We are transitioning back to the United States after 4 years of living abroad. It is quite the undertaking to move a dog and a family of 8 (wife, 4 kids, 2 grandparents, and me) in general, let alone across continents! Because of this, I will be not be posting for a week or so. I’ll be back soon!
This is Part 2 of a multipart series.
Be sure to read Part 1 here.
You said we should eat the “right kind” of meat and fat…what is the “right kind” of meat and fat?
Meat is meat, and fat is fat, right? Wrong! There is a vast difference between the meats and animal fats humans ate 10,000 years ago and the meat and animal fats most humans eat today.
Before I dive into this topic, let me first clear up a misconception. Wild animals may or may not be “lean” even if they have lean meat. Anyone who hunts and butchers their own animals, which I think is a great experience, knows that the the meat from deer, elk, rabbit, etc. is lean… meaning the meat has no marbling of fat in it like a steak from a modern grocery store. Depending on the time of year, that animal may have a lot or a little fat. If you have hunted in the Autumn, you will know that a deer will have thick layers of fat stored under the skin and around the kidneys, but the meat will still be lean. If you’ve hunted an animal in the Winter or early Spring, you will know that an animal will have very little fat left in them, but the meat will also still be lean. It is only our modern animals, which have been bred to have fat evenly distributed within the muscle tissue, that we find the fatty cuts of meat. Waterfowl, swine, and many types of seafood are some exceptions to this.
Modern meat animals are typically raised, or at least finished (spend the last season or so of their life) in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). These have, rightly so, been compared to concentration camps for animals. Animals are given very little space and almost no access to the natural world. They are fed grains and beans and other “food” products that are nothing like that animal would eat in the wild. The animals eat and gain weight and get sick a lot, which is why they are pumped full of antibiotics and hormones. The animals get fat, which is what modern people have developed a taste for, but this fat is very unhealthy. This fat likely increases our risks of heart attacks and strokes. Also, while it is tough to prove, the hormones and antibiotics are likely very unhealthy for us as well. We may never fully understand all the consequences of eating these stressed animals. My advice is to avoid this meat if you can. If you cannot (i.e. if you choose not to), then trim the fat away or eat only lean cuts.
Let us now compare these CAFO animals to an animal which lives its entire life on pasture… like it was designed to do. These animals develop fat that is actually healthy. This fat is high in Omega 3 fatty acids and in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid)… these are good for our heart and decrease our risk of heart attacks and stroke. When we think of our great-grandmother eating spoonfuls of lard, we are often disgusted. And if we render lard from a modern-raised pig, that fat would be very unhealthy for us. However, our great-grandmother was eating lard from pigs raised in a savannah-like environment with little to no supplementary feed, and that fat was good for her! In addition, pasture-raised meat just tastes better. It has a richer and deeper flavor. My advice is to make this your primary type of meat. Do not trim the fat, but enjoy it! If you are fortunate to get fatty cuts of meat or able to get pure fat from these animals, then keep it. Render it down and save it. Use it when cooking. Lard (from swine), tallow (from cattle and sheep), and duck or goose fats are all delicious and add a tremendous amount of flavor to vegetables and lean meats.
Fortunately, the grass-fed/pasture-finished meat industry is booming right now. If there is not a local producer nearby, there are a large number of suppliers who will ship to you. I live on a tiny island in the North Atlantic, and even I can drive down to a butcher and purchase pasture-raised beef. This is not a fad. This is the future.
I will add a quick comment about wild game. If you have access to hunt animals in a truly wild setting, then that meat will be very good for you. That fat will be fantastic. However, most people who hunt are hunting deer that fatten up for the Winter on corn and soybeans from a modern farmer’s field. While the meat is going to be healthier than the antibiotic and hormone pumped beef alternative, it is not going to be the same as meat or fat from a truly wild animal eating a truly wild diet.
So we should eat a lot of meat?
Hold on there! I am not saying we should only eat meat. I am not saying we should make meat the bulk of our diet. These are the extremes that people go to when they embrace a hunter-gather diet – they focus on the hunt and not the gather side of things. In reality, there was a lot more gather than hunt. This means the bulk of our diet should not be meat. I recommend making pasture-raised animal protein and fat a regular part of your diet. The bulk of our diet, like those people’s diet from 10,000+ years ago, should mainly be composed of vegetables and fruits. Meats and fats and nuts and fungi comprise the remainder.
I thought we are supposed to avoid fat?
I am really hoping that this myth will die soon, but it is putting up a good fight. I know a number of people (family members included!) who still think margarine is healthier than butter! The low-fat/no-fat mantra given to us by doctors and researchers has done so much harm to the modern world’s health, it may be impossible to quantify. Fats are a vital part of the human body and need to be a key component of our diet. We have been warned about the dreaded animal fats for decades. As I explained above, it is not the animal’s fat, but the animal’s diet, that makes all the difference. We should avoid fat from animals that are not raised and finished on pasture. We should avoid vegetable fats. In contrast, we should consume fat from animals raised and finished on pasture. We should consume fats from fruits and tree nuts – avacado, coconuts, olive oil, walnut oil, etc. Fish oils, by and large, are also very good for us.
Aren’t there other diets that work?
What do you mean by “do they work”? Can you lose weight by following almost any “diet” book out there? Probably. Is it the healthiest way to eat? Probably not. I routinely read diet books. I like to know what my patients are doing. I want to see if what they are eating is healthy or harmful. Often I am disappointed. Many diet books are aimed at quick fixes… “lose 20 lbs in 2 weeks!” That is not healthy. Again, many of these books do help a person lose weight, but after the event (a wedding, class reunion, etc.), or after a person gets tired of trying to follow the strict rules outlined in the latest book, the weight comes right back. The vast majority of these diets are not sustainable.
The other common theme I see in diet books and programs is the promotion of illogical diets. For example, I read one book that recommended juices in the morning, vegetables in the afternoon, and proteins in the evening. They had all these reasons for this special way of eating – it was the hidden key to proper health! Really? What people group from 10,000+ years ago ate this way? It makes no sense. Yet I see diet after diet that recommends odd rules about food combinations or specific times to eat certain types of foods. It is silly, and these diets should be dismissed.
Well, what about vegetarianism or being a vegan?
It is impossible to have a conversation about healthy eating without this question arising. There are three groups of vegetarians that I can define. First, there are the vegetarians who avoid eating animal or animal products for religios, pseudo-religious, or deep-seated ethical reasons (not wanting to eat something “with a soul” or “a creature with a face”). I will never change their mind. I have no desire to do so. Second, there are vegetarians who choose to eat this way for perceived health reasons. I have taken care of many vegetarians who are sickly and wasting away. I have taken care of many vegetarians who are extremely overweight. I have taken care of a few vegetarians who are very healthy. Eating vegan or vegetarian is not the whole key to health. Third, there are those who are eating vegetarian because they cannot stand the way animals are treated on modern farms. I can really understand and relate to this. From an ethical and a health stance, pasture-raised animals are vastly different than most modern-raised animals.
The argument for, or against, veganism or vegetarianism is much too big for this current conversation. I may elaborate on this topic in the future. I understand their arguments, but I simply disagree. I disagree with their historical perspective, their anthropological information and analysis, and much (but not all) of their health conclusions. I’ll leave it at that for now.
So then, how do I lose weight?
Frankly, I think our goal should be to eat healthy, not lose weight. If we focus on losing weight, then we will often eat unhealthy foods or eat in an unhealthy manner. If we focus on eating healthy, then we will often lose weight as a side effect. I have had numerous patients who have committed to eating the way I have outlined above. They have all had more energy, and they have all lost weight, some have lost substantial weight. I have had a number of patients with chronic issues (migraines, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, etc.) who have had a significant improvment in their symptoms. I have had a few patients with high blood pressure and newly diagnosed diabetes improve their health so much that they no longer require any medications. All of these people would have liked to lose weight (and they all did), but their goal was to be healthy first.
Now, if your goal really is just to lose weight, the healthiest way to do this is by eating more foods that have low energy density. Energy density is a simple idea. Foods with more calories for a smaller volume are energy dense – like meats, cheeses, nuts, dried fruits, olive oil, etc.. These foods are all healthy foods, but they pack more calories in a smaller volume. They all have high energy density. I like to give the following example: The meat from a double Whopper from Burger King contains 430 calories… just the 2 meat patties. I can easily eat just the meat patties alone and still be hungry which is why people eat the whole Double Whoper with cheese (almost 1,000 calories for the whole sandwich). Lets now consider plain iceberg lettuce. It would take close to 9 heads of iceberg lettuce to equal the calories in two Whopper patties alone and almost 19 heads of lettuce to equal the whole Double Whopper with cheese sandwich! There is no way on Earth I could eat 19 or 9 or even 2 heads of lettuce. Maybe, if I really tried, I could eat a whole head of lettuce… at just 53 calories. Lettuce has very low energy density.
If we want to lose weight fast and still be healthy, then we need to choose foods that are good for us but are low in energy density. In practical terms, this means loading up on vegetables and fruits and minimizing (not eliminating) meats and fats. This will allow us to feel full yet still be taking in fewer calories – which is what we need if we want to drop weight. I hate to feel hungry, and this is the key!
It is important to note that when we fill up on low energy density foods, we often get hungrier faster. These foods are often digested quicker which leads to feeling hungry again sooner. This is why I still recommend eating meats and fats. Proteins and fats give us longer periods of satiety (not feeling hungry). So sprinkle the vegetables with some olive oil. Cook the veggies in some rendered pasture-finished animal fats. Eat the fruit with a few thin slices of cheese. This is how you will feel satisfied through the day while still taking in less calories. When we are not satisfied, we tend to snack on whatever is available, and this leads to unhealthy food choices.
There are a few other things to keep in mind, but I will get into that next time.
Dr. Permaculture’s Guide to Healthy Eating (Part 3) coming soon
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