Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What is Grass Based Health?

Animals make us human.
Temple Grandin

. . . the Andamanese believe it is the possession of fire that makes human beings what they are and distinguishes them from animals.
Radcliffe-Brown, A. 1922.
The Andaman Islanders: A Study in Social Anthropology.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.1

So, what does barbecue make us?

With his new opposing thumb and his king-sized cranium,
Man sallied forth with grace and savoir faire.
With Promethian desire he soon discovered fire,
And arson but a single step from there.
The wheel and gasoline, to the full-sized limousine,
Music, art and law are but a few,
But name what can compare to the artistry so rare of
the sparerib that has met the barbecue.
from The Big Band Theory. Mark Graham.2

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 7th Annual Cattlemen’s Workshop in La Grande, Oregon. It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with the region’s beef industry and learn from the ranchers, industry and University folks who were there. One lesson I learned is that “Grass Based Health” means something to everyone, but it may not mean the same thing to everyone. So I thought it was time to define what I mean by the phrase.


Grass Based Health is the concept that pasture-based livestock production systems are better for the animals, better for the farmers and ranchers, better for the land, and better for the communities they are a part of than the alternative livestock production systems. I’ll be covering all of these topics in future posts. But the fundamental principle of Grass Based Health is that our diet ought to be grass based, not grain based. Understanding and accepting this premise then forces the consideration, and re-consideration, of many other topics as well.

It’s obvious (or it ought to be!) that we lack the herbivores’ specialized ingestive and digestive anatomy that permits them to utilize cellulose. We depend on various animals to convert cellulose, the most common organic compound on Earth[3], into animal fat and high quality, complete protein. The majority of feed units consumed by all domestic livestock (beef cattle, dairy cattle, hogs and poultry, sheep and goats, horses and mules, and “other”) in the US in 1970 came from forage (54.4% of all feed units, 36.1 and 18.3 percent from pastured and harvested forage, respectively).[4] I’ll simplistically refer to all forage as “grass” from now on. A grain-finished steer spends most of his life eating grass, and is only fed grain as a portion of its diet during the finishing phase. Even then, its ration still contains grass. So, even today meat and dairy products can be described as “grass based.” I do believe that there is vast room for improving the production and utilization of grass in pasture-based production systems, and I’ll address that in future posts. 

Terms like “grass-fed,” “free-range,” “pastured,” and “organic” are all used to market food today. Quantitative and qualitative differences have been determined between grass-finished and grain-finished meats. Similar differences have been determined between the milk from dairy cows grazing pasture compared to those housed in confinement systems. Just how important are these differences? Future posts will deal with this subject, too. I am concerned, however, that the claims some make for these products are over-stated. Without addressing the biggest insult to human health – an oversupply of readily digestible refined carbohydrates – is the consumer likely to realize any of these benefits? (see What's the Limiting Factor?)

It is beyond dispute that the “natural” diet of mankind is one that is much higher in animal products and much lower in carbohydrate than what our current “experts” advise us to eat. The archeological evidence provided in the fossil record and the testimony of anthropologists concerning various hunter-gatherer cultures provides significant evidence regarding our ancestor’s diet. The ancients who 19,000 years ago produced the awe-inspiring Lascaux cave paintings in present-day southwest France were paying homage to what gave them sustenance – the auroch, the ancestor of our modern European cattle.

Loren Cordain (2000) published an analysis of the diets of hunter-gatherer populations whose diets had been assessed by anthropologists.[5] One in every five of these 229 populations subsisted on almost entirely hunting or fishing. More than 85 percent of their calories came from meat or fish, with some groups thriving entirely on meat and fish. Only 14 percent of these groups got more than half their calories from plant foods. Not a single one of these populations was exclusively vegetarian. 

Today we understand the need to avoid obesity and the chronic diseases that are associated with being overweight. The “experts” tell us that we can accomplish these goals by eating less and exercising more, and by eating diets that are low in fat and high in carbohydrates. Animal products must be restricted, according to this advice. In response to the expert’s recommendations, as published in the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, the American caloric intake averages 15% from protein, 33% from fat, and the balance from carbohydrates. In contrast, Cordain’s hunter-gatherers’ diets were high to very high in protein (19 to 35 percent of calories) and high to very high in fat (28 to 58 percent of calories). Several of these populations obtained as much as 80 percent of their calories from fat. 

There is an abundance of evidence documenting the oft-repeated experience of isolated populations who exhibited none of the various “western diseases” until the introduction of sugar and white flour to their diets (see Grass and Cancer, Good Calories, Bad Calories, and Why we Get Fat and What to Do About It, among other sources). The scientific research and observational data so strongly supports the fattening carbohydrate hypothesis and explains the phenomenon of metabolic syndrome that all but those with a vested interest ought to be convinced that the lipid hypothesis should never have been adopted as the basis of public health policy in this country, or anywhere else. And this flawed “conventional wisdom” about weight loss and what constitutes a healthy diet has contaminated all of science. Not just nutrition and human health, but disciplines as seemingly unrelated as soil conservation. I’ll write about that in the future, too.


At the end of the introduction to his newest book, Gary Taubes writes:[6]

In the more than six decades since the end of the Second World War, when this question of what causes us to fatten – calories or carbohydrates -  has been argued, it has often seemed like a religious issue rather than a scientific one. So many different belief systems enter into the question of what constitutes a healthy diet that the scientific question – why do we get fat” – has gotten lost along the way. It’s been overshadowed by ethical, moral, and sociological considerations that are valid in themselves and certainly worth discussing but have nothing to do with the science itself and arguably no place in a scientific inquiry.

Carbohydrate-restricted diets typically (if not, perhaps, ideally) replace the carbohydrates in the diet with large or at least larger portions of animal products – beginning with eggs for breakfast and moving to meat, fish, or fowl for lunch and dinner. The implications of that are proper to debate. Isn’t our dependence on animal products already bad for the environment, and won’t it just get worse? Isn’t livestock production a major contributor to global warming, water shortages, and pollution? When thinking about a healthy diet, shouldn’t we think about what’s good for the planet as well as what’s good for us? Do we have a right to kill animals for our food or put them to work for us in producing it? Isn’t the only morally and ethically defensible lifestyle a vegetarian one or even a vegan one?

These are all important questions that need to be addressed, as individuals and as a society. But they have no place in the scientific and medical discussion of why we get fat.

It is understandable that Taubes would limit his argument, especially in this book which was envisioned as a simplified and focused discussion of the causes and treatment of obesity. Taubes is to be commended for acknowledging the broader ramifications of this subject and stating that, while he’s aware of these issues he would not address them. But there’s an implication in his statement that I’d like to dispute. 

I believe that we can address, scientifically, the questions regarding the impacts of animal agriculture on “the environment,” including the issues of anthropogenic global climate change (“global warming”), water quality and water quantity. The effort will show that this science is as muddled as Taubes found the disciplines of diet, nutrition and human health to be. Some of this muddle is the result of dietary dogma contaminating the discussion. If you believe that eating animal products is bad for you, it’s easy to imagine that belief impacting your perception of environmental issues. If your environmental beliefs are informed by the incorrect 18th and 19th century image of pre-Columbian North America as an “unspoiled wilderness,” then activities by man to transform the environment are necessarily seen as degradation. If you’ve never thought of the impacts of field-crop agriculture and horticulture, it might be possible to remain ignorant of the fact that greater soil erosion occurs in annual cropping systems that in perennial pasture-based animal production systems. Pasture-based livestock production systems protect surface and ground water quality. Credible science supports the role of well-managed animal agriculture in not only protecting but actually improving the environment. Future posts will discuss these issues. This, too, is what I mean by Grass Based Health.

In the Introduction to his book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Simon Fairlie makes the following statement:[7]

I am not overly concerned with questions of dietary health, nor do I take any interest in the diet and dentition of our remote ancestors.

Only someone not convinced of the fundamental requirement for animal fat and protein in the human diet could label meat an “extravagance!” Fairlie’s book is one of many I’m working my way through. His book apparently is having an impact. Folks who’ve been committed to vegetarianism are being swayed by his argument that animal products can be produced in ways that are sustainable. Glad to hear it. I remember being told almost twenty years ago that animal agriculture had no place in “sustainable agriculture.” “Organic” and “sustainable” were once synonymous with vegetarian.

My initial arguments with Fairlie’s thesis are that:
  • The vast majority of the earth’s surface is best suited for producing grass for grazing.
  • A significant portion of the “grain” that is fed to livestock are by-products like brewer’s grains and oil meal. These are not suitable for humans, and not utilizing them as livestock feeds would increase the cost of the primary products.
  • The field and horticulture crops are the “extravagance,” not the animal products. And they are far from “benign.” Soil loss through erosion and soil organic matter depletion, and water quality degradation, fossil fuel use, petrochemical inputs, wildlife impact – all of these are greater in annual cropping situations than in perennial pasture-based livestock production systems. And that list does not include the impact these crops have on the human health and the cost of treating the resulting diseases.
Consider diabetes: Diabetes is one of the western diseases, now understood to be part of metabolic syndrome. The US population today is approximately 312 million people, 76.9% of whom are adults (approximately 240 million). According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 105 million adults in the US have diabetes or prediabetes (26 million with diabetes, 79 million with prediabetes), as diagnosed with hemoglobin A1c.[8] Thus diabetic and pre-diabetic adults represent 44% of the US adult population. The increase in those with pre-diabetes, now equal to 1 in 3 US adults, represents a 39 % increase since 2008. The recommended plant-based diet can hardly be called benign! The CDC estimates the direct and indirect costs of diabetes at $179 billion annually. The recommended plant-based diet can hardly be called sustainable, either.

I sometimes hear those in the low-carb / Primal / Paleo community refer to “agriculture” negatively. It is important to remember that the farmers and ranchers – the people who actually steward natural resources to produce our food - have been taken in by the same official dietary guidelines as the rest of us. They are challenged by the same chronic health problems the rest of us face. They need to hear this alternative to the conventional wisdom. The average age of farmers in the US is just over 57 years.[9] Sustainability implies longevity, but the intergenerational transition of the current production models have been difficult to achieve. Is there an alternative? There can be no sustainability without profit. In western Oregon, traditional dairies are finding it difficult to break even while pasture-based dairies are making a profit. Dairymen from Europe and New Zealand have been looking at the potential for grass-based dairying in the US. Some have done more than just look. Americans spend less, as a percent of their income, on food than any other industrial country. And we spend more on medical care. We can pay our farmers or we can pay our doctors. Payin’ our doctors hasn’t worked out all that well. That, too, is what Grass Based Health is about.

Finally, if meaningful change is going to happen in our nutrition policies and all that they influence it will have to begin at the grass roots. Individuals will have to learn on their own what we should have been taught since the 1960s. They will have to apply this information to their own lives and obtain the thoroughly predictable results – improved health and weight loss. They will then pass the word along to their families and friends, some of whom will listen and adopt this appropriate way of eating and living. And so it will spread until we reach the tipping point. A grass roots movement. But "Grass Roots Healthwas already taken (and a worthwhile effort that is, too, regarding the role of vitamin D in preventing chronic diseases!). 

So now you know I called this blog “Grass Based Health,” what I mean by that phrase, and some of what I’ll be writing about in future posts.



[1] From Wrangham, R. 2009. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York, NY
[2] Mark Graham. 1979 in The Mark Graham Songbook: Twenty-Five Originals From the Forked-Tongue Demon. Mark Graham. 1991.
[3] Cellulose. (2008). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved January 11, 2008, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
[4] Meath, M. E., D. S. Metcalfe, R. F. Barnes. 1973. Forages; The Science of Grassland Agriculture. The Iowa State University Press. Ames, Iowa.
[5] Cordain, L., J. B. Miller, S. B. Eaton, N. Mann, S. H. Holt, and J. D. Speth. 2000. “Plant-Animal Subsistence Ratios and Macronutrient Energy Estimations in Worldwide Hunter-Gatherer Diets.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Mar;71(3):682-92.
[6] Taubes, G. 2011. “Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It.” 2011. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. pp 11-12
[7] Fairlie, S. 2010. “Meat: A Benign Extravagance” Chelsea Green Publishing Co.
[8] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2011. National Diabetes Fact Sheet: National Estimates and General Information on Diabetes and Prediabetes in the United States 2011. Atlanta, Ga.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
[9] http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Ag_Atlas_Maps/Operators/Characterists/07-M124-RGBChor-largetext.pdf

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