Here’s some phenomenal news that really changed my life for the better: beef from cows roaming a spacious pasture, out in the sunshine, eating fresh green grass and hay as cows were meant to do, is very nutritious and can be an integral part of a balanced, nourishing diet.
There’s strong evidence and so many real-life stories extolling the benefits of grass fed beef, and I wish I could share it all. I’m very passionate about debunking the prevalent myths about an animal food that truly provides sustenance and healing. I really could go on for days! But, I’ll stick with an overview of the differences between grass-fed and conventional beef– touching on the ways animals are raised, the food they eat, and the health benefits of beef from cows raised on the pasture.
Animal Quality of Life
It’s no surprise that many people are compelled to give up meat when they realize how deplorable the conditions are for animals raised in factory farms or confined animal feed lots. Animals may be raised and fattened in terribly stressful situations, sometimes without touching the ground or without fresh air or sunlight. These are breeding grounds for illness, so the animals are routinely treated with antibiotics – antibiotics humans can absorb when eating their meat. The terms ‘cage-free,’ ‘free-roaming’ and even ‘organic’ are more marketing than a guarantee that animals live humanely in low-stress, outdoor settings and are fed clean diets their digestive systems are evolved to eat. Pasture-raised cows are healthier on all fronts, living on an open range, eating fresh grass and engaging in their natural behaviors. Farmers’ markets, local co-ops and grocery stores may carry truly pasture-raised, grass-fed beef products, or they can be ordered online. Many small farms raise their cows with the highest of standards but cannot afford the certification to be labeled as “organic.” You can always ask the retailer where the beef comes from and how it was raised to make an informed choice.
Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed
Cows are ruminants, meaning their bodies are made to eat grass. Digestion begins in the mouth, as roughage from grass produces the saliva needed to neutralize acid naturally present in their four-chambered stomachs. Cows are perfectly suited for grasses and other forage, but conventional feed today is mostly corn and soy (subsidized, genetically-modified and tainted with pesticides) because it fattens them up quickly and cheaply. Growth hormones may also be administered to encourage rapid growth, along with feed additives to bolster the protein content of the feed, including by-products such as blood, chicken manure, and even stale candy. On this highly unnatural diet, without adequate saliva production, cows suffer from increased stomach acidity and are susceptible to serious illness, including e. coli—treated with more antibiotics. The meat from grain-fed cows has an inferior nutrient profile, especially in its composition of vitamins and balance of essential fatty acids. On the other hand, pasture-raised cows eat fresh green grass in the fall, spring and summer, and hay in the winter, rich in all the nutrients they need. They live and eat as cows have best thrived since they were domesticated over 10,000 years ago.
Diversified Farming & the Environment
Some people give up red meat after hearing statistics on the carbon footprint and environmental degradation associated with large-scale cattle ranching and the predominant supply chain for American beef consumption. It is a harmful and unsustainable system, and while it may be environmentally-friendly to avoid conventional meat shipped from afar, not all meat is created equally. A world free of all red meat is not necessarily one that has greater food security or puts a halt on atmospheric carbon. Cows raised on a pasture with holistic or diversified faming practices actually create a healthier, more productive and organic system of local food production. Many of these techniques worked for centuries before industrial agriculture took over and others are innovative and adaptive. Diversified farming adopts a whole-systems approach, in which food crops are planted and animals are grazed in ways that restore ecological diversity and eliminate many of the detrimental effects of industrial farming, like overgrazing, the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, or contamination from industrial run-off. In the most basic sense, cows on the pasture have a natural food source as opposed to growing and shipping in grain feed—and they deposit and spread their manure to fertilize the soil. Taking it a step further, eating grass-fed beef from small-scale sustainable farms and ranches supports family farms and resilient local economies.
But what about what we’ve heard about red meat being bad for us, causing disease and making us fat or more likely to die sooner? Red meat has fallen out of favor in part because of a prevailing impression that high cholesterol, heart disease and cancer are associated with the consumption of red meat and fat. Many striking flaws are present in these studies or in their meta-analysis, and the black and white notions drawn from have become the common conception—or really, misconception.
Nutrition research has inherent limitations, so it is tricky to make broad generalizations based on the biochemical or longitudinal research we have today, plus people with power may have a vested interest in perpetuating the ‘lipid hypothesis’. Of course we still can draw from value from most studies, examined with a careful eye and make decisions from what intuitively feels right to our bodies as well. Clearly giving up meat, including beef, does not make a person immune to disease. Losing out on the nutrients readily available in animal foods can make a person more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies, inflammation and disease.
All of that being said, red meat, particularly from cows, sheep and bison raised on a pasture, has many documented health benefits, superior to conventional, grain-fed beef. One illuminating area is the fat. First of all, grass-fed beef can have 1/3 less total fat than grain-fed, rounding out to the same amount of fat as a chicken breast. Furthermore, beef from grass-fed cows can be significantly higher in healthy omega-3 fats. Beef from cattle raised on a pasture can have two to six times the levels of omega-3 fatty acids and are significantly lower in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3s can help ward off inflammation and reduce the likelihood of depression and Alzheimer’s disease, and studies are beginning to show its cancer-fighting potential. On the other hand, omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory and associated with disease when consumed in a significantly higher ratio to omega-3. Grass-fed beef has the recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, which is 3:1. The richest source of CLA, another beneficial fatty acid, comes from the meat and milk of grass fed cows. There can be three to five times more cancer-fighting CLA in grass-fed meat than in grain-fed.
Fresh green grass contains beta-carotene and other antioxidants in the caretonoid family, so the beef from these cows is an excellent source of Vitamin A. Vitamin A is critical for healthy vision, fertility, and immune function. Grass-fed beef is also higher in B vitamins thiamin and riboflavin. The B vitamins have a positive effect on cognitive function and mood; for child-bearing women, inadequate levels are associated with birth defects and poor infant development. B12 is an essential vitamin for nervous system function and healthy blood, found only in animal foods in the form the body can absorb. Deficiencies in B12, not uncommon in vegetarians, can create fatigue, anemia, memory problems, depression, and tingling in hands and feet. Beef and organs are excellent sources of B12, especially the liver, which was revered by traditional people and often given to pregnant woman. We know now that B12 deficiency in pregnant woman can lead to neural tube defects and premature delivery. So much wisdom to glean from our ancestors!
Pasture-raised beef has greater concentrations of key minerals magnesium, calcium and potassium than conventional, and provides an excellent source of zinc for proper skin and immune health. It’s also rich in iron, which enables the blood’s hemoglobin to carry oxygen from the lungs to the cells of our body. The abundant type of iron in beef, heme iron, is more bioavailable than non-heme iron found in some plants. Versus plant foods, it’s easier for our bodies to assimilate the perfect composition of amino acids in meat as a ‘complete protein.’ We need protein not only for energy, but to build and repair ALL of the body’s structures.
Don’t Give Up on Red Meat
Take away the antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, and other adverse farming practices – and add a healthy natural environment and viable nutritional benefits – we have a real, whole protein food to nourish us. Grass-fed beef is also one of the more readily accessible sustainable meats we find in the U.S. Ground burgers and medium-rare steaks are fast and simple to make, and slow-cooked braised meats and stews will feed a crew and keep us hearty in the colder seasons. Beef is simply one of the easiest protein foods to prepare. Plus, animal foods help keep blood sugar stable throughout the day and are filling so we are less likely to eat ‘empty calories’ like starchy carbs, snack foods, and sweets.
We eat well when we rely on what feels right to our bodies, and from what we learn from our ancestors before us. The original hunter-gatherers nourished themselves with the meat and fat of wild game and were able to thrive and evolve into modern humans. A pioneering researcher of nutrition, Dr. Weston A. Price showed how traditional peoples who ate animal fats, meats, organs, and/or milk had perfectly formed teeth and were in far better health than those who ate a Western diet, high in processed grain, vegetable oils, and sugar. Early societies did not suffer the health problems we now know in the wake of an industrialized and highly altered food system – including epidemic rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. As food has changed dramatically, so have trends in disease. Luckily real food is still here for us if we spread the message (and heirloom seeds!)
On a personal note: after years of non-committal vegetarianism, attempting to do right by the planet and animals by giving up meat, all while I often craved it, was anemic, and felt overwhelmingly lethargic, I learned about critical nutrients in grass-fed beef and I just felt certain I needed to eat meat regularly. If meat came from animals that were raised ethically to be meat sources, I could accept without guilt my human need for nutrition. Although I had no idea what I was doing (we did not cook beef in my culinary training program or at the vegan macrobiotic restaurant where I worked), I cooked a grass-fed steak for the first time, grilled in a cast iron skillet with sea salt and pepper. In the first few bites, I noticed the subtle taste of grass among the juicy, meaty flavors, and within minutes I had so much energy I was bouncing off the walls! Ever since, I’ve challenged the false advertising claiming all red meat is bad for us, and I’ve trusted my body to tell me when I need a meal with nourishing, grounding grass-fed red meat. For me, red meat is usually on my plate three to four times a week, with just about four ounces of meat per serving. It’s different for everyone, some people can do well with more and others less, taking current health and activities into consideration. Variety is key, with grass-fed beef as an excellent, satisfying protein along with other high-quality foods.
- Keith, Lierre. The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability. Crescent City, CA: Flashpoint Press, 2009.
- Robinson, Jo. Pasture Perfect : The Far-Reaching Benefits of Choosing Meat, Eggs, and Dairy from Pasture-Raised Animals. Vashon Island, WA: Vashon Island Press, 2004.