The topic of this post is a controversial one, and is bound to get a few of our more “plant-inclined” readers a little riled up. But here at Thrive Primal, we strive to provide our audience with useful, possibly life-changing nutritional information, regardless of how indigestible (excuse the pun) that information might be.
Humans evolved by increasing uptake of animal products
Meat and animal products. I hear a collective gasp from our vegetarian friends, but the fact is that we need these food sources to function at our best. Today, humans are arguably at the top of the food chain because of our dietary switch to animal-based nutrition millions of years ago. We evolved from our early plant-eating hominid ancestors when we began supplementing plants and vegetables with meat and animal-derived products, which resulted in marked increases in brain size.
The downside to this was a reduction in the size of the early-human gut system. This is due to the dramatic energy requirements of both brains and guts – development of one is inversely proportional to the other, thus as our brains grew and began to demand more energy, our guts shrunk. This essentially had a feedback effect on our evolving diets, as early hominids turned to the most nutrient-dense foods available – you guessed it, meat and animal products! – to support our brain development and make up for the loss in digestive capacity from our shrinking stomachs.
As such, humans have been evolving with the aid of nutrient-dense meats, organs and animal-derived products for millions of years.
Why modern diets have failed us
In recent decades, food consumption has changed dramatically from fresh, locally grown, whole foods to mass-produced, GMO, non-organic, semi-synthetic foods which have seen a dramatic increase in health problems, most notably in the US. Here, obesity rates have gone through the roof in the last 30 years, with one in five deaths associated with obesity, primarily as a result of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and liver disease, all of which are correlated with misaligned metabolic function (i.e. an unhealthy diet!).
Subsequently, many people have turned to vegetarianism and/or veganism as a means of avoiding consumption of so-called “dangerous” saturated fats, which the US government seems to have a personal vendetta against. The issue here is that, contrary to mainstream nutritional teachings, well-sourced saturated fats are necessary for healthy metabolic functioning in humans. They are vital in the absorption of important vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A, D and E, and actually help to support optimal heart and organ function. As a general rule of thumb, vegetarian diets are very low in saturated fats, with the exception of the odd fat-savvy veggo who consumes suitable levels of coconut oil and avocado, and so many vegetarians are severely lacking in this important dietary component.
Many vegetarians might read this and argue that they feel just fine eating only plant-based foods, and that a switch to vegetarianism has improved their health. And it’s true that many people experience marked improvements in their health and well-being with a switch from a modern, processed foods-based diet to a vegetarian one. This is because vegetarian diets do, in fact, have many benefits, particularly in that they bring people back around to eating organic, fresh, whole foods which help to replace many of the nutrients they lost while relying on processed foods. The problem is that, in the long term, our bodies cannot remain at their best on a vegetarian diet, as our digestive system is simply not designed to obtain all the required vitamins and nutrients from plants alone. This is why many vegetarians experience an initial improvement in health but then dramatic declines in health in the long term. This may manifest within as little as a few months, or take a number of years to become apparent.
Eating high-quality meat and animal products is essential
The fact of the matter is, we need animal products in order to thrive. But, and we cannot stress this enough, your meat and animal products MUST be from quality sources. In a nutshell, this means products from animals which are happy, healthy, and thriving in their optimum environment. It makes sense that food sources which make us thrive should also thrive themselves, right?
So, what are the key elements determining high-quality animal products, such as meat, organs, eggs, and dairy? The first one is a no-brainer, and one which you’ll probably roll your eyes at: it must be organic. This means free from pesticides, insecticides, herbicides (anything with the word “cide” in it, really!), artificial hormones and antibiotics. Do not automatically assume, however, that “organic” implies “non-GMO“. In many instances it does, such as in the case of USDA Organic, but not always.
Second, the animal from which your food comes from needs to be either grass-fed or pastured. “Grass-fed” applies primarily to cows and sheep, while “pastured” applies primarily to poultry and pigs. “Grass-fed” is not always synonymous with “100% grass-fed”, however, and many labels will claim that your beef or lamb is grass-fed, when in fact it may have been raised on grass and then “finished”, in the weeks leading up to slaughter, with grains in order to fatten it up. This is a nutritional no-no, and many of the benefits which can be gained from eating grass-fed products (see more on this here) are lost if the animal is grain finished. Therefore, do your homework – avoid, if possible, anything which says “grain finished” (or even “grass finished”), and consider researching your particular brand online before you buy. Sometimes this is the only way to really be sure.
“Pastured” essentially means a “free-range” diet, i.e. one which allows the animal to roam over a comparatively large area and choose foods at-will. This means that the animal chooses to eat only those foods which are best for its own nutrition, and as such the meat is of a much higher quality. This term applies a little more loosely than “grass-fed”, as pigs and poultry have a far more varied natural diet than cows and sheep, which subsist primarily on grass.
Finally, the meat or animal product should have been produced in a humane way. Typically, the previous requirements of organic and grass-fed/pastured would ensure that this is automatically the case, but not always. Therefore, always look for the “certified humane” sticker on your product before you buy it, as this will ensure that the animal was treated with compassion, kindness and not put under undue stress during slaughter.
Choosing quality animal products drives sustainable farming
If you follow the above principles while buying meat and animal products at the store, you’re helping to drive a market which supports sustainable, humane farming practices. This means that farmers have an actual economic incentive to raise their animals in the best possible way, ensuring those animals are given happy, healthy lives. Boycotting the meat industry altogether through vegetarianism is not the answer, as meat producers will continue to supply low-quality, factory raised, inhumanely slaughtered animals to the majority of the population who only cares how the meat tastes in their greasy McDonald’s burger.
The health benefits of eating meat and butter
Provided your meat or animal product is sourced based on the above criteria, it will be some of the healthiest food you could ever eat. Grass-fed beef, for example, contains the perfect composition of fatty acids (think more Omega-3, less Omega-6!), super high levels of Vitamins A and E, and bucketloads of important micronutrients like potassium, zinc, iron and phosphorus. Furthermore, grass-fed butter is loaded with saturated fat, which can improve your blood lipid profile, raising levels of HDL (aka “good”) cholesterol and providing large amounts of Vitamin K2, a nutrient virtually absent from most other foods and which helps to de-calcify your arteries.
The bottom line
Meat and animal products are the bee’s knees. Our bodies have evolved over millions of years to extract optimum nutrition from animal sources, and we function at our best when we obtain the right amounts of these on a daily basis. Make sure, however, that you only buy organic, grass-fed/pastured, humanely-raised meats and animal products.