Food can play a powerful role in transforming patients’ lives.
No surprise there, but what may be news to many are the ways a diet incorporating grass-fed rather than grain-fed meat and dairy can benefit patients, particularly those suffering from inflammation.
It all comes down to lipids—molecules that include fats, fat-soluble vitamins, and fatty acids that store energy to enable signaling between cells, and they provide cell membrane structure. The lipid composition of cellular membranes and the organelles within them mirrors the lipid composition of a person’s diet.
And the lipid composition of that diet comes from the nutrients that go into the food’s production. Grass-fed meat and dairy is high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, while grain-fed products are high in harmful omega-6 fatty acids. In other words, you are what you eat, and you’re also what your food eats.
Lipids strengthen or weaken health on the cellular level. In order for the body to function, cells receive signals from other cells and the exterior environment. To receive signals, cells use receptors. Lipid composition can alter how well those receptors work.
For instance, a diet higher in omega-3 fatty acids versus omega-6 fatty acids weakens the receptors between cells and the genes that cause the inflammatory response. Those signals are still being received by cells, but not as strongly, decreasing the amount of inflammation that occurs.
Healthy lipids, healthy body
The inflammatory response is just one of the negative cellular responses that omega-3 fatty acids weaken. Multiple studies have demonstrated the myriad benefits of a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids. For instance, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—both omega-3s—play
a crucial role in the prevention of atherosclerosis, heart attack, depression, cancer, and age-related memory loss. They also lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or rheumatoid arthritis.
Animal studies have also shown that conjugated linoleic acid—another lipid found in high rates in grass-fed animal products—is beneficial in reducing carcinogenesis, atherosclerosis, the onset of diabetes, and in reducing the accumulation of adipose tissue.
Studies in humans verify the effect of linoleic acid on reducing adipose tissue accumulation, although only at ultra-high doses.
Grass-fed meat has additional benefits; numerous studies have shown that cattle finished on grass pastures have up to three times as much vitamin E than grain-fed cattle.
In addition to making the meat and dairy more nutritious, this also extends the shelf-life of retail meat.
According to a 2010 study in Nutrition Journal, grass-fed animal products, including meat and dairy, reflect the lipid composition of the grass on which the animals fed, compared to conventional corn-fed animal products. So why does grain produce meat and dairy high in omega-6 fatty acids?
The genetically modified corn we feed cows has 46 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. Grass, in comparison, is higher in omega-3s. Conventional U.S. meat production relies on grain because it helps cows rapidly pack on fat and muscle, getting them in shape to slaughter more quickly than cows that eat grass.
Make the switch
The health benefits of a diet high in omega-3 versus omega-6 fatty acids are well known. But American diets do not reflect this knowledge: The typical American diet contains 11 to 20 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. This trend has been suggested as a significant factor in the country’s rising rate of inflammatory disorders.
Perhaps Americans have been slow to make the switch to grass-fed meat products because of the difference in appearance and flavor. It’s simple: People tend to prefer the foods and flavors they grew up eating. If you were raised on grain-fed meat, you expect it to smell and taste a certain way.
But grass-fed meat has a different composition of fatty acids and flavonoids, leading to a slightly different sensory experience. And it looks different, too. Carotenoids in green foliage produces more yellow fat in grass-fed livestock, compared to the white fat Americans are used to seeing in grain-fed meat. This yellow fat, however, signifies a healthy fatty acid profile and high antioxidant content.
In other words, when recommending grass-fed meat products to your patients, you may need to walk them through the benefits and also what to expect, so they know to adjust to the differences.
Another hurdle for many patients may be approaching fat as a friend rather than an enemy. For decades, fat has been regarded as a dietary evil, to be avoided as much as possible.
But the science behind this viewpoint is outdated and nullified by years of research proving that fat—the good kind—is a necessary component of a healthy lifestyle. You may need to re-educate your patients on fat and how it benefits the body.