For over fifty years I have watched dietary fads come and go. Usually, they are simply a way of selling books with wild claims. Sometimes they revolve around a new “superfood” or ingredient with supposed magical ingredients, and sometimes they are simply permission to carry on with a specific bad habit. The Carnivore, Ketogenic, Paleo or Dukan diets are examples of the former.
Some may recognize that the basic principle is similar to the Atkins Diet that was popular in the early 1990’s with only the smallest changes. The basic principle is that carbohydrates are dangerous and animal protein is the solution to the growing girth of people’s waistlines.
The kernel of truth is that you can certainly lose weight quickly on these diets.
Low carbohydrate intake causes blood sugar levels to drop, and the body begins breaking down fat to use as energy. They depend on a physical response called ketosis, which is actually a mild form of ketoacidosis.
Ketoacidosis is a sickness, and it is the leading cause of death of people with diabetes under 24-years of age. It is a toxic condition. It has no positive health benefits aside from rapid weight loss. The main two qualities that make these programs popular are:
- You can lose weight quickly.
- You can eat a lot of meat and feel good about it.
When there is an insufficient intake of carbohydrates, the body’s primary fuel, the body turns to fat and protein for energy. This is the same condition that occurs when a person is starving to death. The difference is that in this case, the person can stave off the hunger pangs by eating more food. The people on this diet make themselves sick in order to gain a cosmetic result. The attainment of health is seen as secondary to “looking good.” Weight loss with no regard to health is not only ridiculous; it is also dangerous.
This is similar to a slightly more sophisticated and culturally acceptable form of anorexia. These diets promote the foods that the American Cancer Society, the Heart Association and the World Health Organization tell us are the common causes of death and disability.
The weight of peer-reviewed nutritional studies from around the world shows that eating a plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat. Simple observation confirms that before the introduction of Western animal protein diets, most people around the world were not bothered by obesity. We have an unhealthy addiction to eating animals. We need to understand that our obsession with animal protein is an outdated concept that becomes more dangerous to ourselves and the environment with each passing year.
The evidence has been building over the past twenty years: Our reliance on meat and dairy foods are a mistake. Most epidemiological studies indicate that excessive consumption of meat and dairy is a primary factor in most degenerative disease. These studies, coupled with the fact that the economic and environmental damage of the modern meat and dairy industry far outweighs its social and nutritional value, do not seem to shake the public belief that animal fats and protein are essential for a healthy diet. That more and more people reject these foods on ethical grounds related to the animal abuse sets the stage for a food fight of epic proportions.
There is certainly adequate information regarding the horrific and unhealthy conditions that factory-farming methods impose on cows, pigs, chicken, and fish, as well as the many other animals that are slaughtered for food each day. Most people would not eat the meat they consume if they had to witness the events that brought it to market.
The fact that we need around 65-billion animals killed every year to survive, seems strange when we look at the physical, anthropological and nutritional facts. We can only come to one conclusion – the argument has nothing to do with nutrition, science, compassion or common sense. No.
The subject of animal-food consumption is ruled largely by emotion and cultural mythologies.
Against the backdrop of the linkage between animal products and the increase in heart disease, stroke, cancer and even diabetes, we have to ask ourselves what kind of urges could bolster the desire eat meat as even a small part of a healthy diet, several urges spring to mind:
- The brave hunter returns to the cave with an antelope strapped on his back, which he offers his family as they cower in the shadows of their cave.
- The independent cowboy hunkers down beside the campfire for a big plate of fried meat and cornbread.
- The wealthy landowner sits down to the groaning table filled with roasted birds, fish and leg of lamb.
- Dad fires up the grill and throws on the burgers and hotdogs, the flags are flying.
Powerful images that operate below the surface of consciousness often define who we think we are. Man the hunter, rugged individualism, dominion over the earth, wealth and shared experience all factor in our attitudes regarding what we eat and how we use all of the resources essential to our existence.
What arguments could the proponents of a meat-rich diet possibly use to justify this habit that is creating illness, brutality and ecological ruin? Well, the answer to that question is simple: a heady mix of bad science and fear of change.
IS MEAT PART OF OUR DESTINY?
One of the most interesting arguments to support the eating of meat is that we are omnivorous; we can eat it all. I would never argue with that. Early humans ate a varied diet that probably included insects, small game, fruit and plants. I am not aware of any logical contradiction to this idea.
The issue here is that we were not “natural carnivores” in the accepted definition of the word.
A carnivore is an animal that has a diet mainly or exclusively of animal meat. This meat can be obtained through either hunting and killing or scavenging the leftovers from what other animals kill. The academic arguments continue regarding the dietary details of our evolution, but certain compelling facts emerge that challenge many cultural mythologies.
The most accurate indications of early diet are found in the mouth and intestinal tract. This is where the history of any animal’s dietary past is reflected most dramatically. Indications of the earliest human remains show that man was never a true carnivore. In fact, meat (other than insects) was probably a rather small part of dietary consumption. The proof of this lies in both human structure and function.
Starting from the most mentioned and most obvious, our so-called canine teeth don’t qualify us as carnivores. They are placed back toward the outer corners of the mouth and they are not long enough, large enough or strong enough to grip, hold and tear flesh. There is no evidence in the fossil record that we have ever had the sharp, developed teeth to tear meat or the jaw joints to hold or grind bones with any effectiveness, let alone the claws that are essential tools for the capture and kill.
The issue of cheeks is one that often brings a laugh when I bring it up in lectures. Carnivores don’t have cheeks; they don’t need them. You don’t keep meat in your mouth; you only have cheeks when you keep food in your mouth to aid digestion and to masticate. Humans have digestive enzymes to digest complex carbohydrates (not needed for carnivores); we do not develop these capacities unless they are essential for our existence.
The same indications are there in the human intestinal tract.
Carnivores have very short intestines with fairly smooth walls. Meat fiber is not beneficial to intestinal health in any animal. When the surface nutrients are released from meat, the intestines need to be flushed, the fiber is toxic. Herbivores and humans have a longer (two to three times as long), more complex digestive tract that holds vegetable fiber longer to achieve maximum efficiency and support the growth of beneficial microorganisms.
All of these features take us back over several hundred thousand years, far before the development of tools or practical use of fire. One of the problems that emerge in interpreting all these indications of our original diet is the fact that one of our most precious gifts is our adaptability.
The first humans left their African home 1.8 to 1.3 million years ago, depending on which of the current migratory theories you apply. As tribes moved into the colder and less fertile lands, it was important to follow herds of animals and to rely more on animal sources of food for survival. Those tribes who remained in the cooler climates retained their relationship to animals as a food source, either in the wild, or eventually, domesticated and used for milk products.
Over thousands of years, this adaptation included the sophistication of tool making, the control and use of fire for cooking and warmth, and eventually agriculture. From twenty to ten-thousand years ago, agriculture slowly developed along with cooking. Anthropologists tell us that during this period, the primary development in human biology was an enlargement in brain size. This growth in the brain is attributed to the fact that cooking made digestion more efficient and allowed more caloric energy for the development of the brain.
If this is true, it would indicate a movement away from our original diet to meet the challenges of migration and environment, and then a return to a more plant-based diet to meet the social and physical needs of an increased population and a more settled cultural life. All of these changes were in service of staying alive, staying healthy and serving the needs of the social group. We still face these issues; they are simply in a different form.
TRADITION AND EVOLUTION
I usually ask clients to describe their diet to me. I have asked people in 22 countries this same question. The two most common answers are, “I eat a really good diet” (everything is relative) and, “I was raised on a traditional diet.” (This invariably means, “I eat meat.” The former is usually the female answer and the latter comes mostly from men.)
Tradition gets used as a reason for a multitude of sins. If it was good enough for grandpa it is good enough for me. Two questions spring to mind – the first question is if our nostalgia for tradition is a reflection of fact and the second is the value of tradition on its own.
When I started to eat a macrobiotic diet in the mid-1960’s my grandfather told me that I was eating more like he did as a child.
His family lived on porridge, bread, vegetables, beans and small game with very little red meat. He thought it was funny I was eating this way, but he loved the food.
The amount of meat in the diets of most people 100 years ago, was very small; it was chemical free and free-range or grazed. I have found this to be true in every country I have visited; if you ask the elders, their diet included less meat unless they were quite wealthy.
There has been a long association between wealth and meat-eating: The wealthiest get the best cuts, and the poor get what’s left. This is still true today. Meat eating and the abundance of food are often associated with success. It has always been the rich who were overweight, but with the shift in the modern diet, the tables are turned. Food abundance and plentiful meat and dairy are now the staples of the fast-food diet. Obesity is now available to everyone – how democratic. The only problem is that the meat being consumed is still the scrap.
The popular fast food hamburger can contain as little as 15% meat and includes bones, connective tissue, blood vessels, fat, water, nerves, cartilage and plant-based fillers. No one wants to know what’s in a hot dog. So-called traditions of meat eating serve those who sell meat but are not a reflection of reality. The question still hangs in the air; even if our ancestors ate meat as a primary food why should that affect our diet today?
Human evolution is dominated by two influences: physical adaptation and cultural adaptation.
Physical adaptation is a reflection of our ability to meet the challenges and changes in the environment as reflected in physical form and function. These changes represent the raw desire for survival. Cultural evolution represents a different and unique aspect of human life. If any “tradition” is destructive to individual, social or environmental integrity, it needs to be discarded. Meat eating is just such a habit; there is no benefit in respecting a tradition that poisons the future.
The issues around meat-eating not only span the health and environmental impacts of the food we eat but permeate our collective psyche. Historically, the ethics of eating animals was usually addressed as part of a philosophical or spiritual inquiry, but we seem to place secular morality off to the side.
Increasingly, we are faced with moral decisions that are not defined in ancient texts or fear of punishment from angry gods. These decisions are driven by a desire to evolve the finer attributes of human potential and all of them lead to the world that balances the needs of humankind with the environment that we have grown out of. The quest to live in balance with the laws of nature is fundamental, regardless of how we imagine those laws to have been created. Killing the world to satisfy our taste buds and a stubborn adherence to an imagined tradition, do not serve the higher good.