Grain-Fed Meat is Not Bad for You

One of the common reactions I get when explaining the Paleo/Primal diet and lifestyle to my so-called “normal” friends, family, and co-workers is, “Wow, isn’t all that organic and grass-fed stuff EXPENSIVE???” 
(That’s assuming one of these SAD-eating individuals can even fathom the fact I don’t eat HEALTHY WHOLE GRAINS!  Or that I eat HEART CLOGGING SATURATED FAT and BACON by the ton)
OK, yes, if you tried to buy nothing but meat that was organic, grass-fed, raw, gold-plated-wrapped-in-unicorn-hair it would get expensive.  However, in my very first post I made it clear that eating well doesn’t HAVE to be expensive; you just have to be smart about how you shop and even do a little strategic planning and prioritizing.
My Case For Grain-Fed Meat
(BOO! HISS!)
I know, I know.  There are a lot of reasons why we prefer grass-fed meat over conventionally farmed grain fed varieties.  Whether we’re talking about beef, pork, chicken…whatever…grass-fed meat (in the case of poultry it’s more bug-and-grub-fed) is more nutrient-dense, much more tasty, probably hasn’t been force-fed antibiotics, and is much more likely to have been raised using sustainable and humane practices. 
OK, so let’s all run out and eat nothing but grass-fed meat! 
There are two potential problems here.  First, Grass-fed obviously costs more than grain-fed (dependent somewhat on your location…if you live in the boonies it’ll be even more because they have to ship it in).  Despite the fact that grass and sunshine are free, grass-fed meat costs more because it takes longer to mature an animal for slaughter when it is fed a natural diet (Source).  Just like it does to people, a diet rich in corn and other grains along with limited physical activity in the typical factory farm prompts rapid body fat storage, mineral depletion, and allows farmers to produce a higher volume of meat per year, ensuring maximum profit.  And, believe it or not, corn is cheaper than grass. (Source).  Again, depending on where you’re shopping for your meat, grass-fed can be double the price of grain-fed (or more).  I get intimidated by how quickly that can add up for me and The Man…we’re both big hungry people, and imagine if I was trying to feed a family of 4 or more?
Second, grass-fed beef just isn’t available everywhere.  As I mentioned above, it’s more profitable to farm grain-fed animals and that’s why grain-fed meat dominates the market.  Even in the Austin area where I live and shop, only two of the four grocery stores I frequent carry grass-fed ANYTHING.
“I can’t find/afford grass-fed meat!  I’ll just go eat a bagel!”
(Or worse, TOFU…no worries, I’m working on a soy-bashing post entitled “Soy Gives You Man-Boobs.”  Get Excited.)
Bottom line, grass-fed meat IS better for you.  Duh!  Should you make an effort to eat as much grass-fed meat as you can afford?  Yes.  Should you beat yourself up surrender if you can’t find or afford it all the time?  No.  Should you surrender to the Vegans instead of eating grain-fed meat?  F*** NO.
For all its innovative genius, Vintage Paleo wasn’t perfect and proliferated some not-so-healthy attitudes toward certain foods.  One is the idea that only grass-fed meat is fit for human consumption based on the (false) assumptions that grain-fed meat has a higher fat content than grass-fed meat and it contains much more harmful Omega-6 fats.
OK.  Deep breath.  I’ll say it again to calm your nerves:  Grain-fed meat is not bad for you.
HOWEVER, I will add the immediate caveat that it’s not exactly ideal, either.  Let’s discuss.
First, saturated fat is NOT bad for you.  In fact, most people aren’t getting enough and suffer the consequences in the form of poor hormonal profiles, flaky skin, brittle hair and nails, low energy, poor muscle recovery, brain fog, and I could go on for hours.  Oh, and saturated fat DOES NOT CAUSE HEART DISEASE!!!!
Second, grain-fed meat does NOT contain more fat than grass-fed meat.  It DOES contain a greater ratio of Omega-6 fats to Omega-3 fats.  In fact, there is almost no Omega-3 fat in grain-fed meat, but the total amount of fat DOES NOT change.  According to Mark Sisson, “grass-fed is even richer in PUFA by percentage, owing to the increase in omega-3s.
One final point I’d like to touch upon was something that never even occurred to me until I saw a snippet over at MDA earlier this week:  What about “grain-finished” meat?  “Grain-finished” means that the animal was fed a grain-based diet anywhere from 10-200 days prior to slaughter.  Some manufacturers market their beef, for example, as “grass fed even when it is grain-finished for up to 160 days (Source).  Keep in mind here that there is no USDA-standardized definition of grass-fed meat.
Long story short, an RMIT University study that concluded that, while there was a reduction in nutritional value the longer the animal had been grain-fed (Duh) the meat still had a significantly better fatty acid profile and mineral content than conventionally raised meat.  Yes, I read it because yes, I am a nerd.
What it all Means for You
This is all good news for the masses because it means that you can safely consume grain-fed meat and not suffer the consequences of skewed Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratios as long as you monitor the rest of your diet.  Make sure you’re getting Omega-3’s from other sources like fatty fish or a supplement on a regular basis.  Don’t use seed oils or eat tons of nuts, either, and you should be just fine.
At the end of the day, though, grass-fed still reigns supreme.  When the animal has been fed a nutritious diet, its meat and fat is going to be better for you, bottom line.  It’s fatty acid profile is more naturally balanced.  It has the highest possible levels of B-vitamins, vitamins A, E, and K, and minerals like magnesium, calcium, and selenium.  You can sleep better at night knowing the animals were treated humanely and that sustainable farming practices were employed.  It tastes better, goddammit!

I make an honest effort to pick up grass-fed and pastured meat and poultry when I can, but by no means is every piece of meat in my fridge grass-fed.  I promise you my 36-packs of Sam’s Club chicken breasts are NOT grass-fed.  Sometimes I can’t make it all the way to Austin to do my shopping at Whole Foods or the farmer’s market (G-Town is about 35 miles north) and Sprouts doesn’t always have it.  Sometimes I need to save a little cash.  Sometimes I’m lazy and would rather do all my shopping at the HEB across the street.
Where I do consistently make an effort is with more readily available practices than grass-feeding that ensure the safety, health, and nutritional profile of many grain-fed meats.  While these measures still increase the prices per pound, I promise the price differences are less than grain-vs-grass-fed and they are much more readily available.
To maximize the nutritional value of your meat even if it is grain-fed, look for these terms on the label:
·         Pastured: This means that the animal was allowed to roam around (at least somewhat) during its life, as opposed to animals kept in cages or small pens.
·         Organic: The feed grain was certified organic and free of pesticides
·         Natural:  The feed was certified all-natural.  This is a much looser term so go organic if you can instead.
·         Grain-finished:  If this information is available, and it sometimes is on the packaging but more often you can check up on the brand or manufacturer, try to go for meats that were grain-finished for the fewest number of days possible.  If it must be grain-finished, 10-20 days is pretty ideal, but up to 60 days is fine, too.
·         Local:  If you know where the meat comes from, especially if it is a smaller establishment in-state, you can do a little research and check up to see if they use sustainable farming practices.
Finally, The Man and I are diligent with our diets to make sure that, even with the consumption of grain-fed meat, we’re getting the best nutritional bang for our buck all around.  We eat a lot of fish and regularly supplement with fish oil.  We don’t eat a lot of nuts.  We NEVER use anything other than olive oil, coconut oil, or pastured butter for cooking and in prepared dishes.  We eat a ton of produce and have vegetables at every meal. 
No, we’re not perfect.  There are many things we could do better, and we’re working to get there.  But ultimately, we’re all human and have to learn to work with what we have.
Additional Reading
(Because you’re a big dork like me, admit it!)

Two major studies conclude that saturated fat does NOT cause heart disease

Are you confused about the definition of grass fed beef?

Paleo is EXPENSIVE!

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