply (see #3 below).
2) Hormone-free and antibiotic-free is a must
Raising cattle is not what it once was. With the introduction of factory farming and the demand for cheap meat, some farmers have chosen profit over quality when it comes to meat production. With the knowledge that more meat can be produced in a shorter time when cattle are injected with growth hormones, how can one resist? This along with packing large herds into cramped, unsanitary spaces requires antibiotics to prevent any potential infections – and “coincidentally” – helps the cows gain weight. These antibiotics encourage antibiotic resistant bacteria and may kill good bacteria in the consumer.
3) Grass-fed beef has more nutritional benefits
Livestock that feed on grass usually have higher amounts of omega-3 essential fatty acids (50-75% more), more vitamin E, higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), less saturated fat, less marbling, and higher quality protein than their grain-fed counterparts. Choosing grass-fed is also a way to avoid animals that may have been fed genetically modified soy-feed. In addition, grass-fed beef are less likely to harbor E. coli than their corn-fed counterparts. Remember that grass-fed doesn’t mean organic or vice versa.
4) Avoid processed meat and limit red meat
The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) defines processed meat as any meat preserved by smoking, curing, or salting, or by the addition of preservatives such as nitrites/nitrates. Foods among this category include ham, bacon, pepperoni, pastrami, sausage, brats, hotdogs, and some deli luncheon meats. There is widespread evidence that these foods pose a high risk for developing colorectal cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Avoiding these is a great step in the right direction.
According to the AICR, red meat should be limited to 18 oz. per week, however the Harvard School of Public Health recommends making it an occasional part of your diet with no more than two-3oz servings per week. Why? There is no confirmation of the mechanism, but it is hypothesized that when meat is cooked, a chemical reaction involving the heme-iron, the proteins, and the heat produce carcinogens known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs).
How to cook your meat to avoid potential carcinogens
HCAs are formed when meat is cooked slowly and for long periods of time. However, quick cooking causes charring which also produces these toxic byproducts. One way to reduce these harmful carcinogens is to marinade your meat prior to cooking. This acts somewhat like a barrier to the reaction. Another safety measure is to avoid overcooking and charring.
5) Consider animal welfare and environmental impact
While not diet related, the health of our environment and the animals are two complimentary outcomes to healthy living. We need to focus on sustainability and compassion. Becoming more aware of how your choices impact your surroundings not only steers you into a healthier direction, it promotes wellness for all.