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Organic food is produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Many people realize that organic food is better for them because the synthetic herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, synthetic fertilizers, and the antibiotics and hormones in livestock, all of which are part of conventional agriculture, are all likely to result in terrible long-term health outcomes. Also, non-organic agricultural measures are generally very bad for the environment because of the contamination to the animals and ecosystems. The contaminants poison these animals and ecosystems in the same way that they poison us.
On the Paleo Diet we are interested in having foods that are very high quality and as similar as possible to the foods that our ancestors ate during Paleolithic times. Our ancestors ate organic food without exception because synthetic agricultural chemicals had not been invented, but our ancestors also ate what today we would consider to be “grass-fed, grass-finished” animals and animal products.
Grass-fed simply means that animals are eating their natural diet instead of the artificial diet of corn and soy that animals now eat in conventional agriculture. What are the natural diets of livestock? The natural diet of both cows and sheep are grasses; the natural diet of goats is grass and shrubs; chickens naturally eat grass, weeds, bugs, worms and other things they can catch; turkey eat mostly wild plants but some animal matter too when they can catch it like bugs and worms; and hogs eat roots, fruits, vegetable matter but also some animal matter that they find in the environment.
What about fish? What do they eat and is there such a thing as a grass-fed fish? Speaking generally about the natural diet of fish: small fish eat algae and zooplankton, and larger fish eat the smaller fish. Algae is sort of like the grass of the lakes and oceans in that it is photosynthetic and makes up the base of the food chain in water ecosystems. Horrifyingly, corn and soy have now permeated the conventional agricultural system, and now farm-raised fish of all sizes get corn and soy as large parts of their diet!
What is so good about the natural diet of animals compared to the conventional agricultural diet? When animals have a chance to eat their natural diet they are both healthier, and offer better nutrition for us to eat as food items. Grass-fed animals don’t require all the antibiotics to keep them alive like the animals in the industrial food system which quickly get sick on the corn and soy diet.
Animals raised in industrialized conventional agriculture actually have very similar gut health issues to the humans who are consuming them. It turns out that all the corn and soy causes and overgrowth of the wrong kinds of gut bacteria for these livestock. Also, grass-fed animals have a ration of Omega-6 to Omega-3 essential fatty acids that is close to 1:1. In contrast, corn-fed animals can have unhealthy ratios that are more like 10:1 or even as high as 20:1 depending on how much corn and soy is in their diet. This is important for the humans consuming these animals because Omega-6 fats are pro-inflammatory and their over-consumption can contribute to inflammatory health conditions like heart disease, arthritis, and many others. In contrast, Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory. Maintaining a healthy ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 essential fatty acids is one of the goals of the Paleo Diet because it keeps down excess inflammation.
That is the basics of “grass-fed” animals. What does “grass-finished” mean? There is a tendency in our food system today to raise animals on corn and soy. However, some people try to get away with selling the higher-priced “grass-fed” meats by raising the animals on grass but then fattening them up for market on corn and soy! As you can imagine this feeding technique negatively affects the fat profile of the animal. In the end you want livestock with all three attributes: organic, grass-fed, and grass finished.
Local farms: Often you can purchase whole- or half-cows from local farmers either directly from them or from your local farmers market. This is a great way to pick up some grass-fed, grass-finished beef at an affordable price. Often these local farmers will offer other kinds of meat like pork or poultry, and they often also sell chicken eggs from their farm. You can usually purchase smaller quantities too like frozen 1lb. packages of ground beef.
Health food stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joes often have grass-fed selections. More and more standard grocery-store chains are carrying organic, grass-fed, grass-finished meat as well.
Long-distance mail-order/internet sites have great prices on organic, grass-fed, grass-finished animal products. US Wellness Meats is a great example of such a source with excellent pricing.
The best place to buy fish is either at a fish market or a health food store. Some conventional grocery stores or warehouse clubs like Costco may also have wild caught fish. Ideally fish should have these three attributes to make them healthy:
Shrimp, crabs, crayfish, oysters, clams, scallops, etc. are also on the Paleo Diet. Each type has a different advantage with respect to their nutritional features. The sustainability issue arises with shellfish as it does with regular fish, and so do toxicity issues, so keep your eyes out for the most environmentally sustainable and safe kinds to eat. The apps above should help with shellfish as well.
You can get optimally raised eggs from a farmer, a health food store, or keep your own back yard hens! Just as in chicken meat, look for chicken eggs from animals that are eating grass, weeds, bugs, worms, and kitchen scraps. Avoid grain-fed chicken eggs even if they are organic.
Dairy is not part of the Paleo Diet but some people with solid digestive health incorporate Raw Dairy into their diet and do very well. You will want to source dairy from a dairy farmer who understands and sells raw milk. It is important for many people to be completely dairy-free because they are affected negatively by the protein in milk, casein, that is pro-inflammatory; and many people are lactose intolerant (they don’t digest the milk sugar called lactose very well). But for people who are able to consume dairy here is what to consider:
Animal Source Issues Seem Complicated, How Important Is All Of This?
Ultimately, animal products are the most important part of the Paleo diet to source correctly because so many problems arise from improperly sourced animal foods: toxicity from pollution such as agricultural residues, antibiotics, hormones, and the poor fat profiles of the meat. When you add in the environmental and ethical problems associated with factory farming and over-harvesting/over-fishing issues then the true costs of improperly sourced animal products are colossal.
If the meat-source attributes mentioned in this blog post seem too burdensome economically or too much to keep track of then here is what you can do. Don’t’ overwhelm yourself. Take one item at a time and convert from eating an unhealthy form of it to a healthy form of it within your own home. The health benefits and environmental benefits far outweigh the costs in the long-term and it is worth a slow but disciplined effort to make the transition.
Do you have any suggestions for sourcing animal products? Which sourcing issues mentioned are you most concerned about? Make a comment below or post any questions that you may have.
This post was co-authored by Paul Hotchkin M.S., FDN
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and the information in this blog should not be construed as medical advice. It is not intended to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent any disease, ailment, or condition. If you have any medical questions or you are seeking medical advice, you must consult a professional. Additionally, no part of this article or any information on this site will ever replace medical advice.
Terry Shanahan is a functional nutrition and performance consultant, blogger, and online diet and fitness coach. His client list includes world champions, NBA and NFL stars, and Olympic medalists. Terry also helps individuals who are suffering from chronic health issues including autoimmune, endocrine, inflammatory, and digestive disorders, as well as those who simply want to improve their quality of life, health, and physical appearance.