Friday, February 19, 2010

Starter Series: 1. Eat Meat

Apple-Cinnamon Chicken Skillet--see recipe below

I have been meaning to write up a Starter Series for those of you new to the blog and future visitors.  I know there are recipes buried in long-ish posts (I'll try to sort those easier for you in the future, for now, I suggest search or keyword/tag and using the Starter Series).  I also realize that some of the rants might scare away potential readers because they lack the context of knowing what the paleo lifestyle is all about.  So let me explain why I eat the way I eat.

Living paleo-style is built on some core principles: Eat meat and veggies, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, little dairy, no sugar, no grains, and no legumes (we'll talk more about dairy and why it's "little" instead of "no" when we get there).  Fish oil and vitamin D supplementation will also be discussed in good time.  Note: this isn't strictly Paleo, Primal, Zone, or the CrossFit dietary prescription; it's just my take on what works best for me and for many others, and no, it's not a diet--it's a lifestyle built for long-term sustainability.

Today's Starter Series tackles our first core principle:
  • Eat meat.  
The types of meat are preferably grass-fed (if the animal eats grass; if not, then whatever the animal would eat in the wild), organic, and pasture-raised.  The less-processed, the better.  Eggs (from pasture-raised poultry eating a wild diet and possibly supplemented with flaxseed for higher omega-3 content) and seafood (wild caught and coinciding with the best choices on the Seafood Watch List) would fall into the meat category.  Animal fats would also fall into this category, and they are healthy despite what the saturated fat myth-perpetuators would have you believe.

For more information, here is my post of grass-fed beef and another on eggs.

Why Eat Meat?

Humans eating meat has a long evolutionary history.  There are theories about our large brains, tool use, social complexity, and aptitude to cover the globe that focus on meat as the impetus for these evolutionary changes.  Eating meat does not separate us from all of our great ape cousins (for example, chimpanzees hunt too), but the regularity of meat in our diet over millions of years has set us apart.  In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan discusses how our biology (gut, teeth, and jaws) is that of an omnivore--an eater of both plant and meat.  We require essential fats and amino acids that match those present in other animals.  The most efficient way to meet those requirements without risk of deficiency is to eat meat.  This is a biological reality.  

Meat should be an important component of EVERY meal.  Here's why:

1.  Meat, since its from animals (not so different from ourselves), provides a complete protein source filled with a full complement of essential amino acids, which we require from our diet (we cannot synthesize them in our body).  Yes, you can get small amounts of protein from plants, but they are ALWAYS incomplete, lacking some essential amino acids you need to survive, and they are ALWAYS poor protein sources because plant protein is encased in cellulose cell walls that we were not built to digest, unlike ruminants (ex. cows).   It is simplest to obtain what we need from the most complete source: meat.  

2.  Meat provides essential fatty acids, omega-6s and omega-3s.  Both are needed for our bodies to function and ideally there is approximately a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3.  However, our modern diets are looking more like 20:1.  Too much omega-6 can be detrimental (producing harmful arachadonic acid leading to inflammation).  Unfortunately, omega-6 saturates our modern diet though our use of vegetable oils in nearly everything (just try label shopping and be horrified by the ubiquity of "vegetable," canola, sunflower, corn, soybean, and safflower oils in almost everything boxed, jarred, canned, or bagged).  We need to focus on getting more healthy omega-3 fatty acids back into our diet.  Omega-3 is protective against disease and inflammation.  It's source?  Meat (which includes fish) [note: flaxseed is an omega-3 source too, but it has inefficient conversion to the EPA and DHA that are more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and has been linked to prostate cancer].  However, not just any meat will do.  Deep, cold-water fish and grass-fed meat are high in omega-3 fatty acids.  Compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef a vastly higher amount of omega-3 fatty acids and a better ratio between them and omega-6 (closer to 1:1).  Grass-fed beef also contains two to three times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is protective against heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. Furthermore, grass-fed beef has twice as much beta-carotene (vitamin A precursor) than grain-fed beef, and three times more vitamin E.  This nutritional profile is one reason why I suggest eating animals that eat what they evolved to eat, just like we should eat what we evolved to eat.

3.  Meat provides vitamins and minerals essential to life.
  • Vitamin B12 for one is ONLY naturally available in meat and meat products (like dairy) (other sources for vegetarians are fortified foods and supplements).  Although some synthesis happens by bacteria in the body, food sources or supplementation is necessary to avoid deficiency.  Vitamin B12 plays a vital role in metabolism, brain and nervous system functioning, and red blood cell formation.  Without enough vitamin B12, you get anemia and can develop serious and potentially irreversible brain and nervous system complications.  Sounds fun!
  • Iron is also vital within our bodies for oxygen transport to the cells.  A diet lacking enough iron can lead to iron deficiency anemia, which means the tissues aren't getting enough oxygen to function properly--they're suffocating.  The iron in meat is more available than in plants.  This means your body can digest and absorb animal sources of iron easier because their iron is not bound up in plant fiber and protein nor inhibited from being absorbed through anti-nutrient action.  Yay, for not being anemic!  
  • Zinc is another mineral necessary to our metabolism and immune system health, and it more readily absorbed from meat than plant sources.  The bioavailability of zinc in animal foods is superior because zinc absorption is not inhibited: phytates in plants bind to metallic elements like zinc so that we can't absorb them.  The absorption of zinc from animal foods is enhanced by the presence of amino acids also found in animal foods.  Zinc deficiency brings fun things like impaired physical and neuropsychological development and a compromised immune system.
  • Other notable vitamins and minerals more readily absorbed from meat than plants include vitamin B6 (essential to your nervous system, metabolism, and blood) and selenium (integral to thyroid function, oxidative reactions, and joint health).  As I already mentioned, grass-fed beef trumps grain-fed for its beta carotene (vitamin A precursor) and vitamin E content.  Chicken notably is a great source of niacin, a vitamin essential for healthy DNA.  Fish is an excellent source of potassium (integral to chemical reactions and cell membranes), magnesium (important to blood flow, chemical reactions, and protein synthesis), and phosphorus (a component of bones, cell membranes, blood cells, and DNA), in addition to high omega-3 fatty acids.  Sounds like a superfood to me!
The Anti-Meat Beef

To be fair, since I've presented the benefits, now let's look at the argued detriments to eating meat.  Here are a few arguments against eating meat, along with my rebuttals.  Granted, there are probably dozens more arguments out there, but here are some we can tackle today.  I've chosen to compare and contrast a meat-based diet with a grain-based diet, since without meat, one would find it hard not to rely upon grains.  And you are hereby warned that this is going to get ugly :)

1.  Eating meat wastes energy. 

The thought is that eating higher up the food chain, consumers instead of producers, takes more energy.  The consumer had to eat loads of producers to survive, while those producers just harnessed ambient resources: water, sunlight, and minerals.  There are some flaws in this argument, though.  Besides the fact that we are omnivores and require essential amino acids and fatty acids meat is best able to provide, the whole consumer/producer concept is inaccurate.  Producers are consumers too--they rely upon a healthy soil filled with microorganisms and minerals that nourish them as much as the sun and water required for energy production.  They don't produce in a vacuum; they rely upon other organisms to survive and die, fertilizing the soil.  You can't grow crops (even in a garden) without fertilizer or you'll deplete the soil and make it infertile.  The Vegetarian Myth author Lierre Keith experienced this first hand when she tried to grow a garden without the killing or subjugation of animals.  She found that the only sources for the essential nitrogen needed to grow plants is fertilizer, which either comes from manure or animal blood and bones (products of animal domestication) or from chemicals that require fossil fuels to produce (also from animals, albeit ancient ones).  Producers consume the resources other organisms provide.  Think "circle of life" (complete with singing meerkats and warthogs) rather than a linear model.  

For those that say the meat industry is more energy-wasting than agriculture, I agree in terms of factory-farmed meat.  I wholly agree with ending that despicable industry.  But for a more balanced argument, one must look at grass-fed, pastured, and wild caught to compare.  While transport, processing, and distribution costs are based upon consumption, grain crops have a much higher reliance on fossil fuels for their cultivation.  Both grass and grain crops need sun and water, but grains also need fossil fuel produced fertilizers and pesticides, while grass does not.  Grain crops have a heavy reliance on humans to meet their needs, whereas healthy grassland just needs ruminants and a healthy ecosystem to thrive--it can exist on its own.  Grassland is a more natural state than cropland, especially with our genetically modified monocrops.  And if we can't eat the grass, why not utilize creatures that can?  I believe that wise use of our resources (a focus on grass-fed, pastured, and wild-caught animal foods rather than grain crops) is better for our health, the health of our food sources, and the health of our planet.

Just as grain crops are used for energy like biofuel, grass is another potential energy resource.  Since less fossil fuel would be required to utilize grass for energy, compared to corn, the net energy gain would be more substantial.  Like corn, grass can duel task as livestock feed and as an energy resource, with the added benefit of not sickening cows (and requiring them to be pumped full of antibiotics).  Grass pellets are an efficient renewable energy source.  Read more on this in argument #4 below.  

2.  Eating meat wastes grains fed to livestock that should feed starving people.

Wow, this is a biggie.  Let's skim the surface of a few parts.  For one, grains shouldn't be fed to livestock.  Period.  Grains are not their natural diet and they make them sick.  Same argument goes for us, whether or not we choose to admit it.  Grains make us sick, for most of us perhaps not so acutely and observably as cows fed corn (although aren't we pumping ourselves full of antibiotics too?), but human grain-eaters are slowing dying on the inside with impaired digestion and risk of a pandora's box of diseases.  Read Pasta Sans Pasta and many of my other posts to find out more about grains.  Finally, feeding starving people grains is not the answer.  In addition to being of poor nutritional quality, grains given through charity lead to a recipient country's economic ruin as their own farmers can't compete with the handouts we provide.  Why should they farm if we can provide food for free?  There is more to this complex political and economic rat's nest in The Vegetarian Myth.  I highly recommend it!

3.  Eating meat is cruel.  

Factory farming is cruel.  There is NO argument there.  But if we support grass-fed beef producers, pastured pork and poultry farmers, and wild-caught seafood, we aren't supporting cruelty.  We are trying to make a difference by eating what is healthiest for us, these animals, and the environment.

Think you can get out of killing by being a vegetarian, think again.  This anti-meat argument ignores the fact that plants are alive too and have complicated reactions to our presence and our influence much like "feeling."  In The Vegetarian Myth, Keith discusses how plants communicate, protect each other, and live symbiotically with other lifeforms, both plant and animal.  Any botany textbook will provide the evidence to back this up.  To reduce plants to inanimate objects is inaccurate, disrespectful, and naive.  Can one really hold up an argument that ranks life so that one feels better about one's food choices?  Of course, we should make better choices and treat ALL of our food with more respect.  Now you can understand my outrage over reading the bumper sticker, "Eat beans not beings."  Can't you just see the flame...flames...FLAMES on the side of my face, breathing...heaving breaths...heaving... (a la Clue)

4.  Eating meat wastes land.

Contrary to popular belief, not all land is meant for agriculture.  Most land is entirely unsuited to growing grains, so we have to pump in water and fertilizer and rely on chemicals to force our crops to grow.  Water for agriculture is being sucked from natural sources, changing landscapes and destroying environments.  Fertilizers, pesticides, and manure made toxic from antibiotics, hormones, and those ingested fertilizers and pesticides are flowing into the groundwater, rivers, and oceans disrupting environments and killing native wildlife.  Those chemicals are even poisoning our own water sources.  When do we realize we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole with forcing agriculture?  Grass converts the sun's energy into biomass without the need of fossil fuel chemicals as long as it is in a thriving ecosystem incorporating diverse animal and plant life.  With rotation of ruminants that fertilize, compact the soil, and renew the vegetation, grasslands are a self-sustaining ecosystem.  By contrast, monocrops are creating unproductive wastelands requiring more and more fossil fuel-derived chemicals to maintain.  Grass grows more places naturally than does any grain.  And since we don't eat grass, why not use it to feed our livestock?  There is no competition.    

5.  Eating meat isn't healthy.

If you look for it, there is a study out there to support it.  Meat-eaters and vegetarians are both opinionated groups with personal, economical, political, and medical arguments in favor of their side.  As such, meat has been implicated in cancers, heart disease, obesity, etc.  The list goes on and on.  I've already tackled the myth about "deadly" saturated fat, and debunked the "all cholesterol is bad cholesterol" myth in that post.  Plus, my arguments about sugar and its relationship to diabetes and obesity should shift the metabolic burden on carbohydrate sources.  See Fatphobia, Diabetes Doesn't Have to be Part of a Complete Breakfast, and Just Say No...To Juice? for more on this topic.  

Colon cancer has been linked to eating red meat in some studies, notably in North and South America, but there are so many contradictions (like Mormons, Argentinians, New Zealanders, Australians, etc. having lower incidence despite being hearty meat-eaters, while vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists have a higher incidence--huh???).  Dr. Eads comments on the perpetuation of non-existant conclusions here.  It is important to ask: what part do the refined grains in human diets and in the diets of conventional livestock play in this relationship?  I'd like to see what health problems can be linked to eating pastured poultry and pork and grass-fed red meat.  Then, there would be something to talk about.

There is also the scare of kidney damage with too high protein in the diet.  Here is an study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association disputing this claim.  From the abstract:
A frequently cited concern of very-low-carbohydrate diets is the potential for increased risk of renal disease associated with a higher protein intake. However, to date, no well-controlled randomized studies have evaluated the long-term effects of very-low-carbohydrate diets on renal function. 
their conclusion:
This study provides preliminary evidence that long-term weight loss with a very-low-carbohydrate diet does not adversely affect renal function compared with a high-carbohydrate diet in obese individuals with normal renal function. 
Arguments about meat being unhealthy and unsafe due to its antibiotic, growth hormone, and pesticide content are true for factory-farmed meat (including conventional dairy).  I couldn't agree more to rid this from your diet.  However, grass-fed and pastured sources of meat don't rely on pesticide-ridden food or require heavy antibiotic dosages to survive (albeit wild fish still become toxic due to polluted environments, so take caution, but they are still more healthy than their farmed relatives who must endure overcrowded, toxic pens and are pumped full of antibiotics to keep them alive--sound familiar?).  This is just more argument to feed animals the right way and use their resources wisely.  Since grain crops require pesticides, unlike grass, the argument for grain over meat is hollow and gives more support to eating grass-fed meat and eliminating grains from your diet.

6.  Eating meat is polluting.

You mean more polluting than the pesticides and fertilizers (produced using fossil fuels, of course) necessary to force crops to grow in environments becoming less suitable to their growth due to over-farming?  You mean more polluting than the energy required to harness distant water sources and fuel machinery to cultivate, transport, and process the "bounty"?  Yes, factory-farm animal waste is polluting water sources because it is filled with antibiotics and pesticides passed through the animals forced to live on a toxic diet.  Manure makes ideal fertilizer, when it comes from a clean diet.

And the higher emissions argument for grass-fed as opposed to grain-fed cattle?  The methane released from grass-fed cows is countered by properly ranged soil holding onto more carbon, which protects against drought and greenhouse gas emissions.  It is also countered by a healthy ecosystem incorporating plants that reduce methane and soil bacteria that neutralize it.

When it comes down to it--we are the ones who are polluting.  But we have a choice to lessen that burden.  We can choose to use our resources wisely and most efficiently.  Grain-based diets are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  To forgo meat is to turn your back on biological, financial, and political reality.  Our burden on this planet can be lessened.  In the case of raising animals, we can reduce our carbon footprint by eating grass-fed, pasture-raised, wild-caught meat.  

No doubt, there are more anti-meat arguments out there.  But hopefully I provided you with some ammunition to fight back and proudly eat your meat.  We'll continue this discussion in our future Starter Series: Why No Grain post.  

I've already provided some tasty meat recipes like:
A Box Without Hinges's Sausage and Egg Muffins
Saturated with Fat's The Easiest Preparation Known to Man: Seared Steak
Pasta Sans Pasta's Basic Meat Sauce
and Lunch Time!'s Roasted Turkey Breast

Here is a simple, delicious recipe to add to your breakfast repertoire.  It can easily be Zone balanced with fat, carb, and protein if desired.  You can also add some berries to give it more of a fruity kick.  

Apple-Cinnamon Chicken Skillet
Warm and crunchy, with sweet cinnamon to wake you, this is breakfast.  
Cooking Time: 15minutes or less start to finish

left-over chicken with any skin it might still have (any chicken will do [but pastured/free range, of course], as long as it is cooked and its flavoring doesn't clash) (use 2-5oz depending on the desired size of your breakfast), cut into bite-sized pieces
1 un-peeled apple, sweet or tart according to your preference, cut into bite-sized, thin slices 
coconut oil (a tbsp will probably work, depending upon the size of your breakfast)
Ceylon cinnamon

Start a skillet over medium high heat.  Add coconut oil and get it hot.  Then, add the apple to the skillet and dust with cinnamon.  Cook until it starts to brown in the coconut oil.  Add your chicken to the skillet.  Toss it and the apples and dust with more cinnamon.  Allow the chicken to crisp up a bit--this shouldn't take more than five minutes.  Remove to a plate once you have desired softness with your apples and have warmed the chicken, creating some delicious crunchy bits.  Dust with more cinnamon if you are a cinnamon fiend like me.  Enjoy your healthy, balanced breakfast!

Can't you just taste the caramelization?  Yum!

Meat Info


  1. Imagine if we had a process to remove billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere safely, quickly and cost-effectively - while at the same time building soil, reversing desertification, boosting biodiversity, enhancing global food security and improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people in rural and regional areas around our planet?

    We do - it's called changed grazing management and soil carbon.

    Please take a look at the presentations on to learn more.

  2. Hi Kristy--

    Thank you for the recipe and the very detailed introduction to why we eat meat! I am not new to Paleo, but I love to find posts that say exactly what I need say when I need to say it, and your blog is just full of informational gems. Thank you!

  3. Nice post, although it's weird that you state we should eat lean meat and then state that animal fats are healthy. Fight the fear, and state that fatty meats are wonderful! The only reason to trim the fat off your meat, or go for lean cuts, is if you can only access conventionally-raised, grain-fed meats, since the chemicals and hormones tend to be stored in the fat cells of the animals. I know you know all this, but this page would be a great introduction for newbies, so let's not confuse them from the get-go :)

  4. Hi Tony,
    What great ideas on soil management! That's what I am talking about! Thanks for sharing!

    Hi Sara,
    Thank you for your feedback! I am glad that I can help express thoughts we share on paleo eating. It is great to know there are more of us out there!

    Hi Jezwyn,
    I appreciate the comment and can understand your confusion. You are right that saturated fat should not be feared, but that doesn't mean bacon is at my every meal (despite how much I would love that!). If you go grass-fed or whatever natural diet the animal evolved to eat, then whatever cut is fine--it's going to be leaner than factory-farmed animals. It's the factory-farmed animals bred for their fat that becomes a problem, like you mentioned.

    Personally, I tend to eat chicken legs and thighs over breast meat and ribeyes are my beef of choice. I also make a mean carnitas (which is on my blog). However, I guess I am not ready to commit to saying "fatty meats," when "lean meats" are the more general term and would even include pastured "fatty" meats (since factory-farmed are so much fattier). I will try to reword that section to make this distinction. Thanks for asking for clarification!

    Hi Mherzog,
    That website shows the depravity of factory farmed meat. I appreciate the contribution! However, I DO NOT agree with the website's slant toward vegetarianism. Grass-fed, pastured, and wild caught sources of meat are much more humane and provide us with the protein we need as omnivores. By my post, I think it is pretty obvious how I feel about vegetarianism. For anyone needing more information, please read The Vegetarian Myth. It's excellent!

    Thank you, everyone, for your contributions and feedback! I appreciate it!

  5. Thank you for spreading the word about "The Vegetarian Myth". It is such a wonderful book.