Each generation has its “health” foods. Back in the day, a stiff whisky cured all ills. Then Coca-Cola. Next, margarine, Snackwells and diet soda— or anything else “low fat.” Soon, bacon, steak and pork rinds—anything but carbs!
Today, none of these foods are thought to be healthy, some downright dangerous. And yet, today brings a new generation of "healthy” food trends. Organic. Gluten free. Free range. Grass fed. Decades from now, will we look back at these as laughable fads? Or is our generation the first to get it right?
Today’s “health” foods are certainly spoofed and parodied: a classic Portlandia episode showed a couple visiting a farm in the middle of their dinner out to see where their chicken was raised. It can seem silly, even hypocritical, to want to know more about how well an animal lived, when we’re about to cook and eat that very animal.
But despite the humor, each of these trends has major merits. Today, I’d like to focus on one: grass-fed beef. Sure, images of cows grazing happily in idyllic pastures can make us feel better about our skirt steak. But there are many more practical reasons to go for the grass.
1. Stop the diseases of inflammation. Cancer. Heart disease. Arthritis. Alzheimer’s disease. These dreaded “diseases of civilization” have one big thing in common: They’re diseases of inflammation. And they’re called “diseases of civilization” for good reason: Historically, humans’ diets did not cause the levels of inflammation we see in our bodies today.
What’s changed? Probably more than one thing. Our modern diet of heavily processed foods, added fats, sugars and salt clearly doesn’t resemble the diet of our cave-dwelling ancestors—or even grandma and grandpa. That leaves room for a lot of possible suspects when we seek out the perpetrators of inflammation in our diets.
One dietary shift that seems very likely to contribute to this increase in diseases of inflammation is the shift in the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids tend to cause inflammation. This is good when we need a blood clot, or to fight certain pathogens. Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, tend to be anti-inflammatory, which is good when we want blood to flow freely through our veins and arteries, or want our tendons and ligaments to stay loose and healthy.
But since omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids work in opposite directions, we need to be sure we balance them out in our diet. Traditionally, our diets fed us omega 6’s and omega 3’s in a ratio of about 3:1. That’s the ratio in grass-fed beef. But, Americans’ modern diets often present these fatty acids in a ratio of up to 20:1. That’s the ratio in corn-fed beef. And that’s way too much inflammation. No wonder we’re suffering from inflammation-driven “diseases of civilization.” Switch from grain-fed to grass-fed, and you can cut your risk.
2. Reduce your saturated fat intake. The foods we eat today have way more saturated fat than the foods we find in nature. Heavily processed “junk” foods are notorious for saturated fat, but they’re not the only source of excess saturated fat in our diets. The meat we eat today has a lot more saturated fat than it used to, because of the way we feed our animals.
Grain-fed beef has more saturated fat than grass-fed beef. Taking cows off the diet they’ve thrived on for millions of years, and feeding them foods—primarily corn, soybean and rendered animal products—that their bodies aren’t designed to eat, changes the nutritional composition of the meat they make. I already talked about the shift in omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Saturated fat is another.
3. Get lean body mass. There’s one more major nutritional component that’s thrown out of whack when we take cows off their all-grass diet and start feeding them grains and animal protein. That’s conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA. CLA’s been shown to slow breast, skin and colon cancer in mice. In studies, it makes pigs skinnier, with less belly fat, and even gives humans more lean body mass and less body fat. And, there’s a lot more of it in grass-fed beef than in grain-fed beef.
4. Lighten the load on the environment. Feeding cows grain lets us keep them indoors all day, caged up in confined areas. This is a great way to make a lot of meat in a little time. But, it’s not kind to the environment (or the cows).
Feeding cows takes nutrients from the soil. In nature, these nutrients would be replaced when the cow drops manure back on the land where it ate its lunch. In today’s system, however, the manure doesn’t return to the land. It gets cordoned off in large cesspools. And we use fossil fuel to fertilize the land instead of that manure.
This unnecessarily consumes huge amounts of fossil fuels, which in turn raises our carbon footprint. By going grass-fed, you can lower our carbon footprint by returning to natural fertilizer.
5. Make life better for the cows. I see the irony in improving the life of an animal you’re raising to slaughter and eat. But, assuming you’re going to eat beef, you’re doing the cows a favor while they’re living by letting them graze. Cows not only seem to prefer running wild in open meadows to standing still in cages knee-deep in their own manure, they also seem to like being healthy.
As I hinted above, cows’ stomachs are designed to digest grass, not grain. When they eat corn, it changes the acidity of their stomachs and generates excessive gas. This results in mass discomfort, increased rates of infection and a need for a steady flow of antibiotics to keep the animals growing and gaining weight. Which they need to do, fast, because they can apparently only live up to six months on this diet before their livers tend to fail. Not nice stuff.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Despite its many benefits, grass-fed beef isn’t the perfect food. Even grass-fed cows emit large amounts of methane gas, a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. Demand for grazing lands may lead to deforestation and the loss of natural habitats for wildlife. And, because grazing cows grow more slowly than grain-fed, grass-fed beef tends to be more expensive. And, of course, the ugly element of slaughter goes hand-in-hand with any type of beef.
But, if we’re going to eat beef, we make a huge difference by choosing grass-fed over grain-fed, not only for our health but for the environment and animal rights. This does not sound like the stuff of fads.