Reader Sheila asked me a great question recently: is there really any safe meat to eat these days?
Beef and pork? Raised in cramped factories and fattened as quickly as possible, the happiness of the animal is nonexistent and the health of the meat is seriously in question. These animals are fed hormones, antibiotics, and an unnatural high-sugar grain diet that reduces beneficial fatty acids in the meat and causes illness in the animal (hence the need for drugs). Red meat and the “other” white meat (come on, it’s red) aren’t exactly the boon of health we low-carbers would like them to be. Sheila wondered about the rumors of dangerous parasites and germs in pork. Because of the modern factory system, pork really doesn’t have any greater health danger than beef. However, just because things like listeria have been reduced since the days of Upton Sinclair, doesn’t make meat healthy.
The sheer production level of meat is so high that it draws greedily on natural resources like oil, water, and land (and it’s a major contributor to rainforest deforestation). It’s no wonder many people are turning to vegetarianism. Either that, or it’s the fact that a typical burger patty is literally a composite of hundreds of cows, and processed meats are made of stripped spinal meat, which is turning so many people off of meat. This always turns my stomach, and although I do espouse responsible meat-eating (more on that in a moment), I’d sooner go hungry than eat a single meal that is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of animals. To me, it’s cruel and vulgar, and yet, a burger is the most popular food item in America. Sad.
How about chicken and turkey? Fowl is raised in much the same manner as beef and pork. Modern chicken is far more fatty than the chicken your grandparents ate. You even have to be careful with free-range products. The only thing that “ranges” with many of these free-range products is the degree of accuracy in the term. In some states, the “free range” is still a pen, albeit with some sunlight. My idea of healthy protein is not tens of thousands of chickens crammed into a sunless room smelling of chemicals and covered in filth, and I’m sure it’s not yours either, yet this is the reality.
But fish is healthy, right? Again, it’s not a pretty picture. Our oceans’ fisheries are in jeopardy. In fact, an entire section of California’s coast has been banned because the fish populations are close to being wiped out. This sort of thing is going on in many places. This isn’t fun news, but the facts remain. Our way of life is causing serious problems. Couple overfishing with the gross levels of pollutants in many waterways – particularly southern waters – and fish isn’t necessarily your best bet. Farmed fish is problematic because it can interfere with wild fish habitats, and farmed fish are often overcrowded to the point of cannibalism. And there’s the sea lice infestation to consider.
Sheesh! What about shellfish? My staffers jokingly call shrimp “sea bugs” because they have exoskeletons, much like any ordinary garden insect. Like lobster and crab, they sorta are sea bugs, if you think about it. Here’s the “bad news” about shellfish. I personally avoid shellfish.
This isn’t an apologia for vegetarians. I eat meat. But I have friends, family members and staff who don’t. If you think what I’ve just written is depressing, spend some time on the vegetarian blogs and you’ll see where my pals are coming from. For me, the problem is that our modern meat production system is grossly out of step with sustainability in every sense. This is a radical problem for the environment, for our sense of compassion and our ethical integrity, and human health. It’s that serious.
I believe another serious aspect of this problem is that the human body is designed to be omnivorous – subsisting on a healthy mix of animal flesh, vegetables, seeds, nuts and fruits. I am firmly against the modern diet rich in sugars, refined flours and processed starches. I think occasional whole grains are fine, but based on my background in biology, neither burgers nor burger buns are the road to the blessings of good health. I believe humans are meant to eat some meat – whether fish, fowl or livestock – based upon the facts I have observed in my studies of human evolution. That’s where most of my veg pals and I part ways. For example, I don’t think most types of soy are healthy. But we can disagree while still agreeing that the basic problem – the current system of meat production – has got to change. Period.
What to do?
If you don’t want to “go veg”, whether for reasons of personal preference or scientific convictions (my case), then do all you can to support better practices:
– Go organic. Expensive, yes, but I believe this is a non-negotiable. If you buy “free-range”, make sure it’s really free-range.
– Try to find local producers. This supports smaller farms, who often raise meat sustainably and in accordance with organic protocols but can’t afford the hoops of being officially labeled organic. This requires significant digging and a lot of phone calls, but this is your earth and your body, so I really don’t think it’s such a big deal.
– Eat less. This is a huge one that I never see anyone talking about. I am a big fan of “low carb” eating. I think sugar is no better than a toxin. But that doesn’t mean anyone needs to eat massive steaks. Humans are designed to eat some flesh, but fish and eggs are certainly sufficient, and more importantly, you only need 1-3 ounces at a time. Unless you’re an athlete in training, the need for anything more than a small handful of flesh is exaggerated. We’re used to eating huge servings of meat, but then, we’re used to eating huge servings of everything.
So, Sheila, in answer to your question, I don’t believe there’s really any one type of meat that is superior to any other – the way meat is currently produced. Produced sustainably, organically, with the animals’ health in mind, chicken is a great source of protein. And grass-fed, “happy” cows provide meat rich in good fats. And wild fish from safe, cold-water regions like Alaska contains Omega-3’s and very low levels of contaminants. Pigs not raised in cruel, cramped gestation crates provide lean protein. Personally, I eat mostly fish and fowl. But for every type of flesh we can consume, there’s a healthier, saner alternative. I don’t recommend one type of meat over the other, because ultimately, it’s the whole system that’s gotta go. I recommend rethinking the entire “meat paradigm”, and shifting your habits to support a better way of life. In a few short years, we’ll all have to anyway.
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Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.