How To Choose High-Quality Animal Proteins

If you’re new to the functional medicine or natural food spaces, you’re probably wondering how to go about sourcing high-quality organic produce and clean proteins.

If you eat meat, learning how to choose high-quality meats and seafood is vital to support your healing process and overall well-being.

Heads up: if you and your family do not eat meat (which I also support as a healthy lifestyle), this article isn’t for you.

However, if some members of your family eat animal protein and/or you want to know what to buy when cooking for other meat-eaters, then read on.

In this article, you’ll learn all about how to choose the highest quality animal proteins, including:

  • What I eat when it comes to protein.
  • Why is protein so important, and how much does the average person need?
  • What type of animal protein is best (organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, free-range, etc.)?
  • The surprising nutritional benefits of eating meats from pasture-raised animals.
  • How to source high-quality meats.
  • And we’ll address the environmental impacts of choosing quality meat too

 

What I Eat For Protein (and why)

As a functional medicine doctor and mother of 3, I get a lot of questions about what I eat and why. So here it goes!

After much dietary experimentation over the years, I’ve settled into life as an omnivore. My plate consists of:

  • ½ colorful vegetables, like leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, summer squash, etc. This is typically topped with a healthy fat like my favorite organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil and RealSalt.
  • ¼ starchy vegetables or carbs like purple potatoes, sweet potatoes, roasted root veggies, or maybe Basmati rice
  • ¼ clean protein, and I aim for variety here—chicken, beef, turkey, buffalo, pork (but I’m really picky about my pork!), eggs, salmon, cod, etc.


I’m very much plant-forward (with a heavy emphasis on organic foods), but I’ve learned my body functions optimally with moderate amounts of clean animal protein.

That doesn’t mean I’m anti-vegan, anti-vegetarian, or anti-plant-based.

On the contrary, I believe these approaches to eating can be very healing and detoxifying and are a healthy choice for some people.

My point is to acknowledge that everyone is different in their nutritional needs, beliefs, and goals. And sometimes, those needs, beliefs, and goals will shift and change throughout a lifetime.

As a functional medicine physician specializing in individualized care, my team and I honor our patients’ choices, beliefs, and intuition about the best proteins for them.

Why Protein Is So Important + How Much The Average Person Needs

Protein is an essential nutrient for health, healing, and basic survival.

The build blocks of protein, called Amino Acids, play a role in various bodily functions, including maintaining cell integrity, blood sugar balance, energy, building muscle, and supporting tissue repair, regeneration, and growth. Amino acids are also a cornerstone of proper detoxification.

How much protein do you need?

The optimal amount varies based on several factors, including your gender, physical activity, diet, and overall state of health.

It’s not a static need, but as a general guideline, I recommend at least:

  • 0.5-.75 grams of protein per pound of ideal body weight for women
  • And 0.5-1 gram per pound of ideal body weight for men.


In other words, if you’re a woman with a goal weight of 150 pounds, you’d want to aim for about 75 – 113 grams of protein per day — aim for more if you’re exercising a lot or recovering from surgery.

That doesn’t mean all your protein calories need to come from meat.

I’m all for variety, including plant-based protein sources like beans, legumes, peas, quinoa, oats, millet, leafy greens, and a few high-quality protein powders (collagen peptides are my jam).

I do not, however, recommend regular consumption of lab-grown meats, aka cultured or cultivated meats.

If you haven’t heard of these before, that’s because they’re relatively new and go by names like “Beyond Burger”.

These food products are controversial for many reasons.

They contain genetically modified animal cells grown in test tubes mixed with conventionally-grown plant proteins.

The idea is that this will eliminate the need to raise and slaughter large numbers of animals and thus help save the planet.

The controversial aspects are many, but a few obvious issues are:

  • The plant proteins being used, mainly legumes, are monocrops…which are no bueno for the environment due to the amount of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, tilling, water, etc., required to create that type of unnatural, non-diverse plant environment.
  • There is evidence that although this may benefit the planet in the short-term, that it will have negative long-term effects.1,2
  • The nutritional composition of these products remains unclear, especially in terms of micronutrients and iron.3
  • The advocates of these lab-grown meats do not take into account the very positive effects regenerative farming and ranching have on the environment and specifically, our carbon problem.4
  • Lab-grown meats compete with generational farmers and ranchers who depend on livestock production for their livelihood.
  • And since they’re new to the market, we have no idea of their long-term effects on the human body. As a functional medicine doctor and nutrition expert, this is the issue that really gives me pause in terms of human health.5


Instead, I choose to rely on regeneratively-raised real food proteins to nourish myself and the planet.

What type of animal protein is best (organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, free-range, beef, poultry, seafood, pork, etc.)?

I laughed a little when I wrote this heading because knowing what type of meat to eat has become super confusing.

Let’s start with some general guidelines for choosing high-quality meats.

Ideally, your meat should come from organic, pasture-raised animals who lived their whole lives (or at least most of their lives) on grass.

Animals raised on pasture are healthy animals because they live the way nature intended.

Out on the pasture grazing all day vs. stuck in a feedlot standing on grates and eating genetically-modified corn and soy feed. This is not a cow’s (or a pig’s) natural diet. However, it will make them fatter faster, which yields a better profit.

I won’t go into much detail on Confined Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs because there are many good documentaries and books about this topic.

But I will cover the basics to help paint a more complete picture of why choosing pasture-raised meats is so important.

Picture hundreds or thousands of cows standing up to their knees in manure, with no room to roam and no grass to eat.

This environment is incredibly cruel and unhealthy, which is why these animals require antibiotics to survive until slaughter.

Chickens, turkeys, and pigs all have their own CAFOs, which are equally (if not more) disturbing, cruel, unhealthy, unnatural, and inhumane.

In addition to the cruelty factor, these CAFOs produce an insane amount of waste that pollutes the creeks, streams, rivers, and soil around them.6

So, if you’ve been led to believe that choosing grass-fed beef is a waste of money, a trend, or just an unnecessary expense, I hope you can see why it’s so important.

If you can’t find grass-fed meats and poultry in your area, or if they’re not affordable, I highly recommend checking out some of the delivery options—Wild Pastures being my favorite and most trusted (and what I get at home).

I’ll explain more about them coming up, but they offer American Grassfed Certified (AGA) pasture-raised meat delivery service that is about 40% less expensive than competitors.

And they source all their meats from American farms that practice regenerative agriculture—a beautiful form of farming that not only honors the animals by mimicking nature but also has the potential to draw down crazy amounts of carbon.

What type of animal protein is best (beef, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, seafood, etc.?)

The best type of meat for you depends on what makes you feel good. And by “feel good,” I mean what makes you feel energized, nourished, and not weighed down after eating.

For some people, this means sticking to poultry and seafood only. Others thrive on denser proteins like beef, lamb, bison, ostrich, and pork. And some people prefer only to eat wild game like venison, rabbit, or boar.

Many people can eat any type of animal protein and feel great.

My best advice is to experiment through mindful eating to see what type of animal protein benefits you.

And, as always, I am a fan of diversity when possible.

I’ll emphasize a couple of points concerning seafood, pork, lamb, and red meat sensitivities:

  • When eating seafood, I recommend sticking to sustainably caught, low-mercury-containing fish. A helpful way to remember this is the acronym SMASH: Sardines, Mackerel, Anchovies, Salmon, Herring. If you’re still into tuna, I recommend SafeCatch because they test each fish to ensure they have less mercury than wild-caught salmon.
  • If you like pork and lamb (like we do), definitely get it from a source you trust that raises them on pasture. The reason is that pigs and sheep are susceptible to parasites. Therefore, you want to ensure the animals are raised on grass with responsible animal stewardship and processing practices. Trust me; intestinal parasites are no fun to experience.
  • If you have difficulty digesting meat and feel extra tired or nauseous after eating meat, consider low stomach acid (aka hypochlorhydria). Hydrochloric acid is critical to proper digestion and helps you break down proteins and absorb nutrients. If you don’t have enough stomach acid, a supplement called Betaine HCI with meals may help—but they are not for everyone, so talk to your doctor about this one.
  • Finally, if eating red meat makes you feel unwell (like hives, nausea, low blood pressure, etc.), consider getting tested for Alpha Gal Syndrome. This inconvenient condition is often traced back to a tick bite, which can create an allergic reaction to alpha-gals found in mammal meat.7 Symptoms can be moderate to severe, so it’s helpful to test so you know if you just have a red meat sensitivity vs. a full-blown allergy. Alpha-gal can be found in meat (pork, beef, rabbit, lamb, venison, etc.) and products made from mammals (including gelatin, cow’s milk, and milk products).

 

The Health Benefits Of Choosing Grassfed/Pasture-Raised Meats

It should come as no surprise that animals raised on genetically modified grain in highly stressful confined animal feeding operations—where they may have no access to the outdoors or even room to turn around—are not healthy animals.

Healthy animals live outdoors, with access to their natural diet, plenty of fresh air and sunshine, and the ability to just be a cow, pig, chicken, turkey, duck, ostrich, etc.

For cows, this means 24/7 access to fresh green grass, tons of room to roam, and a herd to call their own.

For pigs, this means the ability to forage and root for things like acorns, mushrooms, roots, and other tasty vegetables.

And for chickens, it means spending their days in the fresh air so they can scratch around for bugs, grubs, and worms and stretch their wings.

If you’re interested in learning more about how regenerative agriculture farms accomplish this within a controlled farm setting, definitely check out these documentaries: Kiss The Ground or Michael Pollan’s infamous Omnivore’s Dilemma (it’s fascinating!).

The point is: when animals are allowed to live a natural life as God intended, they generally don’t need to be medicated or supplemented with fake food like feedlot animals.

This produces healthier, leaner, and more nutrient-dense meat for us omnivores to enjoy. Commonsense, right?

Here are five health benefits of eating pasture-raised meats

        1. Studies have shown that exclusively grass-fed animals have much higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their flesh. This is important because many of us don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids in our diets, which can cause a cascade of inflammatory-related health effects. 8
        2. Pastured meats contain higher concentrations of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a proven anti-cancer nutrient 9 that also benefits blood sugar.10 They also contain more significant amounts of trans vaccenic acid (TVA), a precursor to CLA.
        3. Higher levels of antioxidants, such as vitamin E, vitamin A (which produces a yellowish appearance on the fat), glutathione, and superoxide dismutase (SOD).11
        4. Less fat than conventionally-raised meats, resulting from the animals’ natural diet and ability to exercise.
        5. Reduced risk of foodborne illness. A 2015 study from Consumer Reports 12 tested 300 samples of ground beef from 103 grocery, big-box, and natural food stores across the country for a variety of bacteria. They found that conventionally-raised beef was more likely to have disease-causing and antibiotic-resistant bacteria than sustainably-raised beef.


I’d also add that red meats specifically (regardless of how they’re raised) are a good source of essential amino acids, vitamins A, B6, B12, D, E, and minerals, including iron, zinc, and selenium. 13,14

However, since grass-fed meats contain healthier fats (like omega-3s, which are required to facilitate the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, D, and K), I’d wager that grass-fed beef provides a more absorbable source of those fat-soluble vitamins.

My Go-To Source For High-Quality Meats

As I mentioned earlier, my new favorite source for high-quality, pasture-raised, American-raised, and processed meats is Wild Pastures.

I’ve tried other pasture-raised meat and seafood delivery services, and their products were very good.

However, I know the owners of Wild Pastures personally and can confidently say that their products are authentic and of the highest quality.

Plus, their prices are up to 40% less than other grass-fed meat delivery services, which is helpful when you’re already investing a good amount of money in your health.

They can offer these lower prices by using the whole animal, sourcing 100% from the United States, and through creative shipping practices.

Of course, I also support getting your meat directly from a regenerative grass farmer you trust or your local farmer’s market.

You can also find high-quality grass-fed meats from local farms in your local grocery or natural foods store.

What me, my team, my colleagues, and many of our patients like about using a grass-fed meat delivery service is:

        • It saves time (I have a practice, an online business, and three kids here! Who can relate?).
        • It saves money.
        • I can customize each order based on the types and cuts of meats I want.
        • They also offer sustainably sourced seafood.
        • I know I always have what I need in my fridge or freezer.
        • And the meats are incredible in flavor, texture, and consistency…which is big when you’re trying to please three hungry kiddos! And you can ask my (slightly apprehensive) husband… their meat tastes better and cooks cleaner.


If this sounds like something you’d like to try, visit them online at: wildpastures.com. By using this link, you’ll get 20% off plus free shipping on every box for life. So with this deal, you’re essentially saving 60% off what you’d normally pay for a grass-fed meat subscription service.

In Summary: If You’re A Meat Eater, Make Sure You’re Choosing The Highest-Quality Meat You Can Get

In my opinion, as a functional medicine doctor, health nut, and mother—and based on the research shared in this article—it’s got to be pastured-raised or at least organic.

Getting pasture-raised meats used to be a time-consuming chore (believe me, I’ve been at this for a while!). Thankfully, services like Wild Pastures have made this a no-brainer that is also more affordable than ever (use this link for 20% off plus free shipping for life on every box).

I recommend checking out local CSAs who offer pasture-raised meats, cow pools, etc., through Wildharvest.org.

Sources

  1. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2019-11-cultured-meat-problems.html
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32118026/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32118026/
  4. https://rodaleinstitute.org/education/resources/regenerative-agriculture-and-the-soil-carbon-solution/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25541372/
  6. https://www.nrdc.org/resources/cafos-what-we-dont-know-hurting-us
  7. https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/alpha-gal/index.html
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20807460/
  9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11525591/
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27778642/
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846864/#B110
  12. https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/food/how-safe-is-your-ground-beef
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846864/#B17
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846864/#B18

About Dr. Maren

Christine Maren D.O., IFMCP is a board-certified physician and the founder of a virtual functional medicine practice in Colorado, Michigan, and Texas. She is also the co-founder of Hey Mami, a platform dedicated to helping women navigate a healthy and happy motherhood. She is best know for her work in thyroid, gut and reproductive/ preconception health. Dr. Maren is board-certified by the American Board of Family Medicine and is an Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner (IFMCP). Read more

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