Welcome to Part One of my three part series on the power and importance of animal based nutrition! Let's begin!
Do you believe that meat and animal foods are bad for your health, bad for the environment, and unethical to consume?
If so, it is understandable, based on the cultural narrative around this topic. Between damning media reports, anti-meat propaganda films posing as health/environment documentaries, horrible video clips from factory farms, associational data presented in misleading ways, and biased, industry influenced nutritional recommendations, it makes sense why you would think that, and why I once thought those things too. Big claims get made and reported, and even if they are later shown to be wrong, refuting the claims and getting the information circulated is much more challenging.
But have you taken the time to look into alternative viewpoints?
Have you explored why animal foods are thought to be unhealthy by some and healthy by others? Do you think disturbing factory farming practices are standard across the board? Or that no animals perished or were exploited in the cultivation of a plant-based meal? Is the environmental impact of animal agriculture really as bad as has been reported? Could plant agriculture actually be worse in many cases?
If you take the time to really explore the subject and what the various sides of the argument are saying, you may begin to see the current societal push against animal inclusive diet as myopic, misguided (but mostly well intentioned), and even corrupt, manipulative, and harmful in some circumstances.
The more you explore the plethora of health experts and their content (including books, programs, articles, films, debates, interviews, podcasts, etc), and go down various rabbit holes of differing nutritional narratives, opinions, beliefs, research studies, research study critiques, hypotheses, hypothesis critiques and more, all on the topic of meat inclusive diets, and the health, ethical and environmental implications, the more you realize the debate is FAR more complex and nuanced than we have been led to believe.
Based on my explorations, this article contains some of my conclusions to date and I have presented evidence and information that you may have not heard on this subject. I encourage you to explore various sides of the topic of animal inclusive diets (including counter evidence), and the variety of articles and studies I have linked to throughout, and see what personal conclusions you come to.
Putting Some Perspective on Meat and Animal Nutrition
To begin, it is important to mention that there are a variety of issues with our current nutritional recommendations and much of the basis for them. But maybe none more so than the ones demonizing meat and animal foods.
We evolved eating diets rich in meat and animal foods, and we would not likely be here today in this form without the powerful nutrition they provide us. One should be very suspicious of nutritional claims demonizing nutritious whole foods in a broad context, and suggesting lifelong removal of an entire category of foods we evolved eating.
Begin by asking yourself, why would an evolutionarily consistent food like meat and animal fats, that humans have been consuming for nourishment and health for our entire existence, all of a sudden be bad for our health in the last several decades?
Intuitively, does it make any sense that animal foods - whole foods, rich in essential nutrients, that humans have been thriving on throughout our history - are all of the sudden playing a causative role in all our modern chronic diseases?
Do you think a whole food animal inclusive diet, alongside healthy lifestyle and environmental inputs is comparable to an animal inclusive diet that's high in ultra-processed foods with unhealthy lifestyle and environmental inputs?
Lastly, please consider that maybe animal foods mistakenly got lumped in with the true culprits of poor health - being ultra-processed foods, full of highly refined flours, sugars, fats and oils, preservatives, flavor enhancers etc, and the overconsumption of them, in combination with an unhealthy lifestyle.
Evidence For Animal Foods As a Healthy Part of Your Diet
Correlation does not equal causation. If something is “associated” with an outcome, that does not by any means indicate that the something caused the outcome. This is where a lot of the issues with our nutrition recommendations stem from. In regards to red meat and animal foods, unsubstantiated associational claims have been made that their consumption increases your risk for various conditions ranging from type-2 diabetes, to cancer, to heart disease. However, no mechanisms of action have ever been determined for any of these claims. Yet this messaging remains prevalent in the nutrition space and our cultural narrative surrounding food.
The Annals of International Medicine concluded that the evidence against meat is of low quality, and we in fact do not have the evidence to make public health recommendations to limit red (and even processed) meat consumption. There is simply no good evidence or rationale to consume less meat and animal foods, especially in the context of a whole food diet and healthy lifestyle inputs. Recommendations to avoid them should be viewed at the very least with skeptical curiosity.
There is also another common narrative around the saturated fat content in meat and animal foods, and the push to avoid them for the last several decades. There are also multiple meta-analyses showing no link between saturated fats and disease. (1, 2, 3) I am not saying you should put a stick of butter in your coffee and only eat ribeyes; but perhaps in some circumstances, saturated fats (especially from whole food sources) are not as bad as they have been made out to be, and poor health outcomes associated with them may be more context dependant.
Animal foods have the highest nutrient density, alongside a low caloric content, while also providing all the essential nutrients for humans, in appreciable amounts, and in their most bioavailable forms (meaning we easily utilize them).
Animals upcycle nutrients from the plants and food they consume, allowing them to efficiently and effectively provide humans with nutrients such as essential fatty acids (like EPA & DHA), fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K2), B vitamins (especially B12), minerals and trace minerals (like iron, zinc, and selenium), and even phytonutrients and thousands of other compounds that likely play a role in human health. This is why you cannot just recreate meat and the complexities of the food matrix and nature in a lab.
Animal foods also provide a complete protein source with optimal amino acid ratios (more on this in Part 2), and contain a variety of essential and important nutrients that plants cannot provide in meaningful amounts, cannot provide in their most bioavailable forms, or cannot provide at all, such as carnitine, choline, cholesterol, vitamin D3, vitamin K2, EPA, DHA, vitamin B12, retinol, heme iron, carnosine, creatine, taurine.
For example, this one pack of regenerative, locally raised meat (a legitimately sustainable food) from TK Ranch in Alberta, containing a blend of ground beef, liver, heart and kidney, provided a complete protein source, essential fatty acids EPA and DHA, and easily met or exceeded several Recommended Dietary Intakes (RDI’s) in several essential nutrients, for a relatively small amount of total calories. Most notable are vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, iron, phosphorus, zinc, copper, selenium, riboflavin, niacin, choline, and folate. Yet somehow, this is considered unhealthy to eat by some.
Meat unlikely to be immune reactive or create food intolerances. Plant foods, eggs, and dairy are far more common food allergies and intolerances. This is clear with the growing popularity and success of the animal based diet movement as a short term therapeutic elimination diet strategy, especially for autoimmune conditions; and appears to be an incredibly effective dietary intervention.
Animal foods in and of themselves are great at maintaining good glycemic control- keeping blood sugar stable, and insulin levels favorable, promoting greater metabolic health. This can be shown objectively in real time using a continuous glucose monitor and other blood sugar measuring devices.
As I hinted at above, one could suggest that animal foods would be an issue when eaten in combination with ultra-processed foods (think a plain beef patty paired with a white flour bun, a soda, and multi-ingredient fries deep fried in oil). However, I would say that even in that context, animal foods are definitely not the problem. You cannot simply lump a nutritious whole food in with ultra processed foods, and put blame on the whole food for the negative outcomes obviously stemming from the ultra-processed foods. It won’t matter what whole food you pair with refined flours, sugars, and industrial seed oils, the result will always be negative to your physiology.
Animal Foods, Ethics, The Environment & Other Considerations
Although the main focus of this article is to make you question the claims that animal foods are unhealthy, and showcase the nutrition and health benefits animal foods provide, I will briefly touch on the environmental and ethical arguments against animal inclusive diets, and I really encourage you to explore the topic further. I have several eye opening resources tagged in the last page of this post.
Holistically managed animals and regenerative farming methods can be used to improve soil health and ecosystem biodiversity, and can actually mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration. Animal agriculture can and must be a part of the climate change solution. Although industrial animal agriculture (factory farming) is definitely an environmental burden, it is FAR from being the worst culprit, despite taking much of the blame; and the current narrative around animal agriculture's impact on climate change has been largely exaggerated by those against animal consumption.
Animal agriculture has been said by some to be worse for the environment than even the transportation sector. As you can see from EPA data to the left, the environmental impacts of animal agriculture can’t even come close to that of the transportation and fossil fuel industries, and even has less overall impact than plant agriculture! Even though some of plant agriculture goes towards feeding animals, what fails to be mentioned is that most (86%) of global livestock feed intake is made of plants that are inedible to humans.
This information should have you at the very least starting to raise your eyebrows and scratch your heads as to why there is so much focus on demonizing red meat and animal foods with regards to the environmental impacts.
Another key issue with animal food consumption stems from the farming practices used to raise and produce them. Factors like what the animals are fed, their living conditions, and how they are killed, how workers are treated etc, are all important to consider.
While the strategy of consuming less or no meat withdraws support from negative animal farming practices, it also is generally doing little or nothing to support or promote better ones. It most certainly doesn’t prevent animal deaths or environmental and ecosystem destruction, as billions of animals, bugs, and important soil components are still wiped out in plant agriculture production each year.
Obtaining food unfortunately requires death of some kind, and no meal is free from loss of life, and both plants and animals are sentient beings. Because of this, a strategy like purchasing a whole animal and sustaining yourself on that one large animal for several months can arguably allow for lesser loss of life from your food choices. “Do least harm”.
The highest quality, organic and pasture raised animal foods generally cost more, especially when purchased in smaller quantities (buying in bulk can make them much more affordable), which can make it challenging for those of lower socioeconomic status to afford and support. However, even sharing information about better farming practices (like regenerative agriculture) can be a means of support if you cannot afford the highest quality food.
In many cases your perceptions of what you can afford also relates to your priorities. You most likely have been finding the time, money, energy and resources to do what matters the most to you in life. And you most likely run out of time, money, energy, and resources for what matters the least to you in life. There are a lot of people who can afford to purchase higher quality meat and support better farming practices and simply choose not to prioritize that. Unfortunately, our food system is unlikely to significantly change unless those with the means begin voting with their dollars and incentivize better food production practices.
However, this also still doesn’t make meat and animal foods (even conventionally raised) any less important for human health, or any less an important source of essential nutrition. We don’t tell people to eat organic vegetables or no/less vegetables. How does it make sense to apply a similar logic to the consumption of animal foods?
Feel Good To Do Good
We have discussed how the evidence against animal food consumption is poor and misleading. If animal foods make you feel your best, and help you maintain consistency with your dietary and health strategies, then you should never feel bad for respectfully consuming animal foods for your own health and nourishment.
Prioritizing your health is a selfless act, and we don’t have as much to offer the world if we are sick and lack vitality. The path to health will be unique to you, and for most people, it will require and include animal foods. It is your responsibility to use the state of health other life forms (animal and plant) provide you to make the world a better place for all beings.
With that being said, you can absolutely eat meat and animal foods for the optimization of your own health, you can eat meat and animal foods that contribute to environmental health rather than destruction, and you can eat meat and animal foods ethically, with reverence and respect.
The more you dig into it, the more you will find that the nutritional, environmental, and ethical arguments against animal food consumption are full of holes, use corrupted, misleading, and low quality data, and have a general lack of common sense and logic.
There is plenty more to unpack and explore on this broad topic, but I have attempted to begin painting a more holistic picture for you, and I hope you are inspired to explore the subject matter further.
Next up is Part Two on the importance of animal protein sources, and why you are likely under consuming protein.