Chicken vs Beef: Which is Healthier & Better for the Environment? (Surprising Answer)

By: Cat Ebeling, BSN, co-author of the best-sellers:  The Fat Burning KitchenThe Top 101 Foods that Fight Aging & The Diabetes Fix

Many hard-core environmentalists, celebrities and even doctors are advising us to eat a “plant-based” diet—or at the very least to give up eating “red meat”.  And if we’re going to eat meat, we’ve been told to eat chicken. But is that actually BAD advice?

Chicken is often considered by many a “clean” meat, and it’s usually boneless, skinless and hardly resembles something that comes from an animal at all.  It’s just…chicken.

The consumption of chicken has risen about 400% worldwide over the past 50 years while beef production has remained the same or decreased. Can we really save the world and our health, by eating more chicken and less red meat?  The answer, as you’ll see below, will surprise you.

People often say they have given up eating red meat out of concern for the animals, the environment, and their health. Those sound like good reasons on the outside… But while cutting out (CAFO) conventionally-raised red meat seems virtuous, eating chicken instead doesn’t do much to address those issues, and can even be worse in most cases.

Most all conventional meat and chicken is produced in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). CAFO meat production is deplorable and we should all definitely do our best to not support this type of agriculture! Animals raised on these factory farms are overcrowded and raised in filthy conditions where the animals have to wallow in a sea of their own feces. CAFOs house anywhere from hundreds to thousands of animals. CAFOs can include open feedlots for cattle and large windowless buildings where chickens are confined in boxes, cages, large crowded areas, or pens.

CAFOs also cause massive pollution to our groundwater and surface water supplies within miles of their operations. CAFO’s produce huge amounts of urine and feces that drain off into the water supply. And because these animals are given antibiotics, growth hormones, and other medications, these chemicals are present in the sewage and runoff the animals produce—which then soaks into the ground or runs off into our water supply.

Don’t Chickens Have a Better Life?

On the surface, eating chicken and eliminating red meat may SEEM like the healthier choice for our bodies, the animals and the planet, but it is not.Chicken is not actually healthier for us to eat, nor are the chickens treated any better, and there’s all of that air, land and water pollution.

Sure, many of us think that chickens run around a farm pecking their feed, clucking and crowing, but unfortunately the vast majority of chickens we eat come from large scale indoor operations. It’s difficult to find pastured, humanely raised, organic chickens to eat, unless you live on a farm or have access to local, outdoor farm-raised chickens.

Animals raised in CAFO’s are treated very badly, especially chickens. Most chicken comes from a CAFO where they are raised their entire lives (On the other hand, even beef finished in CAFO’s spends at least the first year or more of their life outdoors on grass). Chickens are packed into cages or on a filthy floor, where they can barely move around. The poor birds usually have their beaks seared off with a hot blade to avoid pecking each other to death, because they are so packed in so closely. These chickens are bred to grow breasts so big and heavy, they literally can barely walk, are often crippled, and many of them get trampled to death. Most never get outside to breathe fresh air or see the sunshine or eat their natural diets. Large scale organic chicken farms are not much better, unless they are actually pasture-raised, which is rare.

What About Salmonella, etc?

Because CAFOs are so filthy and overcrowded, these chickens are routinely given antibiotics just to prevent all the disease that flourishes in these dirty living conditions. This practice is a big reason there are antibiotic resistant bacteria. And when we eat those chickens, we can often ingest some pretty powerful and nasty bacteria ourselves.

More than 100,000 people were sickened by food-related illness outbreaks between 2009 and 2015, according to a new analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And the food that made more people sick than any other? Chicken.

Chicken is most associated with salmonella poisoning, which causes some pretty serious food poisoning in humans. In addition, the CDC reports that chicken also carries these lovely pathogens as well—which can make you very sick if not killed during cooking:

Then what about consuming “antibiotic-free, vegetarian fed, no animal by-products and cage free” chicken? …Not necessarily any better. This does not solve the problem either. Cage-free does not mean much, because these chickens are all crowded together wing to wing in a windowless facility where they never see the light of day. They may see the light of day through a small open window, but never actually make it outdoors. And, many chicken producers are now promoting antibiotic-free chicken, which is a step in the right direction, but there are many different meanings to the “no antibiotics” sales pitch.

Isn’t Vegetarian Fed Better for Me and Chickens?

Does that conjure up images of happy chickens pecking at their cracked corn in their pen? Chickens are not actually vegetarians; their natural diet includes things like grubs, worms and bugs. Chickens fed a diet of only grain will produce meat high in unhealthy, inflammatory omega 6 fats. Not healthy for anyone—not even chickens.

On top of that, grain for chicken feed is most times genetically modified and grown on huge, mono-cropped farms sprayed heavily with pesticides and herbicides. And many grain crops are doused in cancer-causing glyphosate just a week or so before harvest. So, your chicken is eating glyphosate-laced GMO grain, which you end up ingesting as well–with the all toxic effects on your body.

Mono-cropping for CAFO feed also destroys biodiversity by eliminating the habitat of small animals including birds, toads, insects, worms, rabbits, mice, rats, etc. to clear fields for planting and producing grain.

Did you know that sheep, pigs and cows have regulations for humane slaughter, but not so with poultry… They are killed in pretty inhumane ways. They are often stunned by being run through a vat of electrified water, then their throats are slit. Quite often, however, the electrified water is not effective, so the birds are awake and alert right before they die. At least half of the birds we eat have experienced intense stress and suffering before they reach our kitchen table.

But It’s More Ethical to Eat Chicken, Right?

Some people who are attempting to eat ‘ethically’ say they want to cause the least amount of animal deathsto support their diet and health. OK… So, a typical cow produces almost 500 lbs of edible meat. One person could live off the meat from one cow for almost 2 years if that’s the only meat they ate.  A chicken produces only about 50% edible meat from their 3-5 lb weight. To arrive at the same amount of meat, approximately 250 chickens have to die. That’s about 250x as much suffering and death. Do we really think it’s more “ethical” to kill 250 chickens vs just 1 cow?

What about Nutrition…Isn’t Chicken the Healthier Choice, as most think?

Let’s talk nutrition. Dietitians and misinformed doctors often scold us for eating red meat and try to tell us it’s linked to cancer, heart disease and diabetes, and advise us to eat skinless (white meat) chicken breasts instead. BAD advice!

Chicken contains protein and some vitamins/minerals, but beef (especially grass-fed and finished) has a LOT more healthy omega 3 fats, and far less of the inflammatory omega 6 fats. (Unless you can find true pastured-raised organic chicken, which does contain a good amount of omega 3 fats, collagen and protein.)

Beef also contains twice as much iron, selenium, zinc, and phosphorus—and far more vitamin B6 and B12 than chicken. In fact an average serving of beef will give you 45% of bioavailable B12, while chicken supplies only about 3%.

Beef also contains a good supply of heme-iron, the most absorbable kind of iron. Iron is necessary for red blood cells that carry oxygen in your body, and a shortage of available iron will cause anemia, usually in women. The biggest nutritional deficiency in the world is iron-deficiency anemia. Beef supplies TWICE as much bio-available, absorbable iron compared to chicken.

The other big deficiency, especially in vegans, vegetarians and the elderly is vitamin B12. B12 can only be obtained from animal sources. A lack of B12 also causes a type of anemia. B12 and iron deficiencies cause weakness, dizziness, heart palpitations, fatigue, brain fog, nerve problems like tingling, depression, and even dementia, and often a B12 and iron deficiency anemias are present at the same time. A good serving of healthy red meat will quickly fix this situation!

In addition to the nutrient profiles, RED meat also contains a variety of bioactive compounds that infer health benefits, including:

  • Carnosine—an amino acid that has anti-inflammatory, immune regulating properties.
  • CoQ10–a vitamin like compound that benefits the heart muscle and other muscles, generates growth, repair and maintenance.
  • Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)—a natural healthy fat that helps burn your own fat, builds muscle, helps with weight loss, and strengthens the immune system.
  • Glutathione–the “Master antioxidant” helps fight oxidative stress, aids in muscle recovery, and overall performance.
  • L-carnitine—an amino acid that helps in fat metabolism, glucose levels and muscle building.
  • Taurine—an important amino acid that improves insulin release, allows for better glucose tolerance and is a powerful antioxidant. It is vital for the proper function of the minerals potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sodium.

Beef, when compared to chicken, contains more carnosine (an amino acid), more coQ10, twice as much CLA, twice as much glutathione, 20-30 times more L-carnitine, and more taurine.  Overall, it’s been estimated by nutritionists that beef is 30% more nutrient-dense than chicken, providing significantly more of the nutrients our bodies need to thrive in good health.

Grass Fed/Grass-Finished vs CAFO Beef—Which is Healthier?

Cows in a fenced area ready for the slaughterhouse

The demand for grass-fed beef has skyrocketed over the last decade. It’s often listed on menus at restaurants now and is commonly seen in the grocery store.

The term “grass-fed” can be confusing. All beef is generally grass-fed for the first 12-15 months of their life. Grass-fed and grass-finished meat contains the most benefits. Cattle that are grass-fed and then grain finished have a different nutrition profile, as they are typically finished in a CAFO on grain-based food for the last 4-6 months of their lives, which changes the nutrition of the meat for the worse.

Because grain is not a cow’s natural food, it often gives them indigestion, makes them sick, and makes them more likely to harbor dangerous e.coli bacteria. Another study shows that grain-fed cattle have more liver abscesses than grass-fed cattle (11% compared to 0.2%). Grass-fed cattle are overall, healthier and need less antibiotics and medications.

Grass-fed cattle roam around outside all day with plenty of room to eat whatever they wish, and obtain sunshine and a stress-free environment. As a result, they are healthier and happier. Most grain-fed cattle spend their days crowded inside a filthy pen, wading through their own excrement.

Grass-fed beef contains far more healthier fats including much higher omega 3 fats compared to omega 6 fats, and almost double the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) compared to grain-fed cattle.  Grass-fed beef also contains significantly more vitamins and minerals than grain-fed beef.

By opting for grass-fed beef, you are supporting small farms who raise their cows in a natural, humane way and getting superior nutrition from healthier, happier cows. Calorie for calorie, it’s the way more efficient at delivering the highest quality protein in an easily digestible form.

Yes, it’s true that grass-fed beef is slightly more expensive than conventional beef, but given that it’s a more nutrient-dense food, it is worth the small extra cost to protect your health. If your budget just does not allow for grass-fed, even conventional beef does offers some nutritional advantage over chicken.  It seems odd to me that so many people will spend $1000 or more on their cell phone, or over $100 per month on their cell phone bill, but refuse to spend an extra $2 to $3 per lb for grass-fed meat that will protect their health.  Seems like an odd prioritization to me.

What About Red Meat and Cancer?

Some studies have been done on the association between red meat and cancer. While there has shown some association between the two, they are not conclusive. The main problem is that these studies do not differentiate between conventional red meat from CAFOs, processed (CAFO) meat with lots of added chemicals, nitrites, fat, antibiotics and growth hormones vs. naturally raised grass-fed beef. In other words, most of the studies on red meat do not differentiate between a grass-fed steak or a can of spam. All very different meats, with very different effects on your body.

Studies done on red meat and cancer are generally considered epidemiological research or observational studies. In other words, researchers study broad groups of people who eat lots of red meat and attempt to make connections to cancer. Remember that correlation does not equal causation. In other words, the association between the two may not be the cause.

It’s virtually impossible to separate out the variables in an observational study. Many people in these studies who consume red meat and processed meats may also be smokers, non-exercisers, and fast food/junk food/processed food consumers, eating few vegetables or fruits. So again, there is no differentiation between a meal of grass fed steak, organic vegetables, and a glass of water or McDonald’s meal of a (CAFO) Big Mac with french fries and a soda.

In other words, eating red meat in the context of a healthy diet and lifestyle is far different from eating red meat and processed meats in the context of an unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle.

There are no randomized controlled trials or clinical trials of any nature that show links between red meat and cancer.

Systematic reviews have more credulity and also have looked at the effects of red meat and cancer.

Obviously, what TYPE of red meat is eaten (CAFO, processed or grass-fed/organic) is the most important consideration here, and we can’t lump meat-eating in with unhealthy behaviors like smoking, excessive drinking, lack of exercise, etc.

The bottom line is red meat—especially grass fed/organically raised and humanely raised meat will NOT cause cancer. For more information on this topic,click here and here.

And for those of you who are concerned about the latest report concerning a substance called TMAO found in red meat, read this. TMAO is a substance found in peoples’ guts who eat red meat that has been theorized to be related to heart disease. However correlation is not causation, and TMAO is also found in seafood in much higher concentrations than beef, yet we know that seafood consumption is good for heart health.  Therefore, most researchers agree that TMAO is not an issue of concern with meat.

But Red Meat is Bad for the Environment, Isn’t It?

Ok, what about red meat’s carbon footprint? Aren’t we destroying the environment if we eat red meat?  Not necessarily…

I will try to answer this in a short summary—but definitely this topic is worthy of a full article. There are so many factors that go into the footprint of our food, and common belief is that a vegetarian diet—or even a diet that excludes red meat has a much smaller carbon footprint, but there are costs to our health and the environment.

As Diana Rogers RD, said so well,

“The main one being that meat itself isn’t evil, it’s the method by which we farm it (feed lots and CAFOs-Confined Animal Feeding Operations) how we prepare it (breaded and deep fried, or served on a white flour bun), and what we eat alongside it (fries, and a large soda).”

Cattle get blamed for using a large amount of water, but that water is measured differently, depending on its use. When researchers analyze water use for agriculture, it is categorized depending on its use and its source. Green water is water that comes from precipitation; blue water is groundwater from aquifers and rivers used for irrigation; gray water is the water required to dilute pollutants to keep water at or above water quality standards.

All beef, CAFO or not, starts out being grass-fed for the first 12-15 months. Green water used for cattle is about 92%. For grass-fed and grass-finished beef, the green water number is 97-98%. Remember green water comes mainly from natural precipitation. However, when studies look at the amount of water cattle use, they also consider natural rainfall. When comparing water usage to chicken, natural rainfall is compared to the amount of irrigated water used grow grain crops. Having a general understanding of how the footprint numbers are derived makes a better case for the amount of water meat red meat actually uses versus grain-fed chickens.

From Diana Rogers:

“According to this study from UC Davis, which used the blue water methodology, “typical” beef requires approximately 410 gallons of water per pound to produce. A pound of rice production also requires about 410 gallons, and avocados, walnuts and sugar are similarly high in water requirements. In Nicolette Hahn Niman’s book,Defending Beef, she explains that the amount of water for grass-fed beef is closer to 100 gallons per pound to produce.

Once you understand how these footprint numbers are derived, you’ll understand how meaningless it is to use them as a critique of meat production. The equations also leave out a lot of critical information like soil type and health… It should also be noted that the nutrition in grass-finished beef is far superior to [chicken], rice, avocados, walnuts and sugar, so comparing “plant products” to “meat” is not really logical.”

For more detailed info on why properly raised grass-fed beef actually benefits the environment instead of destroying it, this article explains that topic more in-depth.

A truly sustainable diet, both in terms of the planet, and in terms of our health, includes grass-fed and grass-finished, humanely raised red meat, which is far more nutrient dense than chicken of any type. If you add in organic vegetables, seasonal fruits and healthy fats, you will have the optimal diet—for your health and for health of the planet. Leave the chicken alone unless you can find a local, truly pasture-raised, organic chicken that were not raised in CAFOs.