| Food & Diet

What Is The Healthiest Meat?

By Tyler Woodward

For years, we've debated what the healthiest form of meat is. Poultry, red meat or fish? Does organic, grass-fed or pasture raised really make a difference? Does red meat really cause cancer? Here's the answer you've been waiting for...

Key Takeaways:

Breaking Down Meat:

To understand what makes one type of meat healthier than others its much easier to categorize the animals that we commonly eat.

  • Ruminant Animals - Ruminant animals make up the majority of red meat and include cows, sheep, lambs, bison, deer, and other close relatives. 
  • Pork - Pork is often considered to be a type of red meat, but it differs a lot from the meat of ruminant animals
  • Poultry - These are all types of birds including chicken, turkey and anything else you may consume.
  • Fish - Fish are a type of reptile that live in water we'll generalize fish into white fish and non-white fish.
    • White Fish: Include: Cod, Tuna, mahi mahi, pollock, halibut, rockfish, halibut
    • Non-White Fish: salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines
  • Shellfish - Shellfish are a type of invertebrate animal that include crabs, lobster, oysters, clams, scallops, octopus, squid, ect., Although they are not usually considered a type of meat, they are extremely beneficial to consume for reasons we'll get to.

Next, to qualify what is the "healthiest" meat we will break down the composition of each meat. Including the proteins, fats, micronutrients and any toxins that may be present. Lastly, after breaking down each section, we will rank the meats accordingly. So let's get into it.

Protein Composition:

Protein Composition

To understand what makes the best protein, we have to understand what differentiates one protein from another. Despite what you may think, not all proteins are created equal. Proteins are made up of hundreds of thousands of individual amino acids which bind together to form the large macromolecule we call protein. Proteins are the most diverse of the three macronutrient with thousands of various types of proteins being formed in the body and played many different roles in the body including:

  • Structure - The most abundant protein in the body, collagen, is used to build our soft tissue (ligaments and tendons), hair, nails, and even our stomach lining. 
  • Enzymes - Enzymes are a type of protein that allow for chemical compounds to be broken down or digested. For example, in order to break down lactose from milk into sugar, we need the lactase enzyme.
  • Transporters - Proteins are necessary in order to transport various molecules throughout the body. You’ve likely heard of LDL and HDL cholesterol, but in actuality these are protein molecules that transport cholesterol (low-density and high-density lipoproteins). Proteins are also responsible for transporting hormones, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. 
  • Immunity - Your immune system actually runs on proteins. When your body comes into contact with an external invader or an “antigen”, it develops protein antibodies, so it can better handle this invader in the future.
  • Muscles - Probably their most famous role, the proteins in muscle allow for muscle contraction. 

Each protein formed in the body has its own amino-acid chain, which is like the protein equivalent to DNA in animals. The amino acids present in the protein and the prevalence of each amino acid will largely determine its function. We separate the 20 most common amino acids into two categories:

  1. Essential Amino Acids - These are amino acids which our body cannot produce, so we must consume them in our diet. There are 9 Essential amino acids: 
  2. Nonessential Amino Acids - These are amino acids which our body can produce as long as it has sufficient energy and has enough of the essential amino acids.There are 11 nonessential amino acids:

*Note* - There are also tons of amino acid derivatives that aren’t placed into either of these categories, such as glycine, creatine, carnitine, and citrulline, which are all very beneficial to our health. 

Certain amino acids serve as direct precursors to other molecules in the body. For example, L-tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine, tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, and Histidine is a precursor to Histamine (an inflammatory amino acid). Depending on the hormonal end-products that result, we can further differentiate between amino acids as either being protective or destructive. 

  • Protective amino acids are pro-metabolic (encourage a higher metabolic rate), anti-inflammatory, and generally anabolic (causing growth). 
  • Destructive amino acids are anti-metabolic (decrease our metabolic rate) and inflammatory if consumed in excess (which is extremely common in modern-day diets).

Protective Amino Acids

Destructive Amino Acids

Glycine

Cysteine

Proline

Tryptophan

Taurine

Methionine

Tyrosine

Histidine

The quality and quantity of the amino acids in a meat will determine how good the protein found in the meat is. A higher ratio of protective amino acids to destructive amino acids will result in a higher quality meat. 

The Scoreboard: 

Type Of Meat

Ranking

Ruminant Animals

1

Shellfish

2

White Fish 

3

Poultry 

4

Pork

4

Non-White Fish

5

Justification:

  • Ruminant animals contain large amounts of the essential amino acids and a decent quantity of the protective amino acids, but also contain large amounts of methionine and cysteine.
  • Shellfish are extremely dense in protective amino acids like glycine and contain very little destructive amino acids, but do not contain a lot of protein.
  • White fish have a higher protein to fat ratio than other fish and are a decent protein source.
  • Pork & Poultry have a similar amino acid composition, but contain more tryptophan than ruminant animals and white fish.
  • Non-white fish have a much lower protein to fat ratio compared to white fish, but otherwise are a decent protein source.

    Read More: Proteins: The Macronutrients Guide

    Fatty Acid Composition:

    Fatty Acid Composition

    The second part of the healthiest meat equation is the fat composition of the meat. Amino acids are to protein what fatty acids are to fat. Unlike amino acids though, fatty acids are generally very similar in composition with one differentiating factor, their degree of saturation. 

    Saturation in fats refers to the amount of double bonds present in the fatty acid. For every double bond in a fatty acid, there is one less hydrogen molecule. So a fully saturated fat has the maximum amount of hydrogens and no double bonds. A monounsaturated fatty acid has one double bond and is “missing” one hydrogen molecule. Polyunsaturated fats contain multiple double bonds and they are “missing” many hydrogen molecules. 

    The more unsaturated a fat is, the less stable the fat is, this results in the unsaturated fats remaining liquid at low temperatures. This is why the majority of vegetable oils are liquid at room temperature due to their high concentration of polyunsaturated fats. Olive and avocado oils are heavily concentrated with monounsaturated fats and are usually solid up to about 50 degrees, compared to a temperature that is well below freezing for most polyunsaturated fats. Saturated fats like lard, ghee, and coconut oil are solid at room temperature because they are the most stable.  

    Unstable fats do have their advantages in certain animals and climates. Cold weather animals like fish require polyunsaturated fats because saturated fats would solidify at the cold temperatures in which they reside. When we consume polyunsaturated fats, our high body temperature causes the double bonds to break apart and oxidize, releasing free radicals and triggering stress and inflammation in response. The numbers in Omega-3, 6 and 9 fatty acids actually refer to how often double bonds occur. Omega-3 fatty acids have double bonds every 3 carbons and are therefore the least stable fatty acid, followed by omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids.

    All types of meats have some polyunsaturated fats, it’s just a matter of how much saturated fats there are relative to unsaturated fats. The higher the ratio of saturated fats to unsaturated fats, the more “healthy” the meat is because its fat profile is more stable. Additionally, the stable saturated fats help to stabilize the breakdown of the unsaturated fats in our body.  

    Animals Are What Animals Eat:

    Animals Are What Animals Eat

    You probably have not heard of this saying that I just made up. Just like 'you are what you eat', 'animals are what animals eat'. The fat content of an animal is largely determined by the food they eat. If fed seeds, nuts, and grains, which are high in unsaturated fats ,these animals will also be high in unsaturated fats. If fed more saturated fats, then these animals will be higher in saturated fats.

    Ruminant animals like cows, sheep, bison, deer, etc. are an exception to this rule., The special digestive system found in ruminant animals allows them to hydrogenate or “saturate” unsaturated fats, converting them largely into saturated fats. This is why grass-fed and grain-fed beef have a similar ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated fat. The major difference is that grass contains large quantities of the antioxidant Vitamin E that corn and other grains do not. This makes the unsaturated fats found in grass “healthier” for the cows, as in less stressful to consume.  This also makes beef from grass-fed cows healthier for us to consume because the potent antioxidant Vitamin E helps to cancel out any damage from oxidizing unsaturated fats. 

    Recently on a podcast I heard Dr. Raymond Peat talking about the change in quality of meat in his lifetime. If you ask  your parents or grandparents, they may remember that lard used to be sold as solid blocks due to the high degree of saturation in these fats. Now all lard and ghee products must be sold in containers because they are not as saturated and will be partially liquid at the top. This has to do with the change in feed that the pigs and cattle are receiving which results in high unsaturated fat content.  If we were to revert to feeding pigs a more saturated fat food source or if you can find farmers who do so, then these pigs will have a much higher ratio of saturated fats. The same idea applies to chicken, if we were to feed chickens less seeds and grains and allow them to naturally forage for themselves or feed them eat insects, they would again be much more saturated fat dominant.  

    Because chicken and pigs do not have the ability to "saturate" fatty acids, this gives beef and the meat of other ruminant animals a step up in terms of healthiness. 

    The Scoreboard:

    Type Of Meat

    Ranking

    Shellfish

    1

    Ruminant Animals

    2

    Poultry

    3

    Pork

    4 (Tie)

    White Fish

    4 (Tie)

    Non-White Fish

    5

    Justification:

    • Shellfish have little to no PUFA (polyunsaturated fats), but also do not contain much fat in general.
    • Ruminant animals have the highest ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated fats on this list due to their ability to "saturate" unsaturated fats
    • The fat content of Pork & Poultry is largely determined by what they are fed, but regardless they still tend to have more PUFA than ruminant animals. I placed poultry above pork because poultry generally is less fatty.
    • Fish generally have a very high PUFA content, but the warmer dwelling white water fish have much less PUFA than their cold water relatives.

    Read More: Fats: The Macronutrient Guide

    Micronutrient Composition:

    Micronutrient Composition

    When assessing the quality of a meat, we also need to assess the micronutrient profile of the meat, as in what vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and amino acids are found in the meat. Meats are basically the only viable source of obtaining fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K, so consuming some form of meat is nearly essential to maintaining a healthy diet. It is possible to get these vitamins in small quantities from fish, vegetable, or seed oils, but as stated before, the oils are highly unstable and often rancid by the time we consume them, so they are not a great source of these vitamins. Both red and white meats are also very dense in nutrients like zinc, calcium, iron, B12, carnitine, creatine, and taurine.

    It's worth noting that generally the micronutrient content of meat is pretty similar and is again largely dependent on their food source. Just like us most mammals cannot produce their own vitamins or any minerals internally, so they must rely on their food source to consume them. 

    It's also worth noting that the best mineral sources within meat is in their organs. Organs like heart, liver, thyroid and even brain are some of the most micronutrient dense foods on the planet. 

    Type Of Meat

    Ranking

    Shellfish

    1

    White Fish

    2

    Ruminant Animals

    3 (Tie)

    Pork

    3 (Tie)

    Poultry

    3 (Tie)

    Non-White Fish

    4

     

    Justification:

    • Shellfish are extremely micronutrient dense and generally do not contain large amounts of heavy metals
    • White fish are also very micronutrient dense foods, but you must be careful to get fish that do not contain a lot of heavy metals
    • Ruminant animals, Pork & Poultry contain a solid amount of micronutrients in their muscle meat, but if you add in their organ meats they would arguably be just as rich as shellfish and whitefish. 
    • Non-White Fish contain a similar amount of micronutrients, but are extremely like to be high in heavy metal content
    Read More: The War On Micronutrients | The Battle You Never Knew You Were Fighting

    The Farming Process

    Farming

    How the meat is cultivated and farmed is also extremely important in determining the quality of the meat. Part of the issue with grain-fed animals is that they are consuming grains that are coated in pesticides in order to protect the crops from pests. Many pesticides are endocrine disrupting chemicals that act as estrogenics or “estrogen mimicking” molecules. The estrogen mimicking molecules in pesticides are widely known to be carcinogens. Excess estrogen significantly ramps up the stress levels of the animals while also disrupting their natural endocrine function, resulting in hormonal imbalance. Add onto this the fake-estrogens among other chemicals that are injected into the livestock to increase their weight. These estrogenics fatten up the cows and increase their water retention, so that the cows weigh more. Cows are still sold by the pound, so the more the cow weighs, the more the farmer profits. 

    Additionally, in many large-scale farms they inject the animals with antibiotics in order to prevent the spread of illness. This may play a role with the increased rate of antibiotic resistance found in humans and I suspect may also inhibit the bacteria in their digestive system from “saturating” the unsaturated fats. 

    But Doesn't Red Meat Cause Cancer?

    Consuming Red Meat has been associated with increasing the rate of a number of cancers including: Colon and Rectum, Prostate, Pancreatic, Stomach. This is a correlation, not a causation. I would argue that red meat by itself does not cause cancer. Rather the pesticides and artificial hormones that we put into red meat which we then consume is likely causing this increased risk of cancer from eating red meat.  

     

    Food Quality: 

    This is why it is so important to purchase high-quality foods, particulary meats.

    • Organic - Ensures that the animals are fed with organically grown food (no pesticides) and that the animals are not injected with any artificial hormones and probiotics unless sick.
    • Grass Fed - Grass-fed cattle are given their natural food source of grass. This provides all the nutrients they evolved to consume over time and 
    • Free Range - This guarantees that cattle have adequate space to graze, resulting in a much healthier cow compared to their cage-bound relatives.
    • Pasture Raised - Pasture raised is the free range equivalent in chicken and pork, allowing the animals to have adequate space to roam. 

    High-Quality Meat

    Ranking

    Low-Quality Meat

    Ranking

    Shellfish 

    1

    Shellfish

    (rarely low quality)

    1

    Ruminant Animals

    2

    Pork

    2 (Tie)

    White Fish

    3 (Tie)

    Poultry 

    2 (Tie)

    Poultry 

    3 (Tie)

    Ruminant Animals

    (not including

    game meat)

    3 (Tie)

    Pork

    3 (Tie)

     White Fish

    3 (Tie)

    Non-White Fish

    4

    Non-White Fish

    4

    Justification:

    • Shellfish usually do not contain large amounts of heavy metals, so they are the least concerning
    • In mass farming I do not believe pork & Poultry are injected with antibiotics or artificial hormones nearly as much as cows
    • Ruminant animals in mass farms are consistently injected with hormones to fatten them up and prevent them from getting sick
    • White Fish are really hit or miss here depending on whether or not they are loaded with heavy metals.
    • Non-White Fish are extremely likely to be high in heavy metal content, particularly those that are farmed

    The Champion

    Meat

    Ranking

    Shellfish

    1

    Ruminant Animals

    2

    Pork

    (Tie)

    Poultry 

    (Tie)

    White Fish

    (Tie)

    Non-White Fish

    4

    Justification:

    1. Ruminant Animal, Pork & Poultry (Organ Meats) - Organ meats are  the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. There are certain vitamins and minerals that it is very difficult to get in your diet without consuming some form of organ meats like vitamins A, E, and K.  
    2. Eggs - If you can find eggs that are from chickens fed only saturated fats, not grain-fed, they will be extremely micronutrient dense, have a good amino acid profile and have lots of "good" cholesterol. 
    3. Shellfish - Shellfish come out near the top as the best type of meat, as you saw they ranked #1 in nearly every category. Although it would be extremely difficult and expensive to get all your necessary dietary protein from shellfish consistently. Additionally, it's important to get wild caught shrimp among other seafood, not farm raised.
    4. Ruminant Animals (muscle meats) - These big boys come in number 2. They are excellent sources of protein, contain large amounts of saturated fats and pretty nutrient dense. Just make sure to get organic, free range beef/bison or hunted wild game.
    5. Pork, Poultry (muscle meats) & White Fish - These three came in a three way tie. All three contain more PUFAs than ruminant animals, pork and poultry also contain larger quantities of tryptophan. White fish contain the most PUFAs, but are more micronutrient rich than pork and poultry. But again if you consume the organs of pork and chicken they are also very micronutrient dense. Make sure to buy organic, pasture-raised pork and chicken and wild white fish.
    6. Non White Fish - These cold water fish contain very large quantities of PUFA and I don't recommend consuming them frequently. They are decent sources of micronutrients and protein, but due to their high PUFA content and generally large concentration of heavy metals, I'd recommend staying away.

    Authors Notes- 

    It's worth mentioning that these ranking are my subjective opinion on what the best meats are based on scientific principles of biochemistry and physiology. In practice if you were to only consume organ meats and shellfish you could actually develop micronutrient toxicities from consuming too much of vitamins and minerals. I would say organic, grass-fed beef is definitely my go-to meat for consuming on a daily basis. Pork, poultry & white fish aren't perfect, but if you can get them from high-quality source they can definitely be great options. And last, but not least although I do not believe non-white fish are great health-wise, life's too short to not eat sushi on occasion. At the end of day, like most things in life, it comes down to balance.

    Thermo Diet

    If you're interested in learning how to eat a balanced diet for optimal health, increased energy, metabolism, and longevity, make sure to check out our Thermo Diet program on UMZUfit. The Thermo Diet delves deep into the theory of metabolic health and bioenergetics and teaches you what to eat, what to avoid and why.

    Conclusion:

    This article is a demonstration of my understanding of the rules that govern our existence as humans, as we exist today. I don’t make the rules, I’m just trying to understand them and it should be noted that these ideas and beliefs may change over time as we learn more about the human body.  My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across on this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. And please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.

    Thanks for reading!

    Until next time… be good

    ~Tyler Woodward
    B.S. Physiology & Neurobiology