Confessions of a Conscientious Carnivore

I admit it. I’m a fat-lover.

I am a meat lover. To be even more specific, I am a fat-loving meat lover. Fat has always made me happy. And so far, it seems to also be keeping me healthy, which isn’t something I’m sure would work for everyone. (I have a theory about diets in general and why there is no single “best” or healthiest diet that is the right one for every person – I’ll post about that sometime in the not-too-distant future).

Full disclosure though, I am also a vegetable-lover, so perhaps that’s my nutritional saving grace – who knows? The only vegetable I’ve ever tried that I didn’t like was okra. Bitter greens, like mustard, dandelion, broccoli rabe? Bring ‘em on. Brussels sprouts? I can hardly get enough. I’m crazy about kale; cuckoo for kimchee (technically a fermented vegetable, I know – I’ll do a post about fermented foods sometime in the future, too). But nothing makes me drool more than a well-seasoned ribeye, freshly sizzling off the grill, and the near-swoon of anticipation I feel slicing into that first, beautiful, melty piece of salt & peppered fat.

True story, just to put a needle-sharp point on my borderline obsession: we, like millions of others, had a ham for Easter this year. Because we were a small crowd, I got a quarter ham, bone-in. Until the end of the day, when I was cleaning up and putting away the leftovers, I had not considered a truly wondrous thing: in order to have a “bone-in” quarter ham, the bone would have to be cut, too. And, there, as I lifted the ham by its partial shank bone to nestle it into a storage container, I spied it. Shimmering unctuously at me from the cocoon of that split shank was that grail of fat-lovers everywhere: the *marrow.* I stopped dead in my cleanup tracks, gasped at my fortune, then proceeded to scoop and slurp up every last molecule of it. Yes. I LOVE fat. (If that just grossed you out, my apologies. On the other hand, if you have a leaning toward fat and you’ve never experienced the sublime joy that is marrow, go forth and find yourself a great restaurant that serves osso bucco. Your life may never be quite the same again).

But I’m not mindless about it.

With all of that said, I have to share something else that has grown to be a part of my life and routine, though I must admit that I’m not always able to follow this perfectly: when I buy any kind of animal protein (meat, poultry, eggs, fish, even dairy products), I spend the time to find, and the extra money to buy (though often to buy reduced quantities of) products which are grass-fed, pasture-raised, free-range, wild-caught, hormone- and antibiotic-free, etc. I don’t do this because I’m a food snob or an animal rights activist. I do this because I believe that animals raised eating the foods *they* were meant to eat (cattle eating grasses & hay, as opposed to grains, soy meal, and God-knows what else; chickens tapping around and eating insects, seeds, and worms; etc.), and in surroundings they were meant to inhabit (cattle in fields, rather than crammed into muddy, manure-filled pens; ditto for chickens or pigs, or even fish) are inherently healthier themselves, and by logical progression, their meat is also healthier when we consume it.

Grass-fed, free-range: really healthier?

This is borne out by studies of cattle fed grass diets versus grain diets. The concentrations of, for example, healthier omega 3 fatty acids are consistently higher in grass-fed than in grain-fed beef. While omega 6 fatty acid concentrations don’t seem to change significantly with the different diets, as I noted a couple of weeks ago in my
Step Away From the Canola post, we should be after ratios of omega 6: omega 3 more in the range of 4:1 or lower (ideally, 1:1), whereas now, our typical ratios are sky-high (15:1 or higher). Grass-fed beef provides a better ratio. It also has higher concentrations of antioxidant enzymes, among other benefits. While grass-fed and free-range animals do tend to have lower overall fat content and slightly different flavor profiles, I’ve been perfectly happy with the fat they do have, and have grown accustomed to the flavor profile.

I also think there’s something to be said for “happier” animals in terms of the eventual healthfulness of their meat: in the same way that elevated stress hormones are known to have deleterious effects on humans and our propensity for all sorts of disease, animals under chronic stress respond similarly. Keep subjecting them to stressful situations; drive up their stress hormones and, not surprisingly, you will decrease the quality of their meat.

But what about the environment?

Finally, I return to one of the areas I said I’d focus on at the outset of writing this blog a few months ago, and a huge reason I buy carefully: environmental impact. The production of animal protein, no matter what, has a larger carbon footprint than the production of most plant products (though that does start getting more iffy with some monoculture crops, many of which are produced for what? Animal feed. But I digress). However, the negative environmental impact of grass-fed/pasture-raised/free-range meat production is significantly lower than high-intensity “factory farming” techniques. There’s a great book about this called Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat, by Philip Lymber with Isabel Oakeshott, which, despite the alarmist title, does a very balanced job of laying out the horrific environmental impacts of factory farming, along with a very solid argument for how, despite broad belief to the contrary, expanding global populations do *not* demand more such intensive farming techniques. You can find a good overview and review of the book here on The Guardian.

Our choices, our future.

It’s critical that we all understand the absolute power we wield to shape our own futures, whether carnivore or vegan, not only by how we eat, but by how we spend our money. We’re seeing more food retailers adding organic options to their shelves, and many manufacturers shifting to non-GMO ingredients. They aren’t doing that just for yuks or out of a sense of environmental stewardship or social justice. They’re doing it because of consumer demand. That demand, my friends, begins and ends with you and me.

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