Should We Eat Meat? It’s Not So Simple. Here Are Several Things You Might Not Have Considered.
So, the debate rages on. Are we vegetarian? Are we carnivores? Are we omnivores? There are so many grey areas and subtleties we need to look at before we can make such a decision. When I was vegetarian I really thought it was just a question of whether to eat meat or not to eat meat. I thought at best we didn’t need it, that it was healthier not to eat it and that not eating it was also good for our spiritual development and the planet. This is an area where a lot of vegetarians get stuck. Let’s consider several factors:
I’m sorry vegetarians, but there has never been a totally vegetarian culture in human history. Ok, there have been some subcultures, usually religious or spiritual, which have adopted vegetarianism, but the truth is that for millions of years we lived a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, and we ate meat. Bone records can clearly show the percentages of protein, fats and carbs that we ate, so there’s no real argument there, and we were healthy. Bone records also reveal the time when the modern ailments started to appear – for example it’s clear that the Egyptians started to develop arthritis when they began to rely on grains. Many other problems started to show up too about 12,000 years ago as we settled and began farming.
What people who argue about what percentage of meat we had in our diets seem to miss is that environmental factors dictate this, so it’s different depending on the climate and latitude. From the Masai at the Equator to the Inuit in the Arctic, there has always been meat in the diet. At the Equator there is more sunlight, giving more vitamin D to digest carbs, so there are bananas, mangoes etc. In the Arctic there is hardly any fruit or veg and practically none at certain times of the year. The Inuit ate perhaps 80% or more of their calories as animal fats and the rest were from protein, and they were lean and healthy with few of the modern diseases (until they adopted a western diet, so this wasn’t down to magic genetics). Interestingly they never suffered from scurvy either despite their lack of vitamin C intake whereas the Arctic explorers often did. Why? The explorers packed dried rice and beans, a combination of empty calories and intestinal irritants, instead of eating what the location provided. There is also a lot of evidence that we got our bigger brains from meat, or more specifically fish eating. It’s very likely that we took advantage of the rich pickings along coastlines as we made our way out of Africa. So, genetically we are adapted to meat.
I don’t consider MacDonalds, KFC or other types of processed “meat” to be real meat. It’s made from farmed animals and battery chickens full of hormones, antibiotics and trans fats. If this is what the studies on the dangers of meat eating were done on, it’s no wonder it got a bad rap. Hunter gatherers very often leave muscle meat on the carcass except in times of scarcity, taking only the internal organs of the animal – heart, kidneys, liver etc. There is actually far more nutrition in those parts of the animal than, for example, your expensive fillet steak. Harmless and delicious as an expensive grass fed piece of steak is, it’s still very far from the most nutritious part of the animal, which displays another way we’ve got things backwards. When I finally realised that meat was okay, I went mad, eating a whole chicken a day and gorging on sausages and sugar-filled bacon. Unsurprisingly, it hurt. I almost never eat chicken these days, as it has very little nutrition compared to red meat, fish and organ meats, is usually grain-fed even if free range, which is always a problem, especially if you have autoimmunity, and anyway, too much protein is not a great thing either, which brings me to…
How much protein do we need?
The short answer is less than bodybuilders think and more than vegans think. If we eat huge amounts of chicken breasts and egg whites every day, packing in 300 grams and upwards of protein, most of it is just excreted. Actually, that much protein also breaks down as glucose, becoming an “honourary” carb, thus rendering a low carb diet fairly ineffective and promoting systemic inflammation. Too much of anything hurts. Brushing your teeth is good, but do it all day and your gums will bleed. The truth is we do need protein and the amino acids (and probably other nutrients we have yet to discover) in good animal products, as they are definitely a more complete and digestible source than vegetable proteins, but one gram per pound of (lean) bodyweight is quite enough per day, even for muscle building. The actual requirement might even be less than that. There are so many subtler nutrients in all of our foods that we don’t fully understand, so focusing on protein alone is probably a very small part of the picture. The truth is, we just don’t know everything, much as we like to think we do. Nature has been working on this stuff for millennia and we’ve only been studying it for a few decades, so let’s not get too cocky and start reducing everything to numbers. Just chew good meat, slowly and consciously, until your body tells you that it’s had enough, and that’s probably just what it needs.
The healing power of bone broths.
Other nutritious parts of the animal that we undervalue in the west are the bones, bone marrow, connective tissues, cartilage etc. In almost all cultures and ancient medical systems, including Ayurveda, there is some sort of reference to the healing power of bone broths. These days we know why. Boiling bones for extended periods of time (I do mine in a slow cooker for about three days) brings out so many minerals and other nutrients that heal the gut, which in combination with fermented foods such as raw sauerkraut can in time seal leaky gut so well that all sorts of seemingly unrelated illnesses vanish. There isn’t space here to go into the full ins and outs of exactly what bone broths can do for you, but to research further, look at the work of Dr Natasha Campbell McBride or have a look at this great article from Mark Sisson.
But meat causes bowel cancer and damages the kidneys, doesn’t it?
Erm, no. Even modern medicine is finally catching up. There is no evidence that grass fed healthy meat and wild caught fish do anything but good. I’m sure that the aforementioned processed meats and their additives do a lot of damage, but that’s not the good meat we’re talking about here. People go on about the pounds of impacted meat found in the bowels of obese Americans, and I’m sure it’s true. Firstly, if they ate the diet that humans were supposed to eat, they would not have the leptin and insulin issues that lead to obesity, so I doubt if any of that impacted meat is of very good quality. Secondly, those oversized guts have probably been horribly damaged by decades of grain and sugar abuse, simplifying the gut flora, distending the shape of the intestines and causing spasticity in the muscles responsible for peristalsis until the meat finds places to hide and fester. This is like one of those bad B movies when an innocent party comes across a body and picks up the murder weapon just as the police arrive. It wasn’t the meat in the first place – it was probably the carbs that ruined the gut’s ability to digest and excrete the meat. The same goes for the kidneys. There is a lot of nonsense talked about protein being bad for the kidneys. This is like saying walking is bad for your legs. Healthy kidneys are designed to deal with protein and healthy legs are designed for walking. If either is damaged, you run into problems, but neither the protein nor the walking causes the problems.
Isn’t vegetarianism kinder to animals and better for the planet?
Hmm. Good sentiment, but a bit misguided. This is a very complicated subject, which on the surface looks like the vegetarians’ trump card. I certainly believed it for many years. However, when you start to look a little deeper, you see that countless species have been made extinct through the vast tracts of land used for planting grains and soya, which has destroyed their habitat. “Ah yes,” vegetarians will say, “but most of that is for farmed animals.” I’m not sure of the percentage, but certainly a lot of it goes to farmed animals, which is just as bad, as those cows etc are not designed to eat grains and soya any more than we are. They get sick, are pumped with chemicals to keep them alive and then fed to us in low quality meat products having lived a horrendous life indoors, in their own faeces on concrete and overcrowded. This is not a vegetarian issue – anybody who cares would be appalled at this. Why not leave the land for grazing and eat the resulting healthy, happy animals? I’ll leave it at that, but if you want to look further, check out this video of Lierre Keith, a former proponent of veganism, busting a few myths. It opened my eyes a couple of years ago.
Lean meat is the best, isn’t it?
Again, no. Organ meat is the best (after small oily fish/shellfish), followed by connective tissue and marrow etc, followed by the fattier cuts of meat. In the absence of the western addiction to grains and sugars, animal fats do absolutely no harm and never have. Don’t cut the fat off that lamb chop, and stop buying lean bacon. You know the streaky stuff tastes better! (Just get some free-range bacon with no sugars added). Fats are very healing for the gut, help with the absorption of many vitamins and minerals and nourish us down to the mitochondrial level, so don’t be afraid of them.
Doesn’t eating meat affect your subtler energies?
Living as I do in an area where there are a lot of vegetarian meditators, I come across this a lot, and it’s a hard one to argue with because there has been so much backing for the vegetarian lifestyle from so many gurus and spiritual leaders down the ages. It is said to interfere with the ability to “transcend”, thus making meditation less effective and making the body rajasic or tamasic instead of the “preferable” sattvic. I too believed this for a long time. Since then I have given it a lot of thought.
Arrogant as it may seem to go against the “gurus” I have to say that when I started to run on fats instead of carbs, not only did my systemic inflammation plummet and my ailments reversed but my emotions got smoother and my meditations were deeper and clearer than ever – probably because I wasn’t fighting the sugar rush. I found good clean meat in moderation to be no obstacle at all. We can also look at the amount of Indian saints who have died of various nasty diseases including cancer. Some of these guys lived in pollution and EMF free areas of countryside or in the mountains and were, we presume, free of any emotional or stress-related ailments, so surely that points to their diets? The Hindu tradition is where a lot of this comes from, as it does enjoy its rice and pulse based diets, and I feel that’s where the problem lies. Also, to suggest that higher states of consciousness are not possible while eating meat completely dismisses many cultures who have eaten meat and fish regularly and have a long tradition of enlightened masters – the Japanese, the Tibetans, the Australian Aborigines and many more.
Amazingly, if you read Ramana Maharshi’s guidelines on whether to be vegetarian or not you find some paradoxes. Ramana is held in tremendously high esteem by millions as one of the greatest sages who ever lived, and has been a massive inspiration to me, but he said himself that even though he recommended vegetarianism, Self realisation was perfectly possible without giving up meat, and after Self realisation it didn’t matter a damn what you ate. He also said that meat actually gives you a stronger body. He was vegetarian; he died of cancer when only 70 years old, and later films of him show definite spinal problems. Nobody’s perfect, or they wouldn’t be in a human body, and Hindus are not the best dieticians. After all, India is the world’s leader for autoimmune disease.
There really is nothing wrong with humanely killed grass fed meat and wild fish. Cutting them out of the diet completely can lead to all manner of deficiencies that don’t show up until much later, so we fail to see long-term vegetarianism as the cause when such problems do arise. Perhaps the worst thing about cutting meat and animal fats from the diet is not so much their absence, but the fact that they are usually replaced by tons of empty carbohydrates and sugars, and that’s where the real problems start. So does this mean you should eat as much meat as you can gorge on without bursting? No. Actually, if you never ate another steak or tuna salad you’d be fine, but if you had three servings of shellfish or small oily fish per week, one serving of liver per week and a couple of egg yolks a day (no, there was never anything wrong with them either) along with the obvious good fats, leafy greens and non-starchy vegetables of as many colours as you can find, you will be far better off than you would be without them.
I agree with Dr Loren Cordain, a professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University and pioneer of the paleo movement – if you choose not to eat meat for religious, spiritual, cultural or moral reasons, then go ahead; it’s your choice, but if you’re doing it for health reasons, then perhaps you should reconsider.