This is a question I've gotten a lot lately: What's healthier: turkey or beef?
For years turkey's been considered the "healthier" swap in tacos, burgers, spaghetti, you name it.
Maybe you've done one of these too?... Have you ever ordered the turkey burger, or used ground turkey instead of beef in the spaghetti sauce being all like "he won't even notice"...?
If you prefer turkey over beef that's one thing. If you're choosing it based on the outdated idea that it's "healthier," then read on... I have good news for you...
Calories and fat grams don't hold as much weight as they used to.
In the old school of thought, where calories and fat grams were all that mattered, "low fat" and "lean" were all the rage. Turkey was on top.
So were Snack Wells and Diet Coke.
We know better now.
Now we know there's more to meat (and any food, really) than what's on it's nutrition facts label.
The more important questions you want to ask are ones like: How was it raised? And what did it eat?
Remember the old saying "you are what you eat"? Well, you are what your food eats, too.
We haven't always had to think of it like this.
When our grandparents were kids these questions would have been ridiculous. Cows ate grass, turkeys and chickens scavenged for worms, grubs and scraps, of course.
Then a big shift happened in the 30s and 40s. Factory farming, a.k.a. CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), became a thing as large corporations got into the business. The goal was to increase efficiencies to meet the needs of a growing population and a growing demand for meat.
In reality that looks like thousands of animals crammed in closed, controlled living quarters with the goal of getting them big and fat, fast.
They're fed milled grain, corn and soy (ie. not what nature intended, but much more calorie dense) and given growth hormones.
Because they're not genetically designed to eat this way, the diet wrecks their guts, throwing off the microbiome, which makes them fatter, and sick.
So, you can see, what we end up with is a meat so different it might as well be a different animal compared to what our grandparents got.
Yet, both your grandma's turkey and beef and today's turkey and beef may have the same number of calories and fat grams...
See, what I mean? There's more to it these days.
OK, now let's talk about what to look for to make sure you're getting the healthiest meat...
What to look for at the grocery store...
Grass fed and finished beef
Note: there's a trick here - you want to look for "100% grass fed and finished" beef. Just "grass fed" doesn't cut it anymore because manufacturers can put grass fed on a package now if at any time during the animals life it was fed grass. That means the cow could have been fed a little grass here and there but it's diet was still mostly grains.
Grass fed and finished beef is naturally leaner as has a completely different fat composition compared to grain-fed beef. It's higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids (the good fats in wild fish like salmon).
Pasture-raised (and/or organic) turkey or chicken
Pasture-raised is the key phrase to look for here (same goes for eggs, BTW). It means the animals lived and roamed freely in a pasture, usually eating what's in it's natural environment (ie. grubs and worms). Adding organic on top of pasture-raised is even better, but hard to find.
If poultry is labeled only as organic that usually means the animals were fed organic feed, still grain, corn and soy. If the package says "vegetarian fed" you can be certain this is what it ate. But it sounds healthy right? Not so... Turkeys and chickens are not vegetarians!
Kinda funny though, right?
Organic still beats conventional because the feed cannot be genetically modified (GMO) and antibiotics are not allowed.
But which is better: turkey or beef?
When quality is equal and you're comparing grass fed beef to pasture raised poultry you can feel good about choosing the meat that you enjoy eating the most because both have health benefits.
That being said, I will say I find pasture-raised poultry harder to find, especially depending on where you live. Grass-fed beef has become more accessible... again watch out and look for "fed and finished."
Comparing the two, beef raised on grass is higher in omega-3 fatty acids than poultry because cows get more of these omega-3s from eating grass so there may be some additional anti-inflammatory benefits there.
All meats have a different composition of nutrients so variety is really what's best.
So is moderation.
I believe that meat is a component of healthy well-rounded diet where the majority is plants.
Remember meat does not contain one very important nutrient we must all get from our food: fiber (ie. the broom that keeps everything moving right along through our digestive tracts).
Too much meat and too little fiber is not a good situation. Hello, constipation!
The higher price tag can help restore balance there too.
Quality vs. Quantity
Yes, it's a bit more expensive to buy grass-fed beef and pasture-raised poultry, so to counter that, I say focus on quality over quantity.
The change to factory farming and raising unhealthy animals was fueled by the demand for more meat.
The truth is we've grown accustomed to expecting meat that's been artificially cheapened. Lower quality, lower price.
Try this: flip your portions and fill 75 percent of your plate with plant foods (a.k.a. vegetables) instead of the other way around.
It's a perspective shift.
We're used to thinking of meat as the focal point of the meal.
Start looking at it as just one component on the plate where everything is weighted equal importance.
That taco recipe I mentioned before is a good example of this too. You can use the romaine as lettuce and fix up the salad then sprinkle the taco meat on top. It's really delicious and fresh tasting this way.
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Megan Adams Brown, CHC, helps people take charge of their health and to start listening to themselves over the latest diet trend to optimize their own wellness, happiness and potential. Her family-friendly meal plans help parents take charge in the kitchen, too. This leads to more vegetables, less junk, and happier, healthier kids and parents. Megan shares kid-approved, allergy-friendly recipes on her blog. To learn more click here.