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Nutrition, Part 3: Animal Foods in the Diet

Nutrition, Part 2 discussed Nutrition from a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) viewpoint. The TCM recommended diet is: Whole foods with about 75-85% of the diet as vegetables, whole grains and beans/legumes; 10-15% fruit and nuts, and 5-10% animal-based foods.

Animal-based foods in TCM:

The TCM recommended diet includes small amounts of animal-based foods. They are not the central part of any meal; instead, they are an occasional accent in meals that are vegetable and whole-grain based. Why so little? Because animal-based foods are rich and heavy, and according to TCM, this makes them likely to promote pathogenic Dampness-formation in the body, contributing to a myriad of diseases. (See Part 2 for explanation of Dampness).

But, animal-based foods are not entirely excluded from the TCM diet, because in small amounts they help build more Qi and Blood in the body. The TCM diet is what I most often recommend to patients.

However, for some people and health conditions, I prefer a 100% plant-based (vegan) diet, with no animal-based foods at all, at least for a time. This is because a vegan diet is very cleansing and detoxifying, and it quickly helps to drop high cholesterol levels, assist gallbladder problems, give a much needed break to the liver and kidneys, and help the body conserve pancreatic protein-digesting enzymes, which can greatly enhance the body’s ability to fight (break down) cancer cells.

Other Considerations Regarding Animal foods:

The Poor Qi Quality of Animal Foods:

Up until about 60 years ago, all animal food products were inherently organic, free-range, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, and grass-fed. Because food animals ate their natural diet of grass, meat was rich in omega-3 fats (which help reduce inflammation). They were also leaner and, from a TCM view, their meat had better Qi, because they lived much healthier and happier lives than their modern-day counterparts.

In stark contrast, the meat, dairy and eggs that are available today, as a result of being fed an unnatural diet of grain, sugar, soybeans and animal-byproducts are filled with omega-6 fats (which promote inflammation), have a higher percentage of saturated fat, and fewer beneficial elements.

Many livestock, poultry and egg-laying hens do not have access to fresh air or sunlight.  They are also kept in such large numbers, small cages, and close quarters that they lack the ability to stretch their limbs, turn around, or perform natural behaviors. All of these conditions create physical and psychological abnormalities leading to disturbing aberrant behaviors toward themselves and each other.

These animals are also unable to move away from their own or each other’s excrement, creating hygiene problems. To combat the spread of infection, ranchers use frequent doses of antibiotics on all of their animals, sick or not, which contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant super-bacteria, and exposes people who consume meat and dairy to these antibiotics and super-bacteria.

Because meat and dairy producers make more money by increasing production volume and speed, food animals are treated with various growth hormones. We ingest these with their meat or dairy, and they wreak havoc with our bodies, including our endocrine (hormonal) systems.

These animals live very unnatural, unhealthy, and unhappy lives. In my opinion, the Qi coming from these foods cannot be healthy enough to benefit our own Qi, but instead places a burden on our health.

What about Organic, Grass-Fed or Free-Range?

While these are certainly better, there are some factors to consider. Hundreds of labels can be found in grocery aisles for “healthier” meat, eggs and dairy. It is difficult to know what they really mean. For example:

Several companies have created their own agencies to certify their meat organic, setting and breaking their own standards as they see fit. Even if the label says “USDA Certified Organic,” (no antibiotics or growth hormones), it doesn’t necessarily mean grass-fed, free-range, or given the environment to perform natural behaviors.

Likewise, if the package says “grass-fed”, it doesn’t necessarily mean organic, free-range, or even that the animal was fed only grass. Many cattle start out on grass pasture for their first 6 – 12 months before spending the rest of their lives on a feedlot; some companies label this “grass-fed.”

With the exception of live poultry, the USDA has no regulations on the terms “free-range” or “cage-free,” so all egg, beef, pork, and lamb producers can use these labels freely.  The only requirement for “free-range” poultry is that it had access to outdoors for some unspecified amount of time (5 minutes qualifies) each day.

As you can see, no label addresses everything, and every label is subject to misinformation or misinterpretation.

So, when choosing animal foods, it really is best to find a local, organic farm/ranch that you can actually visit, to learn about their specific animal-rearing practices, so you know for sure what you are getting.  Quality is FAR more important than quantity.

What about Seafood?

Farm-raised sea foods are also raised in overcrowded conditions, routinely medicated with antibiotics, and fed unnatural diets that change the balance of beneficial nutrients. In fact, farm-raised salmon are so unhealthy that their flesh is grey, so dye is injected to make them appear pink.  Even wild-caught seafood is risky, since nearly all fish-supporting waters are now contaminated with mercury, dioxins, and hundreds of other toxins from industrial pollution.

If you do choose to eat seafood, then wild-caught, smaller fish are the best choices.  Avoid the large species like tuna, swordfish, and shark, as their large size means they have had more time to collect more toxins in their tissues. Smaller fish like anchovies and sardines have lower concentrations of toxic elements.

Animal-based foods promote disease:

Research shows that eating animal-based foods contributes to many diseases common in Western culture, including heart disease and cancer. Here are just a few examples:

In his book, The China Study, which involved a 20-year long look at 6500 people from 65 counties across China, T. Colin Campbell, PhD states, “Consuming animal-based protein increases blood cholesterol levels.  Saturated fat and dietary cholesterol also raise blood cholesterol, although these nutrients are not as effective at doing this as is animal protein.” Also, “In rural China, animal protein intake averages only 7.1 gr/day whereas Americans average a whopping 70 gr/day….Even these small amounts of animal-based food in rural China raised the risk for Western diseases.”

Dr. Campbell also found, that casein, the most abundant protein in cow’s milk, is a strong promoter of cancer cells, in all stages of cancer development.

Dr. Neal Barnard reports on a Japanese study that women who follow meat-based diets are eight times more likely to develop breast cancer than women on a plant-based diet. Harvard studies show that regular meat consumption triples colon cancer risk while a Cambridge University study links dairy products to an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

Studies of the Seventh-day Adventists found that those who avoided meat altogether showed significant reductions in cancer risk as compared to those who ate modest amounts of meat.

So, again, keeping your animal-food intake below 10% of your daily caloric intake will help reduce these risks.

Animal-based foods are Unnecessary in Large amounts:

“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including…vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and….are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”

Dr. Benjamin Spock, in the latest edition of his world-famous book, Baby and Child Care, advocates a vegetarian diet for children, and no longer recommends dairy products after the age of 2. He says that children who grow up getting nutrition from plant foods rather than meats are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer.

Good sources of amino acids (protein) are green and leafy vegetables (yes, really! Green plants provide protein to animals as muscular as bulls and horses). Protein is also abundant in beans, lentils, and nuts. If you are a bodybuilder or otherwise require more protein, great vegan protein-shake powders made from pea, rice and hemp proteins can be found online and in most health-food stores.  Some recommended brands are Life Basics, Plant Fusion, Vega, and Sunwarrior.

Rich sources of calcium are found in green and leafy vegetables (such as kale, collard greens, swiss chard, turnip greens), beans, dried figs, tofu and broccoli.

Rich sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, tofu, spinach, swiss chard and beet greens.

Omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained from flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and extracts of algae (the type most used in infant formulas, since it can be cultivated in clean fermentation tanks). Other beneficial fats include avocados, coconuts and nuts/seeds.

Lastly, I recommend taking a high quality multi-vitamin/mineral (whether you are vegan or not). Crop soils have been greatly depleted, so most all of our food is much less nutritious than it used to be. A high-quality, plant food-based multivitamin will help ensure that you are not missing anything, including B-12. Recommended brands include New Chapter and Garden of Life.


The TCM recommended diet includes 5-10% of dietary caloric intake as animal products: Organic, grass-fed, raised in their natural environments, since these were the only type of animal that existed until about 50 years ago, and will provide the highest quality nutrition and Qi for your body. Quality of these products is far more important than quantity.

Some patients can make greater health gains, faster, if they adopt a 100% plant-based/vegan diet, at least for a period of time, based on whole foods with lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and nuts/seeds.

Either way, most people need to add more plant-based meals into their diets, to use animal-foods as accents to meals, not the main course. If you would like further guidance on meal ideas, check out Plant-based Meal Ideas pages on this blog.

Dawn Potter, AP, Dipl.OM

(excerpts published in Tampa Bay Wellness, June 2011)


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