Addressing the Cow in the Room
There’s so many controversial things in life that we encounter each day. Eating meat is certainly one of them, with passionate people on both sides of the aisle.
In this article, I’m going to share information as to why meat and animal products are a part of a healthy diet for fertility, pregnancy, and postpartum health. I’ll also discuss how the raising of the animals we eat matters, where some pitfalls to eating meat come in and what can we do about it, and what to look for when purchasing and cooking meat to optimize our health and that of our planet.
Meat and Animal Products Contain Nutrients We Can’t Get Other Places
…or that are really hard to get in adequate and especially optimal amounts from other sources.
Meat is an excellent source of many vital nutrients that play a part in our health, vitality, energy levels, hormone production, reproductive functions, and our health and nutrient status in pregnancy and postpartum.
Meat and animal products are excellent sources of the following:
- Easily absorbable heme iron (critical for energy, wound healing, anemia increases risk of low birthweight baby)
- Vitamin B12 (energy, baby’s brain health)
- Choline (Digestion, baby’s brain health)
- Zinc (important for enzymatic activity and for sperm health)
- Vitamin D (sun exposure is still the best source of Vitamin D, but as far as food goes, animal products have the most)
- Glycine (important amino acid for skin, organ, and tissue stretching and growing)
- Preformed Vitamin A (important for baby’s brain and eye development)
- Vitamin K2 (needed for baby’s bone development)
- DHA (Omega-3 fatty acid needed for baby’s brain development and reducing risk of postpartum depression)
- Protein (needed for stretching, growing organs and building baby; critical for proper postpartum wound healing)
Even in postpartum, while mom is breastfeeding, her levels of some of these nutrients matter in the nutritional composition of her breastmilk. So if she’s not getting enough Vitamin D and Vitamin B12, her breastmilk is also deficient in these nutrients, and then sadly an exclusively breastfed baby would also be deficient in these. By optimizing mom’s nutrition, we can help make sure baby is fully nourished as well.
Pregnant women who eat meat are also more likely to be able to hit their protein needs which ultimately nourishes them and baby, and supports their growing and stretching bodies.
Protein and Fat Can Help Us Have Better Blood Sugar Regulation
…which positively impacts our hormones.
If you’ve read the article on Causes of Miscarriage and How to Reduce the Risk, then you know that blood sugar dysregulation and insulin resistance is a challenge to fertility and healthy hormone production.
Insulin itself is the hormone that helps us to funnel glucose in our bloodstream into our muscles where it can fuel us and our body’s functions. When our cells become insulin resistant, our pancreas tries to pump out more insulin to beg the cells to take the blood sugar in.
This increase in insulin in our bodies over time is damaging to our maturing egg cells, and can contribute to advanced metabolic issues, like Type 2 Diabetes.
An excellent way to combat that is to increase good fat and protein intake in the diet and decrease the amount/type of carbohydrates (there are other strategies and lots of bioindividual considerations to be made, but we’re keeping it simple for the purposes of this article).
Meat and animal products, especially at breakfast, are an excellent way to set our blood sugar up for a great day of energy. If you’ve ever indulged in waffles, pancakes, french toast, orange juice, coffee, and extra syrup at breakfast time, only to crash later in the afternoon from fatigue and/or headaches, then you’ve experienced the impact that high carbohydrate/sugar breakfasts have on setting us up for a blood sugar “roller coaster” during the day.
When we flood our bodies with those foods early on, we tend to have a large spike followed by a dramatic dip in blood sugar as our hormones try to compensate. This rise and dip makes us crave more carbohydrates and we often experience unpleasant symptoms like being “hangry”, getting headaches, shakiness, fatigue, etc.
By swapping these kinds of breakfasts with higher protein and fat breakfasts, we can stop experiencing these roller coasters and ultimately have more energy and feel better throughout our day.
One example of a more blood sugar healthy breakfast would be something like the following:
- 2 scrambled organic pasture-raised eggs cooked in some ghee and salted
- 1-2 100% grass fed beef sausages
- a handful or sautéed veggies like organic zucchini and mushrooms, cooked in ghee or grass fed butter
- some fresh organic blueberries or strawberries
Not only does a swap like this have dramatic impacts on our blood sugar stability for that day, it also has a much more nutrient dense profile than the more grain filled, carbohydrate rich meals.
Meat Contains Nutrients Needed for a Healthy Postpartum Recovery
Birth is a marathon, no matter how it unfolds. A mom and her baby are born, and there is so much recovery that goes into those first weeks, months, and even up to 1-2 years after birth.
Birth and postpartum bring blood loss, physical wounds that require healing, adapting to lactation, establishing milk supply, and so many more energy and nutrient intense changes.
Meat and animal products are the easiest way to help meet the new nutritional needs of mom (and baby!) and are often featured in the ancient wisdom of traditional postpartum nutrition practices. These traditions are passed down from generation to generation and still continue today in some countries because the results speak for themselves: moms have better postpartum recoveries and their babies are healthier.
Nutrients and diet considerations that moms should prioritize postpartum:
- Vitamin B12
- Glycine (an amino acid)
- Vitamin C
- Easily digestable foods
- Satiating foods (think higher fat)
- Increased energy needs (as much as 500 kcal more per day compared to pre-pregnancy energy needs)
When compared to the list from earlier about the nutrition in meat and animal products, the lists match up very well. So don’t be afraid to ask for your favorite cut of steak in those postpartum days!
Saturated Fat is Not the Health Threat the ’90s Made it Out to Be
The main argument against meat (and mostly red meat) is that it contains high levels of saturated fat, which had been linked to heart disease and other issues.
Saturated fat refers to the chemical structure of the fat which leaves it in a solid form at room temperature. This is the opposite of unsaturated fats like mono unsaturated fats found in olives or olive oils.
The nutrition advice we’ve been hearing for a few decades is to avoid saturated fats to prevent heart disease and to focus on heart-healthy oils like refined canola oil. Since it’s very cheap, canola oil and other refined vegetable oils have become the go to oils in processed foods, snacks, restaurant cooking, and are largely ubiquitous in our food.
Despite this shift in our diets, heart disease (and other chronic illness) is still on the rise, so can we really blame saturated fat? Evidence is mounting that our love of refined carbohydrates and sugar is more likely a driving factor in health complications like heart disease and that saturated fat from animal products and tropical oils (think coconut oil) definitely has a place in a healthy diet.
When considering saturated fat sources, a diet full of fried potatoes, fast food, and baked goods, is going to have a different health effect than saturated fat choices like full-fat grass fed dairy, grass fed lamb, and coconut oil, so it’s best to expand our view of saturated fat as a whole.
Conventional Meat Today is Not The Same Meat Your Great-Grandma Ate
While meat is nutrient dense and contains many important components for our health, we should be mindful about the quality of meat that we consume.
Meat raising practices today have developed into production lines that seek to maximize profit, output, and production. For many animals like cows and chickens, this has resulted in issues with disease spread, nutrition of meat, and animal rights.
Pumping out as much meat as possible in a short amount of time has led to the use of strategically feeding animals at certain times of their life to really plump them up. It also has resulted in the use of growth hormones in some situations, feed that is biologically inappropriate for that animal and it’s evolution, and even feed that contains harmful components to begin with, like heavy pesticide exposure.
Then these animals are often confined to small spaces meaning much less space, grass, and sunshine than they would normally get while roaming wild or being raised in more traditional ways. This confinement can lead to more infection since they easily pass it on to one another, which is then treated with antibiotics. Oftentimes, disease outbreak is just a given and antibiotics are given even prior to animals showing signs of disease.
Just as our health is influenced by our environment, the health of these animals is also dependent on all of these inputs over the course of their lives.
So today, when we purchase animal meat from supermarkets, we can be getting a slew of the following:
- Grains for feed were raised with lots of pesticides
- Those grains were fed to animals, even though that animal naturally eats a different diet (like grass) in the wild
- These animals were confined close together in tight spaces
- That confinement led to higher disease rates, which were treated by antibiotics
- The animals were given growth hormones at key times of their life to produce abnormally large body parts (the effects of these hormones on human health are unclear and may be minimal)
- These animals may have been kept from space, sunlight, given water that may have not been the cleanest
- Then they’re packed and shipped off to be processed and for us to purchase at a grocery store
When we map out all the ways that conventional animal raising facilities operate, it becomes clear that those animals may not be in the best of health, and may actually be harmful to humans if consumed.
When we contrast that with other animal raising options, we not only see a gentler and more harmonious way of growing our food, but we see the positive impact that it can have on our health.
- Animals are given plenty of space outside in the sunshine where they can roam
- They are not crammed together with too many of them in the same space
- They are fed a biologically appropriate diet (grass for beef; freely caught bugs and grasses for chickens, etc.)
- They grow at a biologically appropriate rate and are not given growth hormones to speed it up
- They don’t receive routine antibiotics
- If organic, they are raised without the use of pesticide laden feed
- They contain more nutritious nutrients when raised close to their natural lifestyle (like more Omega-3s in grass-fed beef, for example)
For these animals, the modern-day conventional ways of raising them are producing large amounts of meat, but at what environmental and health cost?
There is Good, Better, Best When It Comes to Meat Quality
Ideally, the meat we would eat would always be organic. In the USA, there is USDA Organic seal meat. This means the animals
- Ate only organically grown feed during their life (less pesticides)
- Were not fed animal by-products
- Were not treated with synthetic hormones (USDA regulation prohibits the use of hormones in some animals like poultry)
- Were not treated with antibiotics
The ideal would be to buy organic meat and animal products that were raised in as free an outdoor environment as possible:
- For cattle and sheep–> grass-fed and grass finished or 100% grass fed
- For chicken/poultry eggs –> Pasture raised (free range doesn’t not guarantee the same freedoms)
- For chicken/poultry meat –> Pasture raised
- For pigs–> Heritage bred
- For dairy products–> grass fed cattle, sheep, or goats milk
As far as nutrient content, grass-fed beef has a higher Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio. The Omega 3:6 ratio is becoming more widely acknowledged as a factor in health issues from heart disease, diabetes, and more.
There is also a right way to cook our meat too. When we charr meat while cooking it, to the point of blackening it, we’re creating carcinogenic substances. We can avoid this by reducing the temperature at which we cook meat.
When purchasing meat for our families, there will be budget limitations. There will be access issues and other barriers. But we can try and do the best we can in our current situation.
Raising Meat Can Actually Heal the Planet
Conventional meat raising practices do have their toll on the environment, just like they take their toll on the health of the animals, and even our health.
Conventional meat is raised on lots of grains and even other animal byproducts. These grains are usually corn and wheat, which are mono-crops in the USA. Mono-crops or mono-cropping is the practice of growing one kind of product on the same land, often with a host of negative consequences. These negative consequences include stripping the soil of nutrition, removing the natural checks and balances of the ecosystem like bugs, insects, and even other animals, a lack of biodiversity, and a large use of pesticides, which are linked to negative health consequences including reduced male fertility.
Pesticides and other agricultural run off are also polluting our water systems and our soil, which is having further negative impacts on wildlife and the health of our environment.
Regenerative agriculture and sustainable farming are alternative ways of raising meat. These practices provide a better way to take care of animals and our environment and lead to better quality meat.
Regenerative agriculture uses the natural harmony that exists in nature to control pests, feed livestock, raise healthy animals, and keep the soil, water, animals, and people healthier and better off.
Many People Return to Eating Meat for Health Reasons
I had a family member who tried to eat vegan due to concerns about the ethical treatment of animals, which is a valid concern. Over time, they began to experience fatigue, difficulty sleeping, bruising easily, loss of appetite, depression, and other challenging health concerns. Their doctors had to put them on multiple supplements like Vitamin B12 and iron to aid the fatigue and other issues.
Eventually, they began eating small amounts of animal products and felt a difference. Over time, they transitioned away from vegan or vegetarian eating and incorporated much more animal products into their life. They saw a reduction or removal of many of these health symptoms when they made that transition.
Although anecdotal, this story is not an isolated incident. An estimated up to 85% of vegan and vegetarians do return to eating meat and they do it mostly because of health issues.
When initially starting a vegan or vegetarian diet, many do experience increased energy and other health effects. This is more likely due to the abundant inclusion of more fresh vegetables, fruits, unprocessed foods, and nourishing fresh foods.
Over time, the lack of animal products or meat in the diet causes more severe nutrient deficiencies that contribute to poor health and well-being.
If we struggle to maintain vibrant health over time without meat and animal products, that’s probably a big red flag that meat is vital to getting the nutrition and energy we need.
Low Meat? It’s Far More Important to Consider What You Are Eating Instead
There can be many reasons why someone may want to eat less meat. At times, the craving for meat and animal products can be dictated by nausea and food aversions, such as during the 1st trimester in pregnancy for many women.
For others, it is a large part of a family’s grocery budget, and switching to some meals that feature less meat and animal products or none at all could be a budgetary reset tool used periodically.
If you do opt for less meat for any of these reasons, make sure you’re not just filling up on high starch carbohydrate foods or very processed foods. Try to incorporate plant based sources of protein as tolerated (such as a delicious dish featuring chickpeas I’ve got in the works that I’ll be sharing soon!) and focus on fresh vegetables and healthy fat sources to keep you satiated and nourished.
Meat *Can* Be Problematic for Some People
…but that’s usually more the exception than the rule and can be based on a temporary health state rather than a permanent need that lasts forever.
There is always bio-individuality to our diet and lifestyles, and what works for one of us may not be best for another. This can also be dependent on the phase in life, or specific health challenges we have going on.
In terms of meat consumption, those for whom regular or high meat consumption might be problematic include those with gout, high levels of uric acid in their urine, certain types of immediate cancer diagnoses, and other challenges.
But this cut back in meat consumption may only be for a specific time, as other healing is prioritized and the body can be restored to more homeostasis. Most people are not in this boat though and transitioning to better quality meat can improve your health.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, eating meat is a part of a healthy diet. It helps moms (and dads!) achieve the needed nutrient levels for health, reproduction, pregnancy, and postpartum healing.
Choosing higher quality meat that has been raised ethically is better for our health and the planet. We can vote with our dollars and support those in agriculture and ranching who embody the ideals and standards we have for how our food is made.
We can do the best we can with each of our life’s circumstances and make priority changes as we adapt to the needs, budgets, and limitations of our current family and continue growing on this ever continuing journey to health and wellness for ourselves and the planet.