During the almost six years I was a vegan, I was never militantly against other people eating animals, but I did make it clear that their steak came from what had once been a living, sentient being with eyes and a brain that ate, slept and played with its friends on the farm. At presentations around the country, I would proclaim that anyone who wanted to eat animals responsibly should become intimate with the process of turning them into meat—should get as close as possible at least once.
Watch the animal as it’s culled or gutted or butchered. My hunch was that if they did this, they’d likely eat less meat—maybe none at all—which would be a victory for me and my vegan cause.
I started eating vegan after reading about the health benefits. Unlike many other vegans, I wasn’t motivated by an animal-rights agenda. I started to feel for the animals later. What convinced me that the vegan diet was the pinnacle of all eating philosophies were the hundreds of stories I heard of remarkable healing.
You can read thousands of testimonials and studies on healing with a vegan diet from holistic physicians like Alan Goldhamer and Gabriel Cousens; wellness activist, cancer survivor and author Kris Carr; and nutritionist Vesanto Melina and dietitian Brenda Davis, authors of Becoming Vegan. To me, all this was evidence that eating as close to the bottom of the food chain as possible is good for our health.
But if vegan is the pinnacle of all diets, why is there such buzz about nutrient deficiency in long-term vegans? Susan Schenck, author of The Live Food Factor, one of the most popular books to spring out of the raw vegan movement, was in the same situation I was.
Despite her enthusiasm for the diet and numerous speaking engagements tied to her book’s success, Susan slowly came to believe that veganism was undermining her health. She began to experience bloating, deficiencies in vitamins B12 and D, and memory loss. It got so bad she even forgot her husband’s cell-phone number. At that point, she realized she needed meat in her life. It wasn’t long before she was writing another book about her experiences, appropriately titled Beyond Broccoli.
Are people like Susan and me doing the vegan diet wrong? Or is the diet itself a poor long-term fit for our DNA?
I’m convinced that the dissociation I’m experiencing is one of the reasons why Americans have such a meat obsession. According to the United Nations, the average American eats 270 lb (122.5 kg) of meat a year.1 That’s a lot. In fact, the only country whose residents consume more meat per capita is Luxembourg. Since meat tastes good and is protein-dense, it makes sense that we’d want to eat more of it, at the expense of eating fewer plants. For most people, a pan-seared marbled ribeye arguably tastes better than a piece of raw, unsalted, undressed kale.
It’s also important to note that there’s never been a fully vegan culture. We’ve eaten meat as long as we’ve existed. This isn’t promising information for PETA supporters. It suggests that somewhere between vegan and our gluttonous American meat obsession, foods from animals are actually a dietary essential. According to a paper published by the Nature Education Knowledge Project in 2013, “The first major evolutionary change in the human diet was the incorporation of meat and marrow from large animals, which occurred at least 2.6 million years ago.” Cited as evidence are “butchery” marks on fossil bones, showing where early humans used tools to pry meat from the animals they captured.2 So, meat’s place in our evolution, biology and overall human experience puts it right up there with sex, water and air.
Chris Kresser, author of the best-seller Your Personal Paleo Code, says there’s a good deal of research now to suggest that eating meat may have made us human in the first place.
“Before we started eating meat, we had to eat a lot of plant matter throughout the day in order to fuel our energy needs. Meat, however, is a very concentrated, nutrient-dense food source that enabled us to get more nutrients into our bodies faster. This allowed our brains to grow bigger and freed up time for us to do things other than chew plants all day, which is what most primates do. They eat for eight or nine hours a day to support their body weight and their energy needs because they are not eating nutrient-dense foods.”
How much meat we need to eat, though, is more difficult to identify. Meat eating in indigenous cultures varies widely, depending on factors like climate and availability. Among hunter-gatherers, the Inuit in northern Canada have a diet consisting of more than 90 percent animal foods while, for the !Kung in southern Africa, meat is less than 10 percent of their diet. Based on the varying rate of meat consumption among our early ancestors, it seems as if we’re adapted to survive with varying amounts of meat on our plates.
But looking to the early human diet as a guide to how much meat we should eat is as foolish as shaping our own spears to hunt down a deer for tomorrow’s dinner. We’re not those ancient people anymore. The only thing I’ve speared in my life is a cheese cube at a cocktail party.
Our modern animal-eating ways began sometime between 8,000 and 6,000 BCE, when hunter-gatherers gave way to early agriculturalists, and goats became the first animals to be farmed.3 The problem is that our obsession with meat took control of us. It made us take a wrong turn when we decided to remove animals from their natural environment and place them in smaller and smaller areas of confinement. Then we went wildly astray when we decided to feed them foods they would never have touched in nature in order to fatten them up. When even that wasn’t enough, we pumped them full of growth hormones, only to turn around and give them antibiotics when they got sick from the unnatural food and extra hormones (see box, page 26).
Such is our modern industrial meat system: ugly, cruel and unhealthy for the animals as well as for us.
Meat does not equal meat anymore
Commercially raised animals are sick all the time. According to the Organic Consumers Association, a non-profit, 80 percent of US pigs have pneumonia when they’re slaughtered.4 In one of my favorite books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan reports that, upon slaughter, up to 30 percent of American cattle have abscessed livers, evidence of an infection in the animal’s blood.5
It is the meat we eat from hormone- and disease-riddled commercially farmed animals that is making us sick, not the meat from animals that live and eat as nature intended. For an example of this, we don’t need to look any further than the omega-3 content of factory-farmed meat vs naturally raised meat. Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that support cell health, building cell membranes and keeping internal inflammation in check. Our bodies don’t manufacture omega-3s: we can get them only from the food we eat. They’re found in seafood, nuts and meat. However, not all meats have the same amount of these essential nutrients.
Researchers at the Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health at the University of Ulster found that omega-3 levels were higher in study participants who ate grass-fed meat than in those who ate meat from animals raised commercially on “concentrate” feed, a mixture of fats, oils, grains, roughage and the byproducts of food-processing.6
A 2010 review by agriculture specialists at California State University in Chico and the University of California Cooperative Extension Service at Davis found that feeding certain cow breeds a diet of grass instead of grain increases the level of omega-3s in their meat by two to five times.7
Think about it: that’s two to five times more health-promoting, anti-inflammatory nutrition. So the demonization of eating animals by vegetarians is justified in part: meat from most animals consumed by Americans and Europeans is bad. But a grass-fed, grass-finished rib roast or lamb shank confers health benefits its commercial counterpart cannot provide.
And what about pigs, chickens and fish? Across the board, every animal raised in captivity has its own nutrient-deficiency issues.
Farmed chickens often suffer from ‘cage layer fatigue,’ a condition in which stress from cramped housing and reduced calcium intakes weaken their legs, making it hard for them to stand or walk.8 Wild pigs root around in the soil with their snouts to get iron and trace minerals from the earth, but they’re unable to do that in confinement, so pig farmers have to give them mineral supplements. Sometimes, that’s not enough.
What is in meat that we need?
Author Chris Kresser offers five reasons why eating animals may help us get healthier: digestible protein; active vitamin A; vitamin B12; iron; and EPA/DHA conversion of omega-3 fatty acids. Citing a scale called the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score, or PDCAAS, which looks at how many essential amino acids a protein contains, he told me, “Typically, animal proteins are more complete in that respect than plant protein. But this particular index is unique because it doesn’t just look at what’s in the food; it looks at how well what’s in that food is digested and absorbed. Studies using the PDCAAS show that pretty much all forms of animal proteins are more bioavailable and more absorbable than plant proteins.”
The protein digestibility scale is from 0 to 1.0, with 1.0 being the best source of absorbable protein and the easiest to digest (see box, page 30).
“It’s pretty clear,” he said. “If you’re looking for digestible protein, animals provide it.”
But for all my vegan friends and colleagues whose blood I’ve set boiling, it’s important to note that this in no way means that we need to get all our protein from meat. It simply means that animals are an easily-digested source of protein. This in some way has contributed to our ability to thrive as a species.
A vegan diet can be challenging for people with certain genetic variations. “There are mutation changes in genes that affect our ability to convert some of the less active forms of certain nutrients found in plant foods into the more active forms of those nutrients,” Chris explained. If you can’t convert beta-carotene into active vitamin A, for example, you’ll end up with a deficiency that makes it difficult for you to see in the dark; that drains moisture from your skin, leaving it rough and patchy; and, worst of all, that seriously impairs your immune system, making you susceptible to all manner of illnesses and infections.
Chris noted a common problem many of us face: a gut that can’t digest plant foods properly and absorb the nutrients we need from them. “Some people have bacteria that make it easier for them to absorb some of the nutrients in plants, whereas other people have a more difficult time extracting the nutrients in plant foods.” Often, he explained, the form of a nutrient that’s found in plants differs from the form found in animals.
Take iron: ferrous iron in plants is harder to absorb than heme iron in meat, putting vegetarians at higher risk for iron deficiency.
People who don’t eat animal protein tend to be deficient in B12. Vitamin B12 works with folate, another B vitamin, in the synthesis of DNA and red blood cells. So a B12 deficiency can cause anything from anemia and fatigue to memory loss, neurological problems and psychiatric issues. According to Chris, tests have found that 68 percent of vegetarians and 83 percent of vegans are B12-deficient, compared with just 5 percent of omnivores.
Finally, there’s the problem that the body can’t efficiently convert plant fatty acids into the essential omega-3 fatty acids DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). These omega-3s are found in meat, fish and seaweed, but not in plants. They’re critical for brain development and continue to play a major role throughout life, affecting cognition, behavior and mood. As the body can’t make omega-3s, unless we have an adequate outside source we’ll have suboptimal levels, which, as Chris pointed out, is detrimental to brain health.
Doctors, the media and vegan-diet experts alike are still adamant that eating meat—red meat, at least—is a direct path to an early grave.
Apparently, the belief that red meat is bad for you can be traced largely to the work of Ancel Keys, an American physiologist who launched the Seven Countries Study, longitudinal research begun in the late 1950s that was the first major study to look at the relationship between diet, lifestyle and cardiovascular disease. The findings linked coronary disease to a diet full of saturated fat, which is found in meat.9 In the decades since the landmark study, it has come to be seen as flawed: Keys looked at data only from countries whose results supported his belief. Flawed as the findings were, however, they have stuck.
Recent studies “show no association between saturated fat from meat and cardiovascular disease,” Chris told me. “In many studies, there’s even an inverse association between saturated fat intake and stroke, which means that the people who ate more saturated fat lowered their chance of suffering a stroke.”10
The second myth Chris shot down is that eating red meat causes colon cancer. In a review of 35 studies correlating the two, researchers found no clear evidence of a causal link. Instead, the results indicated quite the opposite: the risk of colorectal cancer from eating meat was actually below 50 percent.
There is, however, a strong link between charred meat and cancer. Meat cooked at high temperatures produces compounds shown to be cancerous. But those same compounds are also produced when vegetables are charred. Chris recommends marinating any food for more than an hour before grilling it to reduce potential toxic byproducts.
Fewer is better
I’ve concluded that animal protein is an essential part of the human diet—or at least of my diet—but I still don’t know how much to eat. Here again, the longest-living modern cultures might provide a clue. What’s common to all these ‘Blue Zone’ cultures, notes author Dan Buettner, is how little meat they eat compared to people in North America and most of Europe.
Most of them reserve meat for special occasions, which for the Sardinians includes Sundays. The people of Ikaria, Greece, serve goat on special occasions, but eat a lot of fish. Okinawans eat both meat—usually pork—and fish, but sparingly. The Seventh-day Adventists in California are largely vegetarian; the few who eat meat serve it only as a side dish. The Nicoyans in Costa Rica are the only Blue Zone culture to eat meat regularly, but even they consume far less than the average American.
So, regardless of what diet you choose, eating more plants and fewer animal products seems to be the takeaway from modern longevity studies. I still believe some food from animals, possibly even beef, lamb and pork, is a necessity for most humans, but if you feel you’re destined to eat only plants, give it a shot.
There are ways to work the vegan diet so that you get almost all the nutrients your body needs. I said almost: you may still find you’re deficient. I strongly advise vegans to stay away from those gimmicky packaged foods like soy chicken nuggets, steak made from corn protein, and mock turkey made of wheat protein and soy. These products are notorious for their poor digestibility, genetically modified protein, additives and low nutrient value. Eat real food.
Remember that a diet of only plants has its place as a healing diet because what you leave out—processed foods, genetically engineered soy, hormone-laced dairy—is more significant than what you leave in. This is why the vegan diet or even a raw-food diet can be so healing as a short- to medium-term therapy—from a week to a few years.
But whatever diet you choose, the only way to know if your diet is working is to assess your results by having regular blood tests and working with a practitioner who knows how to read them. For vegans, low iron, low hormones and too-low cholesterol are among the first places to look for a clue that your diet is taking you away from the health and longevity you’re after.
Monitoring your health is equally important if you’re eating animals. If your nutrient and hormone levels are low, you may need more meat in your diet. But if your levels are on the high side, you may have let your meat obsession take too much control of your diet.
What’s in your meat?
When you buy a ribeye steak from your butcher or supermarket, there’s no list of ingredients slapped on the side like you might find on a box of cereal or can of soup. You’d like to believe that what you’re getting is just meat, but in a lot of cases, it’s not. Unless it’s grass-fed, grass-finished and organic, most of the beef, chicken and pork sold in the US and the UK are pumped full of things to fatten the animals up and keep them disease-free.
Farmers want their animals to earn as much as possible, so it shouldn’t surprise you that most animals bred for meat in the US are given growth hormones to make them bigger or, in the case of cows, to make them produce more milk. These include steroids—estrogen, testosterone and progesterone—and recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to increase milk production in cows. The US Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization insist there’s no harm in these hormones, but nobody seems to be addressing the cumulative effect of these added hormones. According to Craig Minowa, an environmental scientist with the Organic Consumers Association, most of the research is industry-funded and finds no risk. However, there are independent studies suggesting a link to certain cancers, he adds.
Farmers regularly administer antibiotics to their food animals to combat the diseases they pick up in the unsanitary and unhealthy conditions found on factory farms.
In fact, 80 percent of antibiotic use in the US is by the food-producing industry.1 What’s more, the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is an ongoing threat. A 2001 study published in a prestigious medical journal found that 84 percent of the Salmonella bacteria in supermarket ground beef was antibiotic-resistant.2