Are we meat eaters or vegetarians? Part I
One of the problems – if it could be called a problem – in writing this blog and moderating the comments is most readers are pretty intelligent. Occasionally I have the angry vegetarian wander in, take me to task for my errant ways, and, after a comeback or two on my part, drift away to never be heard from again. Thanks to the confirmation bias, this blog pretty much selects against the non-meat eater. So, I tend to forget how many people there are out there who are pretty much clueless about basic nutrition, and how many people there are who bobble through life spouting cliches they’ve heard along the way as great nutritional truths. Based on the comments I get on this blog, it seems to me that most people are pretty nutritionally sophisticated and reasonable.
But I have just recently been disabused of that notion.
My friend Tim Ferriss put up an excerpt of our new book The 6-Week Cure on his site a few days ago and asked me if I would mind answering a few of the commenters. I told him I wouldn’t mind at all, but I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into.
Tim’s blog isn’t really a nutritional blog – it’s a lifestyle design blog (said term invented by Tim himself). There is a little nutrition thrown in here and there, but mainly the blog is focused in other directions. As a consequence, it attracts mainly youngish readers who enjoy following Tim’s adventures and want to learn how to model their lifestyles after his. My blog is specifically directed to folks more interested in nutrition who are willing to put up with my digressions into other areas from time to time, so I expect them to be more nutritionally aware.
I wasn’t prepared for what I got in the comments on Tim’s post. Surprisingly, there were a fair number of commenters – maybe even a majority – who would feel right at home on my blog. But there were also a fair number who made me realize that nutritional sophistication is far from a universal phenomenon. You can take a trip over to the comments section of his blog to see what I mean. I pretty much answered only those who I thought were totally off track, so you’ll be able to read my comments, then track back to the comment I was responding to and see what I mean.
The experience made me realize just how much of a void there is in good info out there explaining why humans really are meat eaters at heart, so I’ve decided to do a couple of posts on the subject to be able to refer to in the future when this issue arises. While I was mulling this idea over, I received a link to a piece of sheer idiocy that really pushed me over the edge. It made me realize that if this kind of stuff is out there circulating, it’s no wonder these people have such bizarre notions of what constitutes a rational diet.
I’m going to start off this first part by examining some of this nonsense, and I’ll finish off in the second part by going through one of the classic papers of all time showing why we humans aren’t just meat eaters, but we are humans because we eat meat.
The link I had sent by a friend of mine is one I’ve seen referred to on a couple of other low-carb or Paleo sites. I didn’t give it much thought until the Tim Ferriss blog experience (which, BTW, is still going on. I just got binged on my email that Tim approved another 15 or so comments that I need to take a look at, so keep checking his blog) made me realize that there were really people out their buying into this nonsense.
The piece from AlterNet starts out with a big, bold headline:
Eating Meat Is Not Natural
No equivocating there. A categorical statement if I’ve ever seen one. Let’s see how the author of the piece – Kathy Freston – backs it up. She starts out with a short introductory paragraph that ends with another categorical statement. I’ve noticed that these folks love to write these things with such authority. Same with the people on Tim’s blog. There is no doubt in their minds that they’re correct. But they are operating in an informational void.
Which brings to mind a great quote from Lierre Kieth’s book:
I was on the side of righteousness, and like any fundamentalist, I could only stay there by avoiding information.
Here is the intro paragraph to the AlterNet piece:
Going through the reader feedback on some of my recent articles, I noticed the frequently stated notion that eating meat was an essential step in human evolution. While this notion may comfort the meat industry, it’s simply not true, scientifically. [My italics]
No hesitance there. “It’s simply not true, scientifically.” Not even a smidgen of doubt.
How does our author prove it’s not true? By referring to the writings of people who present themselves as scientists but who are ideological vegetarians.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell, professor emeritus at Cornell University and author of The China Study (please check out the link), explains that in fact, we only recently (historically speaking) began eating meat, and that the inclusion of meat in our diet came well after we became who we are today. He explains that “the birth of agriculture only started about 10,000 years ago at a time when it became considerably more convenient to herd animals. This is not nearly as long as the time [that] fashioned our basic biochemical functionality (at least tens of millions of years) and which functionality depends on the nutrient composition of plant-based foods.”
Ah, our old friend Dr. T. Colin Campbell and the China study. Many commenters on Tim’s blog referenced this study as if were gospel. Before we get into The China Study, I’ve got a disclosure to make. I’ve never read the thing. So how can I talk about it intelligently? Because I have appeared on the podium with Dr. Campbell. A few years ago we both spoke at a symposium somewhere (I can’t even remember where now), and his talk preceded mine. As I sat on the stage, I listened intently and made notes as I watched his slides. What I realized right off the bat is that his whole shtick is nothing but an epidemiologic or observational study, which, as I’ve written about in these pages before, proves no causality and serves only to derive hypotheses. He spent his entire presentation trying to prove his thesis with studies that can’t he used to prove diddly. Since I spent an hour listening, watching and then rebutting, I figure I’ve earned a pass from reading the book.
If you want to read more on The China Study, I suggest you take a look at two sources. First, read Chris Masterjohn’s review, then you can read Dr. Campbell’s rebuttal, then Chris’s response to that. And you can read my good friend Anthony Colpo’s review of the book. The China Study is a pretty sorry piece of work and, since it is an observational study (the results of which are misrepresented in the pop science book available), it doesn’t prove squat. I certainly wouldn’t rush out and become a vegetarian because of it. Yet if you read some of the comments on Amazon, you would think this book is the Second Coming. These poor people who have been so gulled simply don’t realize how worthless such studies are.
In the quote above, Dr. Campbell is obviously unaware that the birth of agriculture involved primarily the turn from a hunting/gathering subsistence to the growing of grain. The agricultural revolution wasn’t a change from a herbivore existence to the herding of animals for food. This kind of clap trap shows just how misguided these kind of folks are and how they twist the historical facts to suit their purposes.
[Note: I have since read The China Study and have posted about it here.]
The next ‘authority’ trotted out by our author is none other than Dr. Neal Barnard, the president of the inappropriately named Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine and himself a vegetarian.
That jibes with what Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine President Dr. Neal Barnard says in his book, The Power of Your Plate, in which he explains that “early humans had diets very much like other great apes, which is to say a largely plant-based diet, drawing on foods we can pick with our hands. Research suggests that meat-eating probably began by scavenging — eating the leftovers that carnivores had left behind. However, our bodies have never adapted to it. To this day, meat-eaters have a higher incidence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other problems.”
This is the Dr. Barnhard of the much-ballyhooed (by him, at least) ‘study’ of the ill effects of low-carb diets that I rebutted a few years back.
He is correct in saying that the earliest of men probably begin to eat meat by scavenging. The paleontological record seems to bear that out. But the line about our bodies never adapting to it and the statement that meat-eaters have higher incidences of all the diseases mentioned is pure malarky. If Dr. Barnhard were asked to come up with references for these statements, all he could possible produce would be a few observational studies, which, as we all know, don’t prove anything. And for each one he could come up with, I could come up with just as many showing the opposite.
Now we get to the big gun: Richard Leakey.
There is no more authoritative source on anthropological issues than paleontologist Dr. Richard Leakey, who explains what anyone who has taken an introductory physiology course might have discerned intuitively — that humans are herbivores. Leakey notes that “[y]ou can’t tear flesh by hand, you can’t tear hide by hand … We wouldn’t have been able to deal with food source that required those large canines” (although we have teeth that are called “canines,” they bear little resemblance to the canines of carnivores).
Hmmm. I wonder if Leakey has ever seen the canines of a gorilla? They certainly have the appearance of the canines of a carnivore yet gorillas are pure vegetarians. But let’s go on.
In fact, our hands are perfect for grabbing and picking fruits and vegetables. Similarly, like the intestines of other herbivores, ours are very long (carnivores have short intestines so they can quickly get rid of all that rotting flesh they eat). We don’t have sharp claws to seize and hold down prey. And most of us (hopefully) lack the instinct that would drive us to chase and then kill animals and devour their raw carcasses. Dr. Milton Mills builds on these points and offers dozens more in his essay, “A Comparative Anatomy of Eating.”
All this anatomical stuff is pure gibberish, yet many people not skilled in the art of critical thinking buy into it. In part II of this post, I’ll address many of these anatomical issues, so we’ll leave it until then. If you’re bored, you might want to take a look at the Comparative Anatomy of Eating, which is a not-very-successful attempt to push a square peg into a round hole. Dr. Milton really has to stretch to get the anatomy to fit with his notions of what it is designed for. I’ve seen so many variations on this theme – people showing minor anatomical differences to prove that humans are really herbivores – that I’ve lost count.
The author now turns to her last expert, a big time, mainstream doctor.
The point is this: Thousands of years ago when we were hunter-gatherers, we may have needed a bit of meat in our diets in times of scarcity, but we don’t need it now. Says Dr. William C. Roberts, editor of the American Journal of Cardiology, “Although we think we are, and we act as if we are, human beings are not natural carnivores. When we kill animals to eat them, they end up killing us, because their flesh, which contains cholesterol and saturated fat, was never intended for human beings, who are natural herbivores.”
This guy really goes off the rails. He tells us that “when we kill animals to eat them, they end up killing us,…” A strong statement that he has absolutely nothing but his own opinion to back it up with. Then he really takes a leap. These animals we kill to eat do us in “because their flesh, which contains cholesterol and saturated fat, was never intended for human beings, who are natural herbivores.” Oh, really. That cholesterol will do us in, eh? Why is it that we have cholesterol ourselves and plants don’t? Why is every cell in our bodies capable of making cholesterol? Because we don’t need it? The depth of his dumbth is unfathomable. Realizing that this guy is the editor of a major cardiology journal lets you know really quickly why such journals publish such biased articles.
Our author goes on.
Sure, most of us are “behavioral omnivores” — that is, we eat meat, so that defines us as omnivorous. But our evolution and physiology are herbivorous, and ample science proves that when we choose to eat meat, that causes problems, from decreased energy and a need for more sleep up to increased risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Here again with the meat causes obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Instead of the “ample science” she claims, there is no proof whatsoever. She uses an interesting expression: she describes us humans as “behavioral omnivores,” which I think is a good definition, but she’s using it incorrectly. She means that we are really herbivores, but we’ve learned to become omnivores, therefore we are behavioral omnivores, not real omnivores. I agree with her, but with a twist. I think we are designed as carnivores and have adapted to an omnivore existence, so we are behavioral omnivores, just not the way she thinks we are. Gorillas are behavioral vegetarians. They have the GI tracts from teeth to the other end of carnivores – and they do fine being fed meat in zoos – but they culturally are vegetarians or behavioral vegetarians.
Old habits die hard, and it’s convenient for people who like to eat meat to think that there is evidence to support their belief that eating meat is “natural” or the cause of our evolution. For many years, I too, clung to the idea that meat and dairy were good for me; I realize now that I was probably comforted to have justification for my continued attachment to the traditions I grew up with.
But in fact top nutritional and anthropological scientists from the most reputable institutions imaginable say categorically that humans are natural herbivores, and that we will be healthier today if we stick with our herbivorous roots. It may be inconvenient, but it alas, it is the truth.
She ends by summarizing all the twaddle she presented earlier. And she relies on what others say to ‘prove’ her points – all the top scientists at all the most reputable institutions – which is a dead give away that she hasn’t gone to any original sources herself and is simply relying on hearsay. But, hey, she’s a journalist, not a scientist, so she’s got to rely on the scientists to tell her what’s going on, right? To a point, but she should also check with some other “top scientists” from other “reputable institutions” to perhaps provide counter opinions.
It almost defies belief that people can be so gullible as to put any credence whatsoever in an article such as this one, yet, after dealing with Tim’s blog, it’s apparent that many do.
One journalist who doesn’t, however, is my friend Amy Alkon, better known as The Advice Goddess who writes a syndicated column that I never miss. In her latest, published in the Orange County Register, she gives advice to a vegan who has come a cropper in a burgeoning email romance with a non-vegetarian. As you read the request for advice from the vegan, you can see her innate sense of moral authority start to bleed through. Amy’s advice is priceless. (It was Amy, in fact, who emailed me the link (after some zealot had sent it to her) to the article above that I’ve just spent three pages dissecting.)
While you’re at it, read her advice to the next seeker after the vegan. My favorite line:
People say the best things in life – love, friendship, moonlight – are free, but so are the worst things: lymphoma, a really big overbite, and road kill.
How true, how true.
The next post is going to be free, and I hope it will fall into the good kind of free category. We’ll go over a famous paper from the anthropological literature making a virtually watertight case that it was eating meat that made us human.