Paleo eating is a lifestyle choice that revolves around two groups of foods: plants (fruits, vegetables, tubers, vines, leaves) and meat (fish, fowl, beef, pork, lamb, wild game). Eating meat is a personal decision for many of us, but our ancestors had been eating it for millions of years before the advent of cultivated agriculture, with no known ill effects other than losing a fight with a saber toothed tiger now and then.
If you’ve embraced the Paleo way of living, you’re eating meat, and chances are good that you’ll want the best you can get. If that’s the case, grass fed meat is what you’re looking for.
What Does Grass Fed Really Mean?
The confusion that surrounds organic, grass fed and conventionally raised animals has a lot to do with truth in advertising. Conglomerate ranchers are politically connected, laws are flimsy, and advertising is biased. Confusion is one of the reasons why many people think that grass-fed beef and pasture-raised animals are a luxury for the wealthy and that it won’t make a big difference in the end. This is dead wrong.
With Paleo, your complete protein sources will be obtained predominantly from animals and it’s a good idea to know the principle differences.
Most people may not be aware that the poultry, pork or beef they buy from the grocery store was once a living animal that was probably sick when it was alive. Conventionally raised animals are raised in unsanitary conditions, crowded habitats where they cannot move more than a few inches in any direction, and are force fed medicines and food that are not natural to them. This reason alone is the argument that vegetarians use frequently to explain why they won’t eat meat, but you don’t have to be a vegetarian to respect living things.
Factory produced meat not only makes you sick at a cellular level from all the chemicals in feed, antibiotics, and growth hormones, but also gives the animal a pretty miserable life and destroys the environment all at the same time. The little known and poorly understood reason why conventional factory-raised meat makes you fat, sick and lethargic might seem trivial, but we have yet to discover the depth of the problem.
When cows eat corn and soy, they not only grow fat, but the wrong kind of fat.
Factory raised animals can’t exercise, are stressed all the time and eat food they were not designed to eat. We feed them genetically modified soy and corn instead of letting them forage for grass. Cows have four stomachs for a reason! They’re made to eat grass which is loaded with nutrients but is difficult for humans to digest. Cows that eat grass for energy provide us with energy when we then eat those cows. It’s a great synergy.
But are conventionally raised cows really all that bad?
Here’s a basic breakdown of the differences between organic, grass fed, and conventionally raised beef. Remember ideally, we want to eat grass fed animals or free range animals, those that are free to choose what they like from the landscape.
The following definition is given by the American Grassfed Association.
Grass fed: ruminant animals that “have eaten nothing but grass and forage from weaning to harvest, have not been raised in confinement, and have never been fed antibiotics or growth hormones.”
Ranchers who raise grass fed cattle are committed to producing healthy animals which are raised humanely in small herds.
- Grazing – Animals graze freely for their entire lifetime in pastures that are plentiful with grasses, clover, shrubs, and wild plants in an ecosystem that’s biologically natural and untreated. The character of pastures changes seasonally and herds are rotated between pastures, creating a very distinctive flavor profile in the meat. Grass is higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins than the grains fed to conventionally raised cattle.
- Supplemental feed – Sun dried alfalfa or grass hay from the summer harvest is used minimally, and only in the winter when pastures are low. Alfalfa is not a grain but a perennial flowering plant in the pea family.
- Antibiotics – Antibiotics are not used as part of a feeding protocol, but only when an animal is sick. It is then permanently removed from the beef program.
- Disease – Natural habitats provide sanitary conditions, less stress on animals, and natural resistance to disease.
The Organic Trade Association gives the following definition.
Organic: livestock that “are given access to the outdoors, grasses, and pasture, and are fed 100% organic feed.”
USDA organic certification is necessary and the cost of receiving this certification is high, which may be why organic beef is often more expensive than grass fed.
- Grazing – These cattle must be allowed to graze for a minimum amount of time.
- Supplemental feed – Corn and other grains must be completely organically raised and pesticide free from seed to harvest, but there’s a wide range of variation between ranchers and allowable supplementation.
- Antibiotics – Antibiotics are not used as part of the feeding protocol and sick animals are permanently removed from the herd.
- Disease – Animals are generally well cared for and any animal that does get sick is removed from the beef program.
The USDA’s meat grading system is based on “the amount of visible fat”, so more fat means more money. Cheap feeding practices and growth hormones are routinely used to get them ready for slaughter as quickly as possible. Quantity over quality results in meat that’s at times unsafe, though the long term injury to humans is generally not associated with cattle raising practices.
- Grazing – Animals may be pastured for the first 6 months. They do not graze at all after that and are kept in crowded feedlots. Genetically modified grains and their accompanying neurotoxic pesticides make up the entire diet. The resulting acidic environment in their digestive systems causes gastric disturbances and the accompanying CO2-raising gas that environmentalists complain about.
- Supplemental feed – Plastic pellets are used for roughage.
- Antibiotics – Antibiotics are given as a routine part of feeding, and hormones are added to fatten cattle at a rapid rate.
- Disease – Animals spend the majority of their lives in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that can contain more than 300 in close quarters. This causes disease, which is why they’re routinely given antibiotics, and can cause antibiotic resistance in humans. (This applies to all animal products).
What’s good about grass?
You probably know about omega-3 and omega-6 fats, that they are essential fatty acids that the body cannot make on its own and that there is an important balance to strive for with omega-3s and omega-6s.
Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory while omega-6 fats are pro-inflammatory. We need both fats. Too much omega-3s and your blood would be too thin and wouldn’t clot well. Too much omega-6 and you start experiencing all kinds of problems related to inflammation in your body.
It’s almost impossible today to have too much omega-3s since omega-6s are everywhere. The perfect ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is between 1:1 and 3:1. This alone is the reason why you should follow a Paleo diet and say no to omega-6 laden vegetable oils and gut irritating grains.
Healthy animals that were raised properly have an omega ratio of about 1:1 while animals raised in closed environments who eat corn and soy develop much less omega-3 in their fat. When those animals get sick, you get sick from eating those animals.
Do yourself a huge favor by choosing pasture-raised animals that eat grass, insects and wild plants.
Where can I get grass fed?
- If you have a freezer that’s big enough, you can buy half a cow from for about 3/4 of the price of supermarket meat. It will be cut and wrapped for you. If money is an issue, our article on doing a Paleo diet on a budget might also be of great help.
- Get online and locate a grass fed rancher. Find out if you can pick up your own or have it delivered. In Tennessee, for example, Tennessee Grassfed has several drop-off points. You simply order online, choose a pick-up location, and go get it when delivery is confirmed.
- Farmers’ markets are a good place to find grass fed ranchers, usually on the weekends. Contact local grass fed ranchers and find out if they have a stand at your farmers’ market.
Remember, quality food will give you all the nutrients you need to live a healthy life. The few extra pennies you might pay for grass fed meat and organic produce is well worth it in terms of flavor and nutritional density.