There are few things I take a hard line on. (I’m looking at you, soy.) For the most part my motto is “Everything in Moderation.” That’s definitely true of meat. I am probably not going to buy a giant turkey leg at the county fair, but I’m also not likely to become a vegan any time soon. When I’m being moderate, though, I really try to make the healthiest possible choice about the things I consume, so I try to eat the healthiest meat I can.
Based on the research I’ve done on my own behalf and for my nutritional coaching clients, grass-fed, organic beef; free-range chicken; and the best-available option for fish are the way to go. The common denominator is that these choices skew towards smaller production and more humane treatment of the animals, and that shows in their quality as food.
One of the first things I knew about the difference between factory-farmed meats and organic meats is that the fat in the meat holds onto any toxins the animal came in contact with. That means that if the cow your steak came from was being given a lot of antibiotics or hormones, they’re lingering in the veins of fat running through your dinner.
CheatSheet.com has a great list of healthy (and unhealthy) meat choices, and here’s what they say about grass-fed beef: “…grass-fed beef, which comes from cattle raised without the use of grain, really can be good for you. Cooking Light says choosing grass-fed beef over grain-fed varieties can save you around 16,000 calories a year if you eat the typical amount. Obviously, that can really help out your waistline. Grass-fed beef also has less fat and, according to Mayo Clinic, it even contains a decent amount of omega-3s.”
Did you catch that part about “less fat”? Organic meats usually have less fat, so even if the animal did come into contact with pesticides or other pollutants, there’s likely less fat to hold it. Livestrong says: “Organic chicken tends to be less fatty than its commercially-raised relatives, according to the American Culinary Federation, which recommends adding a little fat to the pan when you’re cooking organically raised chicken.”
When it comes to fish, it’s harder than ever to say what the healthiest option is. Common wisdom used to be that wild-caught was better, but thanks to all of the pollutants in the ocean (like plastic trash and mercury) and to over-fishing, that’s not an absolute. I like this list from the Mayo Clinic, and this is basically what I use to make my choices:
- Pregnant women, women who are breastfeeding and young children should avoid tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel.
- When buying local fish, check for advice. If information isn’t available, adults should limit their consumption to 6 ounces a week, while young children should eat no more than 1 to 3 ounces a week.
- Know which fish are overfished and avoid them. This gives at-risk species a chance to repopulate. There are groups that identify which fish are overfished, or caught or farmed in ways that cut the population or harm the environment. These include the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and the Environmental Defense Fund Seafood Selector. Both have apps you can download.
- Buy U.S. fish. The U.S. has strict environmental and food safety laws governing farmed and wild-caught fish. Purchasing U.S. fish is one way you can help ensure safety and sustainability.
- Be an advocate. Whenever you purchase fish, ask where it’s from and if it’s sustainable. Grocers and restaurant owners in turn will question their suppliers and become advocates too.
Here in the Bay Area, maintaining my standards for healthy meat is pretty easy. It isn’t cheap, but since I consume meat moderately that’s manageable. When you dine out in San Francisco and surrounding areas, it’s pretty normal for the farms on which the meat was raised to be identified on menus. There are lots of smaller operations in the area committed to raising animals for food in the most sustainable way possible.
If you aren’t in the Bay Area, it might me a little more challenging– but it shouldn’t be impossible. Start by asking the people behind the meat counter questions about the meats and fish they’re selling, and if they aren’t able to give you the answers you’re looking for, look into mail-order meats. I found a list of farms that ship healthy meat to you in 30 seconds of Googling, and I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg: http://www.eatwild.com/products/farmsthatship.html.
If you have more ideas about how to keep meats in your diet while making the healthiest choices, I hope you’ll share them in the comments!