Food recommendations change from year to year. But in the last 20 years, government regulators, health experts, and the media have been waging a steady campaign against red meat.
You’ve likely heard that it’s best to limit red meat to one serving a week. Or, that eating sausage causes cancer. And if you haven’t, you’ve likely been taught that the only red meat that should ever be eaten is lean meat.
These warnings bring pause to anyone considering making the switch to paleo. And while some of them are worthy of attention, others are based on faulty overgeneralization and poor scientific practice.
Not All Red Meat is Created Equal
Humans have exceptionally large brains for our body size. While elephants have a brain:body mass ratio of 1:560, ours is 1:50. That size allowed our ancestors to develop the complex perceptual and reasoning abilities that got them out of the savannah and into civilization. Yet what was it that allowed human brains to grow so large?
The answer is simple: red meat. Early humans drew enough protein and fat from meat to more than double their brain size in two million years – no easy feat considering the slow pace of natural selection.
Even after humans adopted agriculture, meat continued to be a staple. In Western countries, red meats like pork and beef became embedded in local and national cultures, and lifestyles often changed to accommodate better production techniques. But until recently, the basic makeup of red meat itself didn’t change.
Yet in the last 150 years, red meat production evolved much faster than humans do. Where cows and pigs once roamed in green pastures, they now stand in tiny cells and eat low-quality grains.
Because cows and pigs are kept in such close quarters, antibiotics are needed to ward off epidemics. Because producers are hungry to lower costs, animals are injected with growth hormones to reach full size quickly.
That production paradigm has all sorts of consequences for consumers.
When the World Health Organization and other bodies of experts pronounce judgments on beef and pork, they don’t differentiate between farm and factory-raised products. That’s a massive oversight.
Grass vs. Grain
There is a huge difference between grass-fed and grain-fed meat. Nutrients found in grass-fed red meat include Niacin, Vitamin B12, Selenium, Zinc, Iron, and Vitamin B6. To be fair, these are also found in grain-fed meat, but in much smaller quantities.
That’s not the most important nutrient, though: fat is. Grass-fed meat is a great source of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, as well as Omega-6 fatty acids.
What’s more, the ratio between Omega-3s and Omega 6s in grass-fed beef is ideal: 1:3. In grain-fed beef, that same ratio is 1:20. This imbalance between fatty acids can lead to inflammation and disease.
Yet consumers looking to enjoy healthy meat have to do more than just look for the grass-fed label. According to ‘Real Food Fake Food,’ a recent book on food fraud, the USDA’s guidelines for grass-fed beef don’t rule out factory farming methods and heavy drug use. In effect, his makes the designation meaningless for those who want to be safe and healthy in their food choices.
Since the bureaucrats aren’t following through on their mandate, it’s now more important to know where food comes from than what’s on the label. That’s why buying local is the best way to ensure the quality of your ingredients. If you can actually track the production process yourself by talking to a farmer, you may very well do a better job than a USDA regulator.
If you don’t have the chance to visit a farmer’s market, look for the Protected Designation of Origin label and read up about production methods at various locations. For example, meat from Bologna is still made at the high quality that earned the region its fame.
Of course, there’s always the option to order a meal plan from a trusted source so you don’t have to do all the digging yourself.
What About Fat?
Many cuts of red meat are high in saturated fat, a naturally occurring substance that has not been definitely linked to either LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) or heart disease. Yet saturated fat has become the bogeyman of America’s fat-obsessed food culture. That’s a shame, because many nutrient-rich foods – like red meat – can also be high in saturated fats. By scaring the public off saturated fats, experts are also scaring them away from iron and other essentials that are often lacking in the modern diet.
Be Careful When Grilling
One area where the experts have it right is the grill. Charred meat contains carcinogenic chemicals because of its contact with open flames. So, if you’re serious about lowering carcinogenic intake, it’s worth looking into some of the alternatives to standard grilling methods.
Flameless grills are a great way to enjoy the flavors of a grill without the side effects. Plus, many cities have placed bans on flame grills that don’t apply to their flameless counterparts.
Another option is sous vide, which means ‘under vacuum.’ This technique involves vacuum-sealing meat in a bag and cooking it in warm water. Sous vide offers precise control over the temperature that meat is cooked at. After the warm water, the meat is removed and slightly seared to impart the crispy texture of grilled meat.
Processed vs. Natural
Grain-fed organic red meat can still be bad for you if you consume it in the form of a sausage or as ham. Unless you do your homework, there’s no way to tell whether you’re buying a product that’s been filled with additives and preservatives. That’s part of why paleo and keto experts recommend staying away from processed meat – there’s no knowing how ‘natural’ they really are.
Mix & Match
Finally, it’s important to remember that grass-fed red meat is only supposed to be part of a well-balanced diet. Poultry, fish, eggs, and of course lots of vegetables and tubers should be consumed along with red meat to ensure that you’re getting a full dose of the many nutrients required for life. Red meat is a key part of that picture.