Moving right along to the animal products, a topic of great controversy. On the one hand they can be a source of nutrition, however many people live their entire lives abstaining from them and remain in excellent health. There is a lot of mixed research surrounding the health effects of meat and dairy consumption. We have learned from a meta-analysis that processed meats (hot dogs, bacon, ham, sausage, luncheon meats, etc) are associated with higher incidences of heart disease and diabetes. Plenty of research points to the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, yet there is not sufficient research demonstrating that completely cutting out animal products results in better health. Yes, the world of nutrition is filled with a lot of controversy, strong opinions and much confusion.
To keep within my theme of simplification at the grocery store, what you want to be on the lookout for with animal products is: QUALITY OVER QUANTITY. (This can be hard to find at your typical market.) Enjoy plant-strong meals using meat and dairy as more of a condiment rather than the centerpiece. Get the BEST QUALITY and EAT LESS OF IT. That’s all you need to remember. Simple.
- You can assume all seafood to be contaminated to some degree thanks to pollution from your fellow earthlings (mercury and PCBs being the biggies). By the same token, seafood is a great source of protein and numerous vitamins and minerals. It’s possible to live a perfectly happy and healthy life with zero seafood intake, yet there are populations who consume seafood daily and enjoy wonderful health. You decide what you want to do.
- If you are concerned about wildlife and the environment, take a look at the Blue Ocean Institute for much more information on the sustainability of all types of wild seafood. Whole Foods has indicators on their labels ranking their fish and they have knowledgeable employees who can answer any of your questions. Pretty cool. It’s good to care. 🙂
- As far as nutrition goes, no doubt you have heard of the infamous omega-3 fats. Fish rich in these include: wild salmon, Atlantic mackerel, sardines and anchovies.
- Fish to limit or avoid due to high mercury contamination include: King mackerel, albacore tuna (canned light tuna is lower in mercury), shark, swordfish and tilefish.
- Look for wild vs farmed seafood. Farmed fish are usually confined in over-crowded filthy water full of antibiotics, chemicals and fed food pellets made of grains and animal by-products. That’s definitely not their natural diet. The result? Their meat does not contain nearly as many omega-3 fats as wild fish eating their natural diet. I do want to add that there are some fish farms that practice more natural and ethical ways of raising their animals–read about the pros and cons of fish farming here.
- Consider buying some shrimp or scallops to keep in the freezer as a quick protein, low-calorie addition to stir frys or salads. Don’t stress about the cholesterol levels found in shellfish– cholesterol in food does not affect most people’s blood cholesterol levels as much as was once believed.
Beef, Chicken, Pork, Eggs, Etc.
- Most of the meats at your average grocery store are factory-farmed. If you don’t know what that means, read about it and you’ll understand why everyone needs to be aware of where their meat is coming from. How to avoid it? Search your area for local farms that raise their animals in better living conditions. Or check out the meat department at Whole Foods Market who sources meat from farms that meet their quality standards.
- Go for grass-fed beef– preferably local and organic. Look for the words “100% grass-fed” or “pasture raised” since cattle are usually grass-fed initially before heading to the feedlots to feast on corn, soy and other foods they wouldn’t naturally eat. You may actually need to look outside of your grocery store for this and buy directly from a local farm.
- Look for labels that indicate no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic meat will not contain these and organic also means the animal has not been cloned, genetically modified or irradiated.
- “Natural” on a label means absolutely nothing. All meat is natural and this word does not give you any information as to the quality of the meat. The animal could have still have been fed grains rather than grass, pumped full of antibiotics and kept in confinement with no access to the sunshine or the outdoors.
- For chickens and their eggs, words like cage-free and free-range do not necessarily mean a whole lot. Look for the term “pastured”– better yet check out a local farmers market or search for farmers in your state on Eat Wilds Farm Directory. More and more people are keeping their own chickens– we have several people within a couple of miles of our house who sell their eggs. Remember, what the animal ate directly affects the quality of it’s meat or products. Pasture raised chicken eggs will have darker yellow yolks containing higher levels of nutrients. This is because they are not kept in confinement eating grains; they can forage for bugs and mixed grasses.
- Just plain stay away from highly processed meats like hot dogs and salami.
- A quick word about saturated fats since animal meats are a major source of them. Saturated fat isn’t the evil it was once believed to be. There is a lot more to saturated fat than simply putting it in the “avoid” category. We now have learned it’s not as cut and dry as that and that there are different types of saturated fats, some of which are actually beneficial to health. The old advice of “choose lean cuts of meat” may not be as wise as was once thought. When you look into the lipid hypothesis which told us to avoid saturated fat like the plague you will see that it was based on extremely sketchy scientific evidence. But the advice stuck and although nutritional dogma takes a long time to change, people are finally beginning to understand that the real problem in our food supply is the trans-fats, refined grains and sugars, and refined fats like corn oil, soy oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, etc. Stay away from these highly processed foods and stop fearing the saturated fats found naturally in whole foods. While high-fat meats like beef do contain almost half of their fats as saturated, what you never hear about is the fact that more than half are actually monounsaturated. Yup, the type associated with heart health. If that doesn’t leave you confused I don’t know what will.
- Like seafood and meat, dairy is another food where you want to look for high quality, natural products, if indeed you choose to eat it at all. There is a lot of controversy revolving around dairy and its purported health benefits. Don’t accept the Dairy Council’s advertisements as truth. Be smart and educate yourself and then decide.
- If you decide you want to drink milk or eat butter, cheese and yogurt, choose organic and look for grass-fed, pasture raised. Typical dairy cows are given hormones to increase their milk production and antibiotics to treat infections. If you are concerned about animal welfare, know that dairy cows produce milk for their babies, just like any other mammal. Are you okay with humans taking it from them for their own profit and pleasure? To produce milk, cows must be made pregnant. And what happens to their babies? They are taken away from their moms and the males are used for veal and the females destined to endure the same cruel life as their mother. Not ok with me.
- The debate between low-fat and full-fat rocks on. Low-fat and fat-free dairy products have fewer calories. Full-fat dairy products taste better, are more natural and any negative health consequences are highly debatable. How about getting the real stuff and using it sparingly? It’s up to you.
- Find a local farmer who raises cows more ethically than conventional dairies. Or choose plant-based milks made from soybeans, rice, coconut, hemp or almonds. 75% of the world cannot digest milk (maybe because it is designed for baby cows and not humans?!) To sum it up, dairy is not necessary in the human diet, but high quality dairy products are not going to kill you either. A moderate intake can fit into a healthy diet– once again, you decide for yourself.
Check out Farm Fresh RI‘s website where you can search for local farms who sell all kinds of seafood, meat, dairy, vegetables and much more. You DO have options. Plenty of them– I was amazed at the huge number of farms located all around the state. If you’re not from Rhode Island, simply do a search for your area.
All animal products are not created equal. They are only as good as what that animal ate and the conditions in which it lived. Even if you don’t care about animal welfare, there are plenty of environmental reasons to eliminate or cut way back on factory farmed meats and dairy foods.
The bottom line with eating animals and their products is to understand clearly that quality matters here as well as taking ethics into consideration. There is no one right answer for everybody. You want to feel good about your food choices, that’s all. You are going to pay more for local, better quality meat and dairy, but enjoy it in moderation– you cannot put a price on your health. Look at it as an insurance policy where you will likely save money down the road on medication and doctor expenses. Know what your food ate and how it lived. You decide what is meaningful and important to you in this world. I believe everyone can find a happy balance that works for them.
Whew, that was the hardest part of the grocery tour. In retrospect I should have broken it down into smaller pieces. Was it helpful? Did it clear up any questions you had? Do you choose to eat seafood, meat or dairy? How do you feel about factory farming? Stay tuned for Part 3 coming soon….