Game meat: It’s all about the omega-3s and omega-6s. (Photo: Getty Images)
Just last week, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) announced that processed meats — including hot dogs, sausage, bacon, ham, and the like — cause cancer, and that red meat is “probably carcinogenic” as well. And this week, news came out that charred meat is associated with an increased kidney cancer risk.
With all this news, it might seem like the final nails have been hammered in the meat coffin.
But not so fast. Not all red meat is created equal, and for meat lovers, there may be a silver lining: game meat.
Elk, venison, bison, and wild boar are quickly becoming favorites among hipsters and celebrities. And coolness factor aside, nutritionists say these red meats also have a number of positive attributes compared with beef, pork and lamb. Just make sure you stick to the 18-ounce-per-week limit on red meat recommended for healthy adults by the American Institute for Cancer Research.
“In the studies we’ve done, game meat’s fatty-acid profile is by far the most nutritious, meaning that it is high in omega-3s and low in omega-6s,” Loren Cordain, PhD, professor emeritus at Colorado State University’s department of Health and Exercise Science and a foremost authority on the Paleo movement, tells Yahoo Health.
The body needs both of these fatty acids to reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, aid brain function, and improve joint health. But too much omega-3 can increase the risk of strokes, while an excess of omega-6 has been linked with chronic inflammation.
Game meat, Cordain says, contains the optimal balance of both omega-3 and omega-6. It is lower in calories and fat, has a higher protein content than livestock meat, and is lean by its very nature (nutritionists recommend lean meat because it is low in the saturated fats that research has linked to cardiovascular disease) since animals in the wild are constantly on the move. And it is completely free of additives and contaminants. It is also high in polyunsaturated fats.
Research into the full nutritional benefits of game meat is still in its early stages, and the WHO/IARC report did not specifically address whether it, too, is a probable carcinogen. However, game meat is also high in conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs), which are believed to reduce fat in the body and contain anti-cancer properties, so it is a good meat choice to make, says nutritionist Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day. (Editor’s note: Amidor is a compensated member of the Beef Checkoff’s Expert Bureau, which is a partner of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.)
Bison meat, for instance, “is not marbled and that makes it naturally lean,” Amidor says. Three ounces of cooked bison contains 122 calories, 2 grams of total fat, and 1 gram of saturated fat, and is also rich in vitamin B12, zinc, and iron. Venison — which comes from deer, elk, and moose – is very low in fat, with 3 ounces containing 127 calories, 2 grams of fat, and 1 gram of saturated fat. It’s also a rich source of numerous B vitamins, iron, and zinc, and a good source of thiamin, potassium, copper, and selenium.
But to derive the full health and nutritional benefits of game meat, it is best consumed from a wild animal. For most Americans, this is very difficult (if not impossible), Cordain says, considering the strict laws on hunting and the harvesting and selling of wild game meat.
To that end, most game meat in the U.S. is produced on farms and ranches. And so long as the animals are out on pasture and are fed what they would eat in the wild — grass in the warmer months and hay or grass silage in the winter — the meat retains its nutritional attributes.
Things can change quite dramatically, though, if game animals that are reared on a ranch are fed something other than grass, namely grain, investigative journalist Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health, tells Yahoo Health. “If you take an animal out of its natural habitat and you alter a game animal’s diet with grain, you’ll be altering the fatty acid profile of the meat, and the meat will end up being higher in fats and higher in omega-6s.”
While a game animal’s genetics are such that it won’t pile on the fat that fast, messing with its diet will change the animal’s constitution, she says. The meat could end up not-too-different from regular grocery store meat, most of which comes from grain-fed, feedlot produced animals. (A feedlot is the final feeding space for farmed livestock, where they’re pumped with high-energy foods like corn that are focused on growth and weight gain and will, in essence, fatten them up for slaughter in just a few months.)
When the fat content in meat increases, its protein content decreases, Cordain says. Why that matters: The vitamins and minerals in meat are primarily found in the protein.
And because farmed animals are not used to eating corn, they are given antibiotics to counter the stress and discomfort their digestive systems face.
Robinson, Cordain, and other nutrition experts recommend that meat-eaters stick to organic, grass-fed meat— meat that comes from either game or livestock animals that have not been given antibiotics, growth hormones, or been exposed to other pollutants, and that are fed only grasses.
Related: Is Grass-Fed Beef Worth It?
Grass-fed meat has less total fat than grain-fed meat, is rich in omega-3s and contains more CLAs, according to a 2010 study out of California State University, Chico’s College of Agriculture. It is also high in antioxidant vitamins, including vitamin E, and has a higher amount of stearic acid, which has a neutral impact on blood lipids.
Grass-fed meat is becoming more widespread and features on more restaurant menus across the country, supplied by companies such as D’Artagnan Foods, the largest purveyor of grass-fed beef and game meat on the East Coast. Although some people object to the taste, which is different from grain-fed meat, it is a healthier choice, Robinson says.
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