I would like to start by saying I hate the argument over whether or not to eat meats. There is a lot of back and forth between omnivores and vegans. Omnivores state that eating animal products is fine and vegans state that its bad for your health, environment, and is ethically wrong. I would like to elucidate the truth about meat eating and offer realistic solutions that will improve human and environmental health and dissolve the illusions carried by those on either side of the argument.
Animal Products and Human Health
There is a stark contrast between eating pasture raised animal products and conventionally raised animals from feed lots. In regards to animal welfare, pastured animals are raised without added growth hormones, antibiotics in their feed to fatten them, foods that are unnatural to their wild diet (like corn and soy), no confinement to tiny stalls, and are raised on clean soil with no pesticides or chemicals. They get to enjoy their natural habitat, grow at their natural pace, and get to live a normal life. Conventional animals, sadly, live short, horrible lives wrought with disease and misery. When it comes to ethics, choosing pastured animals is a far more conscientious choice. Beyond ethics, there are also health benefits for eating these types of animals.
Meat from pasture raised beef, bison, lamb, chickens, and goats have less total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories while containing more vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, and conjugated linoleic acic; compared to conventionally raised meats.
This is beneficial for two reasons:
1) These extra vitamins and nutrients help to lower risks of heart disease, strokes, dementias, cancer, and other diseases.
2) There are fewer inflammatory fats, chemicals, and antibiotics; all of which contribute to heart disease, strokes, dementias, obesity, cancer, and much of chronic disease we see today. It would seem that much of the bad rap that meat eating gets can be diminished by choosing pastured animals only.
Benefits to Meat Eating in General
In general, diets that contain meat have been shown to reduce appetite and increase metabolism (help with weight loss), lead to greater muscle mass, strengthen bones, and improve iron absorption.
Meat is a great source of Vitamins A, E, Riboflavin (B1), Thiamin (B2), Niacin (B3), Pyridoxine (B6), cyanocobalamin (B12), Phosphorus, Zinc, and Selenium. All of these nutrients play a massive role in brain health and overall health!
General Downsides to Eating Meat
The way in which meat is cooked can potentially contribute to cancer risk. The more cooked or charred a meat is, the more it increases risk of cancer. This is due to the burning of fats and production of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) or the charring of the muscle and production of heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA). However, cooking meats at lower temperatures reduces this significantly. It turns out the claims that red meat increase risk of cancers only applies to well done meats, especially when grilled. Furthermore, pastured meats have much less fat content and thus less toxins produced in the cooking process, so the source of meat matters. Interestingly, if meat is cooked or consumed with polyphenol rich foods (like spices of rosemary, turmeric, thyme, etc. or red wine) or vitamin E rich foods, it will negate the oxidizing of fats and production of PAHs and HAAs. Weirdly, studies have found the opposite with poultry, where consuming chicken (even when charred) leads to a reduction in colon cancer. It turns out, many of the associations found regarding negative health outcomes for meat consumption have ended up being shown as false when put through controlled studies.
Processed meats (sausages, hot dogs, deli meats) often have many additives like nitrites and nitrates, which are known to increase the risk of colon cancer and do damage to the microbiome, an essential regulator of your overall health (I wrote another blog article on the gut brain axis that touches on the role of the microbiome in your brain health). This is why its essential to avoid processed meats. All of the convincing negative health consequences of meat eating are associated with these highly processed meat products.
Downsides to Vegan Diets
A vegan diet is not inherently healthy. If someone chose to eat cheerios every meal, every day, for their entire life; do you really think this would be healthy? Technically, that is a vegan diet. Vegan only means that you do not consume animal products. What makes a healthy vegan diet is one that contains a large variety of many plants foods with special attention to protein combining, B12 supplementation, and omega-3 consumption. These 3 nutrients are notoriously deficient in vegan diets, but can be accounted for. A healthy omnivorous diet also requires a large amount of fruits and vegetables and balance to get all necessary nutrients. Either diet can be done very healthily, or it can completely ruin someones health. A diet focused on fruits and vegetables is far superior to one focused on grains or meats, for example.
One of my largest criticisms of vegan and vegetarian diets is that many of the typical vegan staples (corn, soy, wheat, almonds, etc.) have massive contamination issues with the herbicide glyphosate. Glyphosate does incredible damage to the microbiome of organisms in our gut and is a common cause of health issues in our modern society (I will be writing all about that in a separate article). But again, with knowledge and planning, this diet can be done healthily. Also, vegan food crops are not free of death and destruction! I will hit on this more in the ethics section below.
Despite some potential nutrient issues, it is possible for people to be vegan and healthy. It takes a lot of care and planning to avoid certain nutrient deficiencies. But we can say the exact same thing about an omnivorous diet. Be sure to educate yourself, regardless of your choices, as any diet needs to be balanced and provide what we need to be at our best.
Watch Out for Misleading Research
Most of the research done on omnivorous vs vegetarian or vegan diets is misunderstood. Often, the term omnivorous is used to describe the standard Americans diet consisting primarily of things like burgers, hot dogs, and macaroni & cheese. Meaning these are people who eat whatever they want and hardly touch a fruit or vegetable. There is no distinction between those who eat meat as part of a healthy diet and this type of standard American diets. What about the meat eaters that also eat a lot of fruit and vegetables? As a result, most of the studies are misleading. Just about any diet that moves away from the standard American diet and has more fruit and vegetables is going to be healthier! So, to be sure, we need to compare apples to apples, as it were. To date, I have not seen a single study comparing diets of people who focus on pastured and wild caught meats, with a plethora of fruits and vegetables, vs a vegan diet full of fruits and vegetables.
Meat as Part of Our Evolution
Here is where we can get into the proverbial chicken and egg argument as it is hard to know what came first: humans becoming more intelligent and aggressive, which lead to more meat eating; or more meat eating lead to higher intelligence and aggression. Regardless, it is clear to evolutionary scientists that meat eating became the normal right around the same time our species saw a large leap in our evolution. The consumption of meat has arguably been the critical factor in sustaining larger brains, greater mobility, and the increased demands of nutrition required for a newly migratory species. Our more ape like ancestors were more sedentary and were able to do fine eating the plants around them, but there is a reason homo sapiens have come to dominate the world. Perhaps in our more sedentary world we could thrive again on a purely plant based diet, but one does wonder what might happen to our intelligence as a species.
How Pasture Raised, Regenerative Agriculture Practices Are Our Best Solution to Climate Change.
Industrialized farming practices are the single largest contributor to CO2 emissions that are contributing to global climate change. We are continually cutting down forests and tilling the land to grow more grains and soy. These crops are used to feed both humans as well as much of the meat consumed in society. These monocultures and destruction of forests lead to the deaths of countless animal lives and destroy the fertility of soil. Things only spiral out of control as land becomes less productive from monoculture practices and new lands must be taken to grow more food. Much of these crops are used to feed our livestock, a practice that has to stop. Feeding animals unnatural diets like corn and soy significantly damages their health and produces poor quality meat that is associated with increased risks of disease in humans. As you see from above, pasture raised animal meats have benefits to human health and do not carry the same risk of health problems, especially when consumed in conjunction with high fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, the factory farmed animals produce much higher levels of methane gas (read cow farts) as their digestive systems are not meant to handle these types of foods, nor the increased need for antibiotics that results from keeping these animals in confined lots with inappropriate diets. Methane is another major contributor to greenhouse gases.
Pastured animals do not have this problem. These animals consume their native diets, digest it well, and do not produce excess methane. Furthermore, pasture lands are lands that are allowed to grow their native species of plants which are able to pull carbon dioxide from the air. The manure from grazing animals facilitates soil health and nutrient rich plants. The hooves of these animals gently turns the soils, further creating an enrichment in soil health and regenerating the land. This allows for more wild habitat for other native animals and an effective carbon sink. In this way, pasturing animals can play an integral role in restoring areas that agriculture has destroyed and help reduce greenhouse gases. Clearly, restricting yourself to only purchasing pasture raised animal products is beneficial to the environment, not harmful as many would propose.
This all plays into a general disconnect between farming practices and the ability of the Earth to provide. Humans continue to grow in numbers and corporate farmers continue to exploit land in order to produce as much food as cheaply as possible, to maximize profit. It goes beyond meat eating. For example the avocado industry is responsible for the destruction of rain forests and soaking up precious water resources in Mexico and Chile. The high prices have also lead to drug cartels getting involved and a lot of human death and suffering as a result... all so we can have guacamole year round. Many people love their avocados (including vegans) without realizing the pain and destruction they are causing by purchasing these foods.
On the Ethics of Eating Animals
Aside from the unethical choice of eating animals raised in terrible conditions, I still do not understand the argument that eating animals in general is unethical. I do understand that killing an animal is difficult and brings about grief and emotion. I myself have even felt this when having to kill fish after catching them or when hunting small game. For me, it is a reminder to give thanks and gratitude for the life that I have taken to sustain my own. I am also reminded that plants also exhibit emotions and consciousness and that a part of being alive requires the death and consumption of other life, in its various forms. Aside from the unpleasant feeling of taking a life, why do others see eating animals is unethical?
If we look at major religious figures, arguably some of the most compassionate and caring ones, we see that they ate meat. Are not our spiritual icons the best examples of ethical behavior?
Jesus for example was a meat eater. He ate lamb, fish, and others. Bible scripture has several passages describing Jesus and his eating habits, he was by no means opposed to eating animals: http://www.lavistachurchofchrist.org/LVarticles/DidJesusEatMeat.htm)
Buddha was a meat eater. It is explicitly forbidden for monks to refuse any food that comes to them, unless it was butchered specifically for them. If a village was eating cow that night and some was offered to a monk, he was required to eat it. More on that at this website: https://www.urbandharma.org/udharma3/meat.html
Gandhi is often referenced as a primary example of ethical vegetarianism, but few people know that Ghandi was for eating meat! Quote from Gandhi, "it is essential to eat meat, and also essential to take up food 'reform' in the country. When they are no more and I have found my freedom, I will eat meat openly, but until that moment arrives, I will abstain from it." It turns out, he only avoided meat due to his vows to his mother in life and his desire to stay connected to her in death. https://ivu.org/history/gandhi/road.html
It is also a well known fact that Hitler was a vegetarian. I doubt his vegetarianism had anything to do with being a generally terrible human being, but it goes to show that a persons ability for ethical behavior is not contingent upon whether or not they eat animals.
If we look at the percentage of populations that consume meat we see that the vast majority (about 78%) of people consume animals. Can we really say that the vast majority of humans are unethical??? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetarianism_by_country
If we are talking about ethics, we have to think far beyond whether or not you eat meat.
I believe it is very important to be a conscious eater. As you can see, eating animals is not inherently bad for your health, the environment, or your soul. However, the large scale industrialization of meat production is absolutely bad for our health, the environment, and has ethical problems in how animals are treated and how other species are decimated. Its a myth that eating vegan does not cause massive damage and destruction. When a plot of land is tilled to plant grains, soy, beets, or any other industrialized crop there are countless animal lives and habitats destroyed. What we all need to be aware of is that being human requires some level of destruction of life and that we have the power to minimize that destruction.
I believe the single most responsible thing we can do as food consumers is to learn about where our food comes from, get connected, and stop buying products that are destroying the earth and lead to the suffering of so many creatures.
Making a switch to only consuming 100% pasture raised animal products is a realistic solution that can do our world and our bodies a lot of good. It should not stop there. We need to apply these principles to all of our crops, even our vegan staples! So, lets stop arguing about whether or not to eat meat, and start advocating for a massive overhaul of our food system and agricultural practices. It is time to start respecting nature, the vital force that gives life, and start seeing ourselves as part of a whole. Everything is connected. Until we see that and start caring for all of it, the health of our species and our planet will continue to suffer.
Funny, on writing this I am realizing this is how I approach healing with my patients and a similar argument could be made when debating the use of conventional medicine vs naturopathic medicine...
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