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The Best Protein For People and the Planet

When you hear the word protein, what do you think of? Beef? Chicken? Turkey? Pork? It can be easy to lump all the different sources of animal-based protein together, but it’s important to talk about the differences that do exist between them because when it comes to nutrition and the environment, not all dietary proteins are created equal. There is a big difference between organic, sustainable pork and chicken and mainstream pork and chicken, and especially, grass-fed beef, which is nutritionally superior to all.

But despite much scientific evidence to the contrary, chicken is still widely seen as the “healthier” alternative to beef—not just for our health, but also for the health of the planet. However, the Vox article, Replacing beef with chicken isn’t as good for the planet as you think, reveals that it actually takes more chickens than cows to feed people—it takes the average American 8.5 years to consume one cow, but it only takes them two weeks to eat one whole chicken. In addition, the chicken industry uses double the amount of antibiotic feed additives compared to the beef industry, and in most cases, chickens “suffer far more than beef cattle, who have more legal protections, suffer fewer health problems, and are generally less intensively confined,” according to Mercy for Animals president Leah Garces.

Another reason to consider choosing beef over chicken? The quality of an animal’s life makes a real difference in the final product: when farming practices are not up to ethical standards, not only is it outrageously cruel to the animals, but it also directly affects the quality of the meat you’re consumingCows are raised for slaughter on pastures and feedlots, but 99% of chickens suffer a far more terrible reality. The consequences of these horrible living conditions doesn’t just harm the chickens—it also affects the people who end up eating them: stress affects an animal’s protein structure (stress hormones can also be deposited in their fat), and this can affect the inflammatory responses in our bodies as well.

Then there’s the fact that chicken and turkey are vastly inferior to red meat in terms of both fatty acid profile and health concerns. These are animals who have been raised poorly and also can’t handle the grain based diet very well. Not only does red meat offer a better nutrient profile (it is, evolutionarily speaking, responsible for making us smarter) but as a ruminant animal, a cow can handle their grain feed without as many adverse consequences to the end product. And like the vast nutritional differences between chicken and beef, the differences between grass-fed meat and conventionally raised meat are staggering: Meat from grass-fed animals contains two to four times more omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain-fed animals, and is also four times higher in vitamin E. In addition, grass-fed beef contains:

  • Higher levels of beta-carotene, thiamin and riboflavin (B vitamins)

  • More minerals, specifically calcium, magnesium, and potassium 

  • A healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids

  • Higher CLA (aka, cis-9 trans-11—a potential cancer fighter)

  • Higher vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA)

Also, keep in mind the environmental impact: not only is it healthier to eat beef, but according to Greenpeace, “producing soya to feed the billions of chickens eaten every year around the world has led to forest clearance on an epic scale, accelerating climate change and pushing wildlife into extinction.” While many people have made the switch from beef to chicken because they believe it is the more climate-friendly option, science tells us that the opposite is true: shifting from beef to chicken is not the answer, for people and for the planet. If you want some helpful tips on designing the ideal healthy diet for your personal needs, click here to download the Carnivore Scores food chart. As you’ll notice, it specifies which foods lie above “the steak line” for good reason!

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Brad Kearns
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