Will logic and reason ever empower us to stop eating meat?

“Where we have strong emotions, we’re liable to fool ourselves.” – Carl Sagan

“All forms of self-defeating behavior are unseen and unconscious, which is why their existence is denied.” – Vernon Howard

It’s such a human thing to do, isn’t it? Repeatedly doing something that’s harmful to ourselves simply because it feels good. Or choosing a course of action based on fallacious myths that happen to align with our already held emotion-based beliefs.

Such is the reason humans eat meat. That, and the fact that to most people cooked meat just tastes good. But it seems we’ve reached the point where reason can overcome myth and emotion when it comes to smart consumption of meat.

A brief history of humans eating other mammals

There are reasons why people evolved to eat other animals. Afterall, we are clearly omnivores. Researchers believe early hominins developed the necessary intestinal adaptations and enzymes to tolerate meat consumption some 2.5 million years ago. [1] They also postulate that the driver for such an adaptation may have been climate change that resulted in the retreat of vegetation-rich forests and the corresponding advancement of grasslands.

With a dwindling supply of nutritious vegetation, hominins turned to eating the flush of animals that survived on the grasses. Importantly, these early humans only ate meat when they could get it. Advocates of the curious paleo diet [2] notwithstanding, it was never the case that our ancient ancestors were able to eat meat on a daily basis. [3] [4] [5] [6]

Until relatively recently in our evolutionary journey, we were opportunistic omnivores. Things began to change when discovered that raising animals to eat was a bit more efficient than hunting them. Meat production is now industrialized increasing its availability and consumption to record levels.

In 2018, Americans consumed 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry per capita. [7] In her book, Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat  [8] author Marta Zaraska [9] offered the following perspective, “According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 2011 we ate an average of sixty-one pounds more of meat than we did in 1951—that’s about 122 average eight-ounce steaks a year more…” [10]

All of this carnivorous activity comes at the cost of increasing the diseases associated with its consumption, and oh, by the way, severely damaging the global environment. And yet, we still revere meat as a desirable food. Why?

Why have we lionized meat?

There are multiple reasons some people revere eating meat- misconceptions about its nutritional benefits, perceived increased status, it’s manly, and taste.

Meat is necessary to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle – NOT

How many times have you heard the argument that they only way to get enough protein to maintain a rigorous workout regime or compete in athletic events is by eating meat? The flawed rationale is that only meat provides the necessary protein and other nutrients to make such activities possible. There is simply no scientific basis for such a statement. None. One can eat a healthy, nutrient complete diet and never consume an ounce of meat.

But why bother citing the overwhelming scientific literature that establishes that as factual when there is anecdotal evidence that is typically more persuasive than facts. Below is a partial list of athletes who eat no meat and seem to have done alright for themselves.

NFL players: Quarterback Tom Brady, Linebacker Derrick Morgan, defensive lineman DaQuan Jones, linebacker Wesley Woodyard. [11] (Quarterback Aaron Rodgers stopped eating most meats in 2016 [12]

NBA players: Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Wilson Chandler, Al Jefferson, Garrett Temple, Enes Kanter JaVale McGee and Jahlil Okafor.

Other notable athletes who don’t eat any meat. Tennis phenom Venus Williams, Six-time Ironman winner Dave Scott [13]. Ten-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis. [14]

If elite athletes can achieve their best performances and avoid meat, should it make any sense at all for those working out recreationally at the gym or running 10ks to believe they must eat meat in order to achieve their goals. No. Such beliefs are not fact-based and are driven by emotion-based motivated reasoning.

Eating meat is manly

Maybe it’s the voices of our ancient ancestors whispering that strong men eat meat. Regardless of the origin, men are still associated with eating meat and it appears society places pressure on those men who have recognized eating meat isn’t necessarily a good idea. [15] [16]

Some researchers believe that eating meat add to a man’s sex appeal. [17] [18] Recognizing the misconceptions and biases against veganism, some restaurants are dropping the word vegan from their names while still serving only vegan foods.[19]

Wealthy people eat meat

Actually, this isn’t a myth. Meat consumption rises as does disposable income. [20] [21] As meat consumption increases so do the diseases associated with it.[22] Eating expensive food products may also be seen as a status symbol by some people. [23] [24] [25] [26]

Eating meat shortens your life

That may be seen as a bold statement if there weren’t so much evidence supporting it. But it’s pretty simple – eating meat is unambiguously not healthy when all of your nutritional needs can be met by other food sources.

Good things happen when you stop eating meat. [27] Nevertheless, the meat industry is relentless in marketing claims extolling the virtue of eating meat without regard for science or facts. Recently, 12,000 physicians in Texas filed a complaint regarding a beef industry ad promoting eating lean beef to combat high cholesterol. [28]

Rather than continue with a narrative of the health impact of eating meat, I’ll list a few references below.

  • Eating red meat daily triples heart disease-related chemical [29]
  • New study links L-carnitine in red meat to heart disease [30]
  • Red Meat Consumption and Mortality: Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies [31]
  • Study links vegetarian diets and longevity [32]
  • Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Mortality in Adventist Health Study 2 [33]
  • Is Meat Killing Us? [34]
  • Meat consumption and mortality – results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition [35]

If meat’s so bad, why does it taste so good?

In the context of the early survival of our species, there’s a reason meat tastes so good. Meat is a concentrated source of protein, fat and B vitamins. If your diet consisted mostly of berries and fruits, an occasional scrap of meat was a welcomed source of concentrated energy.

The reality is that humans survived and evolved by being programmed for short term survival, not longevity, and we still are. Today, an occasional dip in the meat pool, maybe a turkey in November, isn’t a bad thing and it’s consistent with our ancient ancestors’ diet.

However, the availability and consumption of meat has grown to astounding levels. In the United States it is essentially ubiquitous. Surrounded by all that meat, we frequently succumb to answering that primal call to collect and store the calories it contains even though we have far surpassed the need for those calories. Distant primal urges are nearly impossible to ignore even if we aren’t aware of them.

Then there’s the smell of cooking meat that triggers another visceral reaction. There a reason a cooked hamburger tastes better than a raw hamburger. Meat is umami-rich [36] and that sensory flavor is intensified when meat is cooked through a process called the Maillard reaction. [37]

As humans living in this time and this space, we have to recognize the primal, sensory deck is stacked against us almost forcing us to pursue that once prized and scarce product of survival – meat.

Although meat arguable tastes good, it is no longer an absolute requirement for our survival. Isn’t that right, Aaron Rodgers? But there is a second question of survival – the impact of meat production and consumption on the survival of an earth inhabitable by humans.

Producing and eating meat is killing the planet

That’s a hyperbolic statement. There’s not much humans can do that will actually kill the planet. Our actions may make it unsuitable for human or other life forms, but the planet will survive another 5 billion years until our sun becomes a red giant and engulfs our planet. [38]

We understand the inevitable health problems a meat-consuming person will face. The inevitable problem facing the planet from human’s obsession for meat is that meat production assaults the environment on multiple fronts.

Think of the environmental impact of producing and burning diesel fuel to grow and harvest the grain for cattle, the water consumed by the cattle, the greenhouse gas, methane, the cattle by product that increases global warming, the fertilizer and manure run off contributing to harmful algae blooms, the energy to transport the cattle to slaughter houses, the electricity to keep those plants running, packaging the meat products, transporting to retail outlets, the energy to keep the meat cool. Let’s face it, there’s an impressive amount of energy that goes into producing that pound of hamburger.

In fact, one source has calculated that it takes 31.5 kWh to produce one pound of meat. Compare that to 0.43 kWh to produce a pound of corn. [39] Researchers at Cornell estimated that we could feed 800,000 people if the grain feed to cattle were used as a food source them. [40]

There is no ambiguity that meat is not necessary for a healthy diet and that it’s associated with multiple negative health outcomes including decreased longevity. There’s is also no ambiguity that meat consumption is having severe impacts on the environment. [41]

A recent National Geographic report captures the problem in its headline, “Eating meat has ‘dire’ consequences for the planet, says report” [42] The National Geographic article summarizes a report in the Lancet [43] that cautions that in order to sustainably feed 10 billion people by 2050 there will need to be paradigm shifts in how we view feeding the population.

What’s the point?

Ignore the myths and marketing claiming meat is essential for a healthy diet. Acknowledge that there is a primal reason why meat smells and tastes good, but that you have evolved past giving into those urges. Instead, be a human who thinks logically in a world with abundant sources of calories. Make your food choices with an awareness of the impact those choices will have on your personal health and the health of the planet.

Sometimes I’m convinced people are creatures driven by the mystical because it’s easier to “go with your gut” than it is to go with the evidence. In this case, your gut will appreciate your going with the evidence and curtailing your meat consumption.

So, will logic and reason ever empower us to stop eating meat? I think that’s unlikely. Humans have a well-established track record of ignoring facts and letting emotions control their actions. It’s an unfortunate hallmark of our species.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/02/when-humans-became-meateaters/463305/

[2] https://www.newscientist.com/article/2115127-ancient-leftovers-show-the-real-paleo-diet-was-a-veggie-feast/

[3] https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/01/michael-pollan-paleo-diet-inquiring-minds/

[4] https://www.americanscientist.org/article/meat-eating-among-the-earliest-humans

[5] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/evolution-of-diet/

[6] https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/evidence-for-meat-eating-by-early-humans-103874273

[7] https://www.seattletimes.com/business/americans-meat-consumption-set-to-hit-a-record-in-2018/

[8] https://www.meathookedthebook.com/

[9] https://www.zaraska.com/

[10] https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/05/19/478645426/humans-are-meathooked-but-not-designed-for-meat-eating

[11] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/31/why-nfl-players-and-other-athletes-are-going-vegan.html

[12] https://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/patriots/2017/08/17/around-nfl-qbs-are-training-and-eating-tom-brady-way/2hpOwhcZZmIBPYLXtArfkN/story.html

[13] http://www.ironman.com/triathlon/news/articles/2016/06/vegetarianism-and-long-distance-racing.aspx#axzz5iRGvveVG

[14] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/these-athletes-went-vegan–and-stayed-strong/2016/11/22/58c2e674-865c-11e6-92c2-14b64f3d453f_story.html

[15] https://www.rgs.org/about/press-and-media/recent-press-releases/meat-free-men-men-want-to-eat-less-meat-but-avoid/

[16] https://theweek.com/articles/802799/why-men-think-eating-meat-makes-manly

[17] https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-26154-001

[18] https://lens.monash.edu/@politics-society/2019/02/13/1371105/sexual-motivation-beefs-up-mens-desire-for-meat

[19] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/going-out-guide/wp/2016/05/16/the-next-frontier-for-vegan-restaurants-not-having-to-call-yourself-a-vegan-restaurant

[20] https://ourworldindata.org/meat-and-seafood-production-consumption

[21] https://www.bbc.com/news/health-47057341

[22] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/06/china-is-facing-a-food-problem-and-the-western-diet-could-be-to-blame

[23] https://phys.org/news/2018-09-link-meat-social-status.html

[24] https://psmag.com/news/eating-that-burger-is-a-big-missed-steak

[25] https://www.sbs.com.au/food/article/2018/09/18/what-eating-meat-says-about-your-social-class

[26] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666318302654?via%3Dihub

[27] https://www.forksoverknives.com/7-things-that-happen-when-you-stop-eating-meat/#gs.20uf1i

[28] https://www.expressnews.com/business/national/article/Texas-physicians-have-a-beef-with-cattle-industry-12759964.php

[29] https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/eating-red-meat-daily-triples-heart-disease-related-chemical

[30] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/new-study-links-l-carnitine-in-red-meat-to-heart-disease-201304176083

[31] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1134845

[32] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/study-links-vegetarian-diets-and-longevity/2013/06/07/1bc9b382-ce0f-11e2-9f1a-1a7cdee20287_story.html

[33] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1710093

[34] https://jaoa.org/article.aspx?articleid=2517494

[35] https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1741-7015-11-63

[36] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/what-makes-a-hamburger-and-other-cooked-meat-so-enticing-to-humans/2013/08/12/8f8e1d72-ff73-11e2-9711-3708310f6f4d_story.html

[37] https://modernistcuisine.com/2013/03/the-maillard-reaction/

[38] https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2019/03/02/competition-as-a-hindrance-to-our-existance/

[39] http://theoildrum.com/node/6252

[40] https://news.cornell.edu/stories/1997/08/us-could-feed-800-million-people-grain-livestock-eat

[41] https://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-a-livable-future/projects/meatless_monday/resources/meat_consumption.html

[42] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/01/commission-report-great-food-transformation-plant-diet-climate-change/

[43] https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31788-4/fulltext


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