Quality Matters: Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef
After studying nutrition and experimenting personally with vegetarianism, I have come to believe that grass-fed, humanely raised, antibiotic and hormone-free meat can be a part of a healthful, anti-inflammatory diet. It all comes down to quality and balance. But if you don't eat meat for nutritional or ethical reasons, that's cool too!
Because whether you're vegan, paleo, or something in between (that's me!), we can all agree on this: vegetables should rule the plate. Check out our veggie-full recipes here. To learn more about the importance of properly raised meat (to eat with your veggies!), read on!
Although nutrition can seem complicated, I like to follow one really simple rule: eat real food... and eat food that has eaten real food. For plants, this means they should grow in nutritionally dense soil without pesticides. Because you eat what your vegetables eat.
For animals, this means they should eat foods they would eat in nature and move around in a way they would in nature (without hormones). You eat what your meat eats. In nature, a cow would graze on grass and other forage all day long; constantly moving and eating food its body was designed to process. A cow would not be locked in a concentrated feedlot, fattened with synthetic growth hormones and fed corn and soy (both pesticide sprayed).
Can Eating Meat Be Healthy?
There is a lot out there about whether or not eating red meat is healthy or not. Many studies will say "no." Others will say "yes." So what's the truth? I believe that red meat can be a healthful, nutrient-dense addition to any diet (even a superfood!) with one huge caveat: it has to be grass-fed and organic.
Beef from cows raised on organic pastures is a totally different food from beef from cows raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and pumped with antibiotics. Unfortunately, many of the studies linking red meat to cancer don't take into account what the animal ate and how it was raised, how the meat was cooked, and what the meat was consumed with. This matters.
A McDonald's big mac with a diet Coke and french fries will not nourish you like an organic, grass-fed burger served with a bunch of roasted vegetables will.
What are the Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef?
Cows are designed to eat only one thing: grass. When they are fed the wrong foods, as most cows are, such as corn, soy, and other heavily pesticide-sprayed GMO feed, the animals become sick. To prevent them from dying prematurely, they are then given antibiotics and pumped with hormones, which damages proper gut flora in the cows (and then later the humans that eat it). (Source)
Grass-fed cows, on the other hand, eat what they are meant to eat. Which means they are getting all the rich nutrients from organic grass and getting the proper amount of exercise, so they don't get sick and don't require antibiotics. Better for the cows and better for you. A 2015 Consumer Reports study found that 100% grass-fed beef is the safest and most humane beef Americans can consume.
Consider some of these other nutritional benefits of grass-fed meat:
While wild-caught fatty fish, like salmon and sardines, are still the best source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, grass-fed beef generally contains 2-5 times more omega-3 fatty acids than cows raised on grain. Omega-3 fatty acids are the kind of fats that most people need more of. In general, we get too many omega-6 fatty acids from things like corn, safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, soy, peanut, and vegetable oils and not enough omega-3s. (Source)
CONJUGATED LINOLEIC ACID (CLA)
This polyunsaturated fatty acid is a powerful antioxidant that may help prevent a number of chronic degenerative diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Grass-fed beef contains 2 to 3 times more CLA than grain-fed beef. (Source)
Certain kinds of saturated fat, like palmitic and myristic acid, can raise blood cholesterol levels more than others, like stearic acid. Although both grass-fed beef and grain-fed beef have the same amount of saturated fat, grass-fed beef has a higher percentage of stearic acid. (Source)
Grass-fed beef is rich in bioavailable vitamin A, critical for growth, immune system function, reproduction, and good vision, vitamin B12, necessary for healthy nerves, blood cells, and DNA, and vitamin K2, good for the health of your blood vessels and bones. Grass-fed beef also contains heme iron, an easily absorbable form of iron, and zinc, a vital mineral involved in the production of sufficient stomach acid, sexual function, and a strong immune system. (Source)
Grass-Fed Beef vs. Grass-Finished Beef: What's the Difference?
Due to the rising interest in grass-fed beef, many beef producers have started labeling their meat as "grass-fed" even if they have been fed a mix of grass and grain. Unfortunately, the term "grass-fed" is unregulated and subsequently a major grey area; as long as the cow was fed grass at one point in its life, it can be labeled as "grass-fed." However, a cow that has been grass-fed and grass-finished beef means that no grain was ever fed to the animal.
Grass-Fed Beef and the Environment
When cows eat grass, they are not only healthier for you, but healthier for the environment. By eating grass, cows naturally convert sun energy into nutrient-dense protein and fat. When properly raised, grass-fed cows help fertilize grasslands and keep them from becoming deserts, increase the biodiversity of pasture ecosystems, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, and improve the quality of run-off water. (Source)
In fact, more nutrients are produced per acre when cows eat grass on well-managed pasture than produced on an acre of farmed grain. I think Michael Pollan states it best in one of my favorite books, The Omnivore's Dilemma:
Where to Buy Grass-Fed Meat: My Favorite Sources
Unfortunately, only 1-3% of the beef in the US is 100% grass-fed. Which means we have to look extra carefully for properly raised meat. Here are my favorite sources, in order of preference.
1. LOCAL FARMERS
The ultimate option in terms of your health, the environment, and your community is to purchase grass-fed beef from local farmers. My favorite resource for finding local meat, eggs, and cheese is Eat Wild. Just search by state to find farmers in your area. Most farms will note which farmer's markets they attend and when, which can be more convenient than going out to the farm itself.
Although this option can seem intimidating to many (including me at first!), it's actually quite easy. Simply go to your local farmer's market on the weekend and look for the stands selling grass-fed meat.
AVERAGE PRICE PER LB. / $10
In terms of mission and convenience, ButcherBox is my favorite option.
They deliver 100% grass-fed and grass-finished beef directly to your door on a monthly basis. Each box comes with a curated selection of top cuts, sourced from a collection of small grass-fed farms, flash frozen at the peak of freshness. You select your box by choosing from four different types of boxes, which you can change at any time.
Then customize the box if desired, with add-ons like paleo bacon, burgers, or ground beef, and set your schedule. ButcherBox is a monthly membership service but you can adjust the frequency you receive a box, pause your subscription, or cancel anytime with no penalties.
Special offer exclusive to Loveleaf readers: FREE bacon, FREE shipping, and $15 off. Just click here to claim the deal!
AVERAGE PRICE PER LB. / $7-8
3. WHOLE FOODS + TRADER JOE'S
Both Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's sell organic, grass-fed beef. This is a great option if you have these stores in your area and want to purchase just a little meat at a time. Ideally, opt for the grass-fed and local options at Whole Foods Market instead of the more generic grass-fed beef, which often comes from Australia with a larger carbon footprint.
AVERAGE PRICE PER LB. / $7-12