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Paleo, primal,and many other low-carb diets emphasize eating meat, but which meat is best? Some kinds of meat really are healthier than others, and the best choices may surprise you.

What could be a more primal diet than eating lots of meat? Most devotees of paleo diets, Mark Sisson's Primal diet, and Drs. Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet's Perfect Health Diet are sure that eating meat is the way to go, but the simple fact is that some meats are better than others

The reasons are (1) potential toxicity and (2) getting the right kinds of fat in the right amounts.

What Could Be Toxic About Meat or Fish?

A few protein foods are obviously toxic, for example, blow fish, puffer fish, or fugu. There are also certain kinds of South American frogs that should not even be touched, much less eaten. And there are a few kinds of meat, such as chicken grown in giant coops, cattle finished on feedlots, and hogs raised in giant crowded pens that just shouldn't be eaten because of the environmental ills associated with their production.

However, the kinds of toxins that appear in the meat and fish most of us eat every day are more subtle. Some toxins are added by industrial agriculture. Other toxins are added in preparation and processing. And still other toxins are inherent in the meat itself.

Toxic Agriculture

About 30 years ago, chicken farmers learned that their birds didn't peck at each other as much, and gained weight on less feed, if they were fitted with pink contact lenses.

As surreal as it may sound, poultry producers hired laborers whose only job was to put the teeny tiny contact lenses in the eyes of young chickens so that they would fatten up faster. At least you weren't likely to find a contact lens in your bucket of KFC.

However, in the twenty-first century consumers actually are exposed to a variety of medications given to chickens when they eat most brands of supermarket chicken. Birds are given Benadryl (diphenhydramine, the allergy medication) to sedate them in their cages. If you feel a little drowsy or droopy after you eat chicken, maybe your body is responding to the Benadryl in the bird.

In the United States, about 90% of commerically produced chickens are fed tiny doses of arsenic, because it kills parasites and makes the meat look more attractively pink in the package.

You would have to eat enormous amounts of chicken to get arsenic poisoning, but there are other sources of arsenic in the modern American environment, and arsenic exposure adds up.

And in China, as hard as it may be to understand, chickens are medicated with Prozac so they won't get depressed in their cases.

Chinese chickens show up in canned goods. If you have to eat canned chicken, maybe your life is generally depressing, but do you really want to get your medications from chicken salad?

Toxic Processing

Other meats can be made toxic during processing. Red meat, as will be explained on the next page, isn't as inherently unhealthy as was once understood. However, the processing of red meat and pork can be a major problem.

Many processed meats, especially lunch meats, contain hefty doses of salt, sugar, and preservatives known as nitrates.

If you are on a paleo or primal diet, you already know about the problems with salt and sugar. The toxicity of the nitrates could be counteracted just by eating more foods that are naturally rich in vitamin C--except that sugar and nitrates combine in ways to produce advanced-glycation end products, the same toxic compounds that the body generates during diabetes.

That's part of the reason why people who eat lots of sugar-cured meats and lunch meats have a vastly higher rate of type 2 diabetes. It's important to steer clear of both factory-raised chicken and sugar-cured or nitrate-cured meats, even that paleo favorite, bacon. (Just eat bacon that isn't sugar cured or treated with nitrates.)

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Institutes of Medicine. Dietary reference intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein, and amino acids. Washington, DC: National Academics Press, 2002.
  • Micha R, Michas G, Lajous M, Mozaffarian D. Processing of meats and cardiovascular risk: time to focus on preservatives. BMC Med. 2013 May 23. 11:136. doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-136. PMID: 23701737.
  • Photo courtesy of Michael Newton by Flickr :
  • Photo courtesy of Sonya by Flickr :

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