7 Crucial Ways to Tell If Your Meat is Paleo or Not

grass fed paleo beef

The first time I ate a freeranging chicken of a heritage breed, not a caged, overfed white roaster,I could see while butchering it that even its skeleton was noticeably different. Built to run, this bird was almost all dark meat, with long legs and thin breasts. And the flavor! I thought I might have eaten a chicken that good in childhood.

I’ve had similar epiphanies eating pork and beef that lived the good life before going to slaughter. Experience has taught me that happy animals make for happy meat. Grazing herd animals, chickens with full run of the yard, pigs that forage for acorns, wild birds and fish and meat, are more flavorful, even more evocative, and, I am convinced, more nutritious as well as more delicious, and that this is no mere coincidence. We’re supposed to enjoy our food, but more often, food is just a bar of compressed gruel for powering through the next few hours. Paleo is a reaction against this overindustrialization of our lives.

Studying our ancient ancestors has taught us that meat was our first staple food, and continues to be the most important part of our healthy diets. But as important as meat is to the Paleo diet, many newcomers to the Paleo lifestyle, as well as fellow travelers who borrow ideas from us on what is healthy, are doing it wrong. Simply replacing commercial white bread with commercial pork chops isn’t going to make your diet Paleo, but there are other ways that your meat has to change.

Here are seven ways that, if you’re still eating the same meat that most Westerners are eating,
your meat isn’t Paleo.

1. Your grazing animals don’t eat grass.

The first place to make this switch is in your red meat choices. Large grazing animals should be the foundation of your diet, and they should eat mainly grass. grass fed beefWe’ve been eating various kinds of domestic cattle for about 9,000 years. In all that time, we could rarely afford to feed them anything but pasturage. Only in the past hundred years have we intensively fed grain to cattle, and they’re not designed to eat it any more than you are. Feedlot cattle suffer painful bloating and poor health from their filthy and cramped living conditions as well as their inhumane diet.

The solution: Choose grassfed beef. When you can, choose beef from grassfed heritage breeds and bison to more closely emulate the profile of ancient cattle.

2. Your meat isn’t wild.

Animals that fend for themselves have different nutritional profiles from those raised domestically. How much that differs can vary depending on how the animals are raised: the more wildlike the conditions, as well as the cultivar or species, the more wildlike the meat. Modern domestic cattle simply did not exist in the Paleolithic; neither did modern broiler hens.

The solution: Eat more meat from undomesticated species, and when you do eat domesticated meat, choose those raised in the most wild conditions.

3. Your fish is toxic or endangered.

Seafood is highly varied, nutritious, and can still often be found for sale in its wild forms. However, a great deal of popular seafood, from shrimp to tilapia, is farmed, and like industrially farmed meat, seafood farmed on large scales doesn’t eat a native diet.wild salmon recipe However, because of the nature of the toxins we have deposited in the oceans, mainly from burning coal, many species of wild seafood are considered dangerous to eat, while others have suffered so much depletion from overfishing that they are endangered.

The solution: Expand your knowledge of the species you eat from land based to aquatic livestock. Know where and how your favorites are typically produced, if they are farmed, whether they contain high levels of mercury or other toxins or are endangered, and whether alternatives exist. Avoid unsustainably harvested seafood. Expand your diet to include more species that are sustainably harvested or farmed there are biodynamic and small aquatic farming operations.

4. Your poultry doesn’t eat bugs.

Domestic chickens on small farms are fed supplemental grain as well as vegetables and even scraps of meat. Free ranging chickens spend their days foraging for insects to eat. They’re omnivores. Just as humans don’t thrive on an all vegetable diet, neither do chickens.

One result of industrial farming is that poultry are raised indoors, in barns, eat exclusively grains, and never get to engage in normal chicken behaviors: scratching in the dirt, foraging for bugs, preening themselves and taking dust baths, and spreading their wings, literally and figuratively. Birds bred for the outdoors, and which live healthy lives foraging, are more like the kinds of birds we’ve eaten for centuries than the birds most commonly sold in supermarkets and restaurants today.

The solution: Eat less poultry. It’s not a staple food because small animals are not fatty enough to sustain humans. When you do eat poultry, choose freeranging chickens. These are practically unavailable retail, because it’s uncommon to have a large, commercial, freerange chicken operation. Those that call themselves freerange often don’t have large enough yards to accommodate all their chickens, so they aren’t, practically speaking, freerange, if the chickens don’t use the yard. You’ll have to find a farmer nearby and check out the operation to be sure. The same goes for your eggs: choose eggs from freeranging hens for the most rich, delicious, and nutritious yolks.

5. You don’t eat the whole animal.

We humans didn’t get to where we are today by being wasteful. When the hunt was successful, we ate not just tenderloin, but heart, kidneys, and intestine, and we made a habit of it. In each human culture, there are recipes and traditions for the preparations of each part of the animals eaten, from roasts to bone stock.hunters and gatherers The proportions of liver, muscle, and fat that we eat when we eat from the supermarket case are dramatically different from when we would kill and prepare one animal and eat all of it, sooner or later.

If we believe that the differences between how we lived as hunter gatherers and how we live now accounts for the poor health of most Westerners (and I presume that is why you are reading this), then this is a significant difference. Man does not live by chops alone.

The solution: Buy whole animals when this is reasonable to do so. If you can, get an extra deep freezer so you can buy and store whole or half beeves, pigs, and seasonally available seafood and poultry. Seek out new ways to enjoy offal or other cuts with which you’re less familiar. The diet we ate before we became agriculturalists was wilder, wider, and more flavorful. Enjoy your food!

6. You choose lean meats.

It’s not just the types of animals you eat and how they were raised, but in what proportions we eat the parts. Nowadays, we choose tenderloin, not chuck, loin, not shoulder, breast, not thigh, tilapia, not eel. Our previous programming for a low fat diet, familiarity with the lowfat cuts we grew up eating, and their current ubiquity in the modern industrial foodscape mean we are choosing lean cuts of meat, and missing out on the nutrition, not to mention flavor and satisfaction, of eating animal fat.

7. You eat it alone.

In every culture, people eat together. They share food and mealtimes fulfill important social functions: to see and be seen, to belong, to share and ensure that everyone receives what they need. We take cues from watching one another on how slowly to chew, how much to choose, and which foods to prize.

The solution: Arrange to eat with coworkers at midday instead of at your desk. Offer to share your food with others. Face your family members over the dining room table instead of all orienting toward a screen. Talk about the food you’re eating: what it reminds you of, how it makes you feel, food combinations you enjoy. When you do have to eat alone, do it meditatively, with appreciation and attention. Eating is a time to enjoy being alive. Savor it!


Justin Cascio

Justin Cascio is a food and lifestyle writer. A founding editor of Trans-Health.com, he is currently senior editor at The Good Men Project. You can follow him on Twitter @likethewatch.

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  • jake3_14

    The main problem with eating the kinds of animals you describe is the prohibitive price for people in major urban and suburban areas. Demand for healthy animals is so high, that combined with the costs of land and time to raise animals properly, that prices are simply out of reach for even the vanishing middle class in the U.S. The paleo movement would be far bigger if it made it OK to eat CAFO meats. It’s still far better than the high-carb paradigm recommended by officialdom.

    • Justin Cascio

      We used to spend about twice as much on food, by income, in this country, and not very long ago: when my parents were kids. Food’s changed dramatically since then too, and for the worse. It’s not worth the cost savings to eat cheaply, when you consider what it will cost you in health and in medical costs, down the road. The Paleo movement giving the imprimatur to eat CAFO would be the end of it: there’s nothing Paleo about eating CAFO.

      Getting people to eat more vegetables and less sugar wouldn’t hurt. Why not support that before leaping to the solution of cruelty and antibiotic based meat? Most Americans could stand to simply eat less.

    • Cheui May

      I’m injured and not working. I live with my boyfriend and between our SS and the part time job he has and a couple of stock dividends I have, we’re able to have all organic, grass fed, wild, and pastured base food. Please believe me when I tell you that the total of all our income is not high, but I find that if you shop carefully, you can get cheaper cuts of grass fed meats. I just option for the cheaper cuts like beef shank for stews and I buy a lot when something is on sale. I get whole chickens instead of chicken breasts, wild caught whole shrimps with the heads and fish heads from the Chinese supermarkets . The heads are the most nutritious part. For me, there is no choice. My skin breaks out every time I deviate from eating this way. The minute I have any wheat, the pimples and rashes come. You may not be able to change over completely, but if you just take the first step, you’ll find that for some miraculous reason, you have the money to paid for it. I knew a remarkable man who started a film distribution business in his father’s dry cleaning plant. Every day he would worry about how he was going to pay the bills. One day, he decided to just tell himself that everything’s going to turn out fine and he kept telling himself that no matter what happens and to his surprise, everything did turn out fine. When I met him, he had sold his film distribution business and the year that he sold it, it made 1.6 million dollars.

    • Oranges

      While I agree that it is more expensive, our eating habits have changed, especially in America. Due to the lower prices of CAFO meats, Americans have adapted to eating meat for EVERY meal. This never used to be the case. We eat huge portions and then complain that the meat which is good for us is just as expensive as it has always been. Firstly you don’t have to eat meat for every meal, and you certainly don’t have to eat it every day. Paleo allows you a wide variety of food sources, use them! And with offal (which is supremely good for you) its ridiculously cheap! Salads, fruits, some nuts, and some meat – you don’t have to have a 16oz steak for dinner every day.

    • Gif

      Offal and soup bones are cheap. If you want good prices you need to actually seek them out. Talk to people, research online, check for urban farms, watch for sales… I like to think of it as a donation, to encourage ethical, transparent, healthy farming practices.

    • jake3_14

      “We used to spend about twice as much on food, by income, in this country, and not very long ago: when my parents were kids.”
      Real wages have been stagnant or declining since the 80’s. The minimum wage reached its peak purchasing power in 1968 and would have to be $22.00/hr today to have equivalent purchasing power. The U.S. median income is around $55K. In the meantime, housing, transportation and energy costs have gone up dramatically in the past 20 years.

      Prices for traditionally-raised meats in my area are completely unreasonable: $7.00/doz. for pastured eggs, $7.00/lb for pastured chicken, $4.50/lb for pastured pork (if you can afford to buy and store 1/2 a pig), $5.75/lb for grass-fed beef (if you can afford to buy and store 1/4 of a cow), if you’re willing to drive 50–70 miles (one way) to the butcher that processes the meat. If you want even a grass-fed chuck roast from any grocery store, you’ll pay $7.99/lb. In my area, there is exactly one butcher shop, within a 50-mile radius that sells both the marrow and knuckle bones required for bone broth and offal from grass-fed cows. And @Gif, the bones are $4.99/lb and the ground liver is $5.99/lb — not cheap. I pay for the bones and liver, because there just aren’t any acceptable substitutes.

      I’m not eating a cow for dinner every night; I’m limiting my protein to 80–90g of animal protein/day, as recommended by a few of the low-carb protein calculators on the web.

      Urban farming is not an option for us apartment dwellers.

      I stand by my earlier assertion that premium nutrition is out of reach for many, if not most Americans.

    • Kayu

      Intermittent fasting makes eating higher quality food more affordable: after Sunday dinner I don’t eat again until Tuesday night. Wednesday – Friday consists of only dinner. Saturday and Sunday 2 meals. I look at IF as part of a lifestyle that emphasizes simplicity: I know people who give lip-service to simplicity but can’t go 2 hours without stuffing something in their pieholes.

    • http://forusnaturals.com Aisa

      I agree with jake3_14. Its unfortunate that a lot of this meat is out of reach. I do get my grass fed meat from Whole foods and I get what’s on sale which is no cheaper 8.99 lb. I don’t buy anything more expensive than 9.99lb. I make above minimum wage and still only make $20,000 a year- more than 30,000 less the supposed median income. I have to eat more CAFO than grass fed because I just can’t afford it. I go through my $200 food budget in one shopping visit and probably come out with 5 pieces of meat. Thats not enough for the month. I buy foodstamps from someone in order to have that $200. I don’t even have children or it would be even worse. Its really not fair that I don’t have any real access to healthy meat choices. Visiting farms is also not reasonable. Where would I find a farm or gas money to go to said farm over and over again? I live in a studio apt so a deep freezer isn’t likely either. I guess I have to get MORE jobs if I wanna live but will life feel worth living if all I do is work to eat and then have to sleep in all my free time?

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  • Fi Everitt

    I have not bought battery eggs since the 1970s because a friend working in the industry told me about how dreadful the practice is. Anyway, a year ago I adopted six ex battery chickens from the local animal rescue centre. When I got them they did not know how to scratch, they were weak and pale, they had scabby feathers. It was pitiful. Anyway, a year on and they are healthy, fast running, scratchers. They love their dust baths, they love scoffing the worms and centipedes that I turn over when digging the garden. There is something very wonderful about holding a nice warm freshly laid egg and then turning it into a good old British breakfast. Plus my skin and health are improving since turning back to paleo foods.

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    • http://www.giryagirl.com Adrienne GiryaGirl Harvey

      Same here — I’ve altered my food budget to be bigger and have never looked back. While some may see my food as expensive, I feel more like I can’t afford NOT to eat this way.

  • samc

    The question is how can you tell if it is grass fed? Trusting the store is not always a sure way to know. I’ve routinely found stores using conventional corn fed instead of GF or selling you conventional pork instead of local raised pork. The local stuff is tender and delicious compared to the conventional pork which is tough and chewy without taste.

  • Cmoni

    Thanks this is good information however I believe it to be a bit elitist. A large part of the paleosphere tends to be elitist as a matter of fact, but that is another post. Many people can’t just switch out their choice protein when they don’t have much choice to begin with. Many don’t have access to grocery stores that carry grassfed and free range meats for a reasonable price in their immediate area. Ordering online may not be an option either since everyone does not have a debit/CC card. Choosing a paleo certified protein and making healthier foods accessible to EVERYONE is far from the simple issue that it appears…

    • ida jane works

      I agree. I try…have chickens,garden,ect., but not always. Ill keep on plugging.

  • http://highsteaksfarming.com.au Anthony

    Hi, I like what you’re saying here about meat. There is so much variation between different meat sources, mostly dependent on how they animals are raised. On our farm in Australia, we raise our animals to live as closely as is possible to wild animals, particularly in terms of their diet. We also set our prices in line with what a butcher sharges for conventional feed lotted beef and lamb. This is possible and it makes the meat really suited for the paleo diet.

  • Brad

    Domesticated cattle and poultry today aren’t paleo anyway, and neither are most vegetables one would find. The grasses on which ruminants graze are often much different as well. Does this mean anything as far as our nutrition? No, but then, neither does the entire idea of eating paleo. The health benefits from such these kinds of fad diets derive from watching what one eats, particularly in striving for balance and minimizing processed foods, not from some magic secret or poring over the semantics of whether something is technically a cereal (wheat) or pseudocereal (quinoa).

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  • http://billcalhoun.com bill calhoun

    Help those of us Americans stationed overseas.
    I’m stationed in Singapore. I’d like to find the best
    choices for Paleo here…any advice?

  • http://www.obeorganic.com/2014/03/welfare-of-livestock-is-paramount-to-obes-organic-beef Livestock Wellfare

    When you buy grocery store meat you are buying more water than when you buy dry- aged, grass fed beef. This also affects the tenderness and taste of the meat, which is why high end steakhouses prefer dry-aged grass fed steaks.obeorganic.com do visit for sure..

  • Laura

    I’m puzzled that you say it’s hard to find free-range chickens in (presumably) the USA. Here in the UK, free-range chicken is in ALL supermarkets – and we have FAR less space here than the USA!! Weird.

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