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 who made up a very small minority of the population. Today, even though the number of men and women who self describe as vegetarian here in the United States is relatively small, (less than 2.5% ) more and more people here and in other developed countries are limiting or stopping eating meat intake for health related reasons. Reasons that come from a genuine concern about the quality of the current meat supply and the social and ethical questions that commercially raised meat sources raise.[3,4] To say there are problems with our commercial supply of meat, poultry and fish would be an understatement 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 an abstract idea or something you learned 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 and not 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 was not 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 finds 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 better 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 recent times that its meaning has changed to refer mostly to beef and animal tissue outside of chicken 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 sources 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 in 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 what 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 be a mistake to blame high rates of metabolic disease 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 along 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 predetermined 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 like as such as cheese, butter and tallow became convenient ways of storing calories using saturated fats as a food source. Foods that are still part of our diet today.
Meat & Fat Intake
Substantial evidence 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 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 heart friendly omega-3 fatty acids and even grass fed meat has far lower omega-3 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, recommend lower intakes as a preventative factor against heart disease[15,31] However, 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. But it should be noted that the meat and meat derived products consumed in those parts of the world are not the same as what we eat here in the United States.
In many parts of the world, the bucolic picture of livestock grazing on verdant pastures was 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 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 nutrients the cow needs to grow and 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 for cows. Grains alter the delicate balance of bacteria a cow’s gut and so the animal suffers a never ending case of indigestion, which ultimately brings about its early demise. This isn’t something farmers worry about though as cows reach market weight and are slaughtered long before the premature death that they would suffer from eating a grain based diet.
Increased Profits From Grain Feeding Come With Increased Incidence of Sick Livestock
Unlike their grass eating and free ranging counterparts, grain fed cows are sickly by nature. Cattle are penned in feedlots so they move less and grow fatter faster, but this adversely affects their health, as it would any other animal. Cattle, like all animals, evolved to have a certain level of movement and activity as a natural part of their grazing habits. Activity that is impossible to replicate when penned 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 cattle to reach the size where they were deemed ready for slaughter. 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. This practice then introduced another new addition to the human diet in the form of 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.’ All qualities that consumers prefer, ones that are not necessarily healthy.
Marbled Meat- A Novel Addition To The Human Diet
Most people are unaware that the marbled meat in the supermarket of developed countries have only 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 very far removed from what our pre-agricultural ancestors would been eating.[23,24,24] Marbled meat not only has a much higher percentage of saturated fats compared to wild and natural meats, but it grain fed cattle also have a shift in 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 on average contains 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 so a larger portion of wild or grass fed meat would have substantially less calories pound per pound compared to grain fed beef. It’s quite a difference and the differences don’t stop there.
Antibiotics & Meat- A Necessary Evil for Maximum Profits
After the advances of the later 1800’s, 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 are often sickly from being penned together in close proximity with no room for exercise. This made preventative antibiotics and antimicrobials a necessity to sustain the industry as the livestock would die without them. The same drugs that we use regularly to treat human ailments such as tetracycline, strepogramin and penicillin, are not only used to prevent disease in livestock, but also to make them grow faster and thus increase profits. This practice of giving livestock antibiotics regularly as a preventative continues in spite of the fact that the World Health Organization, US Center for Disease Control & Prevention and the American Medical Association all agree that the use of antimicrobials in livestock is the main cause of antibiotic resistance in food borne illnesses. It is also the consensus that prophylactic antibiotic use in animals is a significant contributor to the emergence of antibiotic resistant diseases in humans. Many 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 humans 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 every year.  A figure that dwarfs the mere 3.4 million tons of antibiotics used worldwide in human medicine each year.[5,38] It’s even more disturbing when you consider that free ranging livestock seldom ever get sick and almost never require antibiotics at any stage of their lives.
Feeding grain to cows also affects the delicate PH balance of their guts and causes increased growth of other forms of bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Campylobacter. Bacteria that would ordinarily not exist in significant amounts among cows that eat grass, but with the unnatural shift in food sources comes the increase in bacteria. Bacteria that has little physical effect on cows, but can make humans ill and can even be fatal when we consume the meat. Think about it. every one of the millions of cases of food poisoning every year due to meat consumption could be prevented by simply eating meat only ate grass and lived a natural life.
Organic Meat- Is It Really Better Or Even Grass Fed?
It would be overly romantic to believe that a diet of farm raised chicken and beef could realistically be part of popular ‘Paleolithic’ diets as neither of these meats existed in a pre-agricultural diet. So what can we do to emulate a more natural human diet? There are several options available that offer somewhat better, but not always perfect meat solutions to consumers. Unfortunately even those standards are often questionable. The term ‘natural’ or ‘grass fed’ pops up on the labels of a growing number of meat products, but no tangible guidelines exist and there is no official 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 surmise from these guidelines, even ‘certified organic’ meat can still be grain fed, and for most farmers, the cost of organic grain is so expensive that they simply cannot afford to use it if they are to remain competitive in the market. The ‘certified organic’ label isn’t perfect, but it does make for higher standards, especially in terms of antibiotic use and ethical activity levels for the livestock. The term ‘grass fed’ is also misleading as it has no real official definition and is often more marketing than truth. Marketing that serves 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 detail it say what percentage of the animal’s regular diet came from grasses, as many farmsfeed livestock 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 Meaningless 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 since no official enforcement of these specifications exist. So while many brands use the ‘natural’ to increase sales and the perceived healthiness of their products, the fact that they are not eligible for the USDA ‘certified organic’ label makes their claims suspect. Many health conscious consumers buy meat labeled ‘natural’ as it is much cheaper than certified organic brand, yet gives the sense that the meat is somehow a better choice ethically and in terms of health. But, in many cases, ‘natural’ meats are no different than conventional meats, except for the higher tag. So if ‘certified organic’ beef is considered too expensive, and is not as widely available since organic brands are a relatively small percentage of the market, what should someone who wants to eat meat that is does not conflict with their ethical and health standards do?
The answer is buying meat directly from small traditional farms. As such purchases are an exercise in voting with your dollar and gives you a better chance of getting meat that is truly grass fed and ethically raised and harvested. Bear in mind, that even grass fed beef still pales in comparison to wild meat 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 but since we don’t live in a perfect world, procuring truly wild meat is prohibitively expensive for most and impractical for others. Technology and innovations in farming were designed to make meat cheaper (and thus more profitable). But these increases profits sacrifice quality, ethical standards, cost to the environment and best practices for consumer health in the name of making more money. Only the fortunate few are able to afford (and have access to) truly grass fed or 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 hard personal choices about to what we are willing to eat. This series is meant to be a guide to highlighting the questions we should be asking ourselves and understanding the changes in our food supply over the course of modern and ancient history. 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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