My Paleo Eating Journal

Eating Meat. Part 1 of 2

Posted on: June 28, 2011

The Paleo diet is fairly animal-intensive, low in carbohydrates, and eschews grains altogether. However, the current conventional wisdom regarding diet is very carb-heavy, particularly when it comes to grains. Most vegetarians don’t eat meat of any kind, though some eat eggs and dairy and even fish. Vegans eat none of these things. This series of posts discusses the issues behind choosing not to eat meat, and how they compare with the wisdom of the Paleo diet.

There are four main arguments when it comes to eschewing meat: health, ethics, environmental impact, and sustainability. I will discuss the first two in this post, the second in the one that follows.

When I got pregnant with my first child I did some research into babycare and parenting and discovered Attachment Parenting. I was drawn to it as a scientist because the practices are heavily based in anthropology, evolutionary theory, developmental psychology, and neuroscience. However, most people you meet in this community would be described as “hippy types”. Attachment parenting is part of an overall philosophy called  Natural Family Living, and includes such things as extended breastfeeding and homeschooling. So it is that I, a post-punk science geek, found myself happily immersed in a world of “crunchy granola” types. While I don’t have dreadlocks or wear elfin clothing, I certainly feel right at home among this crowd after years of being involved in parenting groups, breastfeeding advocacy, and unschooling.

You’d think, then, that I would know a lot of vegetarians or vegans. But the truth is, I don’t. In fact I was thinking about this the other day after yet another friend told me she used to be vegetarian. Turns out more than two-thirds of my friends were either vegetarian or vegan for several years before switching to eating animal products, and this generally happened around the time they had children. The reasons given for the switch are similar, and all involve health and optimal nutrition. Some of them were experiencing health problems, usually inflammatory in nature (though one friend had chronic anemia that nothing except a good steak seemed able to solve) and wanted to resolve these before trying to conceive. For others the switch occurred during their first pregnancy when many said they started craving meat. Wishing to “trust their bodies” during this unique stage of female development, many obliged by slowly introducing meat into their diet. But even if some passed on the temptations of pregnancy, they soon found themselves with young children who were wanting to eat meat and/or not thriving well on a vegetarian diet. I understand it is very difficult to raise kids as pure vegetarians and I’m sure part of this is kids’ tendencies to be rather selective in what they’ll eat and vegetables are usually the hardest sell (even if some of them will eat a few favorites). So perhaps for some of them introducing meat was a way of relieving them of some mealtime and nutritional challenges. Overall though, among my friends the major reason cited for eating meat was improved health for themselves and their children.

Now I’ve never been a vegetarian for the simple reason that it doesn’t make any sense to me: we are omnivores. It has always seemed obvious to me that optimal health is achieved by eating the diet one is designed by evolution to eat. This is why my dog eats meat and bones and organs, not vegetables, since she is a member of  the order Carnivora. And why our pigs and chickens get fed scraps of both plants and animals (though we don’t feed like to like; such cannibalism seems a bit creepy) because pigs and chickens are omnivores. So while I have no evidence other than anecdotal to suggest that living as a vegetarian or vegan does not promote optimal health, my friends’ stories of health problems that were resolved when they re-introduced meat would seem to have a reasonable underlying explanation. Nevertheless, I’m aware of many who claim the exact opposite. Since eating is a personal act, I leave it up to each individual to decide whether animal products make their health better or worse. Certainly I’ve heard enough anecdotal evidence myself to suggest that being vegetarian is no guarantee of optimal health.

Other arguments exist for not eating meat and these go beyond the level of the individual. When I was a young adult it seemed the main reason that vegetarians shunned meat was for ethical reasons. Turns out they were way ahead of the game, since it’s only in the last 5 years or so that the problems with factory farming have really registered in the public awareness. Perhaps we all owe a debt of thanks to those who put their morals and their conscience ahead of convenience and gustatory gratification. Nevertheless, I think one major factor that “allowed” so many of my vegetarian friends to consider eating meat is the recent rise in availability of “ethical meat”. This is meat raised by small farmers where the animals are fed a natural diet (e.g. cows eat grass, not grains), they live outdoors with access to fresh air and fodder, they are not medicated, and they are housed in such a way as to allow them to express their natural behaviours (rooting for pigs, scratching for chickens, etc.) so that they lead happy, comfortable lives and are processed humanely. The availability of ethical meat has increased to the point where even urbanites can now indulge in a steak or roasted chicken and not have to feel guilty that the animal was treated badly and led a horrible and unhealthy life. With local food and small-scale organic farming increasingly popping up on our radar, it seemed natural for my friends to embrace eating meat from such sources.

The Paleo diet considers meat to be a normal, natural and necessary part of a healthy human diet. It is really beyond me how animal fats could be considered “bad” for us when, for most of our existence as a species, we certainly indulged in the flesh whenever possible (and sometimes, in the case of the Inuit, almost exclusively). And I’m quite sure our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not carefully cut the fat from their steaks before cooking, nor did they throw away the fatty organs and other tasty bits. It would be a real quandary in evolution to explain how the very things we ate for hundreds of thousands of years suddenly became foods to avoid at all cost. Sugars and refined carbs, now those make sense. They are new on the evolutionary scene. Even corn-on-the-cob and the modern potato is a drastically different version of the original form, one that few people depended on for any real source of nutrition prior to the dawn of agriculture. There is tons of information out there on the scientific arguments supporting the health of eating a diet rich in meats and animal fats, and I won’t try to reproduce it all here. Suffice it to say that Occam’s Razor applies: it’s far easier to explain that the foods we’ve been eating since the dawn of our species are still optimal for health, rather than to try and explain why we should base our diet on foods that are relative newcomers to our evolutionary history.

When it comes to ethics it’s very simple. The Paleo diet places high emphasis on not just healthy animal fats, but those with the right balance of ingredients. Grass-fed, free range animals allowed to forage produce meat and fat with an optimal ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids. Factory-farmed, grain-fed animals are very low in Omega 3’s and are not considered good sources for the Paleo diet. For those concerned about cost, all parts of the animal are encouraged to be eaten, such that meat production is not also associated with a great deal of waste.

In my next post I’ll talk about the issues of environmental impact and sustainability with respect to the Paleo diet.

 

 

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The Basics

My way of eating is based on a Paleo/Primal diet and is comprised mainly of saturated animal fat (grass-fed meat, pastured eggs, butter), nuts and seeds (almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts, coconut, pumpkin seeds) and their oils (coconut oil, avocado oil) and lots of vegetables and fruit. I eat virtually no sugar (other than that contained naturally in fruit), potatoes or sweet potatoes, beans or legumes, and no grains or grain products.

Weight Loss Tracker

Start date: May 13, 2011
Total weight loss (updated every Sunday): 19.5 lbs

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