Many people give animal foods a bad rap, blaming them for cancer, heart disease and a host of other health problems. But humans have been eating mostly animal products for our entire existence. In fact, the healthiest and longest-lived peoples on our planet, the Okinawans (Japan), Maasai (Kenya and Tanzania) and Hunzakuts (Pakistan) eat traditional diets that are very high in animal foods. So, what gives?
In my grandmother’s day, people used to whisper the word “ cancer,” it was so rare. It is only in the past 60 years or so that heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, etc. have become prevalent in the U.S., and only in the last 15 years that they have become tragically epidemic. It is no accident that our national health began its decline at the same time that our industrial food system became dominant, and Americans turned away from eating traditional, nutritious foods raised in humane, sustainable conditions on family farms toward eating pesticide- and chemical-laden, mass-produced “pseudo-foods” made by machines. And it is no coincidence that today’s unprecedented epidemic of cancer, diabetes and autism has come when these industrially-produced, packaged foods have grown to be the very staple of our diets.
The wide-scale adoption of industrial agriculture and food manufacturing has brought us new, high-tech foods that humans have never encountered in our hundreds of thousands of years of life on this planet: corn, canola and soybean oils; trans fats; high fructose corn syrup; granulated sugar; aspartame; hybridized fruits; MSG; artificial colors and flavors; preservatives; isolated soy protein; genetically engineered crops; bleached flour; eggs, dairy and meat from grain-fed, sick, confined animals; and irradiated and pasteurized foods. And more and more scientific evidence is piling up that it these modern, industrial foods that are making us all sick.
When we raise animals and fish in concentrated operations where they can barely move, and feed them genetically-engineered, pesticide-laden grains and soybean meal that are unnatural to their digestive systems, they inevitably become sick—at which point we then we pump them full of hormones and antibiotics. In such conditions, you have to expect that the meat, fish, dairy and eggs from these animals would be unhealthy—even toxic—and would therefore leave us open to a plethora of nutrition-related diseases, like cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, etc.
But if that wasn’t enough, we then take this depleted and deficient food and destroy it even further by processing it on high-speed machinery too big to clean, irradiating it, pasteurizing it, treating it with nitrates, preservatives, colorings and MSG, shipping it hundreds or thousands of miles, and then taking it home and cooking it to death! So we cannot blame eating animal foods for what ails us, but rather we must point the finger at the inhumane, dangerous, unsustainable manner in which we produce and prepare most meat, eggs, dairy and seafood today.
While I have no qualms with those who choose to be vegetarian or vegan for ethical/spiritual reasons (I was for most of my life), I would argue that when we indict animal foods for causing poor health, we are throwing out the baby with the bath water. Virtually all studies of both ancient humans and modern peoples who eat their traditional diets tell us that the healthiest people in the world eat at least 40% of their calories in animal protein and fat. Additionally, about 60-80% of traditional diets is comprised of raw or fermented foods—including raw and fermented animal, fish and insect foods. The remainder of these diets includes other foods that are more nutritious when slow-cooked at low temperatures, like stews, broths and gruels made from bones, organs, grains and roots. And perhaps most importantly, none of the food eaten by these robust, disease-free peoples comes from large-scale, modern, industrial agriculture practices.
How did we ever fall so far from our ancestral foodways? The culinary wisdom and and agricultural heritage that nourished and sustained us in good health for millennia is almost lost for most of us. It would seem that 75-100 years is just long enough for the generations who remember the our traditions to die, so that we younger people have no customs to pass on, and no memory of how to raise, harvest and prepare healthy food in sustainable ways. Fortunately, there are some of us who are making a science and an art of studying and preserving this ancient wisdom, and I count myself as one of them.
The good news is sustainably-raised, grass-fed animal products are available in most parts of the country now. Small Footprint Family gets grass-fed, antibiotic and hormone-free, local beef delivered to our door every other month as part of our CSA with J&J Ranch. Because cattle raised on grasslands get plenty of exercise, sunshine and pesticide-free forage naturally inoculated with healthy probiotic bacteria, they are naturally healthy and free of disease. And unlike commercially-raised, grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef is very high in Vitamins A, E, and D, has as much cancer-preventing, heart-healthy Omega-3s as salmon, and is the richest dietary source of cancer-fighting, weight-reducing Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA).
The Benefits of Raw Foods Many experts now agree with the traditional wisdom that eating 60% or more of our foods in a raw or fermented state fosters optimal health and nutrition. Fresh, local, organic foods in their raw or fermented state are nutrient-dense and packed with enzymes and beneficial lacto-bacteria that help us absorb vitamins and maintain a healthy digestive system. This is especially true of raw, naturally-fed meats, seafood, eggs and dairy.
Cooking (or, worse, microwaving, pasteurizing or irradiating) animal foods denatures their fat and protein, destroys their enzymes and reduces their vitamin content. When you grill meat, sear it, or cook it above medium rare, you create oxidated fats and chemical byproducts that are highly toxic to the body. Some of these byproducts, like the char on blackened meat and fish, are carcinogenic.
Given how polluted our natural environment has become, how stressed out our modern lives are, and how depleted most of our food is to begin with, adding to your body’s toxic burden by eating foods that have been pasteurized, irradiated, microwaved or cooked too long at high temperatures is just not a good idea. However, because the beef in our CSA comes from healthy, humanely raised cattle, and is flash-frozen immediately after butchering, we feel comfortable eating it in the most nutritious way people have been eating meat to maintain good health for all of human history: Raw.
Raw beef “cooked” in acid (citrus, vinegar, etc.) and seasoned with local spices is an ancient and traditional dish that goes by many names and is enjoyed by many people worldwide, including Small Footprint Family. However, the quality of the meat is paramount to the success of the dish, and, considering the horrid bugs that occasionally strike those who eat commercially-raised, feedlot meats, selecting it properly is very important.
While commercially-produced animal products from the grocery store are typically not clean enough to eat rare—much less raw—you can often find animal foods that are fresh, toxin-free and naturally-fed from local farmers, a good butcher shop, or through online retailers like U.S. Wellness Meats and Vital Choice Seafood. (Sushi, anyone?) Recipe for Living Without Disease has some excellent recipes and tips for selecting and preparing raw animal foods safely.
To eat raw beef safely, you want to find a thick, whole piece of grass-fed beef fillet or sirloin, preferably from a local source. Fillet or sirloin because it’s tender enough, and whole because the bacteria that can cause food poisoning can’t penetrate a whole piece of meat—they stay on the surface. When you get it home, quickly sear it on all sides—you’re just killing whatever’s on the surface, not cooking the meat. Then remove it from the flames, trim away the seared sections, and you’re ready to proceed.
You should try raw beef once, even if you think you won’t like it, as it can be a real treat indeed. And it is packed with Vitamins A, D and B-12 as well as iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium, which most Americans have deficiencies in. Here are three raw beef recipes from different parts of the world.
Carne Cruda – Italy(Serves 2-4)
A pound of top quality, grass-fed beef fillet
The juice of 2 organic lemons
Two cloves garlic, crushed flat (or more, to taste)
Salt and pepper
A white truffle (optional)
A rinsed, boned and minced salted anchovy (optional)
Chop the meat very finely with a long-bladed knife. Don’t use a grinder, because the texture will suffer.
Put the meat in a bowl and mix the lemon juice into it, together with the garlic, and season abundantly with olive oil (as much as the lemon juice or perhaps more), salt and pepper. If you are using the anchovy add it now.
Let the meat sit, for between 10 minutes and two hours—the longer it sits the more the pinkness will fade, as the lemon juice cooks the meat. Purists prefer shorter sitting times.
Once it has sat, mix it again, removing the garlic when you do.
Put it on a serving dish, dot it with finely shaved truffle if you’re using it, and serve it as an antipasto.
Some people also serve it with tiny pickles, and others dot it with thinly sliced wild mushrooms if they don’t have a truffle.
Traditional Steak Tartare – France (Serves 8-10)
2 lbs. choice or prime grass-fed sirloin
2 Tbsp. capers
1 small onion, chopped
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
6 anchovy filets, cut in small pieces
Worcestershire sauce (to taste)
Black pepper (a lot)
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 egg yolks, preferably from organic, pasture-raised eggs
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
Chop the meat very finely with a long-bladed knife. Don’t use a grinder, because the texture will suffer.
Mix ingredients carefully to retain fluffiness.
Shape into a large loaf.
Garnish with anchovy strips, more onions, more capers.
Enjoy with toast points or any kind of cracker.
Beef Laab – Thailand(Serves 4)
Start with these amounts and adjust to your taste. Use big bunches of herbs, err on the side of too much, and it will probably end up just right.
1 Tbsp. raw, uncooked rice (I used Jasmine)
1 lb. grass-fed, sirloin steak
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch mint
4-6 Thai bird chilies
3 Kaffir lime leaves
¾ Tbsp. Asian fish sauce
Salt to taste, if necessary
Lettuce leaves for serving
Toast the rice in a dry skillet, shaking occasionally, until golden and fragrant.
Grind toasted rice to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
Finely chop sirloin, first into thin slices, the slice crosswise again, as finely as possible.
Mince the shallots, herbs, chilies and lime leaves.
Combine all ingredients, and season with fish sauce and lime juice.
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