Our focus in examining food is misplaced. We spend a whole lot of time discussing what food is not rather than what food is. Today’s news provides a good example.
Should you eat beef in pregnancy? A study about to be released in the journal Human Reproduction says you shouldn’t eat too much. A pregnant mom who eats a lot of beef will expose the fetus to the pesticides and hormones used in beef production. This exposure will lead to a low sperm count in boys.
The study was based on recall data – women reported their eating patterns to their grown sons (who were the actual study subjects) who reported them to the research team. Sons whose moms ate over seven beef meals a week had a 24% lower sperm count, so report the secondary sources. (Give me a nudge if you have the original study.)
In response to this article, consumers may either choose not to buy beef at all or to buy organic beef (since the feed is produced without pesticides and growth hormones are not used). But both of these choices would be coming from the wrong frame of mind, in my opinion.
Let’s buy food for what it is rather than for what it is not.
What does organic certification guarantee us? It makes guarantees about what the product is not: the cattle did not receive antibiotics, they were not given growth hormones, and their feed was not grown with pesticides.
We are not necessarily buying a more nutritious burger. Organic beef makes no assurances about nutrient levels. In fact, the organic label itself was not designed with this criterion in mind.
Furthermore, the difference between the organic and non-organic steer is not as great as you might imagine. In many situations, beef calves are kept with their moms, grazing on grass, until weaning age. Then they graze on more grass. (In our area that grass adjoins the Sequoia National Forest.) Finally, they are transported to a feedlot for finishing where their lifestyle becomes much more controversial. (The whole grass part may be a bit idealized based on weather and, of course, cows make their way to the dinner table at some point too and their stories are different. But the point is that you can find ranchers whose practices fit with the ideals of the organic movement.)
When you buy organic beef, you are paying a premium on that three month finishing period. And guess what? That three month period reduced the level of beneficial fatty acids in your steak.
If you want to avoid the non-organic grain feed and the growth hormones that concern consumers today, the cheaper way to do it is to buy a steer from a rancher before it is finished. It’s the same steer. It just won’t be as juicy. But it will have a slightly higher level of Omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA which is critical for the developing brain of the baby. To me, that feature of the steak is worth paying more for.
You May Actually Need Beef in Pregnancy
One problem with the news article about beef in pregnancy is that it makes no mention of what beef is – it is a food filled with nutrients that we need in pregnancy.
In fact, beef is a “depression buster food” because of its nutrient density. One key nutrient that makes beef stand out is its iron content. I have included a figure below of the depression-fighting vitamins and minerals in beef. Iron does not look all that impressive in the figure but what this figure does not show is that iron in beef is one of the most absorbable forms of iron you can eat.
There are many tricks you can use to improve your iron status with plant-based foods and I outline them in some detail in my free e-book on iron-rich foods. But when you see women who have struggled with low iron suddenly get energy boosts when they eat a steak, you have to wonder if some of us do actually need red meat.
For the many women who are iron-deficient in pregnancy, beef may be a key tool to recovery. The effects of too little iron are widely documented. These effects should concern you more than the beef study in the news.
Still Going to Avoid Beef?
So you see the beef in pregnancy study and decide not to eat beef in pregnancy. What are you eating instead? There are many paths to a nutritious diet, but most beef replacements are not going to get you there.
I used to eat “burgers” made from peas and corn. Peas have some nutritional value but nothing compared to a burger.
There are even more meat replacements on the market these days but many are made with soy beans. Soy is loaded with nutrients on its face but the nutrients are not as easily absorbed by our bodies. Read the excerpt from the book on phytic acid for more information. Soy also has high levels of natural hormones that have been implicated in reproduction problems in growing boys. So if this study scares you, soy probably should too.
If you choose to avoid beef, replace it with something that has a solid nutrient content. Lamb is a good choice. More exotic game like bison and elk would be good as well. To examine the nutrient content of other foods, the USDA food database is one place to look.
What Food Is
We all need to reduce our toxic exposure. The air alone in our part of California has led to very high rates of asthma. We are exposed in many ways to environmental toxins. When our livers process toxins, they need B-vitamins, zinc, and magnesium (depression-fighting nutrients) to do so. Toxic exposure can aggravate depression simply by using up our depression-fighting nutrients (though they may have an independent effect on depression as well).
Food is not your biggest source of toxins, but food is your only source of B-vitamins, zinc, and magnesium. Beef in particular is a very good source of B-vitamins and zinc. We need these nutrients if we are going to grow babies and if our bodies are going to be able to process toxins effectively.
So I do eat beef because of what it is. It is a meat packed with depression-fighting nutrients. In fact, the meat fills my freezer and is a good complement to the many other foods that I eat. The beef is not certified organic but you could have found the steer grazing in the middle of paradise just two months ago. It’s a good option for people who want to circumvent the beef production system or for people like me who know a guy with an extra steer.