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Choice Cuts: How to Choose Meat + Poultry Wisely!

We’ll be the first to tell you that you CAN get all the protein you need from plants (think beyond beans, nuts and seeds — green veggies and whole grains have it too!). However, that’s not to say there aren’t perfectly healthy ways to incorporate animal protein sources into your diet. Besides, we’re not about judgment or food-shaming here. We’re about listening to your body. Eat what makes you feel good! Above all, we just want you to put the best possible stuff into your body at all times. And when it comes to meat and poultry, there are a lot of questions surrounding provenance and quality (to say nothing of the esoteric terminology often used in food packaging...what does it all mean?!). So in an attempt to make your next trip to the butcher counter a little easier, we’re shedding a bit of light on the subject. First, let’s talk about a concept that gets a lot of airtime in health circles: the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Research suggests that, evolutionarily speaking, the ideal ratio of these polyunsaturated fatty acids is 1:1. However, thanks to the high intake of omega-6s in the modern Western diet (hello, low-quality vegetable oils), our ratios are pretty out of whack. And this imbalance can have serious consequences; studies suggest an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of more than 4:1 could be linked to a host of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, liver and heart disease, plus illnesses connected to inflammation, like arthritis, autoimmune disorders and certain cancers. (This is one reason the Sakara program focuses on premium, plant-based sources of omega-3s, like chia seeds, flax, nuts, oats, green veggies and high-quality oils — by upping our daily dose of omega-3s, we help to balance out this crucial ratio.) With an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of as much as 20:1, industrialized meat is a major culprit in this fatty acid imbalance. Factory-farmed beef and livestock is fed a steady diet of cheap, low-quality corn and soy-based grains (and worse) to encourage quick weight gain. This would be a good time to remind you that you aren’t just what you eat, but what your food eats. In this respect, factory-farmed meat packs more saturated fat and less of the good stuff than grass-fed meat. On the other hand, meat, livestock or fish that has been pastured, foraged or wild-caught is simply better for you. But of course, that’s not the only reason to avoid industrialized meats. They’re also pumped with antibiotics in order to counteract the effects of their close-quarters environments (does the rather unappetizing term “manure lagoons” mean anything to you?), which leads to the proliferation of drug-resistant superbugs. Scary stuff. Additionally, the growth hormones given to dairy cows (which are eventually slaughtered for beef) have been linked to cancer. And beyond that, humane living conditions are decidedly not a priority with factory-farmed meat and livestock. If you care about the kind of life an animal lived before it made its way to your plate, this is certainly something to consider. Study up on the following terms and quick tips so you can make better choices at the grocery — for yourself, for your family and for the earth! Certified Organic: No antibiotics, hormones, pesticides or biotechnology was used. The animal was raised on organic land with plenty of outdoor access, and fed an organic, pesticide and antibiotic-free diet that contained no animal byproducts. This is always your best bet, whether you’re shopping for meat, livestock or fish. However, note that what organic doesn’t speak to is how the animal was treated during its life. Also, organic meat can still become contaminated. Grass-Fed: The animal wasn’t fed any grain. Aside from the omega ratio argument above, grass-fed meat contains CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which research suggests may reduce body fat and stave off diseases like diabetes and cancer. When cows forage pasture grasses (i.e. when they eat the way nature intended), they have 30 to 40% more CLA. Go for grass-fed beef whenever possible! Natural or Naturally-Raised: This doesn’t mean all that much. The word “natural” is a largely unregulated term, and as a result, it gets thrown around a lot. Don’t be fooled by the healthy halo effect of branding that’s heavy on the “natural” talk. Lean: A 3.5-oz. serving must provide less than 10 grams of total fat and no more than 4.5 grams of saturated fat. Extra Lean: A 3.5-oz. serving must provide less than 5 grams of total fat and no more than 2 grams of saturated fat. Prime: It’s all in the name — these are the cuts you get at a fancy steakhouse. They have the most marbling, and therefore, they’re higher in fat and calories than Choice or Select beef. Want to lean in? Look for words like “loin” or “round” — these are the leanest cuts of meat. When you think “lean,” you probably think “chicken,” but keep in mind that this really only applies if you’re buying skinless white meat (like chicken breasts). The skin can contain up to 75% of the fat and 50% of the calories in a piece of chicken. Ready to branch out? Other lean meat options include bison, venison and ostrich. And while we’re talking about poultry, a few notes…
  • Beware of enhanced poultry—it’s been injected with a saltwater solution (and sometimes other seasonings) to give it an enticing look and help it keep its flavor and moistness while cooking. Of course, this also results in lots of excess salt.
  • Whipping up a big pot of chili? If you’re wary of fat, go for ground turkey breast rather than plain old ground turkey, since the latter is often made with dark meat and skin.
Grocery Tips
  • Avoid packages of meat with a lot of pink or reddish juices or that aren’t cool to the touch, as this could mean the meat has been stored improperly.
  • Meat that’s dark purple or brownish in color likely came from an older animal and will therefore be tougher and less flavorful. It could also mean the meat is less than fresh.
  • Put packages of meat in plastic produce bags to protect any leakage from tainting your other groceries.
  • At the butcher’s counter, avoid uneven pieces of meat with ragged edges—they won’t cook properly.

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