The relationship between heart health and the consumption of animal fat and protein has been a source of debate for decades. We’ve been presented with quite a few theories about the role of fats and proteins in our diets over the years. Unfortunately, the ones that gained popularity with the USDA back in the 1970’s and the ones that we are most familiar with today are called the “lipid hypothesis” and the “heart-diet hypothesis.”
Both basically placed the source of heart disease to the eating of animal fats and proteins. In a nutshell, the theories made eating meat a guilty pleasure; one that should be indulged in rarely and without fanfare. The result of this trend was that people swapped out meat for low fat, high carb, high sugar foods, and that heart disease — as well as obesity and other food-related health issues — actually increased, rather than decreased under the low-fat diets. As we know today, replacing traditional proteins with highly processed carbohydrates has some negative consequences.
Once people began scrutinizing the eating habits of different, healthy cultures across the globe, contradictions to these theories arose.
Take, for instance, the “French paradox.” The French have a tendency to consume large amounts of animals fat in the form of traditional foods — such as butter, foie gras, charcuterie, aged cheese, lamb, beef, pork, fish, and more. If the lipid hypothesis were true at face value, we would see a measurable rise in heart disease in this population over other cultures who shifted to diets with a lower animal fat intake. But the French typically live healthier, longer lives than those who’ve limited the number of fats and proteins that make up their diets.
There are other possible factors into why the incidence of heart disease wasn’t greater in France. For instance, the roughly 10 gallons of red wine the average French citizen consumes in a year could play a role as well as the fact that the French have more healthy, traditionally raised animals and less factory farming.
To add to the pushback against the lipid and heart-diet theories, came the Japanese paradox which found a low incidence of heart disease in the average Japanese citizen who eats almost half a pound of fish per day. More examples followed: the Greek paradox, the Spanish paradox, and the Italian paradox, are all related to similar findings in a traditional Mediterranean diet. Why aren’t diets high in fat and protein a problem in the Netherlands, Finland, Yugoslavia? What about the Inuit, who had virtually no heart disease despite traditionally deriving approximately 50% of their calories from fat, 30–35% from protein and 15–20% of their calories from carbohydrates, largely in the form of glycogen from the raw meat they consumed.
The list goes on and on. There are so many exceptions to the lipid hypothesis that it is hard to digest it (no pun intended) as fact.
Is it possible to find some balance between what constitutes a healthy diet with fats and proteins included? As farmer/nutritionist Diane Rodgers likes to say, “It’s not the COW, it’s the HOW!”
What does that mean? It means that at a chemical level, the differences between the DIETS of feedlot-raised beef and grass-fed/grass-finished beef are so noticeable that we should probably have a different vocabulary to talk about them at the foundational level. The difference in quantities of omega-3s, CLAs, and fat-soluble vitamins are significant enough that the argument can reasonably be made that some red meats can help to prevent heart disease.
How is this possible?
Some of the new science suggests that the more omega-6 fatty acids you consume, the more likely you are to suffer from ailments such as diabetes, heart disease, and more. The key for many nutritionists is having more omega-3 fatty acids into balance the omega-6s. Ideally, lowering omega-6s is better for your health, but making the ratio more in balance is beneficial as well.
How does that apply to the pigs we raise? In 2017 Singing Prairie Farms ran a study to document the omega-3 fatty acid content of pork based on the quantity of green forage consumed. The results showed that just like grass-fed beef, the more forage a pig eats, the better the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 and, therefore the better the meat is for you.
Just for some background, we were able to run this study in conjunction with Clemson University in South Carolina. We sent meat samples — of uniform size and representative of the herd at large — to the university meat science laboratories. At the lab, the scientists tested the samples to get their omega-3 to omega-6 ratios. We actually needed a Ph.D. nutritionist to explain the results, which we reformatted in a manner that is more readable and which we can share with other farmers.
(It should always be cautioned that finding 100% forage and grass-fed pork is a near impossibility and warn consumers not to mistake the term “pasture-raised” with “grass-fed.”)
The results of the study were quite interesting.
Conventional (factory-farmed) pork had an Omega 6:3 ratio of 29:1. Our Singing Prarie Farm group of pigs that ate a regular non-GMO grain ration, but were rotated onto pasture had a significantly improved ratio of 14:1. The group of pigs on a 50% reduced grain ration, but ate a ton of grasses and cover crops as forage came back with the ratio of 10:1 Finally, the pigs raised with no grain at all —but ate a LOT of forage, and were supplemented with organic milk powder and dried fruit — came back with an incredible omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 5:1.
More research is needed, but these numbers are a powerful indicator that animals raised outdoors and on pasture have a totally different profile than pigs raised in confinement indoors.
The reasons we undertook this study were two-fold. One, we wanted to find the sweet spot for forage consumption and rate of gain from a production perspective. Second, we thought having this data would bolster our fellow farmers who are selling pork at farmers’ markets to have an extra arrow in their quiver when asked to justify their higher price point to customers for their delicious and nutritious pork.
Now, they can tell customers that not only are their pigs being raised under better conditions that require more labor BUT also they have substantially better nutritious value — in terms of omega-6 to omega-3 ratio — than their grocery store counterparts.
We just hope this brings pasture-based pork production to the forefront of the national conversation on healthy eating and keeps small farmers and family farms financially sustainable.
Also, as the old adage goes, you are what you eat. And, it seems more and more, your health may rely on what your food EATS.
This is a guest post from ButcherBox farmer John Arbuckle of Singing Prairie Farms. John’s pork is used for ButcherBox breakfast sausage as part of our boxes, which you can order here. The thoughts and opinions are informed by the John’s experience raising pigs in Missouri and now Maine.