One of the most controversial and curious subjects in modern nutrition is the place of animal protein in a healthy diet. The evidence has been building over the past twenty years that our reliance of 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 diseases. These studies, coupled with the fact that the economic and environmental damage of the modern meat and dairy industry far outweigh 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 daily. Most people would not eat the meat they consume daily if they had to witness the events that brought it to market. The fact that we need around 150 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 increases in heart disease, stroke, cancers and even diabetes, we have to ask ourselves what kind of visions or urges could bolster the desire to continue using meat as even a small part of a healthy diet, several 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, fishes and legs 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 answers to that question are simple - a heady mix of bad science and a fear of change.
Is Meat Part Of Our Destiny?
One of the most interesting arguments supporting 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, fruits 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 to be 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 proofs of this lie 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. 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 a 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 we travelled and as other waves of migration worked their way North, we were forced to adapt to new environments. 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 20,000 to 10,000 years ago agriculture slowly developed and with it 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 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, an adaptation 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.