Good Meat And Fish Vs. Bad Meat And Fish... What's The Difference?

High protein, lower carbohydrate diets.

They're a staple of anyone who knows how to shred body fat off in a short time without compromising muscle mass. I use them to help get my clients rapid fat loss results without starving them three quarters to death.

When compared to more traditionally recommended high carbohydrate low fat diets, they've been shown in many cases to better aid the treatment of obesity, cancers, type two diabetes as well as much more, and getting yourself on a diet like this will almost certainly involve eating meat.

Unfortunately there have been many headlines recently about the dangers of meat consumption. Often without fully clarifying what kind of meat is actually being discussed. This has lead to confusion about what is good and bad for health.

  • Is it possible to eat meat that is bad for you? - Yes
  • Is all meat bad for you? - No

In this article we're going to be talking about that distinction, and how you can use it to make better choices about what to put in your body. In this article we are going to talk about three major factors regarding meat consumption.

  • Pesticides
  • The Omega 3 / Omega 6 Ratio
  • Mercury contamination

All three are worth knowing about, but before we begin let's look at why we eat meat in the first place and take a step into our collective history.

Why do we eat meat at all?

Here is a handy to scale infographic that illustrates how long we operated as hunter gathers vs how long we have operated an agricultural based civilisation.

The point is that for the vast majority of human history, our species mainly lived a subsistence hunter gatherer lifestyle, and there is strong evidence that higher protein lower carb diets were the norm. One of the stronger pieces of evidence is based on the idea that rich sources of carbohydrate in the natural world are mostly one of the following...

  • Indigestible to humans - in the case of cellulose.
  • Seasonal - in the case of fruits
  • Hard to find - in the case of tubers (i.e. potatoes) and root vegetables.
  • Difficult to get a hold of - for example honey. (Though not impossible)

All other forms of rich carbohydrate that you might know of, such as pasta, bread, rice, wheat or other cereals, either didn't exist until comparatively recently, or have only been domesticated and farmed in the last 2,500 - 8,000 years, meaning that these modern "staples" simply weren't available. Any other sources of carbohydrate were either low density or low content in nature, such as vegetables and nuts. It seems that for most of our collective history, we simply didn't have a dense source of carbs to rely upon like we do today.

Erm... weren't we supposed to be talking about meat?

Okay, let's do that. Here's something you might not have thought about. Your brain. It's really, really, really friggin' expensive.

Erm... no, that isn't exactly what I meant.

The average human brain only accounts for around 2% of a person's body mass, which in fairness isn't really that much, and you'd be forgiven for thinking that this low mass to body weight ratio explains a lot about human behaviour. Yet a 2004 paper from the Yale University's School of Medicine has suggested that the brain uses a whopping 20% of the body's total energy requirements. So in terms of energy use, the brain is by far the most costly of the body's tissues.

Furthermore, according to other research on the subject, it is also highly likely that tasks that are more difficult mentally, require more energy to be directed to the brain. Interestingly this means that: yes, thinking actually requires calories, and yes, harder thinking requires yet more calories. This means that being "too tired to think" actually is a real thing, something that anyone with multiple children will no doubt confirm.

In order to meet the energy requirements of something as ridiculously decadent and indulgent as the largest brain of all primates, a rich energy source is needed and as we pointed out earlier, rich carbohydrate was extremely unlikely to be that source.

Meat, fish and eggs are the most easily available, densely packed source of calories, widely available to humans, both in the past and today. In our early history it has been suggested that the shift from a more plant based diet to a more animal based one, spurred development of our larger cranial capacity. There doesn't seem to be another way to get the huge number of calories into our bodies that building a brain like ours would require.

But if all that's true, then why does everyone make such a fuss about eating too much meat?

To put it simply, the meat that we eat isn't the same as the meat our ancestors ate, and there are a number of problems with it. One of which is...

It's not safe to breathe but fine to eat?

Pesticides often quite justifiably get a bad rap. Yet being a quasi-scientifically minded person, I like to view things in a fairly pragmatic way, and before I go into how bad some of these substances are for you, I want to acknowledge that pesticides have done a lot for food security. They have allowed higher yields of less bug ridden crops ever since their induction, enabling us to support our ever growing population.

(Hate mail to the usual address please)

Unfortunately there are certain consequences about spraying our food with what is effectively a mild poison. Doses that are sufficient to kill a bug are normally not enough to cause a human much harm, but through a lovely process called "bioaccumulation" these chemicals get concentrated the further you go up the food chain.

Each living thing in that diagram (apart from the crop sprayer) is called a trophic level, and as a general rule every time you move up a trophic level, your organism needs to consume 10 times it's own body weight of the organism below it, to maintain it's body weight. 10% goes to make the Cow or Human and the 90% goes to things like energy expenditure.

So yea, in a food chain you lose around 90% of the system's total energy every link. It's not what you'd call a very efficient process. On the other hand, do you know what is a very efficient process? Toxin transmission.

While an organism might only hold onto 10% of the food energy, it holds onto 100% of the toxins. As you move up the trophic levels, each organism consumes ten times it's body weight and therefore gets ten times the dose of toxin. So yea, that's bioaccumulation.  

This accumulation of pesticide related substances in the body's fats has been shown in some studies (though not all) to increase the risk of certain cancers.

In 2004 the Journal Environmental Perspectives published a study looking at the level of different pesticides in the fatty tissue of humans, and compared it with the incidence of a particularly nasty group of blood cancers called non-hodgkin's lymphomas (NHLs). Of the 656 subjects, 175 were diagnosed NHL cases and the rest were used as controls.

The study found that the pesticides

Were all associated with increased incidence of NHLs. Thankfully these substances were either banned or heavily controlled as far back as the 1980's in most countries including the UK and US. However they are often said to be "stable" meaning they don't break down in the environment easily and can continue to show up in our food years later. I mean this study was conducted in 2004 and these substances were still detected, even after such a long time of disuse.

Source: Quintana PJ et al. (2004 ). Adipose tissue levels of organochlorine pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls and risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Environmental Health Perspectives. 112 (8), 854-61.

As I said before, on crops these things are largely benign, but because animals eat such an enormous amount of them, they can accumulate in their tissue at high concentrations. We then eat lots of these animals meaning we can accumulate a higher dose as well. 

Study into this area remains ongoing, and if currently used pesticides have a negative impact on human wellbeing remains to be seen. Many of these substances have only been used for a short time, meaning we wont know with certainty if continued exposure leads to some negative impact further down the line.

The question you want to ask yourself is: do you really want to eat a chemical that was designed to kill pests? It's a matter of preference of course, I mean these pesticides will have passed EU safety regulations, but what if you wanted to avoid this stuff? What strategy could you take short of avoiding meat all together?


How do I avoid this stuff?

Animals that are fed harvested crops are far more likely to be exposed to these substances than ones living naturally off the land. Meaning that grass fed grazing animals are generally better for you than cows that are given feedlot (A mixture of grains including corn and soy) for a portion of their lives.

If you don't know weather you're eating grass fed or grain fed meat products then you're probably shopping at a supermarket. Go to a proper butchers and speak to the owner about where his produce comes from. Ninety nine times out of a hundred he will know a thing or two about it, including what it was fed.

Onto the next problem...

Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids are hugely important molecules for regulating our immune system (among other things). They play key roles in the body's inflammatory response that allows our body to rush nutrients and infection fighting agents to an area of trauma. The amount of Omega 3 and Omega 6 relative to one another dictates whether or not our body is going to be overly inflamed, or just the right amount of inflammation.

We're going to look at this in a little more detail so that things become more understandable.

After a short lived infection the body does something called acute inflammation whereby the part of the body that is injured or infected becomes inflamed to bring the body's resources to bear on the problem. This is perfectly normal and not to be worried about.

When the body is overly inflamed for long periods of time it is called chronic inflammation and is very bad for you. It creates the impression that the body is having to fight a constant low level infection round the clock, meaning that the immune system is left overactive. Over time this constant war footing of the body takes it's toll, causing cellular damage of otherwise healthy cells, and is at root with such joyous afflictions as cardiovascular disease, many cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune conditions and all kinds of other completely not fun stuff.

What has omega-3 and omega-6 got to do with this?

The Omega-3/Omega-6 ratio is one of the more dominant factors in determining how inflamed the body is. If it's out of balance, bad things happen.

Largely speaking Omega-3's are anti-inflammatory in nature and Omega-6's are pro-inflammatory. The ideal ratio between the two is 1:1. That is the same amount of Omega-3, for the same amount of Omega-6. Unfortunately developed world ratios sit around 1:20. That is one part Omega 3 to twenty parts Omega 6. This largely because of society's reliance on grain based foods and grain fed animal products, which are omega-6 dominant.

In essence...

This kick-starts the whole chronic inflammation process.


How do I avoid this stuff?

To do to get around this problem is to drastically reduce the amount of grain based carbohydrate in your diet by favoring potatoes and other tubers as well as some fruit, over wheat, soy and other grain based products. Furthermore you want to go for grass fed cuts of meat and wild caught fish. If you don't know whether your meat wild caught or naturally raised, you probably shop at a supermarket (again). The benefits of going to a butchers where they know their produce are many. 

This is the natural way of eating that everyone has been telling you is so healthy. Now you know exactly why natural is better.

The last two parts we mostly spoke about terrestrial animal protein, but we've been missing the most abundant source of it in the world. Sea food.

Sea food is abundant with Omega 3 fatty acids. I mean the first time Omega 3's were noticed for their health benefits was in the Greenland Inuit population, who eat almost an entirely marine derived diet. Greenland, as I've said in a previous article, isn't very suitable for growing plants of any kind, despite what the name may imply.

The thing is that we humans have been rather bad to the oceans over the years. Historically we've treated them like the world's garbage disposal unit. As a result of this there are some problems with marine derived protein. The one I will discuss here is mercury poisoning.

Mercury is dangerous to ingest. To the human body it is a neurotoxin, meaning that it damages nerve cells, and this is kind of a big deal as you need those nerve cells for like... everything.


It is also a liquid, which means that it get's transported in water very easily. Unfortunately for us it also has a strong affinity for organic matter, as it bonds very easily with the sulfur present in animal protein structures. Some of the bad things it does to your body include:

  • Brain and nerve damage.
  • Kidney damage.
  • damage to the gastrointestinal tract. 
  • Muscle atrophy

As well as much more.


How do I avoid this stuff?

Although heavy metal toxins vary significantly from species to species, in general small marine species with short life spans tend to have lower levels of mercury than bigger species with longer life spans. This is due to that bioaccumulation effect we spoke about earlier, a marine based example of which works like so:

Each organism concentrates the levels of mercury ten fold until an apex predator like a human, gets it's hand on the lovely lovely tuna.

Compounding this effect is that if the mercury stunts the growth of the anchovy (which it almost certainly does), then more anchovies have to be eaten to satisfy the hunger of the tuna. More anchovies eaten means more mercury ingested and that leads to even higher concentrated levels in the tuna.

Mercury has a half life of about 70-90 days in the human body which means it eventually dissipates from our tissues and the tissues of the animals affected (unless they are continuously exposed to it), nevertheless it is still best avoided as the damage it leaves is long lasting and sometimes severe.

Here is a convenient guide to help you make good choices with sea food:

Annnnd concluding...

So does this all mean that you need to spend more on your meat sources? Well, maybe. I think a better way of looking at it, is that now you have a better understanding of what you're putting into your body. Doing this cheaply is more than possible and it isn't necessary to buy Aberdeen Angus fillet steak for every single meal. In fact sticking to smaller varieties of animals lower on the trophic levels will likely save you money, especially when it comes to seafood. I imagine that shark is a lot more expensive than prawns, but then I've never tried to buy great white in a restaurant before.

The point is that there will be a way to apply this knowledge for most if not any budget levels. Research and use your imagination :-)


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