By Jess Kelley

Of all the nutritional myths and controversies, those about meat are maybe the biggest whoppers. For the staunch vegan or China Study subscribers, meat consumption causes cancer, is an environmental catastrophe, and a moral sin. No. Meat. Ever. To the tire-lifting Paleo/Cross Fit crowd, meat – and lots of it – is essential for performance, vitality, and is part of our evolution. To a degree, both are correct, but at the same time, not.

Here’s what we know. The type of meat we’ve been eating for the last fifty or so years is a far cry from that of the last 2.6 million. Meat (animals) used to be 100% wild – no GMO feed, antibiotics, hormones, or unneeded stress. These animals lived on natural diets of grass and wild plants, equating to more balanced omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratios. They were far less inflammatory than today’s CAFO (confined animal feeding operations) meats, which have been shown in research to contain high amounts of omega-6 fats. We know that inflammation is the backbone of practically all modern diseases, including cancer. Consumption of conventionally-raised meat is not healthy, period.

Next, we miss the majority of meat’s nutritional benefits when the whole animal is not consumed. A perfectly white chicken breast, its fat and skin removed before being wrapped in endocrine-disrupting plastic, doesn’t contain much in the way of vitamins and minerals. One cup of it contains zero vitamin A, and only 8% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin B12. The offal (organs, feet, brain, tongue, etc.) is where it’s at, nutritionally. These are the most nutrient dense food sources of vitamins A and B12 on the planet. A mere ounce of chicken liver provides 81% of the RDA for vitamin A, and 99% of B12.

Sure, plant sources of these vitamins exist, but not always in forms that provide optimum levels, or in a useable form to humans. For example, the animal form of vitamin A is retinol, and the plant form is carotenoids. Both provide health benefits, but retinol is critical for red blood cell production. Plant forms of nutrients have to be converted into usable forms. Anyone with genetic SNPs (“snips,” or single nucleotide polymorphisms, are the most commonly found genetic variation in young people. Further explanation would require an Internet search, or a master’s degree), digestive disorders, bacterial imbalances in the digestive tract, excessive use of alcohol, excessive exposure to toxic chemicals, etc. cannot make the conversion. I highly encourage nutrient testing. (You can order from SpectraCell Laboratory, and results will tell you if you are deficient in any vitamins or minerals.)

Yet, vegetable consumption is critical to health, and traditional “Paleolithic diets” were largely plant-based, with great variation from region to region. When wild game was available, it was a feast, and when it wasn’t, famine. There wasn’t meat on the plate at every meal. As we moved out of the cave and began domestication of animals, meat was used more like a condiment, rather than the main focus. A pig, sheep, goat or cow was raised and slaughtered, then every attempt was made to make it last for as long as possible. Today’s paleo diet trend is meat centric, and high-protein diets have been shown to contribute to modern disease through increased production of what’s called IGF-1. This growth factor is linked to insulin function and carbohydrate metabolism. We want it in balance.

Studies have found that vegans eat more vegetables than paleo dieters. Vegetables and vegetable fibers are critical for maintaining a healthy microbiome (gut microbes that help regulate digestion, immunity, mood and more). Research has shown that a high-animal and low-vegetable diet depletes the body of key microbes. Eating animals treated with antibiotics further contributes to destruction of the microbiome, also fueling the scary epidemic of antibiotic resistance. Meat or no meat, the key element of a healthy diet is at least nine servings of vegetables a day – think six bites or so of three vegetables (that’s 18 mouthfuls) at every meal.

We cannot ignore the environmental impact of animal farming and grazing. Polluted runoffs of pig dung spill into waterways, deforestation for grass-fed beef grazing occurs at an alarming rate, while millions of acres of US farmland are devoted to growing genetically modified corn and soy for animal feed. We can raise animals better by a) raising enough animal(s) to feed one’s family; b) taking the time to research and buy from small farmers who are land stewards (think Joel Salatin or Durango’s James Ranch), and who use biodynamic farming techniques that help improve rather than devastate the land; or c) go hunting.

At the end of the day, the word “meat” can have many meanings, depending on how the animal was raised, what it was raised on, how much and what parts of it are consumed, and what is consumed alongside it. As for the moral debate of eating beings with eyeballs, that’s your call.

Jess Kelley is a Master Nutrition Therapist in Durango. She is currently co-writing a guidebook on deep nutrition for cancer, and eating lots of liver.