Ever heard of the phrase "you are what you eat?" Well, no one takes this more seriously than today's top athletes. They need to ensure that their bodies receive the correct balance of nutrients and energy and avoid potentially harmful additives. So it's no surprise to find that top athletes are turning to sustainably produced foods to ensure their success.
I know this first-hand from conversations I have had with Will Witherspoon, a linebacker for the Tennessee Titans -- and a sustainable farmer. Will is a unique human being; a gentle, humble and soft-spoken man whose day job is making the quarterback's life as uncomfortable as possible. He's also passionate about producing sustainable, healthy and nutritious food on his family farm, Shire Gate Farm, near Owensville, Missouri.
Through our farming connection, I have been very fortunate to have got to know Will and he's become a family friend. On several occasions, he has given both my sons one of those talks that only a true sportsman can. As any dad knows, we can talk until we are blue in the face about the need to eat well and look after yourself, and to dedicate yourself to your sport. Yet after one minute chat with Will, my boys are immediately re-energized and focused. Will has the gift of being able to communicate the connection between what goes in their mouths and their performance out on the field in a way that most dads can only dream of. In today's junk food world, where childhood obesity is common place and diet-related ill health is epidemic, this kind of education is truly priceless.
Will and I have spoken at length about the connection between the food we eat and our health. When Will bought Shire Gate Farm as a working farm in 2007, he wanted to farm it "right." After much research, he chose the White Park cattle breed to start building up his herd as they are docile, thrive in a grassfed environment, and provide superior milk and meat. His research also led him to Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) and pasture-based farming: "I wanted Shire Gate Farm to be true to nature and true to the way things should be done," he explained on one of my visits to the farm. "That means putting the welfare and care of the animals first."
As a professional athlete involved in one of the world's most physical and competitive sports, Will is particularly aware of the health benefits of grassfed, high-welfare farming. "I want my kids, and all kids really, to grow up in a way that is more in touch with the natural environment," he explained. "My cattle are raised as nature intended, on grass, and aren't fed growth hormones, antibiotics or other unnatural additives. As a pro football player, I can't take over-the-counter cold medicine without letting my trainer know about it. Why would I want my kids eating beef from cattle fed hormones or routine antibiotics?"
Will's concerns about how he farms and the food his family eats are well founded. We know that the nutritional quality and taste of meat is the result of how an animal is fed, raised and ultimately slaughtered. I mentioned above the old saying "you are what you eat," so when you buy grassfed meat what are you eating?
Omega-3s are often referred to as "good fats", because they play a vital role in every cell and organ system in the human body. People who have ample amounts of omega-3s in their diet are less likely to have high blood pressure or an irregular heartbeat. These crucial healthy fats are most plentiful in flaxseeds and fish, and are also found at much higher levels in meat from animals that have been raised on grass when compared to cheap, intensively farmed grain-fed meat. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is another "good" fat worth examining. Scientists now believe that CLA may be a defense against cancer; and when ruminants are raised on fresh pasture, their meat and milk contains up to three to five times more CLA than from animals fed grain-based diets. Similarly, vitamin E in our diet can contribute to a lower risk of heart disease and cancer. Research has also shown that grassfed meat is higher in vitamin E than meat from grainfed animals.
So where does AWA fit in all this? AWA has the most rigorous standards for farm animal welfare currently in use by any United States organization, and they exist for good reason. Our standards have been developed in collaboration with scientists, veterinarians, researchers, and farmers across the globe to maximize practicable, high-welfare farm management. Why? Because research shows that if animals are kept on farms where they are not overcrowded, where they can perform their natural behaviors on pasture, where they are fed a diet that matches their natural needs, and where they are managed to promote health and well-being then they are happier and healthier. The end result? Better tasting, more nutritious meat, milk and eggs from sustainably managed family farms that we can all feel good about eating - and that includes the Witherspoon family. Animal Welfare Approved: not just food for thought, but food for sport.
For more information on Shire Gate Farm visit www.shiregatefarm.com
Follow Andrew Gunther on Twitter: www.twitter.com/farmerssustain