In April 2012, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and several other prominent organizations released a study that assessed the long-term health risks associated with eating raw and cooked red meat. They concluded that consumption of even a single daily serving of this type of meat can significantly increase your lifetime risks for dying from a heart attack or certain forms of cancer. However, the study focused on red meat in general, and did not try to differentiate between the health effects associated with eating grain-fed beef and the health effects associated with eating grass-fed beef. As other researchers have shown, consumption of grass-fed beef has certain known health benefits when compared to consumption of grain-fed beef.
Grass-Fed Meat and Grain-Fed Meat Basics
As the name indicates, grass-fed red meat is the term for meat obtained from cattle or other grazing animals that ate at least a partial grass diet during their lifetimes. On the other hand, grain-fed meat comes from cattle or other grazing animals that fed mostly or entirely on corn or some other type of grain. Grazing animals naturally feed on grass, and prior to World War II, the majority of cattle raised in the U.S. had at least some grass in their diets. However, in the 1950s agribusiness companies seeking to increase their beef production and lower their costs started to raise their cattle on diets that contained only grain. In addition to bringing cattle to their mature weight more quickly than a grass diet, a grain diet increases the production of fat inside cattle’s muscles and creates the flavor profile most people associate with eating red meat.
Both grass-fed and grain-fed red meat contain significant amounts of a variety of nutrients that help sustain your normal health, including:
- The amino acids needed to create your body’s internal protein supply
- The essential vitamins A, B6, B12, D and E
- The essential minerals selenium, zinc and iron
In addition, all red meat contains significant amounts of a variety of fats, which your body needs for purposes that include:
- Supplying you with energy-filled calories
- Storing reserve calories for future use
- Processing and using dietary and supplemental sources of vitamins A, D, E and K
- Keeping your hair and skin healthy
Fat also contains vital substances called essential fatty acids, which you need to achieve normal brain function, regulate potentially dangerous inflammation in your body’s tissues, and prevent uncontrolled bleeding. While fat is an important part of your diet, overconsumption of fat—especially types of this nutrient called saturated fat and trans fat—can seriously increase your risks for health problems that include obesity and heart disease. In addition, foods with lots of saturated fat or trans fat can significantly increase your blood levels of dangerous LDL cholesterol.
Beneficial Differences in Saturated Fat Content
Much of the confusion surrounding the health effects of grass-fed and grain-fed red meat probably stems from issues related to their saturated fat content. As we’ve already noted, saturated fats in your diet can increase your LDL cholesterol levels. And in truth, both grass-fed and grain-fed red meat contain roughly the same overall amount of saturated fat. For this reason, it might be tempting to lump these two forms of beef together when discussing the health risks associated with red meat consumption.
However, saturated fat comes in several different forms, and not all of them affect your cholesterol levels in the same way. For instance, certain types of saturated fat—including substances called palmitic acid and myristic acid—have a relatively strong ability to increase your LDL cholesterol levels. Another type of saturated fat, called stearic acid, doesn’t appear to alter your cholesterol levels at all. According to an extensive literature review published in 2010 in Nutrition Journal, when compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef has significantly lower amounts of harmful palmitic and myristic acids and significantly higher amounts of harmless stearic acid.
Conjugated Linolenic Acid (CLA) Benefits
In addition to saturated fats, red meat contains a healthier group of fats known as polyunsaturated fats, which tend to lower your blood levels of harmful LDL cholesterol. In particular, red meat contains a type of polyunsaturated fat called conjugated linolenic acid, or CLA. In addition to its cholesterol-lowering effects, CLA has powerful antioxidant properties and can potentially help protect your body from the effects of substances called free radicals, which can seriously damage your long-term health by altering your normal cell function. Also, CLA can potentially lower your risks for certain types of cancer and promote weight loss in obese individuals.
When compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef has significantly higher levels of CLA. Apparently, the reason for this difference is linked to ways that cattle digest grain. As we noted earlier, cattle naturally graze on various types of grass. For this reason, their bodies are geared toward breaking down grass and using it as a fuel source. On the other hand, when cattle eat grain, their bodies must try to adjust to this “unnatural” food source. This adjustment results in lowered pH levels in cattle’s digestive organs; in turn, lowered pH levels seem to lower the production of beneficial CLA.
Additional Nutritional Benefits of Grass-Fed Red Meat
When compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef also contains relatively high amounts of important antioxidants called glutathione, superoxide dismutase, and catalase, which can help reduce your cancer risks.
Grass-fed beef also has relatively high amounts of:
- A chemical precursor or parent to CLA, called trans vaccenic acid (TVA)
- An important form of vitamin E called alpha tocopherol
- Chemical precursors to vitamin A called carotenes
In addition, when compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef has healthier relative amounts of essential dietary nutrients called omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Also, most cuts of grass-fed beef have lower overall fat levels than similar cuts of grain-fed beef. This is important because consumption of lean beef can potentially lower your levels of harmful cholesterol just as effectively as skinless chicken or non-fatty species of fish.
Risks Common to Grass-Fed Meat and Grain-Fed Meat
While consumption of grass-fed red meat has a variety of documented benefits over consumption of grain-fed red meat, you should still be aware of potential problems associated with eating too much of any type of red meat. While polyunsaturated fats like CLA can help you control your risks for heart disease and cancer, they are still fats. This means that, just like saturated fats, they have a relatively high calorie content when compared to other foods in your diet such as carbohydrates and protein. If you eat too much of any type of fat-containing food—including grass-fed or grain-fed red meat—you can easily take in an excessive number of calories and gain unhealthy amounts of weight. In turn, excessive weight gain can lead to the onset of obesity and a whole assortment of avoidable health risks.
So what conclusions can we draw from the differences between grass-fed red meat and grain-fed red meat? First of all, by failing to distinguish between consumption of these two types of meat, the Harvard red meat study almost certainly overlooked the health benefits you can gain by replacing grain-fed meats in your diet with grass-fed meats. In turn, these benefits can potentially offset some of the heart disease- and cancer-related risks typically associated with eating red meat. In addition, you can gain similar health advantages when you replace dairy products from grain-fed cows with dairy products from grass-fed cows. Still, overconsumption of fatty red meat, dairy products, or any other fat source can cause you to gain weight and expose you to some of the same health risks associated with eating grain-fed red meat.
While advocates of special diets and “miracle foods” tend to take an all-or-nothing approach to nutrition, you will probably get the most benefit from a more balanced perspective. This type of perspective recognizes that, while you can hurt yourself by eating too many unhealthy foods, you can also hurt yourself by making too many generalizations about important health information. In addition, you can hurt yourself by overindulging in even the healthiest of foods.
©2012 Off the Grid News