The global shift away from phytochemically and biochemically rich wholesome foods to highly processed diets enabled 2.1 billion people to become overweight or obese and increased the incidence of type II diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Unimpeded, these trends will add to a projected substantial increase in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) from producing food and clearing land by 2050. While agriculture contributes one quarter of GHGE, livestock can play a sizable role in climate mitigation. Of 80 ways to alleviate climate change, regenerative agriculture—managed grazing, silvopasture, tree intercropping, conservation agriculture, and farmland restoration—jointly rank number one as ways to sequester GHG.
We have heard since we were children that you are what you eat. That brings to mind whether I want to look like a gorgeous plate of healthy colorful food or a happy meal. Just saying! The thing is, humans, as a whole, have developed to think that we are in some way separate or, even worse, above, everything else on our pretty little blue-green planet. Truth is we are not. Everything on this planet is connected, which is why we call it an ecosystem. We thrived as a species because of it, not in spite of it. This lack of connectedness to the planet, our food, our environment and our place in it, has had disastrous repercussions that are only snowballing as we continue to push forward thinking we know better than Mother Nature.
Animals & People
If we are what we eat (and we are…), so are animals. Evolutionarily speaking, we did not have the responsibilities of feeding our food. Our food consumed an extremely diverse diet of what was available until we hunted them and consumed them ourselves….because they were available. Studies have shown that what an animal eats influences the fatty acid profiles of that animal tissue. Fatty acids are the Omega 3 and Omega 6 that you see talked about all the time. Grass-fed meat and dairy are shown to have an improved ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids. When compared to the diets fed in Intensive feeding systems (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations CAFOs), herbivore diets that are high in plant diversity yield meat higher in Omega-3s. When people eat meat and fat, protein oxidation and lipid peroxidation is what causes inflammation. Yet, when herbivores eat phytochemically rich diets, compounds in their diets protect meat and dairy from the protein oxidation and lipid peroxidation that cause inflammation.
Phytochemically rich diets for herbivores and biochemically rich diets for humans include not only primary compounds—such as energy, protein, minerals, and vitamins—but the tens of thousands of other so-called secondary compounds—including but not limited to phenolics, terpenoids, and alkaloids—that in moderate amounts can have health benefits. While any substance can be toxic when you consume too much of them, they have health benefits when consumed in MODERATION and in COMBINATIONS, as part of diverse diets for both herbivores and humans. Complementary and synergistic relationships among primary and secondary compounds within and among meals promote health.
Historically speaking, dried meat and fat were combined with berries to make pemmican, thus enabling use of dried berries during fall and winter. Berries are rich in phytochemicals that protect against metabolic syndrome, diabetes, diabetic microvascular complications, hyperglycemia, and pro-inflammatory gene expression. Compounds in berries improve metabolic syndrome by controlling fat metabolism and energy expenditure. Berries contain polar compounds—proanthocyanidins, anthocyanins, and phenolic acids. Eating antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables with a high-fat meal improves vascular function and prevents the negative effects on the lining our blood vessels. Most markers of inflammation are not reliably raised after a high-fat meal, but they are reduced in many studies when meals include vegetables. While beneficial effects are related to both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, the polyphenolic compounds also control fat metabolism, thereby reducing blood plaque deposits. People who eat polyphenol-rich foods, vitamin E, and calcium have less risk of colon cancer, because these compounds protect against excess iron in red meat. Phytochemicals can reverse epigenetic mutations and counter all of the hallmarks of cancer. Collectively, these studies suggest eating vegetables and fruits, along with meat, enhances health through biochemical interactions that occur within the body during a meal.
Assessments over the life cycle suggest plant foods have less GHGE than do animal foods, and beef, lamb, goats, & other ruminants have greater GHGE per gram of protein than poultry, pork, eggs, dairy, non-trawling seafood, and traditional aquaculture .Yet, those assessments generally do not take into account the nuanced relationships among the health of soil, plants, herbivores, and humans. When the environmental footprint, including both as land use for production and as GHGE, of plant and animal foods is calculated to consider essential amino acids in required amounts, animal foods are similar to most plant foods due to the higher quality of animal proteins. Grass-finished livestock can also promote nutrient cycling, soil carbon sequestration, and clean water and support food security.
Of all the methods of regenerative agriculture studied, Silvopasture delivers the most efficient feed conversion (inputs vs production), enhanced biodiversity, improved the symbiosis among habitats, and had the greatest increase in animal welfare . Grasses, forbs, and shrubs add resilience to silvopasture systems in the face of rising temperatures, drought, and fires, which are causing some forests, unable to cope with changing climates, to die and transform from carbon sinks to carbon sources. In addition to sequestering carbon, emissions of methane and nitrogen can be reduced when ruminant diets contain tannins and saponins common in forbs, shrubs, and trees. The idea that regenerative agricultural practices can markedly influence climate is consistent with evidence. Climatologists have found that carbon uptake from the atmosphere by native plants contributed to global cooling during the Little Ice Age. This was the period after 1492 when European settlements reduced the population in the Americas by almost 56 million by 1600, leading to reforestation and a drastic reduction in CO2. That will be a different story for later.
It is obvious that this issue has so many other tangents that connect into it. Like anything else in life, there are no rules, not really. We can choose to eat in whatever manner we wish. However, for me, I think it is important to take into account, not only, what is good for me but also, what is good for the animals and the planet. Most health sources I’ve found recommended that you follow a standard ratio of not more than 2:1 Omega 6 to Omega 3. Overconsumption of Omega 6 is tied to increased incidence of heart disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases thought to stem from inflammation. Studies have also found that Omega 3 supplements had very little effect on the levels available to your body, which means that the more you are able to get from your food, the better off you are. There are absolutely healthy forms of Omega 6 and our bodies need those. There are also extremely unhealthy forms of Omega 6 and unfortunately, they are prevalent in many foods as well.
The main thing you want to remember is the ratio of 3:6. In order to do this without a bunch of math. Eat a whole food diet. Yet again the most prevalent source of unhealthy Omega 6 is highly refined, heat processed vegetable seed oils (corn, soy, soybean, canola, safflower, sunflower) You want to avoid refined oils as much as possible. Some of the oils with the best ratio of Omega 3:6 are flax seed oil, hemp seed oil and walnut oil. Also, opt for unrefined, cold pressed oils such as avocado, olive and coconut oil when cooking. Keep in mind, that many commercial olive oils use the refined seed oils as a filler. The old adage if it is cheap, there’s a reason definitely applies to olive oil.
Because the western diet is so out of balance with respect to these essential fatty acids, it is important to consistently include high omega 3 in your diet. The omega-3 oils found in grass-fed meats, wild-caught cold-water fatty fish and seafood, high-quality fish oils, and full-fat grass-fed dairy are the best sources. If you don’t eat meat, plant sources available in seaweed, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, edamame, walnut and kidney beans. If you are eating tofu, it is also a good source, just make sure it is organic to avoid other toxins. Most importantly, health is derived from a symbiotic relationship with both the planet, animals and other humans.
While the current historical age is a curse for the havoc it is reeking globally on populations of plants and animals, including humans, it is a blessing because Homo sapiens may finally come to appreciate the crux of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic.
“We are members of natural communities: what we do to them, we do to ourselves. Only by nurturing them can we nurture ourselves. “Leopold A. A Sand County Almanac. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; (1949).
As Provenza et al conclude, Palates link cultures with landscapes and moderating the impacts of palates on human and environmental health will require changes in the kinds of foods we produce and consume, how we produce food, and how we reduce food waste, which is 40% of food produced annually and a major contributor to GHGE. That will necessitate collaboration among food producers, food industry, nutritionists, ecologists, health professionals, educators, and policy makers with support of consumers. Forsaking diets high in processed foods will be challenging, but that can be facilitated if consumers appreciate the influence of diet on human and environmental health. These transformations can occur socially, economically, and ecologically by growing wholesome foods—plants and animals—as the basis for meals that nourish the health of people, animals and the planet.
I hope you have an amazing week!
If you are interested in more information on healthy fats in eating. The eBook excerpt from “Eat Fat, Get Thin” by Dr. Mark Hyman is below. I find his insights as a doctor invaluable. He also has a phenomenal podcast called the Doctor’s Farmacy on most podcast services that I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in the intersection of health, wellness, food politics and regenerative agriculture. You can find out everything you want to know about him and his offerings here. (I get nothing from this, I just really love his work!)
Provenza FD, Kronberg SL, Gregorini P. Is Grassfed Meat and Dairy Better for Human and Environmental Health?. Front Nutr. 2019;6:26. Published 2019 Mar 19. doi:10.3389/fnut.2019.00026
Daley CA, Abbott A, Doyle PS, Nader GA, Larson A. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grassfed and grain-fed beef. Nutr J. (2010) 9:10. 10.1186/1475-2891-9-10
Benbrook CM, Davis DR, Heins BJ, Latif MA, Leifert C, Peterman L, et al. . Enhancing the fatty acid profile of milk through forage-based rations, with nutrition modeling of diet outcomes. Food Sci Nutr. (2018) 6:681–700. 10.1002/fsn3.610
Simopoulos A. Omega-3 fatty acids in health and disease and in growth and development. Am J Clin Nutr. (1991) 54:438–63. 10.1093/ajcn/54.3.438
Visible spectroscopy on carcass fat combined with chemometrics to distinguish pasture-fed, concentrate-fed and concentrate-finished pasture-fed lambs. Huang Y, Andueza D, de Oliveira L, Zawadzki F, Prache S; Meat Sci. 2015 Mar; 101():5-12.