Staying Whole in a Processed World: Getting Your Protein

What’s this series all about? Check out the intro post here: Staying Whole in a Processed World: Introduction

There’s really no argument about the fact that we need protein in our diets, but it seems that the source of protein and whether or not it comes from an animal is one of the most heavily debated topics when it comes to nutrition. Even more so than grains.

Like the last post, I’ll tell you where we stand on the issue and why, and then you can make the decision you feel is best for you.

We eat meat in our family, but we’re very careful about what type of meat we buy and eat on a regular basis. We believe that we, as humans, are biologically designed to be omnivores and have thrived as such for thousands of years. There are nutrients our bodies need that are best obtained (and absorbed) from animal products. If you happen to be vegetarian (or vegan) for one reason or another, I totally respect your decision. If we had absolutely no access to “clean” animal products, we’d probably be mostly vegetarian ourselves.

So what classifies an animal product as “clean”? It’s all about asking the right questions.

The Most Important Question

The first couple questions most people ask about meat are “how much is it?” and “how much saturated fat/cholesterol does it have?”

Forget about fat (until next week) & cholesterol. Price is important, but forget about that, too, for a minute. There’s a much more important question to ask, and it should always be first:

“What was this animal eating, and was it healthy and active while it was alive?”

This question applies to all types of meat, poultry, and fish, as well as their by products (dairy & eggs). Animals are genetically designed to eat certain things to be healthy — cows need grass, chickens need grass & bugs, salmon need krill, etc. When animals are fed a diet of cheap grains (usually corn), chemical changes occur in their bodies (changing the types and amounts of fats and other nutrients), and they also get sick. If they’re living in cramped environments, walking around in their own feces, that can make them sick as well.

To keep them alive and somewhat mobile, antibiotics are added to their feed. So now we have animals on drugs eating a diet they weren’t biologically designed to eat. (Not to mention hormones given to some types of animals in order to get them to grow faster or lactate. I’m looking at you, cows.)

Sound appetizing? Unfortunately this is by far the majority of the meat that is available today, sometimes the only meat available in regular grocery stores. I don’t know about you, but I’m not excited about eating meat from sick or drugged animals.

What to Look for When Shopping for Animal Products

Finding good sources of meat, poultry, & fish can (ironically) take as much effort as actual hunting. Marketing and packaging can be so misleading with its claims of “all natural” and “select cut”. Even “organic” doesn’t guarantee that something is necessarily clean. High-quality animal products are there, though, and here’s what to look for…

Beef

Look for: “Grass-fed” or “Grass-finished”

Shopping for beef makes me laugh sometimes. Cows need to eat grass. If a package of meat doesn’t specifically say, “grass-fed” or “grass-finished”, then you can bet those animals were fed a diet of cheap grains. Sometimes they’ll even put “grain-fed” on the package or in their advertisements…. like it’s a good thing. (?!) The best thing you can buy is organic, grass-fed (or finished) beef. If for some reason you need to choose between the two (it’s happened to me), choose grass-fed over organic. Beware the luring statements of meat being “USDA prime cut” or “top quality Angus”. Like something being “all natural,” those statements are meaningless.

I’m willing to bet your grocery store doesn’t have grass-fed beef. I asked the guy at the meat counter once if they carried it, and he pointed me to the grain-feed beef. The only stores I’ve seen it at (around here) are Whole Foods & Trader Joe’s. You can also buy meat online (see Resources below) or from a local farm or butcher shop.

Buying a share of beef is often the most economical, and you can meet the person who’s taking care of your food. (And see the animal yourself in some cases.) (UPDATE 8/24/12: We finally purchased half a cow! Check out the details on this post.)

Poultry & Eggs

Look for: “pastured” and “organic”

The cleanest kind of poultry you can buy is organic and “pastured”. That means the chickens lived outside, foraging for bugs and eating grass. They lived the kind of lives that are pictured on most poultry packaging. I’ve only seen pastured poultry at Whole Foods, but again, you can hunt around for a farm that raises chickens and buy them in bulk. (See? I wasn’t kidding about hunting.)

If it says, “cage-free” it means the chickens aren’t confined to battery cages, but are still cramped in a big barn. “Free-range” just means they leave a little door open for them to “range free” if they like. Most don’t usually leave the barn. The type of poultry we buy these days is organic & free-range. By law, farmer’s aren’t allowed to give chickens hormones and if the feed is organic, there won’t be any antibiotics in there. It isn’t the best option, but it works for us right now until I can find a better and more affordable source. (And buy a big freezer.)

Eggs are the same way. Raising backyard chickens is becoming more popular these days. If that isn’t an option for you, find someone who raises them and is willing to sell you the eggs. I talked about pastured eggs in a previous post. There’s just nothing like them! If you have no access to (or can’t afford) pastured eggs, at least find some that are free-range and organic. The Costco near us sells them at a very affordable price.

Fish & Shellfish

Look for: “wild-caught”

This is an easy one. Wild-caught fish have the diet they were intended to have (unlike farmed fish), and are easy to find. Regular grocery stores even sell wild-caught fish, although you may have to settle for frozen instead of fresh. I usually buy my fresh (and frozen) wild-caught fish at Costco, but I’ve noticed, like vegetables, it’s seasonal. Wild salmon is offered in the warmer months, so stock up when you see it!

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide is great to keep in your wallet when shopping for fish. It tells you which fish are recommended and which to avoid due to farming practices that harm the environment or overfishing. I added a link in the Resources section below for you to find a guide for your region.

Pork & Processed Meats

For fresh pork look for: “pastured”, For processed meats look for: “uncured” or “nitrate/nitrite free”

If you haven’t noticed by now, I don’t have a single pork recipe on my blog. I’m talking about pork loins and pork chops… that kind of pork. Why? Except for the occasional pulled pork sandwich at a picnic, I usually don’t care the taste or the texture. And after I started being more careful about which meat I buy, I wondered if you could even find clean pork. Pigs eat pretty much anything (even in their natural environment), so that aspect of it made me nervous. I believe the best source of pork (correct me if I’m wrong) is to find “pastured” pork from a local (or online) pork farm.

As far as processed meats like sausage, bacon, deli-cut meats, etc., it helps to find those that are uncured. The curing process that meat goes through usually includes cancer-causing nitrites and/or nitrates. Uncured meat products are free from those chemicals, but it doesn’t tell you what kind of diet the animal had when it was alive. If you’re hopelessly in love with processed meats (ahem… bacon), aim for uncured, but don’t make them a large portion of your diet.

How to Eat Clean Meat and Not Go Broke

Making the transition to clean meat is probably the most expensive part of creating a whole food-based, clean diet. Up until almost two years ago, we were a student family, and even now that Steve has graduated, we’re still not “rolling in the dough”. We’ve managed to eat this way during that time. Eating clean meat may take some sacrifices, but don’t think you have to make six figures for it to work. (Some of the cost will be offset by the absence of processed food. We’ll talk about all of that in a later post.)

First off, you’ll need to realize that paying under $5 per pound for meat, poultry, & fish, and under $2-3 per dozen eggs are things of the past — unless you have some awesome connections. As you wistfully walk past the $1.49/pound specials on chicken, just remember that when it comes to meat, you definitely get what you pay for.

Here are some other tips (we use these all the time):

Eat less meat

This one might be obvious. I’m not a fan of eating a whole lot of meat anyway, so we were OK with this one. In an average week we probably eat animal-based protein 3 or 4 out of the 7 days. “Meatless Mondays” are becoming popular, so if you’re used to eating meat every day, try going meatless one day a week to start off.

Stretch your meat further

One way to get the most out of your meat is to use it in recipes where a little meat will feed a lot of people. Soups, stews, tacos, & stir-fries are great for this, as I can get by with less than a pound of meat to feed my family of four. I included some recipes that stretch your meat further in the Resources section below.

Also, be smart when you use whole chickens and bone-in roasts. After you use all of the meat, make homemade stock with the bones! If I’m going to pay $10-15 for an organic, free-range chicken it helps to remember 1) it’ll feed our little family twice and 2) I can get nearly a gallon of organic stock out of the bones. Considering how far it goes, it doesn’t feel quite as extravagant.

Buy in bulk

I mentioned before that buying a share of beef is economical. If you’re not familiar with beef shares, you buy a certain portion of a cow (whole, half, quarter) and the meat is divided into several different cuts (steaks, roasts, ground beef) for you. You’re able to meet the person handling your meet, research where the animals are raised, and you’ll get your meat far less per pound than buying it at Whole Foods or somewhere similar. You can do similar things with poultry and pork, I believe. You’ll need a place to put the meat, though, so invest in a freezer.

If this isn’t a viable option for you (we’re not quite there yet either… hopefully soon!), watch for sales. Whole Foods has specials on their organic, free-range chickens and ground beef periodically. And when Costco carries wild-caught fish, I usually stock my freezer.

Eat more eggs

Eggs are a great source of protein, and even if you’re spending an extra dollar or two per dozen, it’s still cheaper than clean meat. I included some eggy dinner recipes in the Resource section if you need ideas!

Cook at home

As we were transitioning to cleaner meat, I realized (painfully) that not only do grocery stores not (typically) carry clean meat, but restaurants don’t either, unless they specifically mention it on their menus.

That means if we go out to a nice steakhouse (which rarely happens anymore) and pay $25+ for a nice steak, that steak (which is usually grain-fed, commercially raised beef) probably costs more than an organic, grass-fed steak I can cook at home. And when we make our monthly pilgrimage to In-N-Out (no, we’re not 100% all the time) it costs about $12 to feed the four of us. That’s about as much as I pay for a whole organic, free-range chicken. In both cases we’re paying a whole lot for convenience with very little nutrition.

The Dairy Debate

(Deep breath) Dairy is tricky. It’s another one of those topics that have a lot of differing opinions and recommendations.  (I find it interesting, though, that both the vegans and the paleos share the same opinion — avoiding it entirely. It’s the government recommendations that lead the dairy train, which is no surprise considering the dairy council helps create those recommendations. Conflict of interest much?) I’m not going to go into all of the details here about the controversy surrounding dairy, but instead I’ve included some articles in the Resource section that I found helpful.

From what I’ve read, diets that are heavy in dairy are just asking for trouble, and because of this we’re not milk drinkers. I might buy a half gallon a month if I’m making ice cream or need it for something special. The dairy that we do consume is mostly yogurt, cheese, & butter. We also make sure to eat a lot of dark, leafy greens, which are high in calcium. FYI – calcium that is obtained from plant-based sources is absorbed by the body better than from dairy.

If you choose to consume dairy, your best option is raw. Pasteurization kills all of the helpful enzymes in milk, but because of the non-ideal condition in which most cows are raised, pasteurizing their milk is necessary to avoid spreading disease. (Farms that raise their dairy cattle on fresh grass don’t have this problem.) Raw (non-pasteurized) milk isn’t even legal in some states. (Mine included.) Your next best option is to find a local dairy that offers dairy products from grass-fed cows. If you can’t find (or afford) that, choose organic dairy products, or at the very least, hormone-free, from your grocery store. Hormone-free dairy products are pretty easy to find these days. Look for “RBST-free” or something similar on the label.

A note about yogurt — buy organic, full-fat plain yogurt. (I personally like Greek.) The flavored stuff is full of sugar, flavorings, and preservatives. If you buy it plain and unsweetened, YOU can decide how sweet you want it (if at all) and what type of sweetener to add. Why full-fat? When they take the fat out of a product, it has to be replaced with something — more sugar, more flavorings, and even thickeners are very common. Just buy full-fat (this applies to all dairy) and consume less of it. (Or make your own! See Resources below.) We’ll talk more about fat next time.

Some choose to avoid dairy entirely, sometimes due to intolerance, and that’s not such a bad thing. Human beings really don’t need dairy. There’s nothing that we get from dairy that we can’t get from other sources. Our family would probably do away with it completely, but… the problem is… I really like cheese. And yogurt. And ice cream. Everyone has their hang-ups in this whole process, and dairy is truly my kryptonite when transitioning to a cleaner diet. I’ve quit drinking cow’s milk, but I have a long way to go still.

Animal-Free Protein Alternatives

Legumes

Like grains, strict paleo/primal eaters don’t consume beans or other legumes. We do, once or twice a week, because we truly can’t afford (or want) to eat meat every single day. I used to be scared of cooking dry beans, but I found a few sources online that helped out with that (See Resources below). I rarely buy canned beans anymore. I cook a big batch and freeze them in empty yogurt containers. Not only is it much cheaper this way, but we avoid the BPA which is common in canned goods. Sprouting beans and other legumes helps to boost their nutritional content and helps them to be more digestible. (Same with grains — see the article in the Resources section) I haven’t ventured into sprouting, but it’s next on my list.

The Deal with Soy

Soy should be avoided unless it’s been fermented, like miso, tempeh (common meat substitute), and tamari (true, wheat-free soy sauce). We don’t eat tofu, edamame or consume any kind of soy-based dairy replacements. Here’s why soy isn’t the “health food” it’s proclaimed to be. (If you don’t want to read the whole article, you can get the basic idea by reading the conclusion.) I’ll just leave it at that.

Assignment!

Are you still with me?? This topic is kind of a tough one to navigate. If you have any questions about anything in this post, leave a comment or shoot me a message. For this week…

1. If you eat meat daily, try going meat-free for a day or two this week!

OR

2. Research and price out clean meat sources in your area. You may be surprised how affordable it can be.

Not too hard, right?

Resources

Helpful websites

Sites for finding sources of meat and other organic products: Local Harvest, Eat Wild, Eat Well Guide
Sources for raw milk around the US: http://www.realmilk.com/where.html
Download a Monterey Bay Seafood Watch pocket guide for your region!
Proper Preparation of Grains & Legumes (soaking & sprouting) – Weston A Price website
Cooking Dry Beans in a Slow Cooker – Kayln’s Kitchen
Making Yogurt in a Slow Cooker – A Year of Slow Cooking (I’ve tried this several times and LOVE it when it’s strained like Greek yogurt!)
Homemade Greek Yogurt (stovetop/oven method) – Annie’s Eats

related Articles

Splendor from the Grass – Weston A Price website (A bit long, but an EXCELLENT article about grass-raised animals and the effect factory farming has on the animals, the nutrients in their meat, and the environment.)
Why You Don’t Want to Drink Pasteurized Milk – Mercola.com
The Soy Controversy – Weston A. Price website

Recipes

Recipes to stretch your meat

Hidden Veggie Chipotle Taco Meat
Sweet Potato Foil Packet Tacos
Stacked Chicken & Zucchini Enchiladas
Crispy Shredded Chicken Tacos
Balsamic Grilled Chicken Salad with Sun-Dried Tomato Vinaigrette
Mexican Chicken & “Rice”
Thai Shrimp Curry with Summer Squash
Southwest Chicken & Barley Soup (good with or without chicken)
Russian Palace’s Borscht
Hearty Cheeseburger Soup
Zuppa Toscana

Eggy dinner ideas

Egg Curry
Roasted Chiles Rellenos Bake
Mayo-Free Egg Salad
Huevos Rancheros in Tortilla Cups
Fried Eggs with Southwest Cabbage Slaw
Bacon, Kale, & Sweet Potato Breakfast Burritos

Our vegetarian favorites

Chipotle-Roasted Vegetable Layered Salad
Curried Potato, Chickpea & Corn Burgers
Portobello & Black Bean Enchiladas
Stacked Roasted Vegetable Enchiladas (a crazy-popular one on my site! Just add some beans for protein if you like.)
Spiced Lentils
Lentil-Scallion Fritters with Goat Cheese
Vegetarian Sweet Potato Chili

Are you enjoying the series so far? If so, spread the word!

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Other posts in this series: (links will be added as posts are published)

Introduction
Fruits & Vegetables
Whole Grains
Healthy Fats
Processed Food
Sweets

Photo Credits: Shutterstock, Perry’s Plate (eggs & chicken)