Just a little note on the use of language. Clearly there is no such a thing as grain-fed or grass-fed beef, because one does not feed beef anything. One feeds cattle grain or grass, and then the resulting beef is said to be “grain-fed” or “grass-fed”. It is a manner of speaking that facilitates discourse, which is why it is used here.
To compensate for this digression, let me show you a graph, which pretty much summarizes the "punch line" of this post. The graph below shows the omega-6 fat contents of 1 lb (454 g) of grain-fed beef and 1 tablespoon (roughly 14 g) of a typical industrial vegetable oil (safflower oil). As you can see, there is a lot more omega-6 in the much smaller amount of industrial vegetable oil. A gram-for-gram comparison would practically make the beef content bar disappear.
It has been estimated that our Paleolithic ancestors consumed a diet with an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of about 1. While other estimates exist, the general consensus seems to be that that ratio was not much greater than 5. Western diets, in contrast, typically have omega-6 to omega-3 ratios of between 15 and 40. In some cases, the ratio is even higher.
Omega-6 fats are essential fats, meaning that they must be part of one’s diet. Fats make up about 60 percent of our brain. About 20 percent is made up of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. The primary omega-6 fat found in our brain is arachidonic acid, which is either synthesized by our body based on linoleic acid from plant foods or obtained directly from animal foods such as meat and eggs. The predominant omega-3 fat found in our brain is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), of which certain types of fish and algae are rich sources.
Inflammation is an important process in the human body, without which wounds would never heal. Incidentally, muscle gain would not occur without inflammation either. Strength training causes muscle damage and inflammation, after which recovery leads to muscle gain. Omega-6 fats play an important role in inflammation. Generally, they are pro-inflammatory.
Too much inflammation, particularly in a chronic fashion, is believed to be very detrimental to our health. A very high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio seems to cause excessive and chronic inflammation. The reason is that omega-3 fats are generally anti-inflammatory, counteracting the pro-inflammatory action of omega-6 fats. Over time, a very high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is believed to cause a number of Western diseases. Among them are cardiovascular complications, cancer, and various autoimmune diseases.
So, should you worry about too much omega-6 from grain-fed meats?
If you think that the answer is “yes”, consider this. Apparently the (arguably) longest-living group in the world, the non-Westernized Okinawans, consume plenty of pork. Pork is a staple of their traditional diet. It is true that the average cut will have an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of more than 7, which is not very favorable. Pork in general, whether grain-fed or not, is relatively high in omega-6 fats. As a side note, pork is not a good source of linoleic acid (found in plants), even though it is a rich source of arachidonic acid, the omega-6 fat synthesized from linoleic acid by various animals.
It is difficult to estimate the exact amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 fats from grain-fed cuts of meat; different sources provide different estimates. Here are some reasonable estimates based on various sources, including Nutritiondata.com. A typical 100 g portion of grain-fed pork should contain about 690 mg of omega-6 fats, and 120 mg of omega-3 fats. A typical 100 g portion of grain-fed beef should have about 234 mg of omega-6 fats, and 12 mg of omega-3 fats. It does not take that much omega-3 to counterbalance the omega-6 obtained from grain-fed pork or beef, even if one eats a lot of them. Two softgels of fish oil will normally contain about 720 mg of omega-3 fats (they will also come with 280 mg of omega-6 fats). Three sardines will have over 2 g of omega-3 fats, and less than 200 mg of omega-6 fats.
Industrial vegetable oils (made from, e.g., safflower seeds, soybean, and sunflower seeds) are very, very rich sources of omega-6 fats, in the form of linoleic acid. There is a lot more omega-6 in them than in grain-fed meats. One tablespoon of safflower oil contains over 10 g of omega-6 fats, in the form of linoleic acid, and virtually zero omega-3 fats. About 2 kg (4.4 lbs) of grain-fed pork, and 5 kg (11 lbs) of grain-fed beef will give you that much omega-6; but they will also come with omega-3.
How much fish oil does one need to neutralize 10 g of pure omega-6 fats? A lot! And there is a problem. Excessive fish oil consumption may be toxic to the liver.
If you cook with industrial vegetable oils rich in linoleic acid (this excludes olive and coconut oils), or eat out a lot in restaurants that use them (the vast majority), you will probably be consuming significantly more than 10 g of omega-6 fats per day. The likely negative health effects of eating grain-fed meats pales in comparison with the likely negative health effects of this much omega-6 fats from industrial vegetable oils.
You should reduce as much as possible your consumption of industrial vegetable oils rich in linoleic acid, as well as other products that use them (e.g., margarine). Keep in mind that industrial vegetable oils are in many, many industrialized foods; even canned sardines, if they are canned with soybean oil.
It is also advisable to couple this with moderate consumption of fish rich in omega-3, such as sardines and salmon. (See this post for a sardine recipe.) Taking large doses of fish oil every day may not be such a good idea.
Should you also consume only grass-fed meat? Do it if you can. But, if you cannot, maybe you shouldn’t worry too much about it. This also applies to eggs, dairy, and other animal products.
Elliott, W.H., & Elliott, D.C. (2009). Biochemistry and molecular biology. New York: NY: Oxford University Press.
Ramsden, C.E., Faurot, K.R., Carrera-Bastos, P., Cordain, L., De Lorgeril, M., & Sperling (2009). Dietary fat quality and coronary heart disease prevention: A unified theory based on evolutionary, historical, global, and modern perspectives. Current Treatment Options in Cardiovascular Medicine, 11(4), 289-301.
Schmidt, M.A. (1997). Smart fats: How dietary fats and oils affect mental, physical and emotional intelligence. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.