Meat is meat, right? Well….no. Not all meats are created (or farmed) equal. Depending upon how the meat that you consume is raised and fed, the health benefits or impacts, can vary tremendously. This partly comes down to the omega-3 content and its ratio to other nutrients.
What is Omega-3?
Omega-3 belongs to a group of nutrients called essential fatty acids (EFAs). These are called essential because the body cannot make them and they have to be obtained through the diet. These EFAs are crucial for optimum health as they are involved in hormone production, the absorption of nutrients, brain development & function and the prevention of disease. Due to modern day lifestyle and dietary choices, EFA deficiency in the diet is common. This has a whole host of health implications, including heart disease, high blood pressure, mental health disorders and chronic inflammatory conditions. (1, 2)
After wild oily fish and nuts, a good source of omega-3 fatty acids is meat and this is especially true for grass fed meat. Numerous studies have demonstrated that the omega-3 content of grass fed meats is significantly higher than meat reared in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)
The Ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6
It’s not just the omega-3 content; omega-6 also plays a role. Omega-6 is another essential fatty acid that also plays an important role in the body. However, the body requires a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6. A healthy ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 would be in the region of 1:1 or 1:2. Too much omega-6 can push the body into a pro-inflammatory state, which can be linked to a number of diseases (11). Our modern diet is far too high Omega 6 and a “standard” Western diet can have an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio in the region of 1:10 to 1:20 (12).
A review paper published in the Nutrition Journal evaluated seven individual studies that compared omega-3 and omega-6 levels in grass- and grain-fed beef. Every single study found a statistically significantly higher level of omega-3 in the grass-fed beef. On average, grass-fed beef had an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 1:1.5, compared to 1:7.7 for grain-fed. Some CAFO chicken breast had ratios as high as 1:18.5! Studies have also shown that meat from grass-fed animals can raise the levels of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA in the blood.
Meat from animals reared in CAFOs can be of poor quality. These animals are generally considered to be in poor health. They typically contain pesticides (from their own food sources) hormones (to accelerate growth and therefore profits), and antibiotics (to prevent illnesses caused from their feed and living conditions and to increase their growth and weight) (13, 14). We, in turn, are consuming these pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. The US Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2015 analysis (10) of more than 47,000 federal government lab tests of bacteria on supermarket meat, found that 75 percent of the bacteria on the meat was antibiotic resistant. A large proportion of antibiotic use in many countries is for agriculture. Several observational human studies, as well as rodent studies, have demonstrated that antibiotics tend to cause obesity in humans, even in tiny dosages found in food (14).
Advantages of Grass-fed meat
Grass-fed beef has a greater micronutrient content than conventional grain-fed beef, including:
- Greater levels of glutathione (one of the body’s most important and potent antioxidants)
- More vitamin E
- 2-3 times greater vitamins B2 and B1
- Greater amounts of calcium, magnesium and selenium.
- More beta-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A) (15)
These are just some of the many arguments for eating naturally reared grass-fed meat. Others include the affect on the environment. We need more omega-3 and less omega-6 in our modern diet, and along with the additional benefits, consuming grass fed, antibiotic and hormone free meat is an excellent way to do it!
Not to forget the environmental impact too….carbon sequestration by agricultural soils has the potential to offset emissions from pastoral based beef production systems (16)
1) Ruxton CH1, Reed SC, Simpson MJ, Millington KJ. The health benefits of omega-3polyunsaturated fatty acids: a review of the evidence. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2004 Oct;17(5):449-59.
2) Penny M. Kris-Etherton , William S. Harris , Lawrence J. Appel .Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation. 2002;106:2747–2757
3) Alfaia CPM, Alves SP, Martins SIV, Costa ASH, Fontes CMGA, Lemos JPC, Bessa RJB, Prates JAM: Effect of feeding system on intramuscular fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid isomers of beef cattle, with emphasis on their nutritional value and discriminatory ability. Food Chemistry 2009, 114:939-46.
4) Leheska JM, Thompson LD, Howe JC, Hentges E, Boyce J, Brooks JC, Shriver B, Hoover L, Miller MF: Effects of conventional and grass-feeding systems on the nutrient composition of beef. Journal Animal Science 2008, 86:3575-85.
5) Garcia PT, Pensel NA, Sancho AM, Latimori NJ, Kloster AM, Amigone MA, Casal JJ: Beef lipids in relation to animal breed and nutrition in Argentina. Meat Science 2008, 79:500-8.
6) Ponnampalam EN, Mann NJ, Sinclair AJ: Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts, potential impact on human health. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2006, 15(1):21-9.
7) Nuernberg K, Dannenberger D, Nuernberg G, Ender K, Voigt J, Scollan ND, Wood JD, Nute GR, Richardson RI: Effect of a grass-based and a concentrate feeding system on meat quality characteristics and fatty acid composition of longissimus muscle in different cattle breeds.Livestock Production Science 2005, 94:137-47.
8) Descalzo A, Insani EM, Biolatto A, Sancho AM, Garcia PT, Pensel NA: Influence of pasture or grain-based diets supplemented with vitamin E on antioxidant/oxidative balance of Argentine beef. Meat Science 2005, 70:35-44.
9) Realini CE, Duckett SK, Brito GW, Rizza MD, De Mattos D: Effect of pasture vs. concentrate feeding with or without antioxidants on carcass characteristics, fatty acid composition, and quality of Uruguayan beef. Meat Science 2004, 66:567-77.
11) A.P Simopoulos. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy. Volume 56, Issue 8, October 2002, Pages 365-379
12) Wolf, Robb. The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet. Victory Belt Publishing. Las Vegas, 2010.
13) Sisson, Mark. The Primal Blueprint: Reprogramme your genes for effortless weight loss, vibrant health and boundless energy. Ebury Publishing 2012.
14) Blaser MJ. Antibiotic use and its consequences for the normal microbiome. Science2016;352:544–5.doi:10.1126/science.aad9358 pmid:27126037
15) Kresser, Chris. Your Personal Paleo Diet: Feel and look great by eating the foods that are ideal for your body. Little, Brown Book Group 2013.
16) P.Crosson, L.Shalloo, D.O’Brien, G.J.Lanigan, P.A.Foley, T.M.Boland, D.A.Kenny. A review of whole farm systems models of greenhouse gas emissions from beef and dairy cattle production systems. Animal Feed Science and Technology. Volumes 166–167, 23 June 2011, Pages 29-45
Asim is a medical doctor (Consultant Anaesthetist) with 18 years experience in the NHS. He currently specialises in providing anaesthesia for Hepato-pancreato-biliary (liver, pancreas and bile duct) procedures and Liver transplantation. In his current post, he is part of a cohesive team of highly skilled multidisciplinary clinicians, forming the largest liver transplant unit in Europe. Hepato-pancreato-biliary anaesthesia comprises 30 per of the work that he undertakes. The remaining 70 per cent is split across many different specialties, such as anaesthesia for Vascular, Renal, General, Urological, ENT and Emergency surgery, amongst many.
Asim has undergone an extensive Functional Medicine Certification programme, with over 1000 hours of training at the Kresser Institute, run by Chris Kresser M.S., L.Ac, who is the co-director of the California Center for Functional Medicine and founder of Kresser Institute. The ADAPT (Advanced Diagnostics and Personalised Treatment) programme is one of the first and only training programmes to fully integrate functional medicine with the better questions and new insights of an ancestral, evolutionary perspective. Asim is also a member of the Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM). As a hospital Consultant and a Functional Medicine practitioner, he has learnt how to effectively combine his knowledge and skills to treat of a range of health issues.