To meat or not to meat — that is the question
Most conversations about diet start with a disclaimer. You know, something along the lines of “well this is just me, but…”
And it’s because there are few topics that can be as inflammatory as views on dietary superiority. It’s almost up there in the ranks with politics or religion.
For every dedicated carnivore there’s a passionate vegan protesting it. For every carb lover there’s a keto enthusiast disagreeing. It can be a source of stress and an almost comical amount of conflict.
So let’s walk the fine line through a balanced, unbiased (impossible, but hey…), ideological meandering that lends thought to both the meat eating and plant-based lifestyles.
Our evolutionary roots
Our history seems to suggest a term most of us might have already heard… omnivory (the consumption of plants and animals). Depending on location and time-period, most of our stone age ancestors were likely landing between 30 and 70% of their calories from meat.
Some even suggest that meat was responsible (at least in part) for the leap into human evolution. But most of what we’ve found regarding the real Paleolithic diet paints a different picture. While meat was very much sought after, the reality was that it was a challenge to get it. And so enters the “gathering” aspect of hunter-gatherer.
Amanda Henry, paleobiologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig states “Frankly, I think that misses half of the story. They want meat, sure. But what they actually live on is plant foods.” She also found evidence which supports the idea that humans have been eating tubers and grains for at least 100,000 years.
Autotrophs & Heterotrophs
So why did our ancestors want meat? Why was it a preferred nutrient source worthy of such effort?
The answer is likely caloric and nutrient density and a fascinating lens through which to look at this is by splitting organisms into two classes –
These are living things that can generate their own nutrition from the environment. So, with sun, water and atmospheric nitrogen, they have all they need. We’re talking about plants, algae and certain types of bacteria.
These are the other organisms (like us) that need help. We’re obligated to be consumers of our nutrition because we can’t create it for ourselves.
And what do we consume? Autotrophs or other heterotrophs (plants or animals). Compared to heterotrophs, autotrophs are lightweight and although they contain an impressive nutritional spectrum, its not as tightly-packed as animal sources.
In the past several years, I’ve experimented with so many modalities. Straight carnivory, pure veganism and varying degrees of vegetarianism. Not to mention all of these variations tested at every level of carbohydrate possible (300 to 0 carbs per day).
At one point I was eating only red meat and butter. Having read a few people extolling the amazing health benefits of the carnivore diet, I wanted to give it a try.
For a longer period, I was a vegan — eating large amounts of vegetables, nuts, nut cheeses and seeds (thank you Kite Hill) and it felt good — both physically and ideologically.
And I noticed that at both ends of this spectrum, I felt emotionally and behaviorally like two slightly different people. As the carnivore I felt a lot of energy and workouts tended to include more strength training. I also felt a bit more aggressive in general (which I didn’t really like).
As a vegan I felt calmer and my physical health began to be more centered around flexibility and cardiovascular endurance.
Now I know this might just be correlative and not causal. I might have just been changing as a person and thus the diet shifted. The point is that there was certainly a different state of mind that was noticeable in each.
But what both of these ends of the spectrum ended up having in common was that, for me, neither felt sustainable as a permanent solution. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted so much to be the person eating 3 ribeye steaks a day and experiencing the greatest physical health of my life. Or the vegan with endless energy, a balanced mindset and zero complaints.
Individual balance points
While fleshing this out, I really thought the obvious answer would be to suggest “balance”. You know, an eating style (I like this phrase more than “diet”) with a Mediterranean theme that’s omnivorous, well-rounded, colorful and all inclusive — but never going to extremes.
But it seems that balance points have to be revealed on an individual basis. Balance for an Inuit (with a diet traditionally comprised of 99% meat) will be significantly different than balance for the Hadza and Kung bushmen of Africa (30% annual calories from meat).
In the end it seems that dietary “correctness” means a different method for everyone. Many vegans have incredible health, glowing skin and a long, healthy lifespan. Others attempting the same diet can end up with deficiencies (even with physician-supervised supplementation).
Some people can thrive and even remedy severe autoimmune disorders with an all meat diet. For others it could mean something entirely different.
So it might be the boorish, “everybody’s right” — lack of argument that no one is intrigued by, but nevertheless it seems to fit.
Finding your balance point
The irony here is that the extreme ends of the spectrum are really useful when trying to discover what works best for you. In other words, dietary extremes can help reduce variables so that a slightly more scientific approach can be used for testing.
As I mentioned before, the carnivore diet was not at all for me and the vegan approach wasn’t sustainable either. However, both gave me fantastic insight into how diet affects my body. Now I can eat with an almost strange amount of precision and keep my energy and mood anywhere I want them to be.
Recognizing the individuality of the biochemistry of each individual really makes extreme dietary beliefs something of the past.