Foods that come from animals are among the most nutritious on the planet. Meat, eggs, fish and dairy are all jam packed with nutrients that enable the optimal function of your body and brain.
Still, meat is one of the most controversial foods in nutrition today. Many people believe meat is unhealthy and that we should not be eating it, despite the fact that we have been doing so throughout human evolution. And it is true that some animal products, such as processed meat, appear to be closely linked to increase disease risk.
In addition, factory-farm raised meat brings with it a boatload of issues due to the growth hormones, antibiotics, poor feed, and abysmal conditions in which the animals are raised. Therefore, it’s critical to identify strategies to optimize the benefits of eating meat for body composition and health.
This article will review why meat is an important part of your diet and provide creative tips for getting the “cleanest” meat possible.
#1: Want To Lose Fat? Eat Meat!
Any discussion of improving body composition requires a spotlight on meat. Whether your goal is to lose body fat or put on muscle (or do both simultaneously), eating meat is beneficial because animal proteins provide a superior nutrient profile per calorie of food.
First, animal proteins provide a greater array of amino acids than vegetable proteins. Second, meat contains amazing nutrients that are beneficial for health and hormone balance, which plays a role in the ability to lose fat effectively.
Creatine, carnosine, carnitine, glycine, vitamin B12, absorbable zinc and iron, the EPA and DHA fats are all nutrients that are only readily available in animal foods. There are some exceptions. Certain sea algaes contain DHA and EPA, and zinc and iron are provided in vegetables, but they are not bioavailable.
In addition to getting a large nutrient return per calorie, animal proteins help preserve lean body mass, which is critical for maintaining your metabolism when trying to lose body fat. The benefit of the superior nutrient profile provided by animal foods is greater satiety and reduced hunger, allowing for a lower calorie intake.
For example, one study found that when people get 25 percent of their calories from protein, they eat fewer total calories than when they get 10 percent of their calories from protein. The action of eating more when protein is restricted has been called “nutrient hunger.”
We crave nutrients both when protein intake is reduced and when we go on a calorie restricted diet that has a poor nutritional content, leading us to eat more. The science behind this is not entirely understood, but scientists believe the body is able to detect the reduction of free amino acid levels and associated hormonal signals related to amino acids in the blood.
The effect on hormones that regulate hunger such as ghrelin and leptin is significant. In a study that had obese people go on a severe 10-week weight loss diet of shakes and vegetables resulted in lasting changes to their hunger hormones that indicated that the body was in “starvation mode” due to the period of malnutrition.
A year after the study ended, the participants’ leptin, which suppresses hunger and increases metabolism, was reduced. Ghrelin, which stimulates hunger and promotes energy storage (fat storage), was significantly elevated. Eating animal protein can help avoid this in the following ways:
- It supports blood amino acid levels and availability of other key nutrients that are linked to the metabolic hormones such as zinc, iron, and vitamin D.
- It allows you to get the nutrients that are only available in animal protein without having to supplement (B12, carnitine, carnosine, creatine, omega-3s).
- It helps preserve lean mass when trying to reduce total energy intake.
- It allows you to avoid constant hunger and feel more satisfied.
- It provides greater variety because its high nutritional profile contributes to preserving lean mass
#2: Eat Meat To Put On Muscle
If your goal is to build muscle and strength, meat protein is king. Abundant protein tells the body that resources are readily available and it’s a good time to invest in muscle growth and repair. And all those nutrients mentioned above such as carnosine, creatine, and carnitine play a vital in role in performance and recovery.
A recent review of studies that tested various protein doses in conjunction with resistance training on muscle development found that a minimal dose of 2.38 g/kg/day of protein is the amount that reliably produced the most muscle development. That’s 178 grams of protein for a 75 kg person—an amount that is reasonably achieved if you eat meat and take a whey protein supplement or amino acid capsules post-workout.
The primacy of meat for muscle building goes further: There’s evidence that there is something about “the meat itself” that yields maximal muscle gains. A classic study demonstrates the difference in muscle development when animal protein is present.
Researchers tested a hypertrophy-style strength training program in omnivores and vegetarians who ate the same macronutrient ratios. Results showed that the meat eaters gained 4 percent muscle mass and lost 6 percent fat mass, while increasing Type II fiber area by 9 percent.
The vegetarian group experienced no noticeable changes in muscle mass or body fat percentage. In addition, the meat eaters experienced much greater strength development in all parameters than the vegetarians.
Observational studies show similar benefits to eating meat. Compared to female vegetarians, women who ate meat were found to have significantly more muscle mass (23 kg of muscle versus 18 kg in the vegetarians), which is a large difference in women who were not training.
#3: Never Eat Processed Meat
A widely held misconception in the mainstream is that eating meat, especially red meat, is unhealthy and related to greater disease risk. There is significant evidence that eating processed meat is associated with greater disease risk, including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
However, for unprocessed red meat the ill effect on health is not clear. Some smaller observational studies have shown a negative effect, but larger studies and reviews show no association between unprocessed meat and risk of disease.
In addition, there’s evidence from randomized trials that it’s possible to improve health markers when eating a meat containing diet. One recent study that when participants ate 12 ounces of bison, which is pasture raised on grass, a day for 7 weeks had reduced inflammation, better vascular function, and lower cholesterol.
A second study showed that a diet that contained red meat was just as effective at improving cholesterol as the DASH diet, which was designed specifically to improve cholesterol profiles.
#4: Is Meat Really Healthy? It Can Be!
Of course, not all meat is created equal. Factory-farmed meat “comes from animals raised on mixtures of genetically modified corn, chicken manure, antibiotics, hormones, and ground-up parts of other animals,” writes Dr. Sean Lucan.
Aside from being an appalling life for the animal, their meat is high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fat from grains the animals consume and contains growth hormones that are biologically active when ingested by humans.
Organic, pasture-raised meat, on the other hand, is more nutritious and doesn’t come with a high toxic load. Organic beef, chicken, goat , and pork all consistently have a higher concentration of omega-3 fats compared to grain-fed animals. For example, grass-fed beef provides a more favorable omega-6 to omega-3 fat ratio between 1.4 and 2.75.
Organic and wild meats are also packed with glutathione —an amino acid composite that is enormously effective at protecting your DNA and cells from cancer. Organic beef and ham have the highest glutathione content of all foods, surpassed only by fresh vegetables like asparagus.
Organic dairy and eggs are also more nutritious than conventional, providing superior levels of all the omega-3 fats, and vitamin K, which is deficient in the modern diet.
So, the type of meat you eat matters, and it’s a good bet that the overall composition of your diet plays a pivotal role in dictating health outcomes.
For example, a recent large-scale study that tested the effect of meat intake on mortality in the Asian countries of Bangladesh, China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan found that greater red meat, poultry, and seafood intake led to a lower risk of mortality. In addition, red meat intake was inversely associated with risk of death from heart disease in men, and with cancer mortality in women.
This is noteworthy for two reasons. Though red meat intake has been rising in Asia over the past 20 years, it is still significantly lower than in the U.S. The U.S. consumes about four times more red meat than Japan, China, and Korea, for example, which might indicate that a more moderate red meat intake than Americans are currently eating is preferable for disease prevention.
In addition, the typical Asian diet is vastly different than the typical Western diet, being much higher in fish, rice, green tea, and fermented soy. Processed food and chemical additives are not as abundant and there is a greater intake of a wider variety of vegetables. Plus, the cultural approach to eating is radically different and may influence the health effects of diet.
#5: Good Meat: How To Enhance The Benefit of Meat In Your Diet
Factory farming is a disaster for health: It’s bad for the environment, bad for the animals, and the meat that comes from it is dangerous for humans to consume regularly.
Fortunately, the last decade has seen a surge in pastured, grass-fed, free-range meat and animal products. But, depending on where you live, pastured, humanely raised products are still hard to find.
Below is a list of safer sources for animal products, followed by take away points for making organic, pasture-raised animal products a reliable part of your optimal dietary plan for health and body composition.
Local Harvest is an incredible web site that includes a comprehensive database of U.S. farms and CSA (community supported agriculture). You can also order organic produce and free-range animal products directly through the site.
Eat Wild lists more than 1,300 pasture-based farms, primarily in the U.S., but with a few additional listings for Canada and the rest of the world. The also have a list of Links to food-sourcing and farming resources.
The Weston A. Price Foundation lists local chapters that can help you find pasture-raised animals and organic produce in the U.S. and internationally.
U.S. Wellness Meats is based in Missouri and sells pastured organic animal products of all sorts including beef, poultry, dairy, bison, pork, and wild caught seafood. They ship to all U.S. states but cannot ship internationally.
Tendergrass Farms is based in Virginia and sells pastured, organic beef, pork, chicken, and turkey. They ship to all 50 states and offer free shipping to the lower 48 states for orders over $199.
Miller’s Organic Farm in Pennsylvania ships pastured organic animal products but you have to be a member. You can become a member by joining a food co-op or by applying directly to Miller’s.
- Invest in organic animal foods whenever possible. Ideally, you’d be able to eat organic free-range meat exclusively, but budget is probably the primary obstacle for most people. Look for the best possible options when buying conventional: Animals should be raised on vegetarian feed and hormone-free if at all possible.
- Try to get your meat, eggs, and dairy from a local farmer even if they aren’t 100 percent organic. It’s difficult and expensive to get an organic certification. A farm may be raising animals and produce organically and just not be certified, so be open minded when sourcing food.
- Look for “grass-fed/grass-finished” beef because the label “grass-fed” could mean that the animal was generally raised on grass but fed primarily grain over the last months before slaughter to fatten them up. This leads to a high omega-6 content, which is not ideal.
- When cooking meat, avoid high temperature cooking because harmful compounds are produced. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are produced when meat is cooked at temperatures around 400°F and can cause cancer.
- Avoid eating burned meat and opt for gentler methods such as stewing or steaming.
- Be sure to thoroughly cook meat, especially pork, to destroy pathogens that can cause disease.
- Marinate meat with red wine, lemon juice, or olive oil because it will reduce HCA production.
- If you cook on high heat, flip the meat frequently to avoid burning it.