27 March 2011

Why I Eat Meat - Part 2

In the first part of this post, I laid out some of the reasons why I made the personal choice to return to meat eating - mostly for health reasons. Since I wrote this last summer, more and more evidence of the health benefits of an omnivorous diet, rather than a solely plant-based diet has begun to surface. More and more people are beginning to understand the importance of animal based proteins over inferior plant-based proteins - especially those derived from soy and wheat.

Before I move on to some of the environmental and ethical questions that always surround this topic, I want to mention that last week NPR's Fresh Air featured a story about Dr. Kevin Patterson, a young internist who has spent a good portion of his career in the Arctic circle, as well as Afghanistan with the Canadian army. Over the years he noticed that while doing surgeries on Afghani patients, there was a virtual absence of body fat, both externally and internally surrounding their organs - which is a pervasive characteristic of western patients (both fat and thin). The typical Afghani male weighed about 140 pounds and were pastoralists who lived primarily on food they grew and animals they raised. He also saw an absence of any signs of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or any arterial thickening that is also characteristic of even young Americans and Europeans. And while working in the Canadian Arctic, he watched the Inuit's (native people of the Arctic) health degenerate as they transitioned from their traditional diets of caribou, whale blubber, seal meat, and occasional berries (during their short season) to a North American based diet of simple carbohydrates and processed foods. He said that obesity, diabetes, and heart disease began to soar in these places where it was once absent.

This is just another testament to why many believe that traditional foods are the healthiest - and when I say traditional, I mean mostly a hunter/gatherer diet. Animal/plant based diets have sustained civilizations for millions of years, while modern agriculture has only existed for less than 10,000 years - coinciding with the rise of chronic diseases. The human body evolved over millions of years to digest animal foods and assimilate the proper nutrition from these foods. Our bodies have not yet adapted to cereal grains, pulses, and some other agricultural products, which is why so many people suffer from food allergies, digestive disturbances, inflammatory conditions like chrohn's and celiac disease, and chronic diseases like diabetes and cancers. This is also why you will see many semi-traditional cultures ferment these foods - so they can be made more digestible. Sourdough breads, fermented soy, soaked and sprouted grains, and soured dairy products - were all ways in which people made foods that weren't exactly natural for humans, more digestible and less harmful to the body.

But aren't vegetarian/vegan diets traditional? Well, no - except for perhaps the Jainists and some early Buddhists - although few historical texts are available from that time to provide evidence of large movements. There were many cultures that practiced abstinence of animal foods for religious and spiritual purposes, such as the Hindu practice of Ahimsa (nonviolence), and some forms of asceticism. But even today there are few cultures that practice pure vegetarianism. The Jains drink milk and dairy products, the Okinawans (contrary to popular perception) eat a lot of plant-based foods but also a great deal of fish and pork, the Mediterranean diet consists of vegetables, olive oil, fish, and guess what else? Meat! Lamb, pork, beef, chicken… are all dishes you will find on any Italian, Greek, or other Mediterranean country's plate. In poor countries, wealthier people eat meat and are taller, stronger, and live longer. Those in poor countries who live on grains (corn, rice, wheat), beans, and a few vegetables are shorter, have more developmental problems throughout their lives, and have shorter life expectancies due to malnutrition and infectious diseases. Anyone who has lived or traveled anywhere in Central and South America, Africa, and in parts of Asia have witnessed this first-hand.

So while I believe that vegetables and fruits are healthy and an important aspect to a healthy diet, they are not the whole picture. The latest articles which tout vegetarians feeling better, losing weight, and living longer also don't tell the whole story. Many of these people make big lifestyle changes that go hand-in-hand with becoming a vegetarian: more physical activity, a more spiritual outlook on life (less stress), eating more whole foods rather than processed foods, quitting smoking, drugs, alcohol, etc... Many of these factors are not taken into account when these stories are published, therefore implicating meat and animal fats as the culprit of all that is unhealthy has not been proven. In fact, it may be quite the contrary.

So while I, too, love the idea of being vegan/vegetarian, and never having to kill another sentient being for my food, I realize that this may be an unrealistic and over romanticized ideal that is frankly, a western privilege. It's easy for those of us who have had normal body and brain development as a result of our good lifelong nutrition to make a stand against eating animals when we have an overabundance of food in our lives and hundreds of meal choices. But are we really going to tell the native Alaskan who has subsisted on Caribou and whale meat, that their livelihoods are cruel and they should switch to eating tofu and bok choy? How about in south Sudan where a whole family can subsist on a cow, a goat, and growing some yams and cassava? Are you going to convince them that imported rice and beans from the Americas is the right way to go? It isn't very sustainable and sounds a bit evangelical, doesn't it.


PottsAntiques said...

I always appreciate your evidence as vegetarian/vegan ONLY as a poor lifestyle decision. I eat much less than meat than nearly everyone I know, but I would never cut it out of my diet. How could I replace it - with soy? I don't need all the estrogen that comes with soy and soy products.
Not that this had to do with your article, but I feel that Americans eat far too much salt, which not only impacts our health, but doesn't help the taste of the food. If the food needs that kind of salt level to have flavor, then you're eating the wrong sort of food.

Bea said...

Hi Steph,

I agree it is a Western privilege to have choice--and most people choose to eat meat. But I am not sure it is a Western privilege to be vegetarian or vegan--the Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns I spend time with are vegan, and were vegan in Vietnam. I think it also comes down to what is available around you--and when you do have a lot of choice, why choose meat, unless you have health reasons to do so?



Doctor Jones said...

Laura sent me over. I respectfully disagree with you on a number of points.

First, I'd like to point out that a 1999 meta-study showed lower mortality and risk for heart disease for pescetarians and vegetarians first, then vegans, then occasional meat eaters. Key TJ, Fraser GE, Thorogood M, Appleby PN, Beral V, Reeves G, Burr ML, Chang-Claude J, Frentzel-Beyme R, Kuzma JW, Mann J, McPherson K: “Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies”. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1999, 70:516S-524S. http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/70/3/516S

Consider also:



Contrary to your premise, a vegetarian or pescetarian diet is preferable to a vegan, occasional meat consumption, or unrestricted meat consumption diet. The vast body of medical literature on this topic stands contrary to your central premise.

Seth said...


You know my feelings on the subject. A vegetarian diet nearly destroyed me. Obviously, vegetables are the healthiest and best food to eat, but you make an interesting distinction about the best protein to eat. In the case of proteins, plant-based options are not always obviously the best choice. I like what you say about fermentation. That's a good point. Traditional cultures likely fermented foods because they were hard to digest. You also make a good point about options-of course, vegetarianism, at the least the way it's practiced in the west, does seem like an example of privilege. Thanks for writing, Steph. :)

Mark Lee said...

Dr. Jones,

The researchers in your study noted that "in all studies [reviewed for the article] the proportion of smokers was lower among the vegetarians than the nonvegetarians. In all studies for which data were available, vegetarians had a lower mean body mass index, a lower percentage of vegetarians were current alcohol users, and a consistently higher percentage of vegetarians were high exercisers." They attempted to adjust for these powerful confounding factors, but such adjustments are imperfect.

We can find constellations in the stars, if that's what we're looking for. The intent of the researchers was to confirm their ongoing hypothesis (this wasn't their only pro-vegetarian study) that vegetarians had lower mortality rates, and that's what they found in the data.

Stephanie said...

Laura, I'm not sure how I feel about salt, and quite honestly, haven't given it much thought. I know it's a big issue here in New York, with proposed legislation to mandate the amount of salt put into food. From the little I've read, it seems the jury is still out on whether it's an unhealthy food or not. If I had high blood pressure, I probably wouldn't mess around with it, but I'm not sure it's the cause. However I agree, processed food has way too much salt, sugar, and hyper-flavorings that can't possibly be good for you. They also deaden your taste buds making these foods highly addictive.

Stephanie said...

Hi Steph,

You know I respect your choice to be vegan, but I still don't buy into any of the reasons. I understand that the Vietnamese monks have chosen to be vegan (unlike some other Buddhist traditions, particularly in areas where other foodstuffs are scarce) - and that is, a religious decision. So I treat that choice as I do all religious ideology - with respect, a healthy dose of skepticism, and the ability to differentiate that from other moral and ethical beliefs. I do choose meat for health reasons, but if I really found the environmental and ethical arguments compelling enough, I might have looked harder for vegetarian choices to maintain my health and energy. The fact is, I have not.

Stephanie said...

Hi Doctor Jones, I have to agree with Mark. I can't tell you how many studies are created to fulfill a hypothesis where data is cherry picked to come up with a conclusion. With respect to the1999 AJCN study, the data doesn't prove much at all. According to your conclusion and the numbers that were available, heart disease was 24% lower in vegetarians than in nonvegetarians, and in comparison with regular meat eaters, mortality from heart disease was 20% lower in occasional meat eaters, 34% lower in people who ate fish but not meat, 34% lower in lactoovovegetarians, and 26% lower in vegans. So basically this says that eating fish is best, vegan okay, occasional meat less bad, eggs and dairy really good, and meat all the time bad. So, first of all, fish is meat and is NOT vegetarian. And why were the outcomes of vegan and vegetarian so different? Were they eating different vegetables? Did the addition of eggs or dairy (animal protein and fat) reduce their risk of heart disease? Or perhaps there were other lifestyles that contributed to these outcomes? You see how this is completely unclear.

Typically the standard American diet is pretty bad, which usually includes meat. That doesn't mean the meat is bad, it means the whole picture is bad. This is why we usually see these results.

Even if it were conclusive, I would hardly say that this study represents the "vast body of medical literature." The vast body of medical literature supporting the vegetarian hypothesis is inconclusive at best. But if you would like to look at a list of studies that purport quite the opposite, I would be happy to list them for you.

Doctor Jones said...

@Mark - You make a fair point about the limitations of this research. I'd agree that while valid, inductive reasoning is more likely to produce errors. But there are many other studies that point to the health benefits of limiting meat. David Servan-Schriber, one of MSF's founders, wrote The Anti-Cancer and because of the prevalence of PCBs, dioxins, pthalates and other chemicals in our environment that build up at the trophic levels through biological magnification, we see an epidemic of cancer today. His take is that one is better off eating inorganic produce (cruciferous vegetables in particular) than eating meat for this reason. It's true, and he makes certain to share as much that much is yet unknown and what he puts forth in evidence-based medicine is still controversial because of the logisitcal and financial limitations of for-profit r & d.

@Mark, Steph - I also think that the devil is to be found in the details. I know vegetarians who subsist on peanut butter and jelly. One can subsist on potatoes and milk although not well advised. But I also know vegetarians who are very health conscious who ensure they're receiving the proper balance of aminos in proper proportion. I also think there will always be a significant section of the population that for the dietary reasons you mention (allergies,celiac, etc.), can't manage a vegetarian or vegan diet. I know vegan athletic trainers and bodybuilders too.

So perhaps part of the problem is infinite variability in diets and too many confounding variables for any side to say much with certainty.

There'll certainly be room to criticize the methodology of any research as there should be.

I concede those points as made by Mark, but needed to clarify to Steph that of course I recognize fish eating appears to be healthiest involved meat. Just pointing out that non-meat diets are arguably not as adverse as was suggested...

Finally, I think it's important to keep perspective. Lactose tolerance emerges about 10 K BP. From australopithecus to human, as the Indian tectonic plate smashed into the Eurasian plate creating the Himalayas and sending us out of trees into savannah for our survival, there can be no doubt our omnivorous tendencies explain our survival, from brains and bone marrow to domesticated stock.

BUT it's important to note that save insects, our primate roots were mostly vegetarian (extending to time immemorial). For only about 7 million years has our species been first scavenging and then killing animals for food. And even for our history as modern humans, 98% of which was spent as tribal nomadic hunter-gatherers, the vegetable/foraging contribution to our diet was more nutritionally responsible for our survival than was the unproductive and capricious hunt.

My rambling point is that our consumption of plants and fungi for food is more ancient than our consumption of cereal grasses, milk, or flesh.

I personally find as long as I cook for myself and am conscious of my protein intake (soy isn't the only solution or best; isoflavones and hormone dependent cancers, etc.) via Quinoa and other sources, it doesn't kill me to forego meat. I don't miss it. I'm someone who can be a vegetarian or vegan healthily and would argue there are millions of us here.

Stephanie said...

Yes, but meat is what gave humans larger brains and is what sets us apart from primates today.

I don't think vegetarian diets are adverse for everyone. For growing children, absolutely. For anyone with degenerative diseases or nutritional deficiencies, yes. One can survive on a vegetarian diet, but I don't believe one thrives. And I just don't think we know enough about the long-term health and developmental impact of a completely vegan diet when there are few models to base any evidence on. If south India is any indication, then the outcome doesn't look all that great since that region has the highest rates of malnutrition in the world.

Mark Lee said...

Dr. Jones,

Just to add to what Stephanie has said, anthropology does strongly suggest a relationship between early homonids' consumption of fats and proteins from animal sources and the invention of cooking as reasons for the enlargement of the brain and simplification of the digestive tract. I enjoy this anthropological article far removed from the modern dietary battles which simply asserts that the most successful protohumans were those that were omnivorous. They ate plants, shellfish, and whatever animals they could catch, and enjoyed an evolutionary advantage when it came to lowered infant mortality and greater health, especially when these nutritionally diverse cultures impinged upon those less diverse/more ecologico-nutritionally fragile.


Modern vegan/vegetarian attempts to fill the human nutritional needs through vegetable sources do so from the luxurious position of the modern elective ability to do so, and at the peril of ignoring what we were meant to eat. They appear to me to be a manifestation of a modern sort of asceticism with motivations varying from benign kind-heartedness through mere fashion to the other end, orthorexic righteousness.

Smart Eye said...

Thank you for this article. And thank you for the kernel of knowledge that explains why my son has a fairly serious peanut allergy, when mine was far less serious. I'm going to make some dietary changes.

skip said...

a vegetarian diet is fine in the short term (i.e 2 week detox) but as far as nourishing the body (includes brain, by the way) and growing the body (again, the brain) you need essential enzymes and amino acids that only well raised animal products can provide. Please read "the Vegetarian Myth" by Lierre Keith. I will lend you my copy if you can't afford to purchase it or your library does not stock it. I want to know who funded those studies, Dr. Jones. Great work, Steph!

Gotta Run said...

Great discussions. Should be on TV! At the time I met you, you were a runner. What were your reasons for not running any more? I don't want to hazard any guesses.
-gotta RUN

PottsAntiques said...

Re: Salt
My father found himself with high blood pressure after my mother left, due to all the salty processed foods he suddenly began eating (mostly TV dinners). He opted to go back to his healthier lifestyle, and told me that the only major change he made was making low-sodium choices. His high blood pressure disappeared in 6 months. He is no longer on medication for it. I love salt too, but everything in moderation, of course. Check out the labels on just any random can of soup or packaged item: Nearly always 40% or more of the suggested amount of sodium. Too, too much.

Stephanie said...

Here is one of today's models of vegetarianism:


Flying Mermaid said...

A note about the salt talk -- salt, along with so much of the abounding diet, is usually processed, with all its goodness removed, and chemicals added. I think it's the processed salt that's harmful, whereas there are delicious healthy (in moderation) salts available that are mineral rich.

I stopped adding salt to my food many years ago, but have added some back in recent years, possibly due to hot, dry desert living. I particularly love the chunky kind, such as the large grained gray stuff from celticseasalt.com.

Nice seeing you back, Steph!

Stephanie said...

Nice seeing you, FM!

Andressa said...

interesting post.

Stephanie said...

An unfortunate update:
I realize that one of MSF-USA's founders, David Servan-Schreiber, was mentioned in one of the comments above. He had unfortunately lost his battle against cancer and passed away this past Sunday. We are mourning and honoring his life this week at MSF-USA headquarters. You can read about his life here:

I just want to say that while there is no magic bullet to health and longevity, we do the best we can in life to live clean, healthy, and try to give back the gifts that we have received. Dr. Servan-Schreiber did just that with love for humanity and compassion. He will be missed by both the medical and humanitarian community.