To Eat Meat Or Not To Eat Meat? What You Need To Know
Not that long ago the idea of not eating meat was almost unheard of in the Western World, save for a few independent minded individuals making up a very tiny minority of the population. Today, even though the number of individuals who self describe as vegetarian here in the United States are relatively small, (less than 2.5% ) growing numbers here and in developed countries are limiting or completely stopping their meat intake for health related reasons. Reasons that stem out of a genuine concern about the quality of our current meat supply and the social and ethical questions that arise with commercially raised meat sources.[3,4] To say there are problems with our commercial supply of meat, poultry and fish would be an understatement, to say the least and while the ethical and social concerns have become popular issues, the health questions are seldom communicated to consumers. Consumers who generally have little idea of the changes in how our meat gets to our table over the course of our history and how these changes may have a tangible impact on our health as a whole. About a hundred and fifty years ago, farming and how our food made it to our pots was not at all an abstract idea or something you learn about in documentaries. Back then the percentage of individuals employed in the farming industry hovered at or around 70-80% [5,6] and farming was a part of our culture rather than a well-kept corporate secret. Today that number is less than 2%-3%[5,6] and the very practices that have sustained us such as hunting and raising animals are no longer familiar acts. Which is ironic given that meat consumption has increased drastically over the years as well. Growing up in the West Indies, the study of agricultural science was mandatory at both primary and secondary school levels. The goal being by no means to create a nation of farmers but to have a population that was well educated and informed about where our food came from. The disconnect here in the United States however, is very much intentional as the conglomerates of the meat industry go to great pains to keep the public in the dark about how the meat on your plate found its way there. A veil that keeps meat sales high and profits steady. Profits that are essential to the stability of the American economy, since the meat and poultry industry adds $864.2 billion annually to the U.S. economy, which is roughly 6% of the entire GDP. Thus it is not surprising that lobby backed food libel laws are on the books in several states, allowing the meat industry to file crippling lawsuits against any individuals making disparaging remarks about their products. Fortunately, such laws do not extend to the quotation of scholarly studies and reports and this article will be the first in a series on how meat, poultry and fish supplies have changed over the years and why vegetarianism is fast becoming a default way of life for those interested in taking care of their health.
Meat Then & Meat Now- From Wild Animals To Beef Hamburgers
The word ‘meat’ in the Western World has been synonymous with food of all kind and it is only in fairly recent times that its meaning has changed to refer mostly to beef and animal tissue outside of poultry and fish. That being said, this ubiquitous part of our early human diet is a far cry from what we would have eaten two hundred years, a thousand or even ten thousand years ago and it’s important to understand the changes in our meat sources over the centuries. These changes are by no means trivial as they have very real significance for us in terms of our health. There is a growing awareness that rapid and profound changes in our diet can create an environment to which the human genome has not had adequate time to adapt. With regards to meat, for the better part of 2.3 million years our animal protein source came exclusively from wild mammals with all other nutrients coming from wild plants.[9,10, 23,24,25]
Beef, fish and poultry were not commonly found on the menu of the human diet until a relatively recent 20,000 years ago  while today here in the U.S. domestic animals account for all of our meat intake, with beef being the most commonly consumed meat. Contrast this with the fact that estimates from over 229 hunter gatherer societies, (the closest approximate we have to Neolithic human practices), find that wild meats and related products can make up as much as 68% of their total caloric intake with the remaining 32% coming from wild plants and tubers.[12,13]. (Which, as an aside is a protein intake far higher than the 15% recommendations from the American Heart Association and the US Dept of Agriculture’s Food Pyramid. [14,15]- See my article on How Much Protein Do You Need?) Skeletons from the Upper Paleolithic period also confirm that early humans had a meat intake that is far greater than we most consume today in developed countries. Yet cardiovascular disease, diabetes, colon cancers and other diet related diseases remain almost non-existent among hunter gatherer societies that eat meat in the quantities consumed by our ancestors. Contrast this with the fact that over 64 million Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease which is by far the leading cause of death here in the United States, and that millions more suffer from hypertension, diabetes, obesity and other diet related diseases. Such numbers make it hard to conclude that eating meat is the problem, as even in large amounts other populations do just fine and have done so for thousands of years. The question that should be asked is how does the meat we eat today compare to the meats eaten by populations that don’t have alarming rates of diet related disease.
It would of course be a mistake to blame high rates of metabolic disease on solely on modern sources of meat- as the causes of diet related disease are legion and complex to say the least. Excessive consumption of fatty meats (which we talk about shortly), excess dairy products, high intakes of refined cereals, refined sugars, refined oils, salt and combinations of these foods long with low activity levels all contribute to adversely affecting our health and form the foundation of virtually all chronic diseases associated with modern civilization.
Over-consumption of fatty meats, nevertheless is a contributing factor and it is important to note that domesticated livestock today are far different in terms of fat quality and quantity from the wild mammals we ate for the better part of our time on the planet.[16, 18] Unlike domesticated animals that are consumed at the end of a pre-determined life cycle when they are at their fattest, wild animals (as any avid hunter would know) vary greatly in body fat content based on age, gender, size of the animal (smaller animals tend to have less fat) and the time of the year. Wild mammals also gain and lose body fat in a cyclical manner in keeping with the seasons and the varying availability of food.[19,20] That being said, wild animals have relatively high body fat for only a few months out of the year- a fact that interestingly enough holds true for wild mammals in the tropics and warmer climates as well.
Wild Animals Vs Domesticated Animals- Understanding The Differences
Fat in and of itself is not a bad thing. Mammals store excess calories as fat as an energy reserve that allows them to survive droughts, famines and the leaner months of the year when food isn’t as abundant. This storage mechanism holds true whether you are a whitetail deer or office worker and it is how we mammals have survived the harsh environments that Mother Nature can present. Fats aren’t all the same, nor are they stored the same way. In mammals, more than 50% of the fat in the subcutaneous and abdominal areas comprise of saturated fatty acids (SFA’s), while the major fat tissue found in muscle and other organ tissues are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PFA’s) and monounsaturated fatty acids (MFA’s). Now because wild animals lose most of their abdominal and subcutaneous fat for the greater part of the year, their meat yield is mostly lean muscle tissue consisting of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. That said, since wild mammals were our primary protein source for over 2 million years, high amounts of saturated fats would not have been a natural part of our formative diet. [9,21]
The Impact Of Farming on Nutrient Content
When humans started rearing animals for meat some 10,000 years ago, the onus was on getting the animal to as high a body fat content as possible before killing and consuming it. A feat that was accomplished by storing additional plant foods (hay, for example) for the animals to eat during the leaner times of the year. By keeping the animals well fed all year round they got fatter than their wild counterparts and the higher fat content increased in the amount of saturated fats added to the human diet. Products made from such fats such as such as cheese, butter and tallow became convenient ways of storing calories using saturated fats as a food source. Foods that are still very much of our diet today.
Meat & Fat Intake
Substantial evidence also exists that when it comes to preventing chronic disease, it isn’t about how much fat you consume but rather the type of fats that are in your diet and of course, how many calories you consume. Monounsaturated fats and some polyunsaturated fats have been shown to be have a role in stabilizing blood sugar, preventing diabetes and decreasing your risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids have well documented cardio-protective effects as well, [27,28,29,30]and wild meats consumed as they are in hunter gatherer societies contain very high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. A nutrient that is very much lacking in the modern Western diet as grain fed beef has very low levels of the heart friendly omega-3 fatty acids and it should be noted that even grass fed meat has far lower levels than wild game. (See my article on omega-3 fatty acid sources here) Saturated fat has been maligned as a causative factor in cardiovascular disease and many institutions such as the World Health Organization and –recommend lower intakes as a preventative factor against heart disease[15,31] That being said, many studies contradict these findings and so do the examples of non-Western societies that consume large quantities of saturated fats without major incidences of cardiovascular disease, however it should be noted that the meat and meat derived products consumed in those parts of the world are not similar to what we eat here in the United States.
In many parts of the world, the bucolic picture of livestock grazing on verdant pastures is very much the norm, but in many developed countries, this picture was replaced thanks in part to the advent of new technologies developed during the Industrial Revolution. By the 1850’s, those new technologies allowed for larger grain harvests and better transportation of both grain and cattle. With this came the practice of feeding cows an increasingly grain based diet, since grain was found to be far easier (and cheaper) to grow and store than grass. The problem is that grains are not and never were a natural part of a cow’s diet. The digestive tract of a cow evolved over millions of years to be able to digest grass and it is designed to do just that. A cow’s stomach acts like a giant fermentation plant, containing large amounts of bacteria that converts grass into the very nutrients the cow needs to grow and thus produce meat. The more concentrated fats, proteins and carbohydrates found in grains such as corn and soy create a serious dilemma for a cow’s digestive system. Eating grain based feed makes cattle grow fatter in the same way feeding processed foods that are not part of our natural diet makes humans fatter- and the consequences are just as deadly as well for the cow. Grains alter the delicate balance of bacteria in its gut and thus the animal suffers from a never ending case of indigestion -one that will ultimately bring about an early demise. Which is of little consequence since the cows reach market weight long before the premature death that awaits them from eating a grain based diet.
Increased Profits From Grain Feeding Come With Increased Incidence of Sick Livestock
Unlike their grass fed counterparts, grain fed cows are sickly by nature and the practice of penning cattle in feedlots so they move less and grow fatter faster doesn’t help their overall health either. Cattle, like all animals, evolved to have a certain level of activity as part of their natural grazing habits, a degree of activity that is impossible inside a feedlot.  Before 1850 almost all the cattle in the United States were free range or pasture fed and it would take 4 to 5 years for them to reach a size where they were deemed ready for slaughter, but by 1885 the use of feedlots and overfeeding made it possible to raise a cow weighing well over a ton in as little as 2 years. These factors introduced another new addition to the human diet- marbled meat. Meat that is unnaturally high in saturated fats. Higher saturated fat content means less muscle and less muscle means that the meat is more tender and ‘juicy’- qualities that consumers appreciate but may not necessarily be in their best interests health wise.
Marbled Meat- A Novel Addition To The Human Diet
It might be a bit of a surprise to consider that the marbled meat adorning the refrigerated sections of most supermarkets in the United States have been a part of our diet for less than 150 years. An important consideration for anyone eating commercial beef as part of a ‘Paleolithic’ dietary approach as grain fed meat is far removed from what our pre-agricultural ancestors would have eaten.[23,24,24] Marbled meat not only has a much higher percentage of saturated fats than naturally occurring meats, but it since the cattle are grain fed it also shifts the balance of omega 3 fatty acids from being naturally high in n-3 fatty acids (the good omega 3’s) to low in n-3’s and high in n-6 fatty acids  – (See my article on omega 3’s for a more in-depth look at the differences in omega-3 fats brought on by feeding cattle grain instead of grass.)
How much more fat does marbled meat have when compared to the wild meat we ate for such a long period in our history? To get an idea consider the fact that the muscle tissue of wild mammals contains on average half the total fat of grain fed beef AFTER the grain fed beef has been carefully trimmed of all visible fat. The increase in fat also comes with an increase in calories and thus a larger portion of wild or grass fed meat would have substantially less calories pound for pound than grain fed beef. It’s quite a difference and the differences don’t stop there.
Antibiotics & Meat- A Necessary Evil for Maximum Profits
A hundred years later, technology for overfeeding and confining cattle became even more efficient, creating cows with 30% body fat and weighing over a ton in as little as 14 months. As we noted earlier, these cows, sickly and penned together in close proximity made preventative antibiotics and antimicrobials a necessity to sustain the industry. Drugs that we humans use regularly (some would argue too often) such as tetracycline, strepogramin and penicillin not only prevent disease in livestock but also appear to make them grow faster as well and so the meat industry uses them religiously to increase profits. This in spite of the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO), US Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and the American Medical Association (AMA) agree that the use of antimicrobials in livestock is a primary causative factor of antibiotic resistance in food borne illnesses and a significant contributor to the emergence of antibiotic resistant diseases in humans. Other countries heed these warnings and use more traditional ways of farming to keep their cows healthy. Countries in the European Union for example, have strict laws prohibiting the use of antibiotics used to treat human illnesses as a preventative tool in livestock. Yet here in the United States estimates are that we use between 17.8 and 24.6 million tons of antibiotics on farmed animals annually.  A number that dwarfs the mere 3.4 million tons of antibiotics used worldwide in human medicine each year.[5,38] A sobering thought when free ranging livestock seldom ever get sick and do not require antibiotics at any stage of their lives.
The addition of grain to the diet of cows also affects the delicate PH balance of the gut and brings about increased growth of other forms of bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Campylobacter. Bacteria that would ordinarily not exist in significant amounts in cows eating grass, but with the unnatural shift in food came also the increase in bacteria that has little physical effect on cows, but can make us gravely ill when we consume the meat. Sickness that can be avoided simply by eating meat that lives a natural life eating grass.
Organic Meat- Is It Really Better Or Even Grass Fed?
It might be romantic to think that a diet of farm raised chicken and beef in matches up nicely with the popular ‘Paleolithic’ diets- but a hard look at the facts shows that it does not and any ‘modern’ interpretation of a pre-agricultural diet is in and of itself a contradiction in terms. So what can we do? There are several options available that offer somewhat better meat solutions to the consumer, but unfortunately even those standards are sometimes questionable. The term ‘natural’ or ‘grass fed’ pops up on the labels of more and more meat products but no tangible guidelines exist nor any system of accountability to verify what these claims actually mean. In response to consumer lobbying, the USDA established the ‘certified organic’ label which means that inspectors are regularly sent out to determine whether the following rules are applied to animals raised:
- That no animal products are used in the feed
- That there is no use of antibiotics or hormones to increase growth rates
- Livestock must have regular access to fresh air, freedom of movement and access to pasture (grass fed)
- All feed must be 100% organic- that is no pesticides or artificial fertilizers can be used to grow it. 
As you can see from these guidelines even ‘certified organic’ meat can still be grain fed, and for most farmers, the cost of organic grain is so prohibitively expensive that it is far beyond what most small companies can afford if they are to remain competitive in the market. That being said, the ‘certified organic’ label isn’t perfect but does make the standards a lot higher, especially in terms of antibiotic use and ethical activity levels for the livestock. The term ‘grass fed’ is also exceptionally misleading as it has no real official definition and is in most cases more of a marketing label than anything else to make the consumer feel better about (and pay more for) their meat. Meat labeled as ‘grass fed’ does not specify for how long it was grass fed nor does it say what percentage of the animal’s regular diet came from grasses since they are often fed grain and grass at the same time. Then there is the problem with meats labeled as ‘natural.’
‘Natural’ Meat- Making The Consumers Pay More For A Label
The term ‘natural’ according to USDA specifications means only that the meat has no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives and that it was ‘minimally processed.’ Those terms are open to interpretation as no official enforcement of these regulations exist and while many brands use the ‘natural’ card to sell their products, the fact that they are not eligible for even the USDA ‘certified organic’ label makes them suspect at best. Most people buy ‘natural’ labeled meat as it is cheaper than certified organic brands and it gives them the sense that it is somehow a better choice ethically and health-wise, but in many cases it is no different than conventional meats save the higher pricing. So if ‘certified organic’ beef is beyond the means of most and not that readily available since organic brands make up a relatively tiny percentage of the market share what is the alternative?
Buying meat directly from small traditional farms is an exercise in truly voting with your dollar and gives you a better chance that your meat is truly grass fed and was ethically harvested as well. Bear in mind though that even grass fed beef falls far behind their wild counterparts in terms of having higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and lower saturated fat content. Beef is also far more a novel addition to our diets than wild meat and it is hard to say that it isn’t a better choice in a perfect world. Except we don’t live in a perfect world and procuring truly wild meat is prohibitively expensive for most and impractical for others. The problem is that the technology and innovations that were designed to make meat cheaper (and thus more profitable)- sacrifices quality, ethical standards, costs to the environment and best practices for consumer health in the process. Along the way we forgot the cost and as it stands today only the fortunate few are able to afford truly grass fed meat and have access to wild meat on a regular basis. What options does this leave for the rest of us? It leaves us with a hard look at the facts and the need to make some very personal choices as to what we are willing to eat, armed with an understanding that the people on the planet who don’t suffer the chronic diet related diseases we do eat very a very different type of meat. At the end of the day this series is simply a guide to highlighting the questions we should be asking ourselves by understanding the changes in our food supply over the course of modern and ancient history and reflections on how these changes may or may not be detrimental. As always, I thank you for reading my work and I hope that you will share it with others who may find it beneficial.
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