‘Grass-fed meat’ has joined the ranks of ‘organic’ and ‘free range’ as one of those “does it really matter?” decisions in the supermarket. As we mentally weigh the cost of groceries and bills in comparison to foods recommended to us, it can be difficult to put off the tangible benefits of financial savings for potential “down-the-road” or “good-for-the-planet” benefits of more costly items. Yet buying grass-fed beef, or any animal fed greens over grain, does not just make for happier animals: it makes for a distinctly healthier (and thus presumably happier) you.
Red meat has gotten a bad rap in the media for over a decade. Diets high in red meat have been linked to heart disease, obesity, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other ailments. Often people with chronic illness, such as Multiple Sclerosis, and Asthma find that their symptoms improve dramatically when they stop eating red meat. Why? Red meat can increase inflammation in the body, which reduces circulation, inhibits organ function and causes pain and disease.
A careful look at the red meat in the average supermarket shelf or restaurant helps clarify why it is so unhealthy: most cows are not fed a natural diet consisting of plants discovered in the wild. Instead, they are fed corn and soy (along with fground meat, cement and sawdust and corn syrup.) High fattening foods make for beef with more saturated fat. Corn and soy, the significant portion of most cows’ diet, provide cows with high levels of Omega-6 essential fatty acids, the fatty acids responsible for creating inflammation in the body. These inflammatory factors are passed on to us.
Omega-6 fatty acids are essential nutrients that we receive from our food. In normal amounts, Omega-6s promote appropriate inflammation as an immune system response. When that response is no longer needed, an adequate supply of anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids, then helps to reduce the inflammation. A diet promoting a healthy inflammatory balance in the body includes a ratio of Omega-6 to 3 that is two-to-one.
Omega-6s are found in relation to anti-inflammatory fatty acids (Omega-3s) at a ratio of at least 4.8 in standard beef, with some studies showing ratios of as much as to 20-to-1. The longer a cow spends on a feed-lot, the higher this ratio becomes.
A cow’s natural diet is made up of grass and other meadow plants, which, just like the leafy greens that we eat for their health benefits, are high in anti-inflammatory FAs (Omega-3s), vitamins and minerals like magnesium, calcium, potassium and iron. Grass fed meat has less fat, including less saturated fat, and more vitamin E, vitamin B, calcium, magnesium, and potassium than grain-fed meat. It is also not surprising that when the omega-3 content of a cow’s diet is raised, so too is the anti-inflammatory nature of the meat itself. 100% grass-fed meat has an Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio of just 1.65.
The standard American diet contains between 14 and 25 times more Omega-6s than Omega-3s. A study by the British Journal of Nutrition showed that volunteers eating a grass-fed meat diet improved their levels of Omega-3s and reduced Omega-6s in just four weeks, while volunteers who ate standard meat actually saw their levels of Omega-6s rise throughout the study and their Omega-3 levels fall. Reducing Omega-6 intake and increasing Omega-3s has been linked to reduced pain, improved cardio-vascular, respiratory, mental and pre-natal health, lower triglycerides, improved symptoms of ADHD and rheumatoid arthritis, and protection against Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Chinese medicine recommends red meat as medicine, and in medicinal doses: no more than a portion the size of your palm, three times per week. I do not recommend red meat, or any meat, for every meal. But red meat, in addition to being energetically warming to the body, is incredibly nutrient-dense. Three ounces of red meat has just 180 calories but provides 10 essential nutrients. Red meat provides the highest amount of absorbable iron of any food, more than twice as much as chicken, fish or pork . It supplies high levels of vitamin B-12, needed for nerve and red blood cell function, and zinc, which promotes a healthy immune system. And it provides protein, essential for bone and muscle health. For people who regularly lose blood (such as menstruating women), who have chronic fatigue, weakness or bruising, or those who have a digestive system weakness and cannot extract more difficult-to-absorb iron from plant sources, eating some red meat may be essential to provide the healing they need. If the source is grass-fed, red meat can also play a nutrient-rich role in reducing inflammation, and thus in disease prevention.