On my belated introductory post a few months back, I asked readers to contribute any questions they have about me, my blog, my diet or why I eat the way I do, and I got this great question from Cristina of An Organic Wife:
You went vegetarian for moral reasons. Do you want to comment on whether we “do or don’t need to eat meat” as some vegetarians argue?
For those of you who don’t want to reading a wandering, musing answer that touches on much more than nutritional needs, here’s the short answer: Some people need to eat meat. Others need to eat less.
It’s been my experience that middle-class people in developed countries (such as myself) do not need to eat meat. We need much less protein than we eat as a nation, and we are capable of getting it from other sources. While there are other nutritients included in meats (zinc, iron, omega-3 fatty acids in fish, etc.) these are also widely available from other sources in our world. And if you’re in any doubt about what you need to eat, and in what quantities, you should talk to a nutritionist, as they have the knowledge to measure your body’s particular requirements.
But I think there’s more to the question than simply a nutritional response.
I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about this, because the word “need” can convey so many different ideas. Do we need to eat meat for nutritional purposes? Do we need to eat meat for biological purposes? When I was first considering eating meat again, I had already been convinced that I could do so environmentally, locally, and that I could support small-scale, non-corporate entitites by doing so.
But I still struggling with the notion of whether or not it was “right.” And for me, right in this sense, at that time, meant natural. The question for me was: given that I have alternative sources of protein and other nutrients that I would get from meat, can I justify the fact that an animal dies for me to eat? Given that we are no longer hunter-gatherers, do we, as a society, need to eat meat?
So you can see that for me, need has also always been a muddled question of moral rights, humanity and our place in the natural world, as well as one of health and nutrition. My idea of what is “natural” has always been rooted in my firm belief that we humans are still mammalian pack animals. Much as we may have accomplished by way of civilization, our bodies are still animal bodies with the same basic animal needs. What follows below are a few short excerpts that have recently been excised from my book that try to explore my answer to Cristina’s question.
Be warned: my extreme nerd obsession with biological anthropology is heavily present.
Meat, we in the developing world have been told for awhile now, is dangerous. Coronary heart disease. Heme iron, present only in animal meat, appears to change the lining of the colon, and cause abnormal cell growth, leading to an increased risk of cancer. Same goes for breast and prostate cancer.
According to a massive study headed by the National Cancer Institute, conducted over the course of a decade on half a million Americans, people who eat more red or processed meat were also more likely to: smoke, weigh more for their height, consume more total calories, consume more than the recommended weekly amount of alcohol, consume more total fat, consume more saturated fat. Subjects who ate more red meat were also less likely to: eat fruits, eat vegetables, eat the recommended daily amount of fiber, take vitamin supplements, be physically active. But the study controlled for all of these other factors and conclusively isolated increased consumption of red and processed meat as a cause for increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
In other words, science agrees that eating more red meat is, in fact, bad for you.
Consuming more red meat, or more processed meat, significantly and conclusively increases our chance of dying sooner than we ought to. All other things being equal, eating more than four ounces of red or processed meat a day makes a person 20 to 40 percent more likely to die.
Biological anthropologists study the evolution of modern humans by examining hominid fossils and modern human populations, trying to draw connections from past to present. They hypothesize, because of what they know about bones and brain size, about bipedalism and cranial anatomy, that modern humans still inhabit prehistoric bodies. So, the nutritional requirements of modern humans were probably established at some point in our past, as part of an endless cycle of evolution. The food we ate dictated how and in what ways our bodies were able to grow and change, and our new bodies affected our ability to gather, prepare and eat new foods.
But complications arise when examining the diets of early hominids who ate many different types of diets over the last five million years or so. Australopithecines of Africa were scavengers, eating a mixed diet of animal protein killed by other animals, plants and nuts. Homo erectus was a hunter who used stone tool and developed the ability to cook or roast animal flesh, who also ate plants extensively. Neanderthals hunted large game in cold climates, relying on fruits and nuts during the coldest months when access to animal game was limited. And the earliest incarnations of Homo sapiens hunted small mammals, dug and foraged plants, and picked berries. Importantly, these early humans—who would not look out of place if they walked among us today—developed the ability to gather wild grains to grind and bake into breads or cakes. Later, descendents of the same species, our most recent chronological ancestors, ate a fully mixed diet: roots, fruits, leafy vegetables, nuts, and a small proportion of animal fat, smaller than at periods earlier in human history.
So the question is not only what did our ancestors eat but also who are our ancestors?
Changes in the human diet spurred changes in human society, both nutritionally and socially. When Homo sapiens learned how to harvest wild grains, they began the process of learning to cultivate those grains—the very first farmers. Once we could plant crops in rows and have ready access to food, once that reliability was secured, humans could relax a little. We could stay in one place, making us safer from predation, helping us to begin building what we now know as civilization.
But earlier than that, about two million years ago, when early hominids began eating meat regularly, we suddenly saw a rapid increase in growth and development. Our bodies received the energy they needed to stitch together thicker, stronger muscles. Calcium shot into our bones, and our skeletons began to shift and expand, growing taller and more narrow, for better balance. The dense vitamin value of meat—those b-12s and zinc and iron—went straight to our heads, feeding the evolution of our massive brains in both size and ability. Modern humans use nearly a quarter of their resting energy to feed our brains. Chimpanzees use 10%. Gorillas use 8%. Meat was the most nutritionally-dense, energy-rich food available to people over the course of our development, and meat has therefore caused much of that development and that is what makes people say we are “meant” to eat meat.
Hunter-gatherer societies still exist in the world. Here in the United States, we may sometimes forget that there are places on the planet without Wal-Mart or interstate highways or suburban subdivisions, but they are there, and biological anthropologists spend most of their time in the field studying these people, mostly in rainforests and Pacific islands, in order to better understand how our ancestors might have lived. Modern human hunter-gatherers move, on average, eight miles a day in search of food. No McDonald’s drive-thrus. No Chinese take-out. No home delivery of groceries. If they want meat, they need more than a phone to get it.
It is this distinction that led to the consensus, among biological anthropologists, that it is not only the amount of meat consumed that causes obesity and other diseases in developed countries—but that the amount so drastically overestimates the amount of work done to get it.
While many people in the developing world eat or have available enough food in sheer caloric intake, their diets are severely lacking in micronutrients that can only be derived from animal-source protein. Livestock consumption provides a micronutrient-rich supplement to a staple-plant based diet in developing nations. Animal-source foods (including meat, milk and eggs) are particularly appropriate for combating the range of nutritional deficiencies faced by people in developing nations, from providing them with additional iron, calcium, and zinc, to stabilizing a food supply which often fluctuates seasonally.
Beyond limited access to food, the developing world is full of people who have trouble eating even when food is available—like children whose stomachs are small, whose intake is physically limited, or HIV/AIDS patients whose bodies are slowing, sluggish, reduced to fulfilling basic needs, for whom digestion is a full day’s work. Because it provides such a high amount of protein per ounce, meat is uniquely poised to help fulfill nutritive requirements for those populations.
The truth is, there’s no one answer to the question of whether or not we need to eat meat — the answer is different for everyone.
Some people need to eat meat. Others need to eat less.
Do you think people need to eat meat? What have your personal experiences been with trying to — or trying not to — eat meat that might impact this? Leave a comment or drop me an email and share your thoughts!