By Jennifer Laity, M.S., RCEP
The debate about whether humans should be eating animal products, particularly meat and dairy, is often passionately argued. Those who feel strongly that, from a moral and environmental standpoint, we should avoid raising animals for food vehemently oppose those who believe that incorporating animal products into the human diet is an essential part of optimal health. While this debate will likely linger for many years to come, those who choose to eat animal products should consider the source of their products, which can have a significant impact on their own health as well as the health of animals and the environment.
The digestive systems of animals that humans typically use for food are designed to process vegetation that is grazed in nature. Human cultures have hunted, herded, or domesticated these animals to produce products that have been a valuable food source for centuries. However, our modern agricultural system has altered how we raise the vast majority of the animals that Americans use for food. Animals are taken out of the natural world and placed in factory farms (CAFOs or confined animal feeding operations) to maximize convenience and profits. Factory farms raise 99.9% of chickens used for meat, 97% of egg-laying hens, 99% of turkeys, 95% of pigs, and 78% of beef cattle sold in the U.S (1). In CAFOs, animals are fed a combination of grains (mostly corn and soy), alfalfa, silage, and a mish-mash of fillers that provide cheap calories in the form of leftover distiller grains, feathers, hair, skin, hooves, blood, rendered meat, and manure of other animals. Even plastic pellets and expired candy and desserts are sometimes fed to the animals. This vastly altered diet has resulted in animals that are less healthy, require more antibiotics and medications, and are given hormones to get them to slaughter-weight more quickly. While these practices, along with government agricultural subsidies for corn and soy, have lowered the overall cost of meat for the average American, it has changed the composition of the products that come from these animals. The products that the majority of us are consuming are far less nutritious than those coming from animals that are allowed to eat their natural diet.
Research shows that when animals eat their natural diet, and are not raised with modern, conventional practices, they have lower amounts of fat and higher amounts of healthy EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals (2). To be clear, all beef cows start off being pasture fed. However, after the first 8-10 months of their lives, the majority are then sent to a CAFO where they are fed a diet that is quite different than what they were designed to eat. We have been cautioned for years to avoid the saturated fat in red meat. While grass-finished beef has similar amounts of saturated fat as grain-fed beef, the fatty acid profile of grass-finished beef includes more stearic acid, which is less likely to negatively impact cholesterol levels and heart disease risk. Additionally, research comparing eggs from pasture-raised hens versus caged hens showed that pasture-raised eggs had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, 3-4 times higher levels of vitamin D, higher vitamin A concentrations, and were lower in cholesterol and saturated fat (3)(4). Moreover, wild-caught salmon is lower in calories, lower in fat, has a better omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio, and is higher in potassium, iron, and zinc than farm-raised salmon (5).
If consuming foods with a higher nutrient density is not motivating enough, it is also important to consider the impact that consuming products from animals raised in confinement can have on other aspects of your health. A majority of the antibiotics used in the U.S., 70-80%, are used as a ‘preventive’ supplement for livestock animals raised in confinement. This is a contributing factor to the increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which the Center for Disease Control states is one of the most pressing public health problems (6). The waste products of animals raised in confinement can contaminate local water sources; contain over 150 pathogens that cause outbreaks of E.coli, salmonella, and other diseases that sicken humans; and increase insect infestations, air pollution, and greenhouse gases (7). In the United States, almost 100% of CAFO-finished animals are given growth hormones. This led the European Union, which had banned the use of growth hormone in their livestock, to block the importation of all U.S. animal products raised with hormones. This was due to concerns about the increased cancer tumor promoting properties of growth hormone residues found in humans who consumed food products from animals given these hormones (8). Farm-raised salmon have 16 times higher levels of PCBs, which are a known carcinogen, than wild-caught salmon (9).
If you choose to consume animal products, the best way to maximize nutrient density and minimize exposure to chemicals, pesticides, genetically-modified organisms, and other toxins is to seek products that come from animals that are allowed to live a life as close as possible to the way nature intended. This means looking for wild game, wild-caught fish, organic grass-fed/grass-finished beef, bison, and lamb, and organic pasture-raised pork and chicken products. These products may be more challenging to find in your average supermarket, and they can also be more expensive since it takes longer to raise animals on a natural diet. Additionally, grass and organic feed is not subsidized by the government. However, if the saying ‘You are what you eat’ is true, it is important to choose these options whenever possible to optimize your health, respect the welfare of the animals, and reduce the impact that your diet has on the environment.
So the next time you’re at the grocery store, be sure that your grocery cart is filled primarily with greens, vegetables, whole fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, sprouted/whole grains, and healthy oils like olive or coconut oil. Then, if you choose, the remainder of your food budget can go towards animal products that are labeled organic, wild, grass-fed/grass-finished, and/or pasture-raised. Consider purchasing your food and animal products directly from local farmers, at farmers markets, or through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
About the Author:
Jennifer received her Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology and Gerontology Certificate from the University of Georgia and her undergraduate degree in Kinesiology from California State University, Hayward. She is an ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist and has completed the Wellcoaches Core Coach Training program. In her 20+ years with BaySport, Jennifer has been providing wellness coaching and programming, fitness center management, personal training, group exercise class instruction, health screenings, and fitness testing. Jennifer previously worked as an exercise physiologist at Duke University’s Center for Living, and was a graduate assistant in the Cardiac Rehab and Adult Fitness program at the University of Georgia. In her free time, she enjoys researching ancestral medicine, playing almost any sport, volunteer work with her church, and enjoying the great outdoors.