For our grandparents’ generation, meat on the dinner plate was often more of a treat than the multiple-times-a-day staple it’s become for many Americans. Despite the increased popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets, our current appetite for meat has swelled to about 220 pounds per person, per year – more than twice the amount the average American would have eaten back in the ‘50s. But cheap and plentiful meat has come at a health cost, thanks to large-scale feeding lots and industrialized meat production.

While eating animal products is a personal choice, and there are plenty of ethical issues to consider, for those who wish to include some meat into their diets (but perhaps not 220 pounds worth), it can be done in a way that’s kinder to the earth and healthy for your body. Here are a few thoughts on how to go about it:

Redline all cheap meats from industrial sources, aka ‘CAFOs.’

When it comes to red meat, it’s the source that matters most – and the crappiest source is meat from “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs) or what’s commonly known as “factory farms”. What are they? They’re livestock mega-farms that raise thousands of animals in a small area, enabling owners to efficiently produce massive quantities of animal products. The mission is quantity, not quality – and super-low prices for all (but at what cost?).

CAFO meats make a mess of the earth.

As much as you may appreciate a good deal at the meat counter, CAFO meats have an enormously negative impact on the environment. CAFOs pollute land on a massive scale, creating mountains of waste products piling up in relatively small spaces. Since it’s expensive to properly dispose of, the waste usually winds up being dumped nearby, over-saturating and poisoning land and water. That’s groundwater as well as streams and lakes, the latter vulnerable to toxic algae-blooms from the run-off. In contrast, pasture-raised and grass-fed animal operations manage far fewer animals in more open spaces. The comparatively miniscule volume of waste products actually winds up fertilizing the land versus poisoning it, a much more earth-friendly way to go.

CAFO meats screw up your microbiome too!

From a nutritional standpoint, the meat from massive CAFO operations is pretty crappy too, because it comes from stressed-out animals whose immune systems were assaulted and weakened. It’s tough for them to stay well, living in filthy, over-crowded conditions, fattened on cheap GMO feed, instead of grazing on grass the way nature intended. When they get sick, which is pretty often, they’re treated with medications including rounds of antibiotics which, when you eat them, enter your system and kill off some of the good microbes in your gut, compromising your microbiome. That’s a pretty unappetizing thought.

CAFO animals eat crap, literally.

There are a lot of mouths to feed down on ‘ol Macdonald’s factory farm, so cheap feed and “by-product feedstuff” is the order of the day. But what’s so bad about “feedstuff”? Unfortunately for the animals and those who eat them, quite a bit. Not to get too graphic but commercial feedstuff usually contains a fairly appalling combination of ingredients that no creature in their right mind would eat given the choice – including municipal garbage, stale cookies, poultry manure, chicken feathers, bubble gum and even restaurant waste. So, what do you think are the odds of getting a healthy, nutritious meal out of animals raised on this load of crap?

Buy pastured, grass-fed or meats to maximize your nutrition.

Good, healthy animal products come from animals that have been humanely treated and fed well with healthy foods. You’ll get more nutritional benefit eating meats from “pastured” animals who’ve spent their lives unstressed, roaming free and grazing. The next best thing to pastured is meat from “grass-fed” animals as they too have been raised on what their bodies were designed to digest – a simple diet of fresh grass, hay and mother’s milk, as opposed to GMO corn and other grains. So why is all that clean living so important? Because it means more nutrition for you, more beta carotene (vitamin A), conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids on your plate – with none of the bad stuff you’d get from CAFO meats.

If you eat meat, unless the packaging or restaurant specifies that the meat comes from grass-fed animals, you’re almost certainly consuming corn-fed beef, where the nutritional profile is far from ideal. We always recommend the local farmers’ market as you can learn from the farmers exactly how they raise their animals, and chances are, most will be pasture-raised and antibiotic-free. And that is much healthier for them – and you.

To understand meat labels and terms, here’s Meat Labeling 101 – a list of the most familiar ones you’ll see and what they mean.

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