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Healthy Meats: What to Buy

When I was a child, red meat was demonized. Everyone knew that eating well meant eating chicken — lots of chicken. “Heart healthy” cookbooks cropped up everywhere, each one full of the same advice.

Of course, these days, science has shown us that the original lipid hypothesis — the idea that eating saturated fat and cholesterol leads to heart disease — is simply false.

We now know for example, that our bodies use cholesterol to heal and repair damage to our cell walls. Simply because cholesterol is present at the site of the injury, doesn’t mean that it’s responsible for the harm done. It’s like saying our white blood cells cause infection, when in fact they are our body’s defense mechanism to fight infection and keep it at bay. Because most cell wall damage happens in the form of inflammation (which can lead to atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries), you can think of cholesterol like firemen. They’re on the scene to put out the fire, and are not themselves responsible for the fire.

If you’re still hesitant to eat more traditional levels of saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet, try reading this in-depth series of articles by Stephen at Whole Health Source:

  1. The Diet-Heart Hypothesis: Stuck At The Starting Gate
  2. The Diet-Heart Hypothesis: A Little Perspective
  3. The Diet-Heart Hypothesis: Subdividing Lipoproteins
  4. The Diet-Heart Hypothesis: Oxidized LDL, Part 1

Thus far in the series, Stephen has demonstrated using multiple scientific studies that:

  1. Dietary intake of saturated fat and cholesterol does not raise blood cholesterol levels in humans,
  2. That cholesterol levels in the blood are not predictive of, nor do they cause, heart disease,
  3. That what matters in blood cholesterol lipoprotiein levels are the size of the molecule, not the kind (fat, fluffy LDLs protect against heart disease, whereas small, dense, oxidized LDLs seem to cause it).
  4. That eating more saturated fat — not less — increases levels of the protective kinds of LDLs and HDLs

I can’t wait to read how the series concludes, but I have an instinctual feeling he will tell us all to eat a healthier balance of fats. Based on all the evidence we have, the key factors to eating a healthier balance of fats are:

  1. Keeping our Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acid ratio at less than 4:1, and
  2. Keeping our polyunsaturated fat intake to less than 4% of our diets

What does all this have to do with eating healthy meat?

Everything! As it turns out, industrialized meats have an Omega 6:3 ratio of 20:1, whereas traditionally raised meats that have been pastured, foraged, or wild caught have an Omega 6:3 ratio closer to 1:1.

What else is wrong with industrialized meat?

Besides the abnormal fat content of industrialized meat, there are a host of other problems that make it less than ideal, including: the levels of antibiotics used to raise them, the heavy environmental impact of manure lagoons, and the vast sea of monoculture crops used to feed animals in feedlots that strip off inches of topsoil per year. Whatever the concern, there’s a lot of evidence that industrialized meats are the product of cruelty and environmental irresponsibility.

What to Buy

Looking at all the evidence above, and considering the health benefits of pastured/foraged/wild animals, this part is rather simple. As with most food choices, it turns out that the best ones cause us to eat the kinds of foods our ancestors have been eating for thousands of years.

BEST CHOICE: The meat from grass-fed/pastured/foraged/wild animals. This can often be expensive if you’re buying it by the cut, so I can not stress highly enough the need to get your hands on a large freezer and buy in bulk directly from farmers. With your grocery savings alone, you’ll probably pay for that freezer in less than a year or two. Economize even more by hunting wild game. Or, if you have land, consider raising your own animals to feed your family and a few neighbors. If you’d like to find out more places to buy good meat in bulk, check out these online resources.

SECOND CHOICE: Buy meats that are certified organic or specifically claim to be “raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones.” I say this because one very deceptive practice that totally gets me angry every time I think about it is labeling meat, such as chicken, “naturally raised,” “hormone-free,” or “antibiotic-free” with a tiny little asterisk after the claim. First of all, “naturally raised” is not a regulated term and doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Furthermore, the modifying language for the asterisk often isn’t even on the product packaging. You have to go to the company’s website or read their literature to find out that they simply mean they don’t use hormones or antibiotics in the processing of the animal.  This has nothing to do with how the animal was raised, and everything to do with how it was cut up and packaged. In other words, it’s a completely empty claim. For who uses antibiotics or hormones when packaging meat? A couple major brands near me that do this are Fran’s Fryers and Buddy’s Natural Chicken. I’m sure there are others. Don’t be deceived! You’re paying a premium for something not substantially different than any other industrialized meat.

So, by sticking to a certified organic meat or one that specifically claims to be “raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones,” you are at least guaranteeing that these potentially harmful and toxic substances aren’t in the fat, marrow, or meat of the animal you’re eating.

THIRD CHOICE: Buy meats that are additive and preservative free. Avoid MSG, nitrates & nitrites, etc. by carefully reading labels. Sometimes even these labels can be deceptive, particularly in the case of lunch meats and sausages. (For this reason, my family doesn’t buy deli or lunch meat any more. Instead, we’ll make our own using roasts. Or, we sometimes slice up liverwurst, braunsweiger, or other organ meat sausages from grass-fed animals. To find roasts or sausages, check out these online resources.)

Where to Buy Healthy Meat

The best place to begin looking is at your local farmer’s markets. Ranchers and farmers are often there, selling meat by the cut. Ask them about their bulk rates. You can also find individual cuts of meat at upscale natural food stores, although they’re a bit too much on the pricey side for my budget. It’s also a good idea to contact the chapter leader of your local Weston A. Price foundation chapter, as they’ll often have a list of local farmers and ranchers that may not come to farmer’s markets, but still sell directly to the public. If finding local sources comes up short, you can always find online listings of quality meat retailers on my Resources page.)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.

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21 Responses to Healthy Meats: What to Buy
  1. Rebecca T.
    August 4, 2009 | 5:24 pm

    Kristen-

    thanks for this post. The fat/cholesterol hysteria is so overblown, we have some customers buying our expensive, pasture-raised eggs and not eating the yolks! Imagine that! Where all the nutrients and Omega 3s reside and they don’t eat it because their doctors tell them not to. Anyways, I wanted to mention our ranch- TLC Ranch- where we raised pastured pigs and chickens, along with the occasional lamb or beef steer. You can find more about our farm and practices at http://www.tlcrancheggs.com

    thanks!

  2. Earth Friendly Goodies
    August 4, 2009 | 10:43 pm

    I really have to stop reading this blog late at night (when I actually have some time after the kidioes are in bed) that scrumptious juicy steak is driving me crazy! :)

    I’ve heard a lot about Omega 6’s vs 3’s lately, but one thing has me a bit confused. At a seminar on toxins we were told grape seed oil is a good alternative for baking since coconut oil is a solid much of the year in the frozen tundras of Minnesota . ;-) But when I went to buy some the other day the label was comparing it to olive oil showing the grape seed oil has a greater amount of Omega 6’s, so why for one is that a good claim to make. If most people already have an imbalance of Omega 6’s why would they advertise that fact, unless they are just playing on people’s ignorance in a “wow look at how much more Omega 6 fats it has it must be good for me” kinda sense.

    And two if grape seed oil isn’t a good baking alternative oil what is? Oh that reminds me, what about the oils that seem to have Omega 3’s added – I think I saw a canola oil with an Omega 3 claim on the label – I thought that was one of the no no oils (maybe better than some of the others but still not on par with coconut oil)

    Ok, enough food for thought there or what? :) Let the discussion begin…
    .-= Earth Friendly Goodies

  3. Vin - NaturalBias
    August 5, 2009 | 8:42 am

    I think it’s great that awareness is spreading about the diet-heart idea and the lipid hypothesis being false. It just doesn’t make sense that the foods we evolved on could be so disastrous to our health (unless they’re from low quality sources).

    Anyone interested in an informative and humorous account of the flawed lipid hypothesis should check out the Fat Head documentary. It actually uses fast food to prove a point and doesn’t discuss food quality, but is interesting and entertaining nonetheless
    .-= Vin – NaturalBias

  4. KristenM
    August 5, 2009 | 10:20 am

    Vin — I have been trying to see that movie FOREVER. It’s been at the top of my Netflix cue for 6 months, but has been sitting there with a “long wait.” Ack!

    Earth Friendly Goodies — I think they are playing on people’s ignorance. Baking with coconut oil year round isn’t so hard. You just have to heat it up in a saucepan to melt it.

    Rebecca T. — How tragic! I can’t imagine not eating yolks!

  5. Michelle @ Find Your Balance
    August 5, 2009 | 11:49 am

    Thanks for clearing up confusion, especially about the labeling. I have found 1 place in Boston that specializes in local, grass fed beef. Other than that, it’s the farmers market for sure!
    .-= Michelle @ Find Your Balance

  6. Tina
    August 6, 2009 | 12:19 pm

    Am I the only one who thinks farmers’ markets are actually the worse place to find grass-fed meats? I’ve gone to a few this year here in the Littleton, Colorado area. I’ve only found 2 vendors who were selling meats and neither were grass-fed. One was a company selling sausage but wasn’t produced locally.

    I’m pretty sure most of the veggie vendors weren’t selling local veggies. Tomatoes in early July from Colorado? Doesn’t seem right. Some of the vendors selling the veggies didn’t know whether the vegetables had been sprayed or were organic. I always thought the vendors were the actual farmers who grow the produce!

    Maybe it’s just the Farmers’ Markets near me that aren’t good. I’ve seen the popcorn vendor, newspaper man trying to get you to buy a subscription, a distributor selling really expensive olive oil from Italy, a vendor selling baskets to carry your non-local veggies and grain fed meats in.

    Farmers’ Markets in my area seem to be where you go if you want to buy a lot more for out-of-state veggies and CAFO meats…

  7. tina
    August 6, 2009 | 12:50 pm

    Rebecca T – I can’t believe anyone would throw out egg yolks! I get pastured eggs (not from a Farmers’ Market – they aren’t sold there) and all we eat are the yolks! I pay $4.50 per dozen and we eat 4 dozen a week. Once in a while we’ll use the whites but mostly we whip up smoothies with raw milk (not from a Farmers’ Market – it’s illegal) and raw egg yolks!

    • mickey
      May 26, 2011 | 8:40 pm

      Dang, I buy from one of the local farmers and his eggs are only $2. $4.50???? wow

  8. Ellen
    August 6, 2009 | 1:43 pm

    #1 and #4 above seem to contradict one another.

    So saturated fat does or does not raise cholesterol levels (which include LDL and HDL). Which is it, is he stating?

    IMO, I’ll say saturated fats most certainly increase both LDL and HDL! It wasn’t UNTIL I ate a ton of saturated fat did my cholesterol totals improve (my total was too low for years)

  9. KristenM
    August 6, 2009 | 2:13 pm

    Ellen — I can see why you think the two statements are contradictory, but they are not mutually exclusive. It is possible for eating saturated fat to raise the good kinds of cholesterol (the fluffy, larger lipoprotiens), while simultaneously not having any consistently measurable effect on total cholesterol levels.

  10. Ellen
    August 6, 2009 | 2:52 pm

    thanks for clearing that up Kristen :)

  11. Walter Jeffries
    August 16, 2009 | 1:32 pm

    Thanks for the great post. The “nitrates & nitrites” issue is an interesting one. For millenia these were used to preserve food and prevent food poisoning. Back in the 1970’s we were told that these were bad chemicals because they appeared to cause cancer in lab rats when the foods were heated to high temperatures. More recent research shows that many vegetables are naturally far higher in these than bacon, hams and other preserved meats.

    We make an all natural Nitrate-Free / Nitrite-Free hot dog out of our pastured pork. But all the reading I’ve been doing about the nitrates & nitrites is making me question the scare of the 1970’s. It may be one of those things that are fine in low quantities, and not burnt. In any case, don’t grow up to be a lab rat. :)

    Cheers

    -Walter
    Sugar Mountain Farm
    in the mountains of Vermont
    http://SugarMtnFarm.com/blog/
    http://NoNAIS.org

  12. Amy Rose
    September 24, 2010 | 7:59 pm

    Great article on healthy grass fed meats. I am never disappointed when I order my grass fed steaks. I consistently get healthier steaks that are a wonderful source of lean protein. I know a great place to buy steaks online if you are looking for grass fed, hormone free, antibiotic free, pesticide free meat. While I do work for LaCense Beef, I can honestly tell you that they offer great steaks. I have been ordering online from them for years. My children have learned that you can enjoy your food if you make healthy choices.

  13. Jon
    May 8, 2011 | 9:43 am

    Mmmm, that steak looks amazing. You cannot beat some quality lean steak from the local butchers. Always go to the small independents, they tend to take more pride in the quality of their meat than the big supermarkets.

  14. mickey
    May 26, 2011 | 8:44 pm

    I must live in a really ideal place. I usually buy a whole pig ($300, 300 lb live weight) or a half for $180. It lasts me any where from a year to a year and a half.

    Sadly, some of our small farmers and now unable to sustain their farms and are selling off their animals. I can now buy a whole cow (before butchering) for $500.

  15. Micah
    May 27, 2011 | 6:50 am

    I don’t think this post is complete with out a 4th choice: Vegetarianism. Studies show that vegetarianism/veganism greatly reduces ones risk of heart disease, Type II diabetes, many cancers, etc. Additionally, the environmental toll of the animal industry is quite profound! Of course healthy meats as described here are far safer and more preferable to meat from animals raised in CAFOS, but I think many would agree that vegetarianism/veganism is the healthiest choice and should be considered in an article like this!

  16. Mary Light
    January 16, 2012 | 10:26 am

    I would love to know more about traditional cuts – the kind with lots of collagen and elastin that most of us dont see much any more but that older generations and traditional people may have used. I ‘ll keep researching! Inspired by reading “Deep Nutrition” recently .

  17. Mary Light
    January 16, 2012 | 10:55 am

    Micah- I was a vegetarian for over 25 years, so now as a proponent of traditional diets (basically close to my early childhood, largely due to immigrant grandparents) I think I have the experience of both sides of the fence. A delicious beefy stew simmers in the crock pot as I write- complete with a 5 kinds of added vegetables plus herbs. A real eye opener might be to read “Deep Nutrition” and see the difference between how Dean Ornish has aged (@ early 60’s) vs. someone the same age eating traditional foods. While some, but not ALL, vegetarians/vegans make an effort to eat healthfully, it is likely healthful eating in general- not avoidance of meat- which contributes to overall health and relative freedom from disease. Pure veganism also has a tremendous carbon footprint- unless you personally are finding lentils, sesame seeds, alfalfa, and year round fruits and greens in your own backyard (wow! tell me if you are! (: ), they must be flown or trucked in at tremendous fuel and environmental price. Something to think about.

  18. Mathew A
    April 19, 2013 | 6:37 pm

    Overall great article, and I agree that grass fed is the best way to go. That being said, meat isn’t the primary source of Omega 6’s in the diet, and eating grain fed meat isn’t going to throw you off much. Far better to cut out all the vegetable oils (especially when cooking). All high heat in bad for polyunsaturated (yes that includes grape seed oil for the comment earlier).

  19. J.D.
    May 1, 2013 | 4:04 pm

    Why did my previous post get deleted….??

  20. J.D.
    May 1, 2013 | 7:49 am

    Also, a great book is “the food revolution” – John Robbins

    Not a diet book, but a GREAT book to learn about food, what your really eating, vegetarian/veganism, etc.

    All backed by references and scientific fact. It’s insane the monopoly that the meat farmers have on the industry and healthy eating is bad for their business so naturally with a lot of money available they market (brainwash), etc. to keep that business strong.
    Definitely look into it guys/gals

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.