Did you know that beef can (and should) be considered a superfood? Unfortunately, red meat has been largely demonized as unhealthy and at the root of heart disease, but more recent studies have debunked this myth and we now know that it offers some unparalleled health benefits. However, not all beef is created equal, so here we will take a look at the major differences between grass and grain-fed beef.
You’ve surely heard the expression: “you are what you eat.” So, just take that one step further and consider that: “you are what the animals you eat, eat.” The way in which cows (and other animals, too) are fed makes a major difference in the nutritional value of their meat, and cattle that come from industrial farming practicing are not being fed in a natural or healthy manner. Industrial feedlots use grain to feed their cattle, while cows over the course of history ate grass and roamed free, as this is their natural diet.
Let’s start at the beginning. Both grain and grass-fed calves begin their life similarly. Their first 6-12 months consist of roaming free and eating grass, but after this period the differences begin. 100% grass fed cows continue this same pattern, while grain-fed, feed-lot cattle are moved to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). These operations are run under terrible conditions (although some are better than others) and basically exist to fatten up the animals as quickly as possible for slaughter and (therefore) increased profits.
To accelerate weight gain, CAFO raised animals are often given hormones and drugs. They also sometimes need antibiotics to avoid bacterial infections that are common due to their unsanitary living conditions. After several months of this, the cattle are moved to the slaughterhouse.
On the other hand, 100% grass-fed cows have a much healthier, more natural and less stressful existence. Also, grass-fed beef provides far more vitamins and minerals such as heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids, lutein and beta-carotene, among others.
All beef is high in important vitamins and minerals, but grass-fed is superior. Grain-fed beef still offers zinc iron, selenium and B vitamins, especially B12. Grass-fed also offers those same micronutrients, along with beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A), vitamin E (a potent antioxidant), potassium, phosphorus and sodium (check out the entire nutrient breakdown of grass-fed beef, here).
The primary difference between grain and grass-fed beef is the fatty acid composition. Typically, grass-fed contains less overall fat and calories, and it contains more omega 3 fatty acids and less omega 6 fatty acids. It also has less saturated and monounsaturated fats. Grass-fed also boasts double the amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than grain-fed, which studies have shown helps to lose body fat.
The Red Meat Myth
Debunking the myth that red meat is unhealthy and causes heart disease has been the topic of much debate in recent years (see this NY Times article for one informative example), and it seems the verdict is out that red meat is not the culprit of modern day diseases such as heart disease and cancer. The type of red meat does make a difference; however, and grass-fed and pasture raised meats are better choices for your health than their grain-fed and conventionally raised counterparts. However, the real root of these diseases seems to be refined sugar and carbohydrates, but that is another topic entirely.
One point to consider is that if you eat a lot of meat without plenty of fresh veggies and fruits (and therefore, less fiber), and particularly if you pair that with a sedentary lifestyle, studies show that these factors can most definitely increase your risk for disease. But, it is not the red meat alone that is putting you at greater risk.
Health Benefits of Beef
Increased Muscle Mass
Beef is an excellent protein source for maintaining and increasing muscle mass, as it is a complete protein (meaning it contains all essential amino acids that must be obtained from food). Low protein intake is linked to wasting away of the muscles, especially in the eldery. It is also particularly important for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and children.
Anemia is a condition that causes decreased red blood cells, and is often related to low iron levels. Beef is one of the best dietary sources of iron, and symptoms of iron deficiency include extreme muscle weakness and fatigue. It is quite common in vegans.
Improved Athletic Performance
The amino acid beta-alanine in beef creates carnosine, which is a depeptite that is a key player in muscle function. Studies suggest that high levels of beta alanine can help improve muscle fatigue during exercise, and improve overall athletic performance. Supplementing with beta alanine is recommended in certain cases for athletes.
You might be surprised to learn that beef (especially grass-fed) can actually work to fight inflammation. Grain-fed is higher in omega 6 fatty acids, which can be inflammatory when eaten in excess (as is common in our modern day diet). Grass-fed beef is 5 times higher in omega 3’s, which is important for decreased inflammation. As mentioned above, it is also twice as high in CLA, which has been linked to lowered inflammation and decreased body fat.
All beef can be a healthy part of your diet, as long as it is paired with plenty of vegetables and (some) fruits. Shoot for 5-7 servings of veggies per day, and remember that a serving equals 1 cup cooked or 2 cups raw. Grass-fed beef is definitely higher in healthy fats and certain micronutrients, and can be easily found if you live near any health food store that sells meat or a Whole Foods Market. Don’t be afraid to ask your local butcher shop too where their meat comes from and if it is grass-fed. It is slightly more expensive, but a price worth paying if you can swing it.
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