The first stop on our carnivorous journey is poultry, including chicken, turkey, and duck. Nutritionally, poultry can be a fantastic source of lean protein. Chicken and turkey breasts are classics in the world of fat loss and muscle building for a reason. In addition to protein, the dark meat of poultry is a good source of fat soluble vitamins as well as some minerals including selenium and zinc. In 2007, the US per capita yearly consumption of poultry products was about 75 pounds!
However, eating poultry can have a downside. While the use of hormones in poultry has been banned for decades (that’s right, nobody uses them!), antibiotics are still used in the industry to prevent the outbreak of disease amongst animals, especially in large-scale facilities where birds live in very close quarters. It has been shown in a few cases that widespread antibiotic use in animals can help bring about resistant strains of bacteria. However, the incidence of such adaptations is low and it has been argued that the benefits to human health (assuming our current rate of poultry consumption) of including antibiotics in chicken feed may outweigh the potential risks of bacterial resistance to the drugs.
The ecological implications of large-scale poultry farming represent another issue worth considering when consuming avian products. Runoff from poultry farms can contain high levels of nitrogen, leading to algal blooms that can devastate waterway ecosystems. Waters contaminated with waste products can also harbor infectious bacteria that originate in farm animals. Also, high nitrate concentrations in drinking water, known to come from poultry farm runoff, can also increase the risk of methemoglobinemia in infants.
Finally, some people raise ethical or moral arguments against large-scale poultry farming practices. In many commercial facilities, birds are kept in very small cages and live in high densities. While this kind of production is necessary for the low prices that we demand for our food at our current level of consumption, many people see it as cruel and inhumane. While the solutions for many problems with large-scale poultry farming may be found in smaller facilities with more natural living conditions and nutrition standards, there is the trade-off of price. You will pay more for birds grown in less cost-efficient environments.
Next, let’s address pork. Pig meat can range widely in fat content, much like beef. When used properly, pork products can serve as excellent lean protein sources and can produce great results in a fat loss or muscle building program. As with poultry, however, there can be detriments to pork consumption. From a nutritional standpoint, high fat pork products are very common in both restaurant and home cooked meals. The classic American breakfast often includes pork sausage or bacon slices. Neither of these foods can be recommended as a healthy source of protein, to say the least. In addition, many pork products are highly processed or cured. Processed and nitrate-cured meats have been implicated in higher risks of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. As with all sources of meat, the less processed the better.
On the ecological side of things, pig farms produce similar water pollution problems to poultry farms. Bacteria and nutrients in farm waste leech into the waterways, at times spreading infectious disease and causing ecosystem imbalances. In addition, large hog farms often produce hydrogen sulfide gas, which can cause ill effects in humans. In high concentrations, exposure to the gas has killed farm workers. Some studies have also shown detrimental effects of hog farm air pollution on those living in close proximity to the farm.
As with poultry, some large-scale hog farms also utilize production practices that many see as inhumane. Hogs are often kept in confined spaces, especially when giving birth and nursing. While this separation is necessary to prevent the mother from accidentally rolling onto her babies, it is thought to be distressing to the animals. Also, disease is easily spread due to the crowded living condition of a hog pen. Salmonella, gastrointestinal infections, and viruses like porcine parvo can run rampant through a herd. Not all farms are horrible torture factories, to be sure. There are good and bad farms and farmers, like in every industry. But it’s important to understand what can happen on the unfortunate end of things.
Finally, it’s what’s for dinner. Beef, like pork and many other quadrupedal land-dwellers, contains meat that varies widely in its fat content. Eye of round, for example, is exceedingly lean, comparable even to chicken. On the other hand, ground beef can be comprised of over 18% fat by weight! In addition, the last decade has seen an explosion of grass-fed and free range cattle farms. The meat from these cows has been shown to have a higher concentration of healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, as a result of their more natural diet. While these high end meats may not be a possibility for everyone (or even many people), it’s important to choose your beef source and cut wisely in order to fit it properly into your healthy nutrition plan.
While beef can be a beneficial part of your diet, its production strains the environment. There are the familiar problems with farm runoff getting into waterways, carrying along with it bacteria like E. coli, as well as chemicals like ammonia, oil and grease. In addition, cows produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. In the US alone, cattle produce 5.5 million metric tons of methane per year, accounting for 20% of our country’s methane emissions. Globally, ruminant livestock release over 80 million metric tons of methane annually, which is 28% of the global total produced from man-made activity.
Whatever meat product you consume, some basic guidelines can be applied to choose the healthiest meat and process it to maximize benefits and minimize risk. First, choose generally lean meats and put in the minimal effort to trim off visible excess fat from the cut. Fish, of course, is the exception to this rule. Fatty, deep water fish are fantastic sources of omega-3 fatty acids and should be consumed regularly. When cooking meat, keep in mind that carcinogens are formed when flesh is cooked at high temperatures. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and hetercyclic amines (HCAs) are the two major culprits. To help prevent the formation of these compounds, cook meat in a moist environment like a stew or stir-fry and cook at an appropriate temperature. Keep in mind that fat from meat can cause flare-ups on grills and barbeques that can char meat and produce carcinogens. Leaner cuts will tend to flare less. Finally, make sure your meat is cooked to a proper temperature to prevent food-borne illness. Poultry should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, ground beef and pork 160 degrees, 150 degrees for pork roasts, and 145 degrees for beef roasts. It’s definitely a case of better safe than sorry when it comes to food bugs.
The lesson here is to take some time to learn about what you are consuming. Personally, I am a big meat eater. I utilize protein heavily in my nutrition plan as a tool to optimize my body composition and sports performance. I understand the global consequences of my diet, but my health (and admitted self-interest) overcomes my ecological considerations on this issue. I contribute to resource-sparing in other ways, like saving on energy and water, but food is where I draw the line. Everyone has their own cost-benefit analysis to do when it comes to the foods they eat, both nutritionally and in terms of ecological and societal impact. Where you draw the line is up to you, but my goal is to help you make a more informed decision. When you do eat meat, source it wisely, choose the right cut, and always prepare it in the safest manner you can. Meat is a beneficial and tasty part of a normal human diet, so use it safely and intelligently to reap its benefits while minimizing its risks to both body and planet.