Animal Products

One of my recommendations for winter weather was to eat more fat and protein. For a non–vegetarian, animal products are among the best sources of these macronutrients. They are filling and strengthening, and possess plenty of iron and B vitamins. Good quality animal food also contains omega-3 fatty acids. Very active people benefit especially from animal foods and so do those who spend a lot of time in the cold. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of rightly deserved controversy surrounding the consumption of meat and other animal products. It’s been said that these foods are inherently unhealthy and lead to fatal diseases such as heart disease and cancer, as well as to related problems such as high cholesterol, strokes, and osteoporosis (see the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, as an example). It’s also been said that there’s nothing wrong with animal products themselves, in fact, that they ard a traditional and integral part of a healthy diet, but that factory farming and other industrial techniques severely diminish the quality of the animal foods, as well as being responsible for animal cruelty and environmental waste (for a corresponding example, see the Weston A. Price Foundation). So what is the reality?

It’s true that almost all traditional societies have had some animal foods in their diets. From the Eskimos to the Celts to various African tribes and South Sea islanders, practically everyone ate meat or fish in some form or other. The animal foods they ate have been credited with helping them build muscle and develop proper bone and facial structure (including perfect teeth — there was no need for modern dental techniques until the 20 th century, and this is attributed to the end of the traditional consumption of raw animal fat). Animal foods also gave people enough stored protein and fat to survive periods of famine, helped them absorb vitamins and minerals, and enabled them to remain both warm and nourished in the winter. However, these people consumed these foods very differently hundreds or thousands of years ago from the way we do now. All the animals were organic, free–range, grass– and insect–fed, and were never given hormones or antibiotics. The most highly prized and sought after parts of the animals were not the muscle tissues that we eat now, but the organs that held all the vitamins and minerals. The liver, the heart, the kidneys, even the blood were essential parts of the diet. Eating the healthy organs of the animal nourished these organs in the person, making them much stronger against heart disease, liver failure, kidney stones, etc. Some of this tradition has come down to us in the practice of taking cod liver oil medicinally, even though this too has fallen out of favor.

Meat not being as readily available as it is now, people also ate smaller and fewer servings. People in warmer regions especially, with less active lives, needed to eat a lot less meat. The Eskimos could get away with eating tons of fatty animal foods, but, of course, they also lived in freezing cold igloos. The main problem with eating animal products the same way today, though, is that most animals are raised in factory farms where they live very brief, very unhealthy, very unhappy lives. Their organs are filled with toxins from the pesticides and chemicals in the food they eat, which includes not just a ton of corn and soy (common allergens for a good reason), but leftover ground up animal products from the unused parts of other animals. There are antibiotics to keep them alive in cramped living conditions that would otherwise kill them off, and hormones to make them constantly grow bigger and fatter. I don’t think I would want to eat a liver that has to process all that stuff, let alone a raw liver! No wonder they warn you to cook the meat to death — you’re cooking some unhealthy bacteria to death too. Even the muscle meat of these animals is nutritionally far poorer because of the diet that they are fed. Cows are meant to eat grass, which has vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. Cows that eat nutritionally empty food are correspondingly nutritionally empty on your plate. Finally, I don’t approve of eating animals that have been subject to needlessly cruel treatment, in which they are mutilated or artificially inseminated without any thought to the way they are naturally meant to live. I would not be surprised if there are additional health ramifications for eating an animal that led an unhappy life, or if there turns out to be a connection between the depression that afflicts so many Americans and the depression that exists in the animals they eat.

So, are animal foods healthy and good for you? I think they certainly can be, but you can see it depends on a number of factors, one of the most important of which is whether the animal itself was healthy and happy, and on a healthy diet of its own. Given that the meat, milk, eggs, or cheese did come from a health animal, we should also take into account how much we eat, whether we balance it with enough vegetables and other foods, and whether we’re just eating a lot of steaks or occasionally trying something like the liver. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of heart attacks out there went significantly down if people switched to organic, grass–fed, free–range meat with omega-3 fatty acids, which act like antifreeze in your arteries, and therefore balance out the saturated fat of the animal.

Some organic meat is available from health food stores and supermarkets like Whole Foods. However, I think it’s best if you can find a local farmer. The website www.localharvest.org has a national database of farmers selling their own locally grown animal products from family farms. The Weston A. Price Foundation has a section on their website where they list local providers of high–quality animal food: go tohttp://www.westonaprice.org/localchapters/index.html.

Sometimes it may seem like organic animal products are very expensive compared to their conventional counterparts. However, for conventional animal products, there is a “cost” of selling so cheaply: that cost is the practice of factory farming and all its flaws. The difference in price between the two is made up in the overcrowding of the conventional animals, the poor quality feed, the environmental waste, and the animal cruelty. These are practices that the manufacturers of the meat industry (they really do seem like manufacturers, not farmers at all) implemented in order to beat the competition and sell their meat at an artificially low price. What I recommend is eating fewer animal products but buying higher quality. I would also note that if you go out to a restaurant and order a steak, it’s not going to be organic, but you still pay about as much for that steak as you would for an organic steak at the supermarket that’s twice as big. Plus, at most restaurants they probably overcook it. One last advantage to point out with organic, free–range meat: because it’s been raised in healthier, disease–free conditions, cooking it a little more on the rare, juicy side isn’t cause for worry — just for pleasure.