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When it comes to mealtime, few foods are as sacrosanct as meat. But anyway you slice them, the wrong choices have health and environmental repercussions.

Photo by istockphoto.com

A generation or two ago, if you were serving up a juicy steak or plump chicken for dinner, there was a good chance it came from an animal raised by a local farmer whose livestock roamed on idyllic acreage, stuffing themselves as nature intended. But with the proliferation of mega meat factories where animals are pumped full of drugs and cheap, genetically modified grain, eating too much meat may not only be bad for your health, it has serious environmental impacts. Excessive concentrations of livestock sets up a scenario for land degradation, polluted waterways, sky-high carbon emissions and poor animal welfare.

Yet, runners should not lose their appetites as meat provides muscle-mending protein, energizing iron and other nutrients that bolster performance and recovery. The key is to understand the issues and make smarter choices. Here’s how to score the best meat for your body and the planet.

The problem: Cattle are left hungry for grass
While feeding cattle cheap grains fattens them up faster for slaughter and allows for cheap beef at the grocer, it also means a lot less nutritious meat. Plus, grain-fed cattle are more likely to harbor bacteria including dangerous E. Coli, which raises the risk of food poisoning.

Your move: Splurge for grass-fed
A recent study by California State University researchers determined that grass-fed beef has significantly higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fats than their grain-fed counterparts. By helping quell inflammation, these omega-3s may help runners during periods of intense training and competition.

Other perks of the grass-fed stuff are not only less cholesterol-elevating saturated fatty acids and inflammatory omega-6 fats, but more of a beneficial fat called conjugated-linoleic acid (CLA), which may help reduce body-fat storage, and boasts disease-fighting antioxidants vitamin E and glutathione. Gastronomes and chefs also laud animals that nibble on turf for having better flavor and texture.

You can often find grass-fed beef at farmers’ markets, specialty butchers and larger grocers such as Whole Foods.

The problem: Birds are under house arrest
The vast majority of chickens and turkeys intended for the butcher spend their lives indoors, often crammed in cages where they are fed everything from corn to animal guts spiked with antibiotics. This produces nutritionally inferior meat and eggs, not to mention raises animal-welfare concerns.

Your move: Locate true free-range fowl
Birds that are allowed to forage outdoors deliver meat and eggs richer in vitamins, healthy fats and flavor. But determining if your scrambled eggs came from a bird that really soaked up the sunshine is almost a Sisyphean effort, as labels provide no clear answers (see Label Lingo).

The only real way to be sure your eggs or poultry come from free-range birds is to visit a local farm and see the operation for yourself or ask an egg farmer plenty of questions at your local farmers’ market. You can also visit www.eatwild.com or www.eatwellguide.org to locate a free-range farmer near you. If you have a favorite supermarket brand of eggs or chicken breast, you can try calling the company and querying them about their bird raising guidelines, but many big operations are less than forthcoming.
The problem: Animals are druggies
Today, most livestock that ends up under shrink-wrap spent their lives in extremely cramped and filthy conditions, breading grounds for disease. To stay alive and productive, they are given antibiotics—a staggering 29-million pounds yearly, according to the FDA. And that doesn’t include what’s tossed into salmon farms—the feedlots of the seas. Overuse of antibiotics on farm animals leads to antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could diminish the usefulness of antibiotics that treat us.

Plus, much of the beef produced in the United States is pumped with natural and synthetic growth-inducing sex hormones in the name of faster profit. Residues of these hormones then taint the meat, which has raised the concern for heightened risk of reproductive cancers. Yet, meat is still not monitored for hormone residues and studies looking at their impact on human health are surely lacking.

Your move: Go for the big O
The USDA Organic label is your guarantee that the animals were not given any antibiotics or hormones. A recent study in Environmental Health Perspectives determined that organic poultry operations, which are not allowed to give antibiotics to their birds, had significantly lower levels of drug-resistant bacteria than their conventionally raised counterparts. If you’re concerned with antibiotics in salmon, choose wild swimmers.

The problem: The oceans are under siege
A raft of studies suggests that reeling in more fish for dinner can help slash the risk for many diseases, particularly if you nosh on sardines, sablefish, salmon and others that are chockablock with omega-3 fatty acids. These same omegas have demonstrated to have exercise performance benefits as well. Sadly, overfishing and destructive fishing methods are rapidly transforming our oceans into a humongous ghost town as species such as bluefin tuna are on the brink of collapse. Plus, harmful mercury and other pollutants are turning some fish species into swimming bullets.

Your move: Cast your line for sustainable options
Concentrate on eating seafood deemed “Eco-Best” by the Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector at www.edf.org. The guide features fish and shellfish that get high-water marks for health (low toxin risk) and sustainability (not overfished) such as sablefish, wild Alaskan salmon and Pacific sardines. Among others, you’ll want to cut bait on red snapper, imported shrimp, bluefin tuna, farmed salmon and Chilean sea bass.

LABEL LINGO: Food packages are blooming with label claims that are designed to pull at your green strings. But a number of industry-pandering loopholes often water them down. Here’s what those claims on animal products really mean.

USDA Organic. Organic meat, eggs and dairy products come from animals fed 100-percent organic feed containing no animal by-products, antibiotics or growth hormones. Unfortunately, the certification lacks any real teeth regarding animal welfare or safe working conditions. Plus, cattle and poultry may or may not have been allowed to forage outdoors.

Certified Humane. A third-party organization sets rigorous standards addressing food, shelter and compassionate slaughter. It does not guarantee either access to the outdoors or the absence of drug use.

Hormone-Free. The FDA allows hormones to be pumped into cattle to spur growth and milk production, so the Hormone-Free label is just that. Hormones are not allowed in poultry and pork, so a “hormone-free” claim is irrelevant.

No Antibiotics. Used on labels for poultry and meat products if the animals were raised without antibiotics, but is not a guarantee against hormone use in beef production.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Sustainable. Canned fish, fish fillets and other seafood products bearing the third-party MSC seal is your assurance that the swimmers come from abundant, well-managed stocks (e.g., wild Alaskan salmon) and are harvested without using ocean killing methods (e.g., no bottom trawling allowed). The certification does not assure your catch of the day is free of contaminants such as PCBs and mercury.

Grass-Fed. The claim means that animals such as beef and lamb were raised on a lifetime diet of 100-percent grass and forage with access to pasture during most of the growing season. Except for certification from the American Grassfed Association, the standard does not exclude the use of antibiotics and hormones. The USDA has verified only products with the “USDA Process Verified” shield along with the claim, “U.S. Grass-fed.”

Free-Range. Producers are free to use this sunny logo if their animals have access to the outdoors, but the ease of this access and the amount of time they actually spend in the sunshine is unregulated. And “range” can mean anything from a large grassy field to a narrow pathway between barns to a small concrete slab. “Cage-free” means just that, the birds live outside of cages but this often means marginally better wing-to-wing crowding in a shed.

rBGH-Free. These products are from cattle not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which is used to increase milk production. Buying organic dairy products is another way to avoid rBGH.

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