Chicken or Beef: Which is the “Healthier” Protein?

How many times have you heard it?

“Don’t eat too much red meat, it causes cancer”, or “Make sure not to have meat more than twice per week, in order to ensure you will not get too much saturated fat and risk heart disease” or whatever the recommendation may be.

Indeed, the assumption often tends to be that by default, a skinless, boneless chicken breast is the ‘healthier’ option versus beef.

Mainstream sources, such as WebMD, have recommendations such as “Chicken has well-documented health benefits, but different parts and preparation methods factor into how healthy your chicken-based meal turns out. Darker cuts like the thigh and drumstick contain higher caloric content than lighter cuts like the breast. Keeping the skin or frying chicken will also add saturated fat. If you’re switching out red meat for chicken, you’ll want to stick with chicken breast, as it’s the healthiest cut of the bird.” (1)

The World Cancer Research Fund (2) states: “If you eat red meat, limit consumption to no more than about three portions per week. Three portions is equivalent to about 350–500g (about 12–18oz) cooked weight.”

And the American Heart Association, on their site (3) advises: “n general, red meats (such as beef, pork and lamb) have more saturated fat than skinless chicken, fish and plant proteins. Saturated fats can raise your blood cholesterol and  increase your risk of heart disease. If you eat poultry, pork, beef or other meats, choose lean meat, skinless poultry, and unprocessed forms. Note: Eating a lot of meat is not a healthy way to lose weight, especially if you have or are at risk for heart disease.”

But not a one mentions the sourcing of the protein which, to say is an important factor is a gross understatement.

Placing all meat, and chicken for that matter, under one category without separating pasture-raised, grass-fed and finished, and of course, organic, which is important but not the end all, means a burger from McDonalds would be on the same list as a locally and properly sourced steak.

Kind of like listing ketchup in the same group as a garden fresh tomato.

It’s not just the impact that raising animals humanely has on their own lives, it’s the effect that a proper, natural diet to the animals has on the environment as well as the result ingesting their meat has on our bodies.

Let’s start with some MUST KNOW statistics:

Factory farming, for both cattle and chickens, as well as pigs is growing in number, according to the Environmental Working Group. (4) “A concentration of livestock in larger numbers produces more animal waste, which often pollutes our water and air. These environmental damages are also dangerous for public health, with toxins from animal manure sickening people and poisoning wildlife; the largest livestock operations are also bad for the climate. Cows release methane to the atmosphere through their burps, and cattle and hog manure releases methane and nitrous oxide, two greenhouse gases more powerful than carbon dioxide. “
An average broiler chicken diet is composed of 42.8% corn and 26.4% soybeans for protein, and about 14% bakery meal. Egg-laying hens get more corn in their diet, about 53%, and about 30% comes from soybeans and bakery meal (5).
Grass-fed labeling for beef on its own is not enough; sustainable meat is grass fed AND FINISHED. “Grass-fed’ is a term that can be applied to cattle raised for meat when they are raised in pastures for the first few months or first year of their lives, but 96% are soon moved to feedlots to live in crowded pens with hundreds, or thousands, of other cattle. They are fed diets of corn and soy, which are highly fermentable and carbohydrate-rich, and often medicated with antibiotics, growth hormones, and buffers. Beef cows are fed around 57% corn, and dairy cows around 39% corn, rather than forage as their main source of feed (6).
In the “what will they think of next” category, feedlot nutritionists have been experimenting with substituting kitchen pot scrubbers for hay. Feedlot cattle need some roughage in their diet in addition to the grain concentrate or they will become sick and gain weight more slowly. But why bring in all that bulky hay, reasoned investigators, when pot scrubbers might do the trick? To test this novel idea, the scientists fed a group of steers a high-grain diet and then inserted either zero, four, or eight plastic scrubbers into each animal’s rumen (stomach). The experiment appeared to work. “From day 113 to 152, steers provided with pot scrubbers had 16% greater average daily gain than those fed the 100% concentrate diet without pot scrubbers.” (7).

You get the idea. The chances of the chicken, beef and pork on your plate, unless you’ve purchased them directly from a local farmer you know, being treated deplorably, to say the least is extremely high.

So is the answer to become vegan? To each their own, of course, but simply shifting to foods labeled as vegan is far from the solution. It’s a choice I made and followed for a solid two years, much to my own detriment.

Until I learned how crucial it is to source properly. To boycott ALL meat does not solve the problem – that in itself does not allow the support of the farmers and ranchers who are doing things consciously, who are in great need of our support.

On a more positive note:
Chickens and cattle can be of great benefit to each other when raised together on pasture. Ideally, the cows graze the pasture first, followed by the chickens a few days later. The chickens eat the fly larvae that are just emerging from the fresh cattle manure, reducing or eliminating the need for chemical fly control. In addition, the chicken manure increases the protein content of the pasture. Glen Fukomoto from the Cooperative Extension Service on the Big Island of Hawaii found that four weeks after being grazed by chickens, the grasses were 37 percent higher in protein. (20 percent versus 14 percent.) The cows were treated to this extra helping of protein the next time they grazed the pasture. And since the chickens were raised drug-free, their manure was free of toxins. The cattle got no hidden surprises (8).

So what’s the answer to the original question?

To compare beef versus chicken simply by calories, fat, and cholesterol per serving in an attempt to qualify which is healthier is an incomplete analysis.

Many more factors must be considered, most importantly, where the animal came from, what it ate and how it was treated.

And then it needs to be individualized. Culture, religion, availability and diversity in terms of what foods cycle in and out of your family’s diet must be considered.
And don’t forget one very crucial input: what is your body asking for?

We often unlearn to listen to the very signals that, if we were to tune in, would guide us so perfectly to choosing the specific food that our body needs right at that time.

Source well, stay local and seasonal and keep it varied.’

Steer clear from mass-produced, highly refined and processed foods as well as ingredients you cannot pronounce.

All else can go by the wayside, to the benefit of our bodies, our animals and our planet, regardless of which, or if, you opt to align yourself with any particle diet approach.

(7) (Loerch, S. C. (1991). “Efficacy of plastic pot scrubbers as a replacement for roughage in high- concentrate cattle diets.” J Anim Sci 69(6): 2321-8.)