How much meat should I eat?
Should I be a vegetarian? A vegan?
Big questions. Big answers.
There are many reasons people may choose to avoid animal products – religious, ethical, or health reasons. The point is: it’s your choice. Some people thrive on a vegetarian/vegan diet. Others do not. If you choose to eat OR avoid animal products, it’s important to do your research rather than making a decision because your favorite celebrity says it’s healthier to be a vegan.
For a long while, I did not eat red meat or poultry for a mix of personal, ethical, and health reasons. Over the past year, I started reintroducing meat back into my diet, and I enjoy eating organic, local chicken as much as a vegetarian curry.
As a dietitian, I support a balanced approach to eating. Don’t try to be perfect or follow certain “food rules.” Just mindfully choose and enjoy food in the moment. Don’t feel guilty for your choice.
First off, one of the main reasons people avoid meat is health. They’ve heard from the media, their doctor, and their friends that “meat is bad for you” and “saturated fat will kill you.”
The idea that saturated fat causes heart disease has been around for a while but only recently has a shift occurred. More research is coming out, and wellness warriors are finally realizing that saturated fat does not deserve the bad reputation it still has. A meta-analysis (conclusion from several research studies) in 2010 concluded that there is no significant evidence linking saturated fat to heart disease. Even Walt Willett, the most cited nutritionist internationally, has said, “Fat is not the problem…If anything, the literature shows a slight advantage of the high fat diet,” and “Data do not support the strong association between intake of saturated fat and risk of coronary heart disease.” If you want to read more and get into the nitty-gritty research details, check out this series on the Diet-Heart Myth, or this post. Choose a variety of different fats, except trans fats.
Animal products also provide vital vitamins and minerals. Animal products are rich sources of Vitamin B12, zinc, iron, and omega 3s (mainly fish). Yes, your bag of chia seeds may say it has more omega 3s than salmon! However, plant-based omega 3s have to be converted in the body to a usable form. Omega 3s in fish is pre-formed and a better source overall. [I still love chia seeds, though!]
What is important is the source of your meat.
When I started eating meat again, I wanted to pay attention to where my meat came from and how it was raised. I care about what my food eats. After watching Food, Inc. years ago, I was scared off by conventional meat and the inhumane environment those animals live in. The good news is that’s not the only way meat is grown these days. Farmers are raising animals with organic, sustainable, and humane practices, listening to customers, and popping up in farmer’s markets or grocery stores around the country. Although it’s a little pricier, I’m willing to pay a little more for high-quality (and more flavorful) animal products.
I pay attention to:
- Hormones – It’s estimated that 80% of US feedlot cattle are injected with hormones to make them grow faster or increase milk production (rBGH). I aim to avoid synthetic hormones as medications or in animal products.
- Antibiotics – Only 20% of the antibiotics in the US go to humans. The other 80% are sold for livestock use to keep them healthy while living in terrible conditions. Feeding animals antibiotics can create superbugs, which then can infect humans. Uh-oh.
- Organic – Organic meats automatically will guarantee no hormones and antibiotics were used, and the animals were fed organic feed.
- Feed – Just like humans, animals should not be eating junk. Conventional animals are literally given junk food – french fries, candy – as well as GMO-corn and soy products. These foods make animals fat fast, and you are what your animal eats. Animals thrive and are healthier on pasture, and any feed should be non-GMO.
- Humane – Just watch Food, Inc. if you want an idea of how conventional animals are treated. The cow in the pasture on the package of your meat is just misleading marketing. True pasture-raised animals will be much happier cows. Just talk to your farmer.
- Sustainable – One of the big arguments against eating meat is the high environmental cost due to pollution. Raising pastured animals does not harm the environment, if done correctly. Like I mention below, choosing a few meatless meals and choosing smaller portions of meat can help as well.
- Local – Local meats support the community, environment, and you can become friends with your farmer.
- Fish – Fish deserves a whole post because wild vs. farmed fish can get pretty tricky. In the meantime, follow the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Recommendations. Wild fish will have higher omega-3 concentrations.
Set Your Priorities & Save Money
It is possible to find organic, pastured, sustainable animal products at farmer’s markets or in the grocery store (or your dad who hunts…). You will definitely pay more for quality meat than conventional, CAFO meat. I’m not here to preach and tell you to eat only organic, pastured meats 100% of the time. Even, I don’t do that!
It’s important to set your priorities based on your budget and values. If you do want to fit quality protein into your diet, make it work in your budget. Maybe you need cut back on your daily Starbucks habit, and save that cash. Eating smaller portions of meat and choosing meatless meals a few times weekly are also great ways to fit quality meat into your diet. It also tends to be more economical to choose a meat share. One way I save on the cost of pastured chicken is buying whole chickens and making chicken broth with the bones afterwards.
Choose Smaller Portions of Meat
All this being said, I do not think anyone should be eating 8+ oz steaks, bacon, and butter everyday. Eat a normal size portion of protein (about 3-5 oz based on your size and activity level), and fill up the rest of your plate with plant-based foods. The veggies and plant foods are the star of the plate and should take up about 75% of your plate. The meat only makes up 25% on your plate.
A vegetarian or vegan diet are not the only plant-based diets. You can include meat and still eat a plant-based diet. I eat just as many or even more veggies now than when I was a vegetarian.
What questions do you have about meat and health? There’s lots of confusing information out there!