Sorting through the terminology of the local natural food store can be a minefield. Let’s see whether we can make sense of the labels.
First there’s “natural.” You can completely forget about this term, which has no legal meaning or definition. It is used randomly by food manufacturers for marketing purposes, and it means absolutely nothing. There are plenty of things that are natural that I wouldn’t want to put in my body—for example, gasoline and poison mushrooms. When you see “natural” or “all-natural” on a food product, just roll your eyes and know it’s meaningless.
Organic, on the other hand, has a real, legal definition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture put into place a set of national standards that must be met in order for a food to be labeled “organic.” Those standards apply whether the food was grown in the United States or imported from other countries. Organic food is now defined as follows:
Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.
One of the most significant things to know is what organic food is not—it’s not GMO. Any food that is legally labeled “organic” cannot be genetically modified. That’s important because the organic label is often the only way you can be sure you’re not buying GMO foods. Unless it’s labeled organic, it’s a good bet that the corn and soy you’re buying—and the products made from them—are GMO.
Even the word “organic” has been dumbed down and diluted. After all, you can now get some version of organic crispy choco-nutty cereal, and my local health food store is filled with organic soda. More specifically, when it comes to meat and poultry, what does organic really mean? Clearly, from the definition, it means the animals were given no antibiotics or growth hormones, and that’s a great thing! But is it enough? And how does the term “organic” dovetail with other catchphrases such as “free range,” “cage-free,” and, in the case of meat, “grass fed”? Which of these terms really matters, and which should we be paying attention to?
Glad you asked.
I’m glad there are standards for organic food. I buy organic food whenever possible, although I’m quite aware that the term is sometimes used in questionable circumstances. (Organic chocolate cereal, I’m talking to you!) I’m glad that organic meat is now available, and I’m glad that when we buy it, we’re not getting a nice additional dose of hormones, steroids, and antibiotics with our protein. But is that enough to guarantee a healthy product? I don’t think so.
Why? Because the inescapable fact is this: Cows aren’t meant to eat grain. It’s just not their natural diet. You can make them eat it, just like you can make lions eat Cheerios, but it’s not what they normally eat, and they won’t do real well on it.
The meat and milk that comes from cows that primarily spend their lives being fattened up on grain at CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations, or factory farms) is simply not the same meat or milk that comes from their pasture-fed, grass-grazing brethren. The fat content is different, the nutrients are different, and except for the protein, it’s just not the same food. Though I suppose eating a steak that comes from a cow that was fed organic grain is marginally better than eating a steak that comes from a cow that was fed nonorganic grain, eating a steak that comes from a cow that ate grass beats both of those options by a longshot.
Organic meat may be free of unwanted chemicals, but it is nutritionally inferior to grass-fed meat. When a ruminant is taken off pasture and fattened on grain, it loses a number of valuable nutrients. For example, compared with grass-fed meat, grain-fed meat has only one-quarter as much vitamin E, one-eighth as much beta-carotene, and one-third as many omega-3 fatty acids. It doesn’t matter whether the animal is fed ordinary grain, genetically modified grain, or organic grain. Feeding large amounts of any type of grain to a grazing animal will have this effect simply because grain has fewer of these nutrients than fresh pasture. Grain-fed animals also produce far more of the proinflammatory omega-6s and far less of the anti-inflammatory omega-3s. The balance between these two types of fats is essential to human health. We get far too many omega-6s and far too few omega-3s. The fat in grass-fed animals is much closer to a healthy balance. The fat in grain-fed animals makes the situation worse.
Compared with grass-fed products, organic grain–fed products are also relatively deficient in a cancer-fighting fat called CLA—conjugated linoleic acid. CLA has been widely studied for its anticancer and tumor-fighting ability, as well as for its ability to reduce the accumulation of abdominal fat. (CLA supplements are among the most popular weight control supplements on the market.) When you feed a ruminant grain—even as little as 2 pounds (907 g) a day—its production of CLA plummets. CLA may be one of the most potent cancer-fighting substances in our diet. In animal studies, as little as 0.5 of 1 percent CLA in the diet has reduced tumor burden by more than 50 percent.
Now that we’ve talked about cows, let’s move on to the chickens and the eggs. Free range? Omega-3? Let’s take a look.
I’ve always bought free-range chickens and the eggs that come from them. The advantages are enormous. Just like the natural diet of humans is that which we can hunt, fish, gather, or pluck, the natural diet of farm animals is what they can graze or forage for (insects, worms, wild plants, and grass). This diet guarantees a healthful ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats—which according to much research, is one of the most important dietary metrics. An exclusive diet of grain is no more the natural diet of chickens than it is of cows—or humans, for that matter.
Theoretically, free-range chickens are allowed to run around and forage and eat their natural diet (which means pecking at worms and insects and incorporating all those good omega-3s into their system as a result). Because they get exercise, they’re not as fat. Because their quality of life is theoretically better than what it would be if they were confined to tiny, dark cubicles in close quarters for all of their natural life, it’s reasonable to assume that they’re healthier. Organic, free-range chickens are theoretically less likely to be filled with the growth hormones and antibiotics that the poultry industry routinely uses on factory-farmed animals. And if you’re one of those bleeding hearts—like me—who actually cares about the welfare of animals, it’s easier to make peace with eating animals that have had reasonably healthy, happy lives and quick and painless deaths.
The operative term here is “theoretically.”
In a word, no. Or at least, not always.
There’s been quite a controversy as to exactly how free range free-range chickens really are. Birds raised for meat (“broilers”) may be considered “free range” if they have USDA-certified access to the outdoors. Note the word “access.” According to Michael Pollan’s fascinating book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which should be required reading for anyone interested in where his or her food comes from), free range is an option few chickens actually choose. “Since the food and water and flock remain inside the shed,” he writes, “and since the little doors remain shut until the birds are at least five weeks old and well settled in their habits, the chickens apparently see no reason to venture out into what must seem to them an unfamiliar and terrifying world. Since the birds are slaughtered at seven weeks, free range turns out to be not so much a lifestyle for these chickens as a two-week vacation option.”
Today’s “free-range” chicken has little in common with the chickens I saw on the small sustainable farms I visited as a kid where chickens ran around pecking at stuff to their hearts’ content and produced delicious eggs and meat that were relatively toxin-free. According to The Washington Post Magazine in 1995, the term “doesn’t really tell you anything about the (animal’s)… quality of life, nor does it even assure that the animal actually goes outdoors.” Richard Lobb, spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, admitted, “Even in a free-range type of style of production, you’re basically going to find most of them inside the facility.”
So why do I continue to buy and recommend organic meats (hopefully grass fed) and free-range organic chickens? One word: hope. I continue to hope against mounting evidence that companies held to a standard of organic will produce chickens, meats, and eggs that are at least marginally better than the chickens, meats, and eggs that come from companies that maintain unspeakably horrible factory-farm conditions. I realize this may not be true.
Organic” doesn’t guarantee much when it comes to animal products—certainly not the quality of life I like to imagine it does. I’m hoping to get something better by buying organic meats and poultries, or eggs that have been “omega-3 enriched,” or eggs from chickens that have been fed organic feed whose manufacturers at least made a stab at trying to reproduce the nutrients found in the chicken’s natural diet. If I had access to a small sustainable local farm, believe me, I’d just get my stuff there.
Now what if, like most people, you don’t have access to organic and free range? What if you can’t afford it, or even find it? What if you’re on a budget? What if you’re a single mom with two kids who’s not inclined to go shop at the natural organic supermarket far from your home and pay considerably more for marginally better stuff? Should you never eat chicken or eggs that are conventionally farmed or produced?
So what do you do when the only choices are to eat factory-farmed or nothing? It’s a tough call. Chicken, for example, is still an important source of protein, and eggs are still arguably the most complete and perfect food on the planet (or one of them). So we do the best with what we have. The message here is this: Changing the way our food is produced and delivered to us is going to take a superhuman effort on the part of an awful lot of people over a very long period of time. And it’s going to be about more than just slapping the term “organic” or “free range” on something and then watching the food companies do everything they can to comply with the letter—rather than the spirit—of the regulations.
I think the effort is worth it.
Meanwhile, we have to eat.
When Steven Masley, M.D., and I published our book, Smart Fat: Eat More Fat, Lose More Weight, Get Healthy Now, we came up with a compromise about meat and fat that’s worth mentioning here.
We believe that all factory-farmed meat is a toxic waste dump of chemicals, most of which live in the fat of the meat, and we could never recommend eating fat from factory-farmed meat (or non–free range, nonorganic chickens, eggs, milk, etc.) But when factory-farmed is the only kind of meat available, we recommended one of two things: choose the vegetarian main course, or eat the meat and cut away all the fat. I normally never recommend “lean” anything—I’m a big fan of fat. But I’m certainly not a big fan of toxic fat. If you’re eating grass-fed meat or organic/free-range chickens, then I say “bring it on!” (I never order the lean meat when I’m buying grass-fed at my local farmer’s market.)
But when it comes to ordinary, factory-farmed meat, that’s when it’s time to cut the fat away and go as lean as you can go.
I can’t say enough good things about eggs. They’re nature’s most perfect food. Eggs are plentiful, inexpensive, easy to prepare in a zillion different ways, and loaded with vitamins. They’re also one of the best sources of protein on the planet. On three of the four scientific scales for protein quality used in the past few decades—Protein Efficiency Rating, Biological Value, and Net Protein Utilization—eggs consistently score highest in the quality of their protein, soundly beating milk, beef, whey, and soy. (All are tied with a perfect score of 1.00 on the fourth, the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score.)
So what’s so great about eggs? Well, besides the aforementioned fact that they’re a perfect source of protein, containing all nine essential amino acids, they’re also loaded with vitamins and nutrients that help your eyes, your brain, and your heart. They’re one of the best sources of choline, which, though it’s not a vitamin, is an essential nutrient that must be consumed in the diet to maintain good health. Choline is essential for cardiovascular and brain function and for the health of your cell membranes. It’s an essential part of a phospholipid called phosphatidylcholine; the popular supplement lecithin is about 10 to 20 percent phosphatidylcholine. Without adequate phosphatidylcholine, both fat and cholesterol accumulate in the liver.
Have you picked up on the paradox yet? People avoid egg yolks because they’re afraid of the cholesterol, but the choline in the egg yolk actually helps prevent the accumulation of cholesterol and fat in the liver! Egg yolks and beef liver are two of the richest dietary sources of phosphatidylcholine. One large egg provides 300 mcg of choline all in the yolk—and it also contains 315 mg of phosphatidylcholine.
There’s more to the choline story. Choline forms a metabolite in the body called betaine, which helps lower homocysteine, a risk factor for heart disease. And phosphatidylcholine is one of the most liver-friendly nutrients on the planet. In Europe, phosphatidylcholine is used to treat liver disease, and many nutritionists recommend it as part of a liver support program. Most liver metabolism occurs on cell membranes, and phosphatidylcholine is the universal building block for cell membranes. Phosphatidylcholine helps protect the liver from a wide range of toxic influences. And choline is also needed for the synthesis of acetylcholine, one of the major neurotransmitters in the body. Acetylcholine is critical for memory and thought. According to the Physicians’ Desk Reference, adequate acetylcholine levels in the brain are believed to be protective against certain types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. So eggs—like fish—are truly brain food!
Eggs are also eye food. Eggs contain lutein and zeaxanthin, two of the new superstar nutrients when it comes to eye health. Lutein, present in the macula of the eye’s retina, appears to filter harmful, high-energy blue wavelengths of visible light from both natural sunlight and indoor light. Michael Geiger, O.D., a New York optometrist and author of Eye Care Naturally, says that lutein and zeaxanthin have been found to be among the most effective supplements for eye health. That’s true—but according to research in the Journal of Nutrition, lutein bioavailability is even higher from eggs than it is from supplements.
Carotenoids are always better absorbed with some fat, and lutein is a carotenoid—hence, the lutein in egg yolks (which already have some fat) is more bioavailable than the lutein in spinach (which has none, unless you add it). If you’re interested in getting the most bang for your buck in terms of eye health, eat eggs and spinach together—you’ll get the maximum amount of these nutrients from two potent sources, and the fat from the egg yolks will help you absorb them. Lutein and zeaxanthin are always found together in nature and are generally measured as a unit—one jumbo egg has 215 mcg.
Eating eggs was one of two major dietary patterns found in one study to be protective against breast cancer. A study in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention looked at the difference in breast cancer incidence in Chinese women as they migrate from China to Hong Kong to the United States. Guess what happens? Their incidence of breast cancer more than doubles.
In this study, the researchers looked at changes in diet and discovered two significant patterns: The women eating the most fruits and vegetables were significantly less likely to have breast cancer. No surprise there. But—get this—the women eating the most eggs were also least likely to have breast cancer: Eating six eggs per week vs. two eggs per week lowered their risk of breast cancer by 44 percent.
In addition to the high-quality protein, the lutein and zeaxanthin, the choline and phosphatidylcholine, eggs also contain trace amounts of more than fifteen vitamins and minerals; one jumbo egg contains 18 percent of the Daily Value for riboflavin (vitamin B2), 14 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin B12, and 29 percent of the Daily Value for the important cancer-fighting trace mineral selenium. Not only that, eggs make you look good! Their high sulfur content promotes healthy hair and nails. Many people report finding their hair growing faster after adding eggs to their diet, especially if they were previous deficient in foods containing sulfur—or vitamin B12.
Recently, there has been an influx in the supermarkets of omega-3 enriched eggs (for more on that, see my introductory essay on meat and poultry, shown here). Chickens that roam free produce eggs that are higher in omega-3 fats, and some companies are offering eggs that have been omega-3 enriched. If you can find these omega-3 eggs, by all means get them.
Full disclosure: I frequently eat my eggs raw. I throw them in a smoothie (à la Rocky!) or I add them whole to vegetable juice and drink them down. Before you gasp, understand that eggs from healthy chickens are rarely contaminated with Salmonella. In fact, according to a study by the USDA, published in the 2002 Risk Analysis only .03 percent of the 69 billion eggs produced annually are contaminated at all. According to my friend Joe Mercola, D.O., if you are obtaining high-quality, cage-free, organically fed, omega-3-enhanced chicken eggs, the risk virtually disappears. Salmonella only comes from sick birds, and the risk of sickness decreases when animals aren’t kept in dark, crowded, sickening conditions.
You may have noticed that many of the experts who contributed top ten lists to this book mentioned eggs but noted a specific way of cooking them. That’s because the less you scramble or expose the yolk to oxygen, the less the cholesterol gets oxidized. For health athletes—those looking for the absolute best, healthiest way to do everything—minimizing oxygen exposure is probably a good idea. Poaching is one way to minimize oxidation; boiling is another; and of course, so is eating them raw (though I imagine I’m not going to win many converts over to that method). Personally, I take a middle ground. I make scrambled eggs all the time, but I eat them as soon as they come out of the pan, minimizing the time they spend sitting around in the air. On the other hand, I rarely eat scrambled eggs from an open hot buffet where they’ve been sitting out exposed to air for hours—and you shouldn’t either. As always, fresh is better.
(chicken and turkey)
Chicken is a great source of protein, and it has an awful lot of other nutrients in it as well. Plus you can make one of the world’s healthiest prepared foods out of it: chicken soup.
Now, obviously, I’m not talking chicken “nuggets” of indeterminate composition. I’m talking the real bird. I prefer free range and organic, but everything I’m about to say about chicken and turkey applies to the plain, old-fashioned, grocery store kind as well.
Four ounces (115 g) of skinless, boneless chicken breast has almost 35 g of high-quality protein as well as small amounts of calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron. Those 4 ounces also contain 255 mg of phosphorus and 287 mg of heart-healthy potassium. One large (6-ounce [168 g]) chicken breast contains more potassium than there is in a medium banana, plus a whopping 53 g of protein. Skinless dark meat contains somewhat more calories and fat; add the skin and you’re talking seriously more fat and calories. Nutritionally, turkey is fairly similar.
Chicken (but not turkey) is also an excellent source of niacin, a B vitamin that’s important in energy metabolism and in biochemical functions needed to maintain healthy skin and a properly functioning gastrointestinal tract and nervous system. It’s also involved in the metabolism of fats. Four ounces (115 g) of chicken provides three-quarters of the RDI for niacin.
The fat in boneless, skinless chicken is mostly monounsaturated. There’s about 4 g of fat per 4 ounces (115 g) of boneless, skinless chicken breast, and only 1.1 g of that is saturated fat. The rest is mostly monounsaturated, with a smattering of polyunsaturates in the mix. Light-meat turkey has even less fat than chicken breast, but the dark meat has about the same, with a marginally higher percentage of saturated fat.
Then there’s selenium. I consider selenium—a trace mineral—one of the single most important nutrients in the human diet. First, selenium is a powerful antioxidant. Second, epidemiological data indicate clearly that low dietary intake of selenium is associated with increased incidence of several cancers, including lung, colorectal, skin, and prostate cancers. And there are in vitro animal and human data showing that supplemental selenium can protect against some cancers. There’s a lot of interest now focusing on these findings, given gathering evidence that selenium intakes may be declining in some parts of the world, including some areas of the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European countries.
I believe most people would be a lot healthier if they consumed at least 200 mcg of selenium daily. (The current RDI for selenium is 70 mcg.) Four ounces (115 g) of chicken breast provides 30 mcg, and one large breast contains 47 mcg, making chicken an excellent source of this cancer-fighting mineral. Turkey has even more: 36 mcg for 4 ounces (115 g) of light meat, 45 mcg for 4 ounces of dark meat. (The dark meat of turkey also has more zinc than the light meat.)
Speaking of protein, I’m always amused by the vegan propaganda about how animal protein causes bone loss and osteoporosis. Actually, the opposite is true.
The Framingham Osteoporosis Study investigated protein consumption over a four-year period among 615 elderly men and women with an average age of 75. The amount of protein eaten daily ranged from as low as 14 g a day to as high as 175 g. Those who consumed more protein had less bone loss, and those who consumed less protein had more bone loss, both at the femoral bone and at the spine. The study also found that “higher intake of animal protein does not appear to affect the skeleton adversely.”
Calcium is better absorbed on a higher-protein diet, even if there is somewhat more urinary calcium excretion. High-protein diets in two studies resulted in significantly more calcium absorption than the low-protein diets they were compared to. And a study in Obesity Research compared a low-protein diet to a high-protein diet to determine whether the protein content of the diet impacted bone mineral density. It did. The folks in the low-protein group had greater bone mineral loss.
Because of the toxins, antibiotics, steroids, pesticides, and growth hormones used in factory farming, I’m reluctant to recommend unlimited amounts of nonorganic meat and poultry. But let’s not kid ourselves—protein is a critical part of a healthy diet. Of course, we should try to get it from the healthiest sources we can (which definitely doesn’t include fast-food restaurants).
While it’s certainly possible to be healthy on a vegetarian diet, it takes more planning than you might imagine. And many people—perhaps not all, but many—just do better with some animal products in their diet. It’s been that way since the beginning of the human genus, and until our digestive fuel tanks”undergo significant genetic alteration, I suspect it will remain that way.
Beef is beef and carrots are carrots, right?
Whether your food is animal, vegetable, plant, fish, or fruit, where a food comes from, how it’s raised (or grown), what it ate (or was fed), what soil it was grown on (or grazed on), how it is processed, prepared, and cooked (or not cooked) is vitally important to its nutritional content an absolutely central to its effect on your health.
Which brings us to beef.
The natural diet of cattle is grass. It is absolutely not grain. Yet most of the beef that comes to us via traditional routes has been eating nothing but grain. When a ruminant like a cow is taken off its natural diet of pasture and fattened on grain, it loses nutrients. According to one reputable source, grain-fed meat has only one-quarter as much vitamin E, one-eighth as much beta-carotene, and, probably most important, one-third as many omega-3 fatty acids. (This makes sense—grain has far fewer of these nutrients than fresh pasture!)
The fat content of grass-fed beef is different from that of grain-fed beef because the diet of the animals significantly alters their fatty acid composition. Cattle that are primarily fed grass enhance their omega-3 content by 60 percent. A large amount of research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and help prevent certain chronic diseases such as heart disease. The ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids in our diet is of enormous importance to our health. The wrong balance of these fatty acids (a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio) contributes to the development of disease, while a proper balance helps maintain and even improves health.
Our Paleolithic ancestors consumed a ratio of roughly 1:1 omega-6 to omega-3, which is believed to be optimal. Research by Artemis Simopoulos, M.D., published in the World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics (volume 100) suggests that the present Western diet ranges from 15:1 to an astonishing 20:1 ratio in favor of the proinflammatory omega-6s. No wonder we’re experiencing an epidemic of inflammatory-related illnesses! The fat of grass-fed beef has a much more favorable omega-6 to omega-3 ratio than the fat of grain-fed cows.
And the benefits don’t stop with higher omega-3s. Ruminants such as cows produce another very important fat called CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which has long been investigated for its anticancer activity as well as for its ability to reduce fat accumulation, particularly around the abdomen. The antiatherosclerotic activity of CLA was first reported in 1994, and evidence for its health-promoting properties has continued to grow since then. CLA comes mainly from the meat and milk of ruminants (cows). Problem is, grain-fed cattle don’t make nearly as much CLA as their grass-fed cousins do. At least four studies have shown that grass-fed ruminant species produce two to three times more CLA than ruminants fed in confinement on grain diets.
A final reason to choose grass-fed meat is that most grass farmers avoid the use of many of the chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics that we’d like to keep out of our food. They might not always be striving to reach the organic certification: they often use nitrogen fertilizers on their fields or may treat their animals with relatively benign medications. Nonetheless, they generally conform to the spirit of organic (see my essay shown here). And feeding a cow “organic” grain means nothing as far as I’m concerned, except that he was fed a less-contaminated version of a food he shouldn’t be eating in the first place. Given a choice between organic and grass fed, I’ll go with grass fed every time. Of course if I can get both, I’ll take them.
Though the nutrient composition of beef depends somewhat on the cut of the meat, all beef is a great source of protein, a good source of B vitamins—especially vitamin B12—and a good source of heme iron, the most absorbable form of iron you can get from food. About half of the fat in beef is heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Beef is also high in zinc, with almost any kind of 3-ounce portion providing more than half the Daily Value for this important nutrient.
If you’re interested in learning more about grass farming and its benefits to your health, a great place to start is www.eatwild.com. Another good source is the Weston A. Price Foundation (www.westonaprice.org). I also highly recommend the excellent book by Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
For a meat eater, lamb has a lot to recommend it. For one thing, almost all lamb is grass fed. In parts of the United States, lambs that don’t make it to sufficient weight to be marketed may be fattened up on grain; this also happens in other countries when there are adverse conditions such as a drought. But grass is the natural diet of cattle and sheep, and the meat of animals that are grass fed has a higher amount of omega-3 fatty acids, not to mention the absence of hormones, steroids, and antibiotics. Meat from a grass-fed animal, organically and humanely raised on its natural diet, is far superior to its grain-fed, factory-farmed brethren.
For another thing, growth hormones are not used on sheep. (Lambs are sheep that are less than one year old.) And if you purchase organic lamb—highly recommended—you are buying meat from animals that are not dipped, sprayed, or dermally dosed with insecticides, and they are the closest to the kind of animals our Paleolithic ancestors hunted. Problem is, the simple term “organic” doesn’t really guarantee all that much. According to The Natural Food Hub (www.naturalhub.com), the closest we can come to ideal is what might be called “certified organic meat,” which implies not only avoiding medicines and insecticides, but also extends to a philosophy that prohibits the use of artificial fertilizers on the pasture.
The cut of lamb and the tenderness of the meat are the best indicators of fat content. Lamb has fewer retail cuts than beef. In general, leaner cuts—the foreshank and parts of the leg—are less tender than cuts from areas where the muscles are not used as much, such as the loin and rib. But even leaner cuts of lamb tend to be more tender than similar cuts of beef.
Lamb is not a high-calorie food, and it’s loaded with protein. One 4-ounce (115 g) portion of fresh, lean loin, trimmed to 1/8-inch fat, cooked, is only 217 calories. For that you get about 30 g of high-quality protein, plus some calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, almost 50 percent of the RDI for niacin, and 90 percent of the amount of potassium in a banana! Less than half of the 9 or so g of fat in that 4-ounce (115 g) portion of meat is saturated fat; most of the rest is heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and the remainder is polyunsaturated.
That 4-ounce (115 g) portion of lamb also contains 25 percent of the RDI for zinc and more than one-third of the RDI for vitamin B12. Zinc is an essential mineral that is found in almost every cell and stimulates the activity of approximately 100 enzymes, substances that promote biochemical reactions in your body. It’s essential for a healthy immune system, which is adversely affected by even moderate degrees of zinc deficiency. (Men take note: Zinc is needed for the production of healthy sperm, which may be one indirect reason why high-zinc oysters got their reputation as an aphrodisiac!) Vitamin B12 is necessary to bring down homocysteine, a nasty metabolic compound that puts you at risk for heart disease and memory impairment. Vitamin B12 is most absorbable from animal foods; vegetarians—despite what they tell you—are most at risk for deficiency.
Although lamb is the principal meat in parts of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and India, it is much less popular in the United States. On average, we consume a pound (455 g) of lamb per person annually, a fraction of our beef consumption. By contrast, in New Zealand, the per capita consumption of lamb and goat averages more than 60 pounds (27 kg) a year.
Some cultures place such a high value on liver that human hands are not allowed to touch it; rather, special sticks are used to move it. The Li-Chi, a handbook of rituals published during China’s Han era (202 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.) lists liver as one of the Eight Delicacies. I realize that might be a hard concept to sell to your liver-hating teenager. But liver is a great food. Gram for gram, it contains more nutrients than any other food!
Go through any college nutrition text and look up the best food sources for practically every B vitamin and you’ll see liver at the top of almost every list. A small 3-ounce (85 g) serving of braised liver provides all the Daily Value for vitamin A (preformed), riboflavin, copper, and vitamin B12. It also contains 93 percent of selenium, a valuable trace mineral that’s one of the most powerful cancer-fighting nutrients on the planet. That same 3 ounces (85 g) also has 55 percent of the Daily Value for zinc, 50 percent of niacin, a surprising 50 percent of folate (which is usually associated with vegetables and fortified foods), 40 percent of thiamin and B6, and about a third of the RDI for iron. For goodness’ sake, it even has some vitamin C! And, of course, liver is a superb source of protein.
Remember, though, that the liver of any animal—including humans—is ground zero for detoxification. So, when you’re dealing with animals that have been raised on feedlot farms and fed all kinds of things they shouldn’t be eating (such as grain) and shot full of all kinds of things they shouldn’t be shot full of (hormones, antibiotics), all that stuff is going to wind up in their livers. That’s why it’s especially important to only eat liver from grass-fed animals.
When it comes to liver, I recommend organic and/or pasture raised to reduce the risk of contaminants. If that’s not an option, then I recommend only young animal liver. If supermarket, factory-farmed liver is your only option, choose calf’s liver, because U.S. beef cattle spend their first months on pasture.
Now let’s talk for a minute about the common advice to avoid liver while pregnant because of its vitamin A content.
There were some very early studies on mice that showed that vitamin A was associated with fetal abnormalities, and based on this, women have been advised for years that large doses of vitamin A could be toxic, especially to their unborn child. And just in case they’re right, no one who’s pregnant is going to take a chance. I don’t blame them. But I think the warnings against vitamin A are vastly overblown.
Why do I believe the dangers of vitamin A have been overstated? Several reasons. One, I went back and read the original mice studies. The amount of vitamin A given to the rodents was so huge that when my assistant and I tried to translate it into IUs (the units in which we commonly measure vitamin A), we simply couldn’t do it—the number of zeros was greater than the calculator could work with. Many of these studies used intravenous injections of synthetic vitamin A in massive quantities. No one—repeat, no one—consumes that amount of vitamin A, ever.
Second, the natural vitamin A found in liver does not seem to cause the same toxicity problems that synthetic vitamin A does. In fact, the amount of vitamin A in one slice of liver is a little less than that in two carrots, for goodness’ sake. Third, a study carried out in Rome (published in Teratology, January 1999) found no congenital malformations among 120 infants exposed to more than 50,000 IUs of vitamin A per day. Fourth, a study from Switzerland published in the International Journal of Vitamin and Nutrition Research in 1998 looked at blood levels of vitamin A in pregnant women and found that a daily dose of 30,000 IUs resulted in blood levels that had no association with birth defects. (One slice of liver has about 21,000 IUs; a carrot has 12,000.)
Interestingly, textbooks on nutrition written before World War II recommended that pregnant women eat liver frequently. I personally use high-dose vitamin A (50,000 IUs) every time I feel a cold coming on, and so do a dozen nutritionists I know. Point is that the amount of vitamin A in calf’s liver—substantially less than we’re talking about here—poses no risk to anyone. But that’s just my opinion. If you’re pregnant, you should of course check with your health professional about your diet and supplements—but please make sure the reasoning for avoiding liver isn’t based on old prejudices.
(buffalo, venison, elk, bison)
Everything said so far regarding grass-fed, pasture-raised beef applies to wild game as well. Humans are genetically adapted to eat what our Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) ancestors, the hunter-gatherers, ate. And that was quite simply this: food you could hunt, fish, gather, or pluck. According to Loren Cordain, professor of health and exercise science at Colorado State University and author of the excellent book The Paleo Diet, “Just 500 generations ago—and for 2.5 million years before that—every human on Earth ate this way. It is the diet to which all of us are ideally suited, and the lifetime nutritional plan that will normalize your weight and improve your health.”
Believe it or not, our Paleolithic ancestors were lean, fit, and free from heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues that are plaguing Western countries. Did they die earlier than we do? Sure. But probably more from the harsh elements and the dangers of wooly mammoths. Is our life span longer? Absolutely. And that’s probably due as much to reduced infant mortality, protection from the elements, and the ability of modern medicine to keep us alive longer.
Meanwhile, compare our ancestral diet to our modern diet and then look at the laundry list of degenerative diseases that now plague modern man and modern woman, yet were virtually unknown as recently as a couple of hundred years ago. The point is, if you want a blueprint for what fuel mix the human digestive system was designed to work best on, you need look no further than the basic food source that nourished the human genus for a couple of million years. And that food source was a mix of what we could hunt—wild game—and what we could gather—natural foods such as roots, berries, nuts, wild vegetables, and fruits.
So, what did Paleolithic man actually eat? Wild animal foods dominated their diets, and these foods provide a higher proportion of good fats compared to other types of commercial meat. That included, by the way, some saturated fat as well! Meat from grass-fed animals has two to four times more omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain-fed animals.
Wild game is a good source of protein and contains large quantities of B vitamins, including B12, and absorbable heme iron. It also provides potassium (which helps the body’s cells work properly) and phosphorus (essential for healthy bones and teeth), zinc, and the valuable, cancer-fighting trace mineral selenium (3 ounces [85 g] of bison or buffalo contains more than 40 percent of the Daily Value for this important mineral). With its healthy ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats, game can help decrease the risk of heart disease. Wild game doesn’t spend time on factory-style feedlot operations, and therefore is not loaded with antibiotics, steroids, growth hormones, and other toxins that are a by-product of the modern CAFO (confined animal feeding operations, or the modern factory farm).
Remember, we’ve been eating wild game for as long as we’ve been on the planet. The modern supermarket food we know today—freeze-dried everything, juice concentrates, self-cooking meals, TV dinners, “cheese food,” packaged snacks, high amounts of sodium, sugar, trans fats, artificial colorants, and sweeteners—came of age in the late twentieth century. Before 1961, no one ever heard of the Golden Arches. But we’ve eaten wild game for as long as we’ve been on the planet.
Do the math: Which way of eating is really more natural?
Michael and Mary Dan Eades are great friends of mine, and two of the smartest and most committed M.D.s in the country. They are iconic low-carb advocates, and authors of the classics Protein Power, The Protein Power Life Plan, Staying Power: Maintaining Your Low-Carb Weight Loss for Good, and The Low-Carb CookwoRx Cookbook. They can be reached at www.proteinpower.com.
1. Grass-fed beef, pork, lamb: These are sources of good protein and quality fat, devoid of hormones, antibiotics, and toxins.
2. Cage-free chicken and eggs: These are humanely produced, inexpensive, and a source of high-quality protein and cholesterol.
(Note from JB: This is not a misprint. Cholesterol from the diet helps regulate the production of cholesterol in the body; if you don’t get it from the diet, you will make it. And cholesterol is the parent molecule of many important hormones.)
3. Sardines packed in sardine oil: Of all fish, these are the lowest in heavy metals and other toxins, while still being rich in essential fats. They are best packed in their own oil, but those packed in olive oil or water are okay, too. Avoid varieties in soybean or vegetable oil.
4. Coconut oil: This oil is rich in lauric acid and important for immune health, stable at high temperatures, and great for sautéing, frying, and baking.
5. Broccoli sprouts: No food is higher in sulforaphane than these sprouts. They are great on salads or in wraps. If you are short on these tiny powerhouses, eat cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage).
6. Spinach (and other dark-green leafies): Spinach is packed with nutrients, especially folate, without a slug of carbs.
7. Tomatoes: Full of potassium and lycopene, tomatoes are so versatile you can serve them at any meal.
8. Pomegranate: This powerful antioxidant is delicious to boot.
9. Celery root: This contains all the benefits of potatoes and are used in much the same way, but without the starch load.
10. Berries: These are the king of fruits, chock-full of antioxidants, fiber, and flavor.