Being a vegetarian (or switching to a mainly plant-based diet) has become a popular trend, but what if you aren’t always interested in nibbling on plants for dinner? Omnivores can still make better choices with the meat they eat, looking for specific animals that are ethically and sustainably raised. Making better choices in the type and quality of meat you buy is not only good for your health; it’s also good for the planet.

Before you tuck into a nightly rib-eye, it’s important to note that research still indicates that a diet high in animal protein is not always the best choice, especially if you are under the age of 65. Valter Longo, the Edna M. Jones professor of biogerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology and director of the USC Longevity Institute still cautions that eating a diet high in animal protein (including dairy) in middle-age contributes to a higher rate of death.

Longo noted that:

“The majority of Americans are eating about twice as much proteins as they should, and it seems that the best change would be to lower the daily intake of all proteins but especially animal-derived proteins.”

The study, which was published March 2014 in Cell Metabolism, also suggests that nutritional recommendations are complex and that nutritional needs change as people move through life in different stages. Co-author Eileen Crimmins, the AARP chair in gerontology at USC said that:

[the evidence suggests] that at older ages, it may be important to avoid a low-protein diet to allow the maintenance of healthy weight and protection from frailty.”

But the bad news about eating red meat doesn’t end there.

Another perspective paper, authored by 23 scientists and published in the March 2014 issue of the journal Meat Science found that eating red meat or processed products can contribute to an increased rate of stomach cancer in research animals. If that bit of irony isn’t enough, the research animals were not fed anything other than red and processed meat during the study. In other words, they were not given other foods that may have counteracted the effects of this steady diet of animal protein.

Scientists did recognize that this diet is hardly comparable to a standard human diet but pointed out that although evidence linking stomach cancers and consumption of red and processed meat is small, it is consistent, indicating that less is best.

Meat eaters, take heart.

Although moderation in all things dietary is key (even too much water can kill you), there is research that supports a diet that includes a specific type of red meat: sustainably raised, pasture-fed, organic meat. Sustainably-raised animals are, in the best-case scenario, born, raised, and processed on the same farm their whole life. They are raised in spacious pastures on primarily grass, with no use of the antibiotics that are necessary for factory-farmed meat in close quarters. Their diet consists of grass and minimal (if any) additional feeds to “finish” them. Contrast this with factory-farmed animals jammed into feedlots and fed low-quality grain to pack on the pounds as quickly and economically as possible, and you get some not-so-surprising differences in the nutritional value and quality of the meat produced.

Even the Drovers Cattle Network is on board with more holistic meat production. They cite a 2012 report from Compassion in World Farming that found the following:

  • Pasture raised beef has 25-50% less fat, up to 430% more omega-3 fatty acids, and as much as 700% more beta-carotene
  • A free-range chicken may have up to 50% less fat than an industrially farmed one, up to 565% more omega-3s, and free-range eggs have up to 100% more vitamin E and 280% more beta-carotene
  • Free-range pork has up to 200% more vitamin E and up to 290% more omega-3s

A 2015 report from the Institute of Food Technologists reaffirmed these findings with regard to pastured lamb, publishing their data in a new review article in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. They found that due to the plant species consumed by pastured lamb, the resulting meat was higher in polyunsaturated fat.

Much of this movement is for the animals’ sake, but factory farms pose a real threat of food- borne illness to people. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control found over two million cases of food-borne illness in the U.S., and 22% of those were directly linked to antibiotic resistant diseases in meat animals. Animals raised in the open air and not in crowded barns and feedlots where they are routinely injected with antibiotics to prevent disease (not treat it) are less likely to harbor diseases in general, much less antibiotic-resistant ones.

Making the change to pasture-raised meat is as easy as visiting the grocery store these days.

Many large grocery chains are now stocking organic, pasture-raised meat. There are a few other things to keep in mind as you shop for your meat:

  • Know your producer: Buying meat from a local farmer at a farmer’s market is the best choice. Not only are you supporting your local economy, but you can also ask the farmer about how the animals are raised and sometimes even visit the farm itself.
  • The key is moderation. Although organic, pasture-raised meat is better for you than conventional meat, there are still plenty of reasons why you should keep your red meat consumption down. Aim for no more than two servings of red meat a week, and eliminate any processed meats altogether. If you must have bacon, try sustainably-raised, uncured pork belly and season it in the pan as you cook it.
  • Look to the sea. Seafood is still animal protein, and people in the U.S. don’t eat enough of it to get their recommended daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids. Think about sustainability here, too, and only buy seafood on the ”best choices” list from the Seafood Watch site.

For more information on the benefits of sustainably-raised meat, check out the Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate and Health.

Image by Photty via Flickr