From No Meat to Clean Meat
Why some vegetarians are rethinking their plant-only diets—and rediscovering the health and environmental benefits of clean meat.
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Q: Four years ago, I became a vegetarian because I was disturbed about factory farms, and I also heard that avoiding meat was better for the environment. At first, I felt great, but about three months into the diet, I developed strong sugar and carb cravings. Over time, I gained weight and was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. My teenage daughter, who also became a vegetarian a few years ago, developed anemia and stopped having a menstrual period. So I’ve started to rethink my beliefs about vegetarianism. Now I’m wondering if clean meat from animals raised humanely using regenerative practices is not only good for the environment, but may be important for my best health, as well.
A: Some people who adopted a vegetarian or vegan diet for health, ethical, and/or environmental reasons discover that clean meat from animals humanely raised on pasture is a superior, back-to-nature alternative. Not only is this type of meat more nutritious and in keeping with the type of meat our ancestors ate, but allowing animals to graze and naturally fertilize grass can actually renew soil health and allow us to grow more nutritious food. This alone is a compelling reason to consider eating ethically raised meat. But improved health is probably the number one reason why some vegetarians are deciding to beef up their diets.
We’re All Biochemically Unique
Many people do very well on a vegan or vegetarian diet. But for others, it’s only a matter of time before something happens with their health. There may be several reasons why this happens. For one thing, plant foods are high in carbs, a quick-burning fuel that doesn’t provide sustained energy. Animal products, on the other hand, provide protein and fat, which are slower-burning fuels that can stabilize blood sugar and energy levels for longer periods of time.
Several nutrients—vitamin B12, iron, zinc, EPA/DHA from fish (omega-3s), and calcium—are either exclusively found in animal foods or are easier for the body to absorb from animal foods. That means that vegetarians have a greater risk for developing nutrient deficiencies, according to the 2020 documentary Sacred Cow: The Nutritional, Environmental and Ethical Case for Better Meat.
Clean, grass-fed meats are richer in beta-carotene and hard-to-obtain omega-3 fatty acids than conventional factory-farmed meats. And they are the richest source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid that is believed to reduce the risk of cancer, obesity, diabetes, and a number of immune disorders.
Former Vegetarians Tell Why They Started Eating Clean Meat
What really matters most is finding a diet that enables you to thrive. The following are five examples of former vegetarians who added healthy meat back into their diets, primarily because doing so dramatically improved their health.
Taylor Collins, a triathlete and competitive runner, and Katie Forrest, an Ironman contestant and bike racer, believed that a vegetarian diet was the “clean” way to live, both physically and spiritually. However, they were plagued by various digestive disorders and inflammation, and eventually turned their entire approach upside down by adding grass-fed protein and healthy animal fats back into their diets. When they did, their health problems disappeared, and they became leaner, faster, and stronger than they had ever been. They went on to found EPIC Provisions, which offered the world’s first 100 percent grass-fed meat bar with nuts and fruit.
Robb Wolf followed a vegan diet and suffered from ulcerative colitis, a long-term condition that affects the colon and rectum as they become inflamed. Before switching to a Paleo diet that includes clean meat, he was supposed to get a bowel resection and was on statin drugs, blood pressure medications, and antidepressants. After he switched to a Paleo diet that included healthy animal protein, fruit, and vegetables, his health problems resolved themselves without surgery and medications. He later wrote The New York Times bestseller The Paleo Solution and recently coauthored Sacred Cow: The Case for (Better) Meat, which is a companion book to the documentary.
Angela Bicos Mavridis became a vegetarian at the age of 13 and continued to eat that way for 35 years. Constantly bloated, tired, and suffering from a variety of unidentifiable health issues that were masked by modern medicine, she eventually came to realize that clean animal protein paired with real, nutrient-packed ingredients made her feel better emotionally and physically. She became such a believer in the benefits of high-quality animal protein that she founded Tribali Foods, which sells deliciously flavored frozen meat patties made from 100 percent organic animal meats seasoned with vegetables, spices, herbs, and purées.
Lierre Keith was so sickened to learn about factory-farmed animals she became a vegan at the age of 16. But soon she developed hypoglycemia that led to big drops in energy, and about a year into the diet, she stopped menstruating. Being a vegan became a key part of her identity, so she wasn’t able to see that the health troubles she developed were due to her diet. She continued to eat vegetarian for close to 20 years, and over time developed a severe vitamin B12 deficiency, anemia, digestive disorders, frequent colds, degenerative discs in her spine, and multiple autoimmune disorders, including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
Today, Keith believes that eating a low-fat vegan diet for a few decades damaged her health in several ways and says that eating clean animal products has restored much of her health. She wrote The Vegetarian Myth in 2009 as a cautionary tale to others to try to prevent the health problems she developed and to cut through misinformation and explain that there are compelling moral, environmental, and health reasons to eat clean meat from grass-fed, humanely raised animals.
A New Perspective On Environmental & Philosophical Reasons
Many people turn toward vegetarianism because they are disturbed about the treatment of animals on factory farms, and rightfully so. Confining animals and feeding them large amounts of corn and soybeans—food they were not designed to eat—is not only damaging to the animals’ health, it also destroys the soil and pollutes the environment.
But factory farming, which has been in practice for only about 50 years, is not how our meat-eating ancestors raised animals. You don’t have to stop eating all meat simply because you want to boycott meat from factory-farmed animals. You can choose 100 percent grass-fed and grass-finished clean meat, which is healthier for you and for the environment.
As the 2020 documentary Kiss the Ground explains, using regenerative practices to raise ruminant animals (such as cows, bison, and sheep) is key in fixing a modern agricultural system that’s destroying soil health and contributing to weather extremes. Consider that bison once freely roamed the plains of North America and helped sustain those ecosystems through grazing, fertilization, trampling, and other natural behaviors. What the bison once did for the land can be closely duplicated by ranchers who raise ruminant animals on pasture in a managed way.
This natural way of raising animals also builds organic matter in the soil, which leads to the soil storing more water and drawing more carbon out of the atmosphere.
Some vegetarians simply don’t want animal products used in any way in the production of the food they eat. In her book, Keith explains that she once felt the same way. But her idea of veganism eventually collapsed while growing vegetables in her own garden. She learned about the importance of feeding the soil nitrogen to grow nutritious plants. And the only available nitrogen sources are either synthetic fertilizers made from fossil fuels—which aren’t sustainable and destroy the soil—or animal products, such as bone meal, blood, or manure, which feed microorganisms in the soil in order to grow nutrient-rich vegetables.
No organically grown plant food, even a head of lettuce, is entirely vegan, Keith says. She realized that a mix of animals and plants mimics nature and creates a healthy agricultural system. Those awarenesses—and her desire for improved health—brought her back to meat.
How to Buy High-Quality, 100% Grass-Fed Clean Meat
To eat meat but avoid commercial meat from animals that have been raised in unhealthy confined feedlots, seek out 100 percent grass-fed, grass-finished meats. Search for local meat producers listed on RegenerationInternational.org, or look for USDA Organic packaged meats with the following additional certifications:
- American Grassfed Association (AGA Certified)
- Animal Welfare Approved
- Certified Humane Pasture Raised
- Global Animal Partnership Certified (Steps 4 and 5)
If you haven’t eaten meat in a while and have trouble digesting it, consider trying a betaine hydrochloride (HCL) supplement at the beginning of a meal to support optimal stomach acid—or discuss it with a holistic doctor or healthcare practitioner. Lierre Keith, author of The Vegetarian Myth, says this supplement helped her comfortably eat meat again, and it may be helpful for others who have low stomach acid and have trouble digesting meat.
You don’t have to stop eating all meat simply because you want to boycott meat from factory-farmed animals. You can choose 100 percent grass-fed and grass-finished clean meat, which is healthier for you and for the environment.