Wellness through Food
Kristy Del Coro, MS, RDN, LDN
Registered Dietitian & Culinary Nutritionist
Co-founder of the Culinary Nutrition Collaborative
If you want to up your game when it comes to protein, game meats are where it’s at - pun intended. Game meat, including big game like bison, venison, elk, and wild boar along with game birds like pheasant, guinea hen, and duck offer a wide range of essential nutrients for optimum body performance and they are much more environmentally sustainable animal proteins as compared to conventionally raised beef and even chicken. First, game meats are primarily raised on pasture, requiring fewer natural resources; second, they don’t produce nearly the same amount of methane that cows do; and third, eating more game meats in place of other more commonly consumed animal proteins creates more diverse demand and more diversity in your diet - a win win.
Although big game is remarkably similar to beef in terms of the cuts and how you cook with it, nutritionally speaking it is superior. The Standard American Diet (SAD) consists of ultra-processed foods, added sugar, and excess saturated fat and sodium, while generally lacking in whole plant based foods and lean protein. Research also indicates that high levels of red meat are associated with an elevated risk for a number of cancers as well as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In addition to health concerns, red meat production is frequently cited as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and water usage. This is why public health recommendations call for individuals to reduce or eliminate intake of these foods. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7796493/). However, in the majority of these studies, red meat is defined as beef, veal, pork, lamb. Game meats are not factored in to this research nor included in recommendations for red meat to avoid. In fact, game meats provide lean, high quality nutrient rich protein that is in line with general health recommendations. And of the fat it does contain, it is low in saturated fat - the unhealthy kind that is commonly found in red meat and linked to the health concerns mentioned above. In fact, game meats are endorsed by the American Diabetes Association as a lean meat category (https://diabetes.org/healthy-living/recipes-nutrition/eating-well/protein).
Even in the poultry category, game birds often win out over chicken, by far the most widely consumed poultry product, delivering a more nutrient dense package. Most game birds are generally leaner than chicken, higher in protein, have higher levels of select vitamins and minerals, and do not have the animal welfare issues of feedlot chicken. And the biggest bonus is that game birds pack significantly more flavor than even dark-meat chicken and can be a great healthy option for red meat lovers.
In summary, swapping in game meats in place of beef, including grass fed beef and chicken, as part of a plant forward diet, is better for your body and the planet and won’t disappoint on flavor.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is game meat healthier than grass-fed beef?
Both game meats and grass-fed beef provide an excellent source of protein and a variety of vitamins and minerals however there are several factors that give most game meats a winning advantage over grass-fed beef. First, game meats will be leaner overall as compared to beef due to their genetic make-up, their more active lifestyles and their diets of natural vegetation. Second, game meats are not treated with subtherapeutic antibiotics the same way that beef cows are commonly treated as a result of crowded industrial farms. While grass-fed beef that is labeled “American Grassfed Approved” will not have been treated with antibiotics either, some beef that is simply labeled “grass-fed”, may still have been given subtherapeutic antibiotics, have been finished on grain and/or may still be on overcrowded farms. Third, methane production from grass-fed beef may be even higher than from grain fed beef and across the board will be higher than what game meats produce.
Overall, venison, elk, and ostrich will generally be leaner than both bison and grass-fed beef with less natural fat marbling. But keep in mind that fat content also varies depending on the specific cut of meat, no matter the species. For example, tenderloins will have much less fat (and saturated fat) than ground meats and even the fat content of ground meats vary based on the meat to fat ratios (i.e.85/15 85% of the product is lean meat and 15% is fat whereas 90/10 means the product is 90% lean meat and 10% fat). In summary, of the big game, venison, elk, and ostrich will be more nutrient dense than grass-fed beef; bison and 100% grass-fed beef are similarly nutritious for the most part but bison will have less of an environmental impact and still diversifies your diet more than grass-fed beef.
Isn’t a plant-based diet the healthiest way to eat?
You might think, “but isn’t a plant-based diet really the healthiest way to eat?” We agree there is no substitute for plant foods like vegetables, beans, and whole grains, but shifting to a plant based diet does not mean you have to give up meat completely if you don’t want to. By all means eat less meat, but eat better meat. Eating smaller amounts of nutrient-dense game meats as part of a plant-forward diet can help ensure that you are getting the benefits of a high quality protein package plus essential vitamins and minerals without the disadvantages of unhealthy saturated fat or potential implications of eating meat that has been treated with subtherapeutic antibiotics. By eating plant forward, you still get fiber and antioxidants from a variety of fruits and vegetables and whole grains without having to completely omit an entire food group.
How does game meat stack up against meat analogs (AKA mock meats, fake meats)?
Meat analogs, also known as mock meats or fake meats, or meat alternatives, are food products that are designed to mimic the appearance, flavor, and texture of real meat and meat products. Examples include well-known brands such as Beyond Meat and the ImpossibleTM Burger as well as some smaller emerging brands. Some are made from plant protein derivatives while others are more highly processed “lab grown” meat. The jury is still out on the long-term health implications since these are new products and ingredients that have not been well researched over time. Furthermore, many of these products are less healthy than beef counterparts due to the use of vegetables oils that are high in saturated fat (i.e., coconut oil) and preservatives that add excess sodium. They are a far cry from nutrient dense “whole foods” that are the beneficial part of a plant-based diet. There may be environmental advantages to meat analogs when compared to conventional beef but not so when compared to game meats. Game meats offer a more desirable nutritional profile, are not heavily processed and are also environmentally friendly, making them a better choice overall than meat analogs currently on the market.
If I am an athlete, will game meats give me the protein and vitamins and minerals I need to perform well?
Yes, absolutely! Game meats deliver lean easily digestible high-quality protein, ideal for muscle building and recovery. Game meats are an excellent source of highly bioavailable heme iron as well as B-vitamins for energy production and antioxidants like selenium, also important in muscle recovery.
Venison and Elk
- 100% grass-fed and finished
- Has approximately 1/3rd as much total fat as beef
- Has approximately 1/3rd as much saturated fat as beef
- Higher in protein than beef (30% more protein than beef) and protein is very high quality
- Contains more iron than beef: 3 oz serving of venison provides a good* source of iron (19% DV) / 4 oz serving provides an excellent* source of highly bioavailable iron (25% DV)
Excellent source of B-vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12) as well as zinc, phosphorous, and selenium
*Good source = 10-19% DV, Excellent source = >20% DV
- High in protein, iron, selenium, vitamin B-12
- Compared to beef, bison has 1/3 of the total fat, less saturated fat, and more beneficial unsaturated fats, including higher amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
- Bison contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which as anti-inflammatory properties
- One study indicates that those who consumed bison have a significantly lower risk of heart disease when compared to beef. Specifically the study found that bison intake did not result in increased inflammation or lower vascular function like that associated with beef, reinforcing that bison is a healthier red-meat alternative
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0271531713000262?via%3Dihub, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5858688/ “Bison Meat has a Lower Atherogenic Risk than Beef in Healthy Men” (2013)
- Has nearly half the total fat as conventional beef
- Has approximately 1/3rd as much saturated fat as beef / over 60% less saturated fat
- Generally contains higher amounts of iron, more selenium, more phosphorous, potassium, more magnesium, and more B-vitamins than beef
- It is endorsed by the American Diabetes Association
- Has approximately 1/3rd as much total fat as pork
- Has nearly half the saturated fat as pork
- Has more protein
- Classified as poultry but tastes like red meat
- Roasted skinless duck breast is even leaner than roasted skinless chicken breast
- The majority of the fat duck does contain is healthy unsaturated fat, including a high amount of monounsaturated fat and a combination of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids
- Contains a variety of micronutrients, including iron, selenium, and a variety of B vitamins; particularly high in niacin and B-12.
- Duck provides about as much iron as red meat, significantly more than you get from chicken
- Relative of the chicken and partridge but with darker more flavorful meat
- Compared to skin-on chicken, guinea hen has nearly 30% fewer calories, 60% less total fat, 60% less saturated fat, and 25% more protein
- Lean meat and full of flavor
- Compared to dark chicken, pheasant has 25% more protein, 3x as much Vitamin A, plus higher levels of phosphorous, potassium, and Vitamin B12
- Skin-on pheasant compared to skin-on chicken contains 40% less total fat, 30% less saturated fat