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The way cows are fed can have a major effect on the nutrient composition of the beef.
Whereas cattle today is often fed grains, the animals we ate throughout evolution roamed free and ate grass.
Many studies have shown that the nutrients in beef can vary depending on what the cows eat.
It’s not only important what we eat. It also matters what the foods that we eat, ate.
The Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Cows
Most cows start out living similar lives.
The calves are born in the spring, drink milk from their mothers and are then allowed to roam free and eat grass, shrubs or whatever edible plants they find in their environment.
This continues for about 6 to 12 months. After that, the “conventionally” raised cows are moved to feedlots.
There, the cows are rapidly fattened up with grain-based feeds, usually made with a base of soy or corn.
The conventionally raised cows are often given drugs and hormones to grow faster, as well as antibiotics to survive the unsanitary living conditions. The cows live there for a few months and are then moved into the factory for slaughtering.
Compare that to grass-fed cows, which may continue to live on grassland for the remainder of their lives.
Of course, this isn’t really that simple and the different feeding practices are complicated and varied. The term “grass-fed” isn’t even clearly defined.
But generally speaking, grass-fed cows eat (mostly) grass, while grain-fed cows eat (mostly) an unnatural diet based on corn and soy during the latter part of their lives.
Bottom Line: Most cows start out on pasture, drinking milk and eating grass. However, conventionally raised cows are later moved to feedlots and fed grain-based feeds, while grass-fed cows may continue to live on grassland.
Differences in Fatty Acid Composition
“You are what you eat” applies to cows too…
What a cow eats can have a major effect on the nutrient composition of the beef. This is particularly evident when it comes to the fatty acid composition.
Grass-fed usually contains less total fat than grain-fed beef, which means that gram for gram, grass-fed beef contains fewer calories.
- Saturated and monounsaturated: Grass-fed beef has either similar, or slightly less, saturated and monounsaturated fats.
- Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fats: Grass-fed and grain-fed beef contain very similar amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids.
- Omega-3s: This is where grass-fed really makes a major difference, containing up to 5 times as much Omega-3.
- Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA): Grass-fed beef contains about twice as much CLA as grain-fed beef. This fatty acid is associated with reduced body fat and some other beneficial effects (4).
If you can’t afford or can’t access grass-fed beef, then it is a good idea to eat fatty fish once or twice a week or supplement with fish oil to make up for the lost Omega-3s.
Bottom Line: Grass-fed beef may contain slightly less total fat than grain-fed beef, but a lot more Omega-3 fatty acids and CLA, which are both very beneficial for health.
Red Meat is Highly Nutritious, Grass-Fed Even More so
Humans have been eating meat throughout evolution and our bodies are well equipped to digest and absorb the nutrients from meat.
This is possible because red meat, even conventional grain-fed meat, is incredibly nutritious.
Regular grain-fed beef is loaded with Vitamin B12, B3 and B6. It is also very rich in highly bioavailable Iron, Selenium and Zinc. Meat contains some amount of almost every nutrient that humans need to survive (7).
However, grass-fed beef is even more nutritious than that: (8):
- Vitamin A: Grass-fed beef contains carotenoid precursors to Vitamin A, such as beta-carotene.
- Vitamin E: This is an antioxidant that sits in your cell membranes and protects them from oxidation. Grass-fed beef contains more.
- Micronutrients: Grass-fed beef also contains more Potassium, Iron, Zinc, Phosphorus and Sodium.
Bottom Line: Even conventional grain-feed beef is highly nutritious, but grass-fed beef contains more Carotenoids, Vitamin E and minerals like Potassium, Iron, Zinc, Phosphorus and Sodium.
Is Grass-Fed Beef Worth The Extra Cost and Inconvenience?
It is important to keep in mind that even conventional, grain-fed beef is very healthy.
As long as you don’t overcook your beef (which can form harmful compounds) then it is a nutritious food that should be a regular part of your diet.
Grass-fed beef can be more expensive and it may not be worth the extra cost for some people.
Depending on where you live, it may also be inconvenient to access grass-fed beef.
While some people might live close to a farmer’s market or a Whole Foods store, others might need to drive long distances to acquire it.
There can also be subtle differences in taste. Grass-fed beef is often leaner and there may be some differences in texture. Some people prefer grass-fed, others grain-fed, I recommend you try both and see which one you prefer.
Take Home Message
Despite all the controversies in nutrition, most people are beginning to agree that the most important thing is to “just eat real food!”
I’d like to take that one step further…
Just eat real food that eats real food.
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When I can't source my meat locally, I order from my affiliate partner, Grass-Fed Traditions. Great products, all sustainably raised so that I can ensure I am feeling my family the highest quality meats available.