The various guises of meat provide essential amino acids necessary for muscle recovery, iron to energize working muscles and zinc to boost immune defense during intense training. But not all meats are created equal—here’s how to select the best products for your body (and the planet).
Choose: Grass-fed beef
According to a 2010 study, grass-fed beef is a worthwhile splurge. Compared to their soy- and corn-stuffed brethren, grass-fed meat has higher levels of omega-3 fats, a beneficial fat called conjugated-linoleic acid (CLA), vitamins A and E as well as antioxidants such as glutathione. It also contains less saturated fats.
Smart buy: Look for the label “100 percent grass-fed and finished.” Or better yet, the green American Grassfed logo, which guarantees no antibiotics or hormones. Cuts that say “loin” (as in sirloin) and “round” (such as eye round roast) are the leanest.
Budget tip: Cuts on the bone are cheaper than options like tenderloin because processors charge extra for deboning.
Choose: Bison, elk, venison, ostrich
Most farm-raised game animals are pasture-fed, with room to roam, giving their meat a nutritional profile similar to grass-fed cattle, including iron to help energize working muscles. In fact, elk and ostrich have fat levels on par with chicken breast. Game meats are also always free of hormones. If you’re anticipating game-y flavor you’re in for a surprise: Range-fed game has big, rich flavor with lingering sweetness.
Smart buy: For a protein-rich, low-fat snack, try bison and other game meat jerkies. While some stores carry bison jerky, a wide selection (alligator jerky, anyone?) is available at Mountainamericajerky.com.
Budget tip: Like beef, save by purchasing game meats directly from farmers.
Choose: Wild salmon, mussels and other sustainable swimmers
A raft of studies has linked fish consumption with a reduced risk for heart disease and other chronic diseases. Yet overfishing is rapidly transforming our oceans, certain fish farms are polluting waterways and toxins are making some species bad for your health. So concentrate on eating seafood deemed a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide (downloadable at Montereybayaquarium.org). It features fish and shellfish that get high marks for health and sustainability such as Pacific halibut, arctic char and sablefish.
Smart buy: For a big dose of omega-3 fats that reduce muscle inflammation, choose wild Alaskan salmon, barramundi, rainbow trout, arctic char, sardines and sablefish.
Budget tip: Don’t overlook the canned fish aisle. Sustainable choices such as pink salmon, sardines and smoked mackerel pack plenty of omega-3s without the hefty price tag of fresh cuts.
Choose: Free-range organic turkey and chicken
For better flavor and improved nutritional profile, look for organic, pasture-raised poultry. A recent study found that organically raised poultry had significantly lower levels of drug-resistant bacteria than their caged, conventionally raised counterparts. Poultry labeled “free-range” comes from farmers who must demonstrate their birds have access to the outdoors. But the ease of this access and whether the birds actually spend time in the sunshine is poorly regulated. As for “organic,” the birds may or may not have been allowed to forage outdoors. Eatwild.com can help you find a local supplier of the good stuff.
Smart buy: Whole chicken is surprisingly easy to cook, and the resulting plethora of cheap meat can be used for several meals such as salads, sandwiches and soups.
Budget tip: In addition to being more affordable than white meat, darker meat is juicier and less likely to dry out during cooking. And with only one extra gram of saturated fat per serving, but more iron and immune-boosting zinc, there’s no reason to eschew dark poultry meat.