How Animal Lifestyle Impacts Our Nutrition 

by | Jun 4, 2024 | Nutrition, Real Food

Photo by Jan Kopřiva, Unsplash

They say you are what you eat. But have you considered you are what you eat, ate? Find out how the lifestyle and diet of animals impacts the nutritional profile and quality of meat, dairy, and eggs. 

When making choices at the grocery store, we may not think about all the steps it takes to get food on the shelves. While sticking to real food and avoiding ultra-processed food is good for our health, have you thought about the food your food ate? They say you are what you eat, and this not only applies to people, but the multitude of different animal products we consume. The lifestyle, care and diet of animals impacts the quality and nutrition of animal products such as meat, seafood, dairy, eggs, and animal fats, to name a few. Understanding these connections is essential for both producers and consumers aiming for nutritious, safe, and high-quality food. This article delves into the various aspects of animal care and lifestyle that influence the quality of food products, and therefore our health.

Meat

The environment in which animals are raised plays a significant role in meat quality. Animals that are raised in stress-free, spacious, and clean conditions tend to produce better quality meat. Stress can lead to the production of lactic acid and other stress hormones, which can cause meat to be tough and less flavorful.

The diet of livestock is crucial in determining the nutritional profile of the meat. Grass-fed animals, for instance, have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for heart health, compared to grain-fed animals. They also have a higher concentration of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), known for its potential anti-cancer properties.

Soil quality impacts the vitamin and mineral profiles of our produce, as well as the grass on which cows forage. Soil can degrade over time, so it may become necessary for farmers to supplement the ruminates’ diet with specific nutrients in depleted soil areas. Additionally, animals fed a varied diet with natural foraging produce meat with richer and more complex flavors.

Dairy

 Dairy cows that are allowed to graze freely and are not subjected to high-stress environments produce milk that is often richer in beneficial fats and proteins. Clean and comfortable living conditions help prevent mastitis and other infections that can compromise milk quality.

A cow’s diet directly affects the nutritional quality of the milk. Cows that graze on fresh pasture produce milk higher in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and antioxidants compared to those fed on a diet of processed feed, usually sourced from corn. Have you ever seen a cow shuck corn? Grass is the cow’s natural food of choice, and the presence of diverse forage in a cow’s diet also enhances the flavor and nutritional profile of the milk.

Eggs

Hens that are free-range or pasture-raised generally produce eggs with higher nutritional value. These hens have access to natural sunlight, which boosts the vitamin D content of the eggs. Additionally, a less stressful environment leads to healthier hens and higher-quality eggs.

The diet of hens significantly influences the nutrient content of eggs. Hens that consume a varied diet including insects, seeds, and greens lay eggs with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A, D, and E, and antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin. Commercial feed supplemented with flaxseed or fish oil can also enhance the omega-3 content of the eggs. To learn how to decipher the labels on egg cartons, click here.

Animal Fats

 The quality of fats derived from animals, such as lard from pigs or tallow from cattle, is influenced by the animal’s overall health and living conditions. Animals raised in healthy environments without exposure to stressors produce fats with better texture and flavor.

Diet also plays a significant role in the quality of animal fats. For example, pigs fed a diet rich in diverse grains, vegetables, and foraged materials produce lard that is higher in unsaturated fats and vitamins compared to those fed only commercial feed. Similarly, grass-fed cattle produce tallow with higher levels of CLA and omega-3 fatty acids compared to grain-fed cattle.

Summing It Up

The lifestyle of animals—including their care, living environment, and diet—has a profound impact on the quality of the foods produced. Healthier, stress-free animals living in clean, spacious environments with access to a natural and varied diet tend to produce food products that are not only more nutritious but also safer and more flavorful. As consumers become increasingly aware of these factors, the demand for ethically raised, high-quality animal products is likely to continue growing. Understanding these connections helps producers improve their practices and provides consumers with the knowledge to make healthier food choices.

Emily Rhodes, MPH, RD

Emily Rhodes, MPH, RD

Position

Emily Rhodes, MPH, RD, our Food and Nutrition Writer, is a Registered Dietitian and Clinical Nutrition Manager at Keck Medicine of USC in Arcadia, CA. You can find her at the barn or in the grocery aisle reading a label.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!