Sunday, October 2, 2011

Is Grass Fed Beef Really “Rich in Omega 3s?”

The subjects of n-6 and n-3 fatty acid (commonly referred to as Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids) ratios, dietary fiber, salt, and anti-oxidants came up frequently during the Ancestral Health Symposium back in August. I was frankly surprised at the concern several presenters voiced about the last three. I thought they’d been fairly debunked, but apparently not. Perhaps I’ll discuss them in a future post. I’ve written before about the relative importance of grass-fed meat in our diet, and the overstated benefits of grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef. But this subject came up again recently on the Nutrition and Metabolism Society e-mail list, so I think it’s worth a re-visit.

Any discussion of n-6 and n-3 fatty acids in general, and in beef in particular, ought to include the following points: the strength of data suggesting their importance; the importance of the n-6:n-3 ratios; and the n-3 content of beef vs. other foodstuffs.

The literature discussing the benefits of n-3 fatty acids is replete with words like “associated,” and “linked.” Tom Naughton’s “Science for Smart People” presentation is a great introduction to interpreting these words and the importance of claims made with them. The following statement comes from a “A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef” (Daley, et al. 2010):

“Danish physicians observed that Greenland Eskimos had an exceptionally low incidence of heart disease and arthritis despite the fact that they consumed a diet high in fat.”
Can you say “Greenland Paradox?” I doubt that was the only dietary difference. It would seem prudent to keep this in mind while we discuss the reduction in coronary heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, etc. that have been listed as beneficial effect of n-3 supplementation. In addition, evidence exists to suggest that concern about ingesting too much polyunsaturated fatty acids in general, and n-3 fatty acids in particular, is warranted.

Cordain, et al. reported the n-6:n-3 ratio in tissues from wild ruminants and compared them to values for beef that had been published previously. This paper was then referenced in a post on Science Blog from Purdue University:
"Both grass-fed steers and the wild ruminants have a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids slightly above two in meat. In other words, two parts omega-6 to one part omega-3," Watkins says. "That ratio is much lower than the ratios of 5-to-1 to 13-to-1 reported in previous studies for grain-fed steers."
However, the published range in n-6:n-3 ratios in “grass-fed” and “grain-fed” beef is far greater than that suggested in this paper, as shown in the data from eight papers presented in Table 1. Three of the studies cited in Table 1 having a lower ratio in grain-fed beef than the range stated by Cordain, et al.

Given that many variables (i.e. age of animal, sex, breed, tissue, management details) can affect the n-6:n-3 ratio, it is unwise to make blanket statements about what those ratios are. In addition, Garia, et al. demonstrated that some amount of grain can be fed to cattle without producing a high-value n-6:n-3 ratio in the beef.

Statistical significance does not necessarily equate to biological significance. It does not appear that we know enough to clearly state that these are important differences. Tom Naughton’s presentation, once again, makes this point. In addition, there appears to be a range in what the desirable range ought to be.

The World Health Organization recommends that polyunsaturated fats make up 3 - 7% of the energy in the diet. Some experts advise that one should consume a minimum of 3% of energy from omega-6 fatty acids and between 0.5% and 1% from omega-3. Research scientists recommend ratios varying from 5:1 to 10:1 omega-6 to omega-3. Other experts suggest a ratio of between 1:1 and 4:1 as being optimal. What are we getting? The current ratio in our diet is estimated to be 14:1 to 20:1 (from here).

Focusing on ratios instead of quantity can be misleading. A helpful list of n- 6 and n- 3 amounts in various foodstuffs is published here. Soybean oil has an n-6:n-3 ratio of 7.42, less than 4 of the ratio values for grain-fed beef presented in Table 1. But an ounce (28g) of soybean oil contains 14,361 mg of n-6 fatty acids, 21.5 times the amount contained in 4 ounces of raw grain-fed ground beef (668 mg n-6)! The n-6:n-3 ratio of roasted chicken leg meat is 9.53, essentially the same as listed for conventional ground beef. But one cup (140 g) contains 2,268 mg of n-6.

This same source states that grass fed ground beef contains 100 mg of n-3 per 4 ounces (raw). Considering that one 3.75 ounce (106 g) can of Vital Choice’s albacore solid white tuna (yes, tuna!) in extra virgin olive oil contains almost 3 grams (2,926 mg) of n-3 fatty acids it is, at best, an exaggeration to call grass fed beef a “rich” source of n-3 fatty acids. Even a comparison of grass fed ground beef with grain fed ground beef doesn’t justify the label: This same source shows only a 22 mg difference per 4 ounces of raw meat. What happens when the meat is cooked? A 4 ounce (cooked weight), pan-browned ground beef patty only contains 20 mg, so cooking loss appears to be significant.

Examining the data in these papers demonstrates the fact that beef, no matter how it’s produced, is not a rich source of n-3 fatty acids. And beef, not matter how it’s produced, is not a rich source of n- 6 fatty acids, either.

I want to emphasize that I’m focusing solely on the nutritional aspect of the beef, not on the issues of confined animal feeding operations, grain production, animal health, etc. I’m aware of these matters and I am NOT minimizing them. I celebrated my 55th birthday by presenting a poster at the Ancestral Health Symposium, but my celebratory birthday steak was postponed until the following morning. I pulled off the interstate and enjoyed a delicious steak and eggs breakfast. The very next thing I encountered as I got back on the highway was a large beef feedlot. The sight and smell were impressive, to say the least. Addressing these issues by exaggerating nutrient differences and their importance, however, is NOT a winning strategy. Instead, we might want to look at the monetary side.

It’s a good time to be a grass farmer – turning green grass into dollars, via a grazing ruminant. Today’s market has created a tremendous potential for income from the stocker business – buying beef calves and feeding them on pasture - gaining 200 – 300 lbs in 150 days or less - before selling them as feeder cattle. The following is from a Beef Magazine on-line article, which seems to be quoting this Oklahoma State University Extension Service publication:

"Heavy-feeder prices increased to new seasonal highs in early July and are still holding at remarkably strong levels," says Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing specialist. "The rollback between calf and feeder prices is very narrow; almost zero in some cases, resulting in very high stocker value of gain."

Peel offered this example for the first week of August: the Oklahoma combined auction price for Medium and Large #1 steers weighing 515 lbs. was $138.56/cwt.; it was $138.05/cwt. for steers weighing 727 lbs.

"This implies a value of gain of $1.37/lb. for 212 lbs. of gain," Peel says. For steers weighing 825 lbs., the price was $132.50/cwt., resulting in a value of gain of $1.22/lb. for 310 lbs. of gain."

For the record, value of gain is defined as the gross sale price of a head of cattle minus the gross purchase price, divided by the pounds of gain. High calf and feeder prices, and the narrow price rollback, magnify the current opportunity.

"There is more incentive than there has ever been to grow and manage forage," Peel emphasizes. "Wheat pasture prospects in the southern Great Plains appear very poor at this point but the market is clearly encouraging somebody, somewhere, that has forage to put stocker gains on feeder cattle.

"The feeder cattle price structure will continue to offer high value of gain as a market incentive to add weight to cattle prior to feedlot placement. Stocker margins will generally be attractive for stocker production over a wide range of beginning and ending weights and total weight gain."

So, once again, there are valid reasons for eating grass fed beef – including the taste! But promoting grass fed beef because of its n-6:n-3 ratio is, at best, misleading. Beef, regardless of how it is fed, in not a “rich” source of n-3 or n-6 fatty acids. If you want more n-3 fatty acids in your diet, eat fatty fish and/or take a supplement. If you want less n-6 fatty acids in your diet, cut the grains and vegetable oils.


Cordain, L., B.A. Watkins, G.L. Florant, M. Kelher, L. Rogers, Y Li. 2002. Fatty acid analysis of wild ruminant tissues: evolutionary implications for reducing diet-related chronic disease. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 56, 181–191

Daley, C.A., A. Abbott, P.S. Doyle, G.A. Nader, S. Larson. 2010. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal 9:10

Descalzo, A., E.M. Insani, A. Biolatto, A.M. Sancho, P.T. Garcia, N.A. Pensel. 2005. Influence of pasture or grain-based diets supplemented with vitamin E on antioxidant/oxidative balance of Argentine beef. Meat Science 70:35-44.

Garcia, P.T., N.A. Pensel, A.M. Sancho, N.J. Latimori, A.M. Kloster, M.A. Amigone, J.J. Casal. 2008. Beef lipids in relation to animal breed and nutrition in Argentina. Meat Science 79:500-8.

Leheska, J.M., L.D. Thompson, J.C. Howe, E. Hentges, J. Boyce, J.C. Brooks, B. Shriver, L. Hoover, M.F. Miller. 2008. Effects of conventional and grass-feeding systems on the nutrient composition of beef. Journal Animal Science 86:3575-85.

Nuernberg, K., D. Dannenberger, G. Nuernberg, K. Ender, J. Voigt, N.D. Scollan, J.D. Wood, G.R. Nute, R.I. Richardson. 2005. Effect of a grass-based and a concentrate feeding system on meat quality characteristics and fatty acid composition of longissimus muscle in different cattle breeds. Livestock Production Science 94:137-47.

Ponnampalam, E.N., N.J. Mann, A.J. Sinclair. 2006. Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts, potential impact on human health. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 15(1):21-9.

Realini, C.E., S.K. Duckett, G.W. Brito, M.D. Rizza, D. De Mattos. 2004. Effect of pasture vs. concentrate feeding with or without antioxidants on carcass characteristics, fatty acid composition, and quality of Uruguayan beef. Meat Science 66:567-77.

S. K. Duckett, J. P. S. Neel, J. P. Fontenot and W. M. Clapham. 2009. Effects of winter stocker growth rate and finishing system on: III. Tissue proximate, fatty acid, vitamin, and cholesterol content. Journal Animal Science 87:2961-2970.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Big Picture

It’s almost time for the Ancestral Health Symposium. I’m looking forward to seeing friends, meeting lots of folks, and listening to so many of the people I’ve been learning from these past few years.  I’ll be presenting a poster on Saturday, August 6th. A marvelous way to celebrate my birthday!

The title of my poster is “Grass Based Health: The Big Picture.” My take-home point is that a human diet based on animal products – particularly those from ruminant animal – is far more “sustainable” than plant based diets.

As we consider this topic, we need to understand that our perception of “wilderness” and “nature” has been as distorted as our understanding of what constitutes a “healthy diet.” I find the following quote by D. F. Lott extremely helpful:
“When Lewis and Clark headed west … they were exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans” (Lott, 2002). 

When Europeans first arrived in North America, they found anything but a primeval landscape. Instead, they encountered a land significantly altered by humans through the use of fire, sophisticated agricultural techniques, mining, and road and mound building (Mann, 2006).

“At the time of Columbus the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly painted with the human brush. Agriculture occurred in as much as two-thirds of what is now the continental United States, with large swathes of the Southwest terraced and irrigated. Among the maize fields in the Midwest and Southeast, mounds by the thousand stippled the land. The forests of the eastern seaboard had been peeled back from the coasts, which were now lined with farms. Salmon nets stretched across almost every ocean-bound stream in the Northwest. And almost everywhere there was Indian fire.”

“The virgin forest was not encountered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” wrote historian Stephen Pyne, “it was invented in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” Far from destroying pristine wilderness, that is, Europeans bloodily created it. (Mann, 2006)

With that background as introduction, here is the text from my poster.

Forage plants are those plants eaten by animals directly as pasture, crop residue, or immature cereal crops, those cut for fodder, and conserved for later use as hay or silage. These diverse crops vary widely in their adaptation and feed quality. They are typically low in fat, high in fiber, and not utilizable by humans.
Grass, clover, and forbes pasture. This plant material is high in moisture, crude
protein and fiber and low in fat. It's also not directly utilizable by humans.
While forage crops can be grown on ground incapable of producing feedstuffs that are utilizable by humans, greater yields can be achieved on better arable ground. These crops have limited economic value until converted into meat, milk, and fiber. Three quarters of the feed consumed by the United States’ beef cattle is forage.

The symbiotic relationship between the ruminant animal and the microbial population in the rumen permits these mammals to thrive on a low-fat, high-fiber diet. This production of high-quality protein and animal fat is the truly sustainable form of agriculture.
The ruminant and it's associated microbial population convert this
material that cannot sustain humans into products that can -
high quality protein and animal fat.
Aspects of sustainability:

Population: The archeological record and anthropological research demonstrates that the human diet was based upon animal products. Research confirms that the modern diet ought to be, too. The mistaken belief that the healthy diet is a plant-based one, one based upon carbohydrates, has produced an epidemic of chronic disease in the United States. The costs of this epidemic are unsustainable. Diets based upon animal products produce improvements in a wide variety of chronic diseases. These diets are more sustainable – people stay on them – as compared with low-fat and semi-starvation diets.
Grass-fed ribeye steaks. Grass-fed is NOT low fat!
Ecology: Grasslands, including sown pasture and rangeland, are among the largest ecosystems in the world. The proportion of the earth's land area covered by grasslands in 2000 was estimated at 3.5 billion hectares (8.6 billion acres), representing 26% of the world land area and 70% of the world agricultural area. There are 255 million hectares (630 million acres) of pasture, pastured woodland, pastured cropland and public grazing lands in the US. Less than 9 percent of the cropland is pasture.

Perennial forage crops increase soil organic matter,  fixing more carbon than woodland. Pasture crops reduce soil erosion, improving the infiltration of water into the soil profile and surface water quality. Without managed grazing or periodic burning, many grasslands will not remain grasslands. Ecological succession results in encroachment by woody, less productive species.
The following image is a close-up from the middle of this picture.
Grass grows naturally in a wide variety of sites, making it an
ideal crop. It's always better to work with nature!
Economic: Forage-based livestock production systems are fundamental to the global economy, and are more economically sustainable than annual cropping systems. Grasslands contribute to the livelihoods of more than 800 million people, worldwide. They are a source of food and forage, energy and wildlife habitat. The single greatest source of new wealth (the conversion of natural resource into a salable commodity) in the US is the conversion of grass into beef.
Pasture-based agriculture produces increased wealth while requiring fewer non-renewable inputs than annual crops. Biological nitrogen fixation by forage legumes and efficient nutrient cycling via the grazing animals’ dung and urine reduces fertilizer requirements. Managed grazing of adapted pasture mixes reduces pesticide use. These perennial crops require less tillage, cultivation, and harvest than annual crops, meaning less equipment is needed, and less petroleum used.

The key to farm sustainability is lowering the cost of production, rather than achieving maximum production. Well-managed pasture-based production systems are the means of achieving the lowest cost of production of animal products.

Achieving an acceptable profit at lower levels of production means more farmers can remain in business or begin production. More farmers means healthier rural communities.

Our grasslands are not widely appreciated, nor are they close to achieving their potential. Important research and demonstration is needed, as well as adoption of suitable practices from other countries that have better developed grazing industries.

The adoption of diets based upon animal product instead of cereal products is the sustainable choice!


Bureau of Land Management. 2011. Fact Sheet on the BLM’s Management of Livestock Grazing. Accessed July 19, 2011. 

Food and Agriculture Organization. 2008. Are grasslands under threat? Accessed July 21, 2011. 

Heath, M. E., R. F. Barnes, D. S. Metcalfe, eds. 1985. Forages: The Science of Grassland Agriculture. Iowa State University Press. Ames, Iowa.

Lott, D.F. 2002. American Bison: A Natural History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Mann, Charles C. 2006. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Vintage.

United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. 2011. State Fact Sheets. Accessed July 18, 2011. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

BBQ'd Mushroom and Spinach Salad

We got this recipe from Smoke and Spice: The Real Way to Barbecue by Cheryl and Bill Jamison. 

12 ounces portobello mushrooms
Coarse Kosher or sea salt

2 Roma or Italian plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 scallions, sliced
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste

1 large bag of spinach, or equivalent
Crumbled feta cheese, optional
Sunflower seeds, optional

I've done this in my barbecue/smoker, but I guess you could use a covered grill using low, indirect heat.

Slice the mushrooms into large, bite-size pieces and salt them lightly. Arrange mushroom pieces on a small grill pan, rack, or a piece of heavy-duty aluminium foil.

Place in the barbecue and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until they ooze liquid and are cooked through.

While the mushrooms are cooking, mix the dressing ingredients.

Add the cooked mushrooms and mix lightly. Can be served warm or chilled.

Place a layer of spinach on a serving platter. Spoon the dressing over the spinach. Garnish with feta cheese and sunflower seeds, if desired. Alternatively, serve the cheese and seeds separately and let folks add them if they'd like.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Potluck options

Hard to believe that July is almost over. How's summer where you live? We're still looking forward to its arrival here in western Oregon ...

One challenge we frequently face is deciding what dish to take to a potluck (also known as a potluck supper, spread, Jacob's join, Jacob's supper, faith supper, coverd dish supper, bring and share, shared lunch, pitch-in, carry-in, bring-a-plate, smorgasbord, and dish-to-pass 1). We want to take something that we'll eat. That way, we know that there will be at least one item that fits our diet.This picture from the Wikipedia Potluck page is fairly typical, unless you're fortunate enough to be going to Grok potlucks. 
Carbfest, also known as a potluck (image from this site)

Carving station, complete with carbs! (source)
What kinds of dishes fit the paleo / primal / low carb philosophy, short of bringing a full carving station? Cost is an issue. Protein and fat are more expensive than carbohydrate. Breaking out the grass-fed ribeyes probably isn't practical. Prep time can be an issue, too. And sometimes it's best to avoid the whole diet / health / nutrition conversation. Mark Sisson's 80/20 Principle definately applies here. Some of these may not be your choices for everday fare, but they're far better than what we typically see at the potlucks we attend. So here's a list of the options we've come up with so far:

Pre-made party tray - I recently found these at our regional supermarket, composed of two kinds of lunch meat along with two kinds of cheese, already cut. Also included were a container of mixed olives and some packages of crackers. The price was reasonable.

Mixed nuts - Another buy-bring-open option. Pretty much self-explanitory.

Veggie tray - If you're certain that others will be providing animal protein and fat, you could opt for a plateful of plant parts. Obviously you could make this yourself or buy it pre-made.

Deviled eggs - These take a little time to prepare, but their cost can be quite reasonable. You don't have to use your locally-sourced pastured eggs.

 Pre-made meatballs and spaghetti sauce - This is a little more involved than the previous options, but not much. We buy a bag of frozen Italian meatballs at our supermarket, put them in the Grokpot and add a jar of the store's spaghetti sauce. Be sure to allow for enough time to thoroughly heat.

Beef sausage in BBQ sauce - Buy the beef sausage (like Hilshire Farms) when it's on sale, at this option becomes an even better deal. Slice the sausage into 1 - 1 1/2 inch pieces, put them in the Grokpot, and add a bottle of prepared BBQ sauce (Be careful with these sauces. They're typically loaded with various sweetners. But it's not like you're drinking the stuff. If you'd like, you could use your own. You can find my recipe here.)

Spinach salad with BBQ'd portobello mushrooms - I'll have to post the recipe for this, but we got it from Smoke and Spice: The Real Way to Barbecue by Cheryl and Bill Jamison.  [Update - the recipe is posted here.]

Nancy's all meat chili - Another recipe that I'll post soon.

Pulled pork - For extra-special occasions I've brought a Grokpot of my real pulled pork. I posted my recipes for the spice rub and BBQ sauce here.

I'd love to hear your suggestions.

1 Wikipedia. Potluck.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sustainability Reality Check

The nutrition and public health quagmire in the United States has, like a virulent contagion, infected many other topics. “Sustainability” is one of them. Sustainability is a "dialogue of values that defies consensual definition" (Ratner 2004).  Let’s look at the following paragraph from the “Food” section of the Wikipedia page for sustainability (Wikipedia, 2011):

The American Public Health Association (APHA) defines a "sustainable food system"[86][87] as "one that provides healthy food to meet current food needs while maintaining healthy ecosystems that can also provide food for generations to come with minimal negative impact to the environment. A sustainable food system also encourages local production and distribution infrastructures and makes nutritious food available, accessible, and affordable to all. Further, it is humane and just, protecting farmers and other workers, consumers, and communities."[88]

Lots to feel good about in that statement, but not a lot to sink your teeth into. On the face of it, it’s hard to argue with. But we have to dig deeper. Just what do they mean by “healthy food,” “healthy ecosystems,” “negative impact,” “nutritious food,” “accessible and affordable,” “humane,” and “just”? Who gets to decide? Perhaps the next section of that paragraph will provide some insight …

Concerns about the environmental impacts of agribusiness and the stark contrast between the obesity problems of the Western world and the poverty and food insecurity of the developing world have generated a strong movement towards healthy, sustainable eating as a major component of overall ethical consumerism.[89]

Here we have the flawed belief that overeating and sedentary behavior cause obesity. Once again, the “experts” have conveniently overlooked the fact that obesity is NOT caused by affluence and that obesity and under-nutrition have frequently been observed in the same unbelievably poor populations (Taubes, 2010). Continuing with the paragraph …

The environmental effects of different dietary patterns depend on many factors, including the proportion of animal and plant foods consumed and the method of food production.[90][91][92][93] The World Health Organization has published a Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health report which was endorsed by the May 2004 World Health Assembly. It recommends the Mediterranean diet which is associated with health and longevity and is low in meat, rich in fruits and vegetables, low in added sugar and limited salt, and low in saturated fatty acids; the traditional source of fat in the Mediterranean is olive oil, rich in monounsaturated fat. The healthy rice-based Japanese diet is also high in carbohydrates and low in fat. Both diets are low in meat and saturated fats and high in legumes and other vegetables; they are associated with a low incidence of ailments and low environmental impact.[94]

The WHO got it wrong with Livestock’s Long Shadow. (see my earlier post). The circular reasoning of far too many is that since the consumption of animal products is bad for our health, the production of animal products must be bad for the environment. Many others reason that since the production of animal products is inherently bad for the environment, the consumption of animal products must be bad for the environment. Of course these are myths, based upon the great lies of American conventional wisdom on nutrition and health (Diets low in meat promote health and longevity; Physical activity is key to health; Low fat (high carbohydrate) diets are “healthy”) and vegetarian-influenced environmentalism (The production of vegetables, fruits, cereals and pulses (or legumes) is more environmentally friendly than the production of animal products).

Grass fed, NOT lean!
The clear testimony of the archeological record and anthropological research confirms that the human diet has been and should be based upon animal products. The mistaken belief that the healthy diet is a plant-based one, in other words one based upon carbohydrates, has produced an epidemic of chronic disease in the United States. Any conversation about “sustainability” that does not take this into account is pointless and fatally flawed .

The fiscal crisis currently facing the United States is, to a significant degree, driven by the dramatic increase in health care spending. US health care expenditures surpassed $2.3 trillion in 2008, more than three times that spent in 1990, and over eight times that spent in 1980 (CDC, 2010). The share of the U.S. economy that Americans spend on health care has increased from 7.2% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1970 to 17.6% of GDP in 2009 (CDC, 2010). Chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, obesity, cancer, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and Alzheimer’s disease – in other words, metabolic diseases – are taking a heavy toll on health while taking an increasing portion of the health care spending. Chronic diseases account for $3 of every $4 spent on healthcare. That’s nearly $7,900 for every American with a chronic disease (CDC, 2010).

Seventy percent of deaths in the US are due to chronic diseases (CDC, 2010). Chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease are the leading causes of disability and death in the US. About 25% of people with chronic diseases have some type of activity limitation, including restrictions in employment and education (Partnership for Solutions, 2004).

Conventional wisdom states that obesity increases the risk of developing conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.  An opinion informed by recent research understands that obesity is a metabolic disorder and is associated with other metabolic disorders, such as diabetes and heart disease. Obesity is not a cause of metabolic syndrome, it is one of metabolic syndrome’s conditions. This fundamental misunderstanding contributes to obesity epidemic we’re now experiencing .

The rate of obesity in adults has doubled in the last 20 years. It has almost tripled in kids ages 2-11. It has more than tripled in children ages 12-19 (CDC, 2011). Without big changes, 1 in 3 babies born today will develop diabetes in their lifetime (ADA, 2011). Average healthcare costs for someone who has one or more chronic conditions is 5 times greater than for someone without any chronic conditions (Partnership for Solutions, 2004).

Let’s look at the yearly costs due to a handful of conditions associated with metabolic syndrome:

        Heart Disease and Stroke $ 432 Billion (Mensah and Brown, 2007)
        Diabetes $ 174 Billion (ADA, 2011)
        Obesity $ 147 Billion (Finkelstein, et al., 2009)
        GERD (2005) $ 2 Billion / week, $ 104 Billion in lost productivity (IFFGD, 2008)
        All cancers, except lung and lymphoma $ 100 Billion
        Alzheimer’s  $ 148 Billion (AA, 2007)

More than 1 trillion US dollars are represented by this partial list of conditions now thought to be associated with metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is most effectively treated by adopting a low carbohydrate, high fat way of eating. It’s likely caused by eating diets high in carbohydrate (Taubes, 2008). Until that is officially accepted by the massive disease treatment industries and agencies, health care costs will continue to be unsustainable and will threaten the long-term sovereignty of this country. To say nothing of the pain and suffering of millions of people.

Given all this, “sustainable” food production looks a little different. Clearly “sustainable” production of grains, pulses (legumes), starchy vegetables and sugary fruit begs the question “Who cares if we can produce these sustainably if we can’t sustain the health impacts of consuming them?” And the issue of “sustainable” production of animal products begs the question “Can we produce enough of them?”

Grass grows were other crops can't.
Cattle grazing the slopes of the Columbia Gorge. 
The USDA’s Economic Research Service provides census statistics for the individual states. For 2007, they reported there were 44.3 million acres of pastureland, pastured woodland, and pastured cropland in the 26 states east of the Mississippi (including Wisconsin) (USDA ERS, 2011). How many people could be fed from animal products produced on those acres? To answer that question, you need to make some assumptions. One can argue these one way or the other, but they should serve well enough for this exercise.

Consumed forage dry matter (DM) yield pounds per acre (lb/A) = 12,500 (Hofstrand and Edwards 2009)
Conversion rate = 14 lb DM/lb carcass weight (Lincoln University)
Edible yield = 0.76 lb/lb carcass weight (Jackson Frozen Food Locker)
Cooked yield = 0.65 lb/lb edible yield (Canadian Beef)
Cooked meat per meal  = 4 ounces (oz) (Eades and Eades, 2000)
Meals per day = 3

Given the above, 1.6 people could be supported per acre. So if all of the various forms of pasture land east of the Mississippi were managed to this degree, we could feed 71.5 million people. The current population of the US is 307 million (US Census Bureau, 2011). What about the remaining 235.5 million people? How about if we added all of the various pasture land in Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Missouri? That would be enough to feed 108 million people. Okay, how about if we took all of the cropland in these states and converted it to pasture, bringing the totals to 247 million acres of pasture land would theoretically allow us to feed 398.2 million people.

That still leaves a great deal of the United States, but much of it will be less productive and it will be needed to produce the young growing animals needed by this vast pastoral enterprise. It should be pointed out that these assumptions are rather generous ones. They represent high forage DM yields and high levels of grazing management. In The Vegetarian Myth, Lierre Keith cites Joel Salatin’s production from 10 acres of his Polyface Farm in Virginia:

3,000 eggs
1,000 broilers
80 stewing hens
2,000 pounds of beef
2,500 pounds of pork
100 turkeys
50 rabbits

Keith calculates that this is enough to fully feed 9 people for a year. Compare this figure of 0.9 person persons fed per acre and the preceding exercise’s  value of 1.6 persons fed per acre. It should be pointed out that, while Salatin’s pigs and poultry are on pasture, he feeds grain to the pigs, chickens and turkeys. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve written before about how the differences between grain- and grass- finished animal products have been over-sold. But if we’re going to feed grain to livestock, it has to be grown somewhere. In my exercise, I assigned all of cropland east of the 95th meridian, and a bit west of it, to pasture.

Western Oregon pasture and hay ground.
Tremendous potential remains
There are 473 million acres of privately owned pastureland in the US . In addition, the Bureau of Land Management manages livestock grazing on 157 million acres of public lands (BLM,2011). Add to that the 361 million acres of cropland that could be converted into highly productive pasture, and one begins to see just how vast this country’s pasture resource is.

Anthony Bourdain poses a telling question in his book Medium Raw.

“If, somehow, we manage to bring monstrously evil agribusinesses like Monsanto to their knees, free up vast tracts of arable land for small, seasonal, sustainable farming, where’s all the new help coming from? Seems to me, we’re facing one of two scenarios. Either enormous numbers of people who’ve never farmed before are suddenly convinced that waking up a five a.m. and feeding chickens and then working the soil all day is a desirable thing. Or, in the far more likely case, we’ll revert to the traditional method: importing huge numbers of desperately poor brown people from elsewhere – to grow those tasty, crunch vegetables for more comfortable white masters. So, while animals of the future might be cruelty-free, which would allow those who can afford to eat them to do so with a clean conscience, what about life for thos who will have to shovel the shit from their stalls?”

It takes a while to become a good grazier. One really good pasture-based dairyman told me that a New Zealander told him it would take 20 years, and his experience has confirmed that estimate. Where are these folks going to come from? How will they get access to the land? How will they acquire the animals? It’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another to do it. It’s a blessing to be able to afford the extra cost of local, organic and/or sustainable food products, but what if that is not an option? And that, of course begs the question, “Is it worth it?”

And what about the 6.3 billion people in the rest of the world (CIA, 2011)? If the world’s population is going to feed itself appropriately, people will have to learn how to produce animal products that are appropriate to the regions where they live. Research and demonstration will be needed. This will require a great deal of new thinking, purged of the contamination of American dietary and environmental conventional wisdom.


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