An Ethical Eater's Guide to Getting Protein

In the strength training community, it's no secret that PROTEIN is a big deal. Of the three macronutrients, protein is the most important one when it comes to building and maintaining muscle and minimizing body fat. A rough guideline for anyone doing consistent weekly strength training is to get 1g of protein per pound of your body weight...daily. For a 150-lb person, this means 150g of protein. For a 200-lb person, it means 200g. And no, these needs are not different for vegan and vegetarian strength trainees!

This may seem like a lot of protein. That's because compared to what many average Americans eat on a daily basis (especially women), it is. The average American day is loaded with carbohydrates and dietary fat, skimping on the precious protein that a body needs in order to develop a strong and lean physique. SOME Americans (mostly dudes) do get a lot of daily protein, but it's usually accompanied by too much saturated fat and carbs, and not nearly enough fiber (think about the double cheeseburger and fries or the pepperoni pizza, both conspicuously nude of vegetables). In truth, the 1g/1lb body weight rule of thumb would work out to about 35% of your daily caloric energy coming from protein. This is compared to what the average carb-loving American is getting, which is closer to 10%. When we say "Higher Protein Diet", we don't mean that protein is all you're eating. We just mean that it takes a more prominent and balanced role in your daily routine.

I could go on about the importance of protein - come see me for a nutritional consult and we'll explore YOUR specific needs! But for this article, I assume that you're already interested in a "Higher Protein Diet". What I want to explore below is HOW to do this if you care about animal welfare.

I was 13 years old when teen heart throb, River Phoenix, died of a drug overdose. That moment, along with my broadening understanding of the way most animals are treated in the food industry and my love of critters inspired me to become a vegetarian. River Phoenix was a GenX flower child. To honor his legacy, I decided to replace him in the world as a softer footprint person. [YES, this is actually how I felt at the time!] I began an ovo/lacto vegetarian way of eating that lasted pretty much through my last years in college. Unfortunately, this period of forgoing animal flesh ALSO coincided with the 1990s, an era in which "low fat" was the popular nutrition modus operandi. As a teen and then college student, my vegetarian diet consisted largely of bagels with "light" cream cheese, salad, noodles, french fries, fat-free cheese (oh, the horror), and a scarcely adequate weekly amount of beans and tofu. Oh, and alcohol. I didn't know about proper strength training then. For fitness I danced, ran, swam, and did an assortment of other cardio activities. The bagels and booze gave my young body enough energy for those things, but it would have never fueled the kind of resistance work I do now.

Around the end of college I started adding fish back into my diet, mostly because I was tired of stale veggie burgers and pasta when out at restaurants. I did the type of rationalization that many do when considering what animal proteins are from least-suffering beings, although I think we can all agree that the experience of a fish meeting its demise is unpleasant at best. It took some years, but eventually I was including a lot of animal proteins back into my diet. By the time I started seriously strength training, I was eating animals every day. My consumption looks about the same now.

So how do I sleep at night?


The "production" of most meat, eggs and much of the dairy in this country (and also in other countries) is a nasty business when it comes to treatment of the animals. From the conditions of their lives, to the horrors of their deaths, it's an intensely cruel industry that puts profits above all else in order to give the consuming public the cheapest possible chicken, pork, beef, eggs, and milk. If you've been living under a rock, or merely need a refresher, there is now plenty of material available online that can show you what goes on. I could talk about that too, but let's assume you've already been informed. Here are some of the ways you can eat for muscle and leanness and still be conscientious about your role in the web of life. If you give a darn, please read on.

  • Go Vegetarian

One way to eat a requisite amount of protein and largely eliminate the ethical dilemma of eating animals is to be a savvy vegetarian or vegan. A vegan client has to work VERY hard to reach his or her daily protein goals from only plant-based sources, but it's totally doable and I can talk to you one-on-one about how. An ovo/lacto vegetarian (eats eggs and dairy) has an easier time in comparison, but if they're vegetarian in order to abstain from eating animal flesh, and they are trying to "eat ethically", they'll need to pay attention to sourcing their eggs and dairy products (more on that below).

  • Accept that you'll pay more- and should.

If you're cool with consuming animal protein directly (meat), but you care about the way animals are treated and slaughtered, accept now that you're going to pay a bit more for the meat, eggs and dairy that you buy. To do animal husbandry well, it can't be "scaled up" to the extent that the major agribusinesses have. In other words, smaller scale farms are where you'll find the most humane meats being raised, not the farms with 20,000 hogs. Smaller scale production usually means more expense per animal for the farmer, and that cost (rightly so!) gets passed along to the purchaser. But let's consider this - SHOULD animal protein be CHEAP? I'm disturbed by a sign for a 99-cent hamburger, or a package of chicken breasts that costs less than a box of rice. Think of protein the way you think of your own muscle. You're working hard to build it, and it's an expensive resource for your body to acquire. That's true of the physical work that goes into it, and it should be true of the actual fuel that's in your engine.

More food for thought: if you add up the total energy cost, and consider the heavy agricultural subsidies for big crops like corn, smaller scale pasture-raised animal meat works out to be significantly less expensive (not to your wallet necessarily, but to the larger economy). If the organic milk and humane eggs and meat at your local shop are more expensive than the questionable sources, consider it your chiseled-abs tax.

Many of the cheap processed foods we see like chips, snacks, and sodas are actually heavily subsidized by the government. SO IS MEAT! How so? Because of corn. Corn can be sold at less than the cost of production, which means that there is always an excess supply. Where does it go and still make a profit? We are treated to tons of variations of corn like: maltodextrin, xanthin gum, and high fructose corn syrup, common additives in almost every packaged food. Corn and soy are the two largest subsidized crops in the US, and they are what we feed to animals to make them gain fat (in addition to weight and price) quickly, instead of allowing an animal to physically develop in a more natural and longer-paced way.

  • Look for the terminology

This includes the NAME of the farm!

When shopping for meat, poultry, eggs and dairy, the more you know about the farm where the animals are raised, the better. This sounds like it would be difficult to do in the average meat section of the average grocery store - you're right! That's because the majority of animal protein food sold in the United States (and also exported from the United States) is from large-scale producers where the idea is CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP. While there are increasingly "organic" and "grass-fed" meats, eggs and dairy available at grocery stores, and some large retailers are starting to take small steps forward when it comes to sourcing more humane products, it is hard to get TRULY humane meat if you're not going the extra mile to find it. That's why shopping "outside of the box" is critical if you really want to get serious about humanely raised food. See "Shop Outside the Box" below.

Meanwhile, here are some terms to watch for in your grocery stores, on menus, and with online retailers:

Grass-fed: this is often the meat you want, especially if you're buying beef. Cows are grazers, they are designed to eat grass. You don't want to eat a cow that has grown up on corn (which it can't properly digest) and weird fillers. When a cow has a corn and filler-based diet, its digestive and immune systems must be assisted with drugs. Unhealthy cows = unhealthy meat. The phrase "corn-fed beef" has been marketed to be synonymous with rich taste (from fat marbling). This is a campaign by the powerful agricultural lobby which wants to keep corn front and center, as a processed food filler and a livestock feed. When possible, reach for grass-fed meats. An animal that is pasture-raised (gets to eat grass and, you know, walk around on it), is also more likely to live a happier day-to-day existence on a smaller-scale farm and be slaughtered in a more humane fashion.

Grass-finished: THIS is an important distinction...some producers will have grass-fed animals that are then shifted to corn before their maturity in order to hasten the growth process before slaughter. Ideally, look for "Grass Fed AND Grass Finished".

Cage-free: all that this label means is that the chickens have a small opening in their factory warehouse that allows them to go outside to a tiny paddock large enough for a few chickens at a time. Cage-free doesn't mean that the chickens actually go outside, it just means that they have the option.

Free-Rangebingo, this is the label you want to see when buying chickens/poultry and eggs. It usually means that the chickens are allowed to range on grass, although it does NOT necessarily mean that the chickens are only eating naturally-grazed feed (bugs and grubs). The best possible eggs and chicken come from a local farmer's market purveyor or a shop that features locally raised free-range proteins. When in doubt at a regular store, choose a "free-range" label.

Organic: this means different things at different times, and depends on the food. Regarding meat, it usually means that the animal was not fed anything synthetic, nor was it pumped full of antibiotics. Be careful here however, because the law allows for some "Organic" producers to feed their animals only a percentage of quality food, so don't be afraid to ask questions, research brand names and farms online, and read labels carefully. When it comes to dairy products at regular stores, organic is always better than not, so spend the extra dollar or two for that gallon.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled label: A farm animal advocacy organization called Humane Farm Animal Care has created an international certification with a label that you can find on products at select stores. This certification has high standards for animal conditions throughout the rearing and slaughter process, read their bullet points below. You can find foods with this label at lots of stores around the country now, and you can check out the entire operation here:

  • That the producer meets our standards and applies them to animals from birth through slaughter.
  • No Cages, No crates, no tie stalls. animals must be free to do what comes naturally. For example, chickens are able to flap their wings and dust bathe, and pigs have the space to move around and root.
  • A diet of quality feed, without animal by- products, antibiotics or growth hormones.
  • Producers must comply with food safety and environmental regulations. Processors must comply with the American Meat Institute Standards (AMI), a slaughter standard written by Dr. Temple Grandin, a member of the HFAC Scientific Committee.

Seafood: the world of sourcing sustainable seafood is a tricky one to navigate. Increasingly, I've seen fish purveyors at local farmer's markets, but buying local seafood that also doesn't compromise the integrity of the world's fish stocks is complicated. Fortunately, there are organizations who focus on helping consumers figure it out. Oceana has a terrific Sustainable Seafood Guide that can help you more conscientiously select seafood from any store or menu. As for the humane factor, many animal advocates believe that it's harder to gauge the pain and suffering of a fish species whether it's line-caught, netted, or farmed. But fishing practices like bottom-trawling unnecessarily kill thousands of animals that are then thrown back as "by-catch" in favor of the target fish, and are harmful to the ecosystem at large.

  • Shop outside the box

If you're committed to buying eggs, dairy, meat and fish from the most humane sources, your best bet is to shop your weekly local farmer's market. If meat has been raised locally or regionally (for folks in Virginia, this means Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and sometimes North Carolina), it was probably raised on a smaller farm operation that takes better and more attentive care of its animals. This is NOT always the case, but most farmers markets do a good job of vetting their participating vendors. Even so, ASK QUESTIONS. If someone is selling pork at your market, the person at the stand should know about the farm, how the animals live, whether or not they are slaughtered on site (best) or nearby (almost as good), and be enthusiastic to tell you. Short of being drawn into a Portlandia sketch, you should be able to have a conversation that will inform you. Some purveyors have websites or Facebook pages that show buyers their farms, and sometimes there are picture albums at their stands. In short, if a producer is raising meats, eggs and dairy humanely, they will be proud to tell you about it.

Can't make it to your weekly market? There are lots of other opportunities to shop "straight from the source". Many farmer's markets in the DC area have relationships with local stores who will sell their products throughout the week (for example, here's the companion store for the Falls Church Farmer's Market: Wherever you shop, READ THE LABELS first. MOM's does a great job of sourcing, but don't be afraid to ask questions from the staff. Whole Foods does have some good options, but MANY of them are not organic NOR are they humanely raised, so be careful. Again, read labels and ask questions. The Organic Butcher in McLean has excellent relationships with its suppliers. Other good spots are Red Apron Butcher in Merrifield, and Let's Meat On the Avenue in Del Ray.

If you REALLY want to get serious and keep an eye on your wallet, you can join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) buying club and purchase protein in bulk. You may need a basement freezer for additional storage, but when you stock up it's great to know that your next humanely-produced protein-rich meal is only a staircase away. Buying straight from the farmer is always best. Some farms that have been farming responsibly for a long time are now offering delivery to the metropolitan area. Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia (made famous in recent years through Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma"), offers a buying club that makes local pick-up deliveries right in our area, AND you can make small orders. It's a snap. My husband and I have family who live in Western Loudoun County, and we sometimes buy from their neighbors. We have purchased beef from our property managers (who own a farm called Spring Hill Farm in Marshall, VA) and chickens from Liberty Hill Farm.

A great online resource for finding markets, CSAs, and farms from whom you can buy directly is this website:

  • Beans have protein too!

With all this talk about animal protein, don't forget that there is protein to be had from plant sources too. Don't be shy about getting more protein from plant sources like legumes, beans, tofu and nuts. These foods DO have other macronutrients in them (like carbs in beans, or fat in nuts), but they absolutely belong on a protein-seeking eater's daily and weekly menu, vegetarian or not. There are several brands of quality plant-based protein powders that you can use for supplementation, including Vega. As for whey (isolated from milk) protein powders, there are some good organic lines available, such as Natural ForceJay Robb Protein (widely available at Whole Foods), and The Organic Whey. These organic whey powders ain't cheap, but they're excellent quality and they don't compromise on their milk sourcing. Jay Robb brand also offers egg white protein powder from "cage free" hens (but not "free range").

  • Restaurants and traveling can be hard

Whenever you're in less direct control of where your food is coming from, it'll be harder to make humane choices. When dining out, some restaurants now strive to feature "farm to table" and sustainable ingredients, including their proteins. If a restaurant is going that far, they should be proud to talk about the details, so ask your server. If you're at a fast-casual place where the name of the farm isn't featured on the menu, you can STILL make some good choices by CHOOSING where to go. Many popular chains like Chop't, Sweetgreen, and even Chipotle are giving diners some information about where their chicken, eggs, pork, beef, and even fish comes from. The sourcing is rarely as small-scale as the purveyors you'll find at your local farmer's market, but just because you can't make an OPTIMAL choice in a given situation doesn't mean you should make a worst choice. When it comes to humane choices, KFC and Wendy's are not on your list.

As for local restaurants who are currently featuring humane proteins on their menus, here is an extremely short list that comes to mind immediately, but there are LOADS more:

Founding Farmers in Tyson's

True Foods Kitchen in Merrifield

Green Pig Bistro in Clarendon

Copperwood Tavern in Shirlington

The Liberty Tavern in Clarendon

We even had this cool restaurant out in Lovettsville cater our wedding (food sourcing was important so we set aside a large portion of our event budget for it): Market Table Bistro.

There are LOTS of them, use Yelp and search in your zip code for restaurants featuring "farm to table" or "humane meat" "grassfed..." "free-range", etc. Websites are proliferating that are building databases of restaurants in areas around the country, identifying places that source responsibly. There are many restaurants who understand that quality and humanity go hand in hand. Always ask questions about the menu, even at fast-casual places. When you're traveling, do some preliminary research about where you're dining.

Unless you're following a strictly vegan protocol, the way you eat WILL impact the welfare of animals for the duration of your life and those of the people in your family. However, if you care about animal welfare (and your health and the health of the planet!), you can flex your purchasing power to make a difference. Protein is an important part of your diet. Respect it.