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Should Humans Eat Animals?

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Introduction

In a previous post, I presented strategies for sourcing produce in the modern food arena. This post was originally intended to demonstrate the best ways to ethically source the animals in your diet (and that will still come), but during the writing of that post, I kept thinking about and researching reasons why consuming animals properly and ethically is something positive. I consider myself very health-conscious and generally pro-environment, so often when I meet like-minded folks, they are surprised that I consume animals with such enthusiasm.

Despite the questions surrounding animal consumption on human health and environmental sustainability, its popularity in the developed world and the developing world is increasing. For better or for worse, when presented with the option, humans tend to want animals in their diet (save the by-choice vegetarians/vegans, but even my vegetarian friends admit bacon smells good). There is even evidence that hominids (human ancestors) have been consuming animals for up to 3.39 million years, and that increasing the amount of nutrient-dense animal tissues in hominid diets may have played a significant role in their evolution to modern humans.

Animals can be a rich source of nutritious food with their meat, fat, skin, bones, and organs. One piece of meat isn’t the same as any other piece of meat, however, in terms of quality and in environmental impact. This idea must be explored to truly reap the benefits of animal consumption, while minimizing harm to yourself, the environment, and to the animals we consume. As with anything, I have discovered and re-confirmed over the years that there are good and less-than-ideal ways to go about eating animals. Heck, due to the less-than-ideal ways, I took up vegetarianism from age 17-19! I started eating animals again to gain more muscle (it worked), and have since learned how to affordably source high-quality and ethically produced animal products so I can consume animals in peace (that was supposed to be this post!).

So, before the post on how to best source your animals if you choose to consume them, I’m going to present my thoughts on “Should Humans Eat Animals?”. This conversation will revolve around the arguments against eating animals.

Why Shouldn’t Humans Eat Animals?

I mean, I get it; when you really think about eating animals, it does seem cruel and gross. You’re killing some pretty cute and interesting creatures, and there’s blood and guts and butchering. If we don’t have to eat animals, as ethical beings, why would we? Humans can obviously survive without eating animals (even I did for two years), but there is the question of whether we can fully thrive without animals, and the role of the predator-prey relationship in the ecosystem. The three main issues that people have with eating animals are

  1. Animal consumption might be bad for human health, and we don’t need it, and are better off without it
  2. Animal production is extremely resource intensive
  3. Animal cruelty is wrong

These arguments parallel the three main arguments in Lierre Keith’s, The Vegetarian Myth, but are my own take of them. This book has its drawbacks (see the Amazon reviews), but it did help me to organize my thoughts and reaffirm why I consume animals, and for that I am grateful.

All of these issues have elements of truth to them, but they are entirely context dependent. Generally, they are arguments against industrial agriculture  and factory farming or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and not specifically consuming animals in and of itself. Let’s take a look at each argument and analyze when the criticism is warranted and when it isn’t.

The Human Health Argument

Not everyone believes this, but there is an undercurrent in some circles that meat is “bad” for humans, and they point to certain studies showing that there is an increased risk for heart disease and cancer for meat eaters compared to vegetarians/vegans. Well, a lot of the studies showing negative health implications are correlational (example 1, example 2), and don’t provide a specific mechanism, or even differentiate between different qualities of animal products. There are also recent (also correlational) studies that do not observe an association between animal consumption and heart disease or cancer. The studies that do find a link suggest that it is heavily processed meats causing the harm, or potentially the overcooking (charring) of animal products, and not animal products in general (think blackened BBQ’d mass produced hot dogs vs. pastured chicken and grass-fed beef).

OK, so animals are not implicitly “bad” for us, but why kill an animal if we can get everything we need from plants? Compared to animal products, there is much less protein in plant sources. The protein from plants/seeds is notoriously hard to digest and actually use (low bioavailability), and most plant proteins do not contain all nine essential amino acids. So without animals, you’ll get less protein overall (calories being equal), and your body will have to work much harder and less efficiently to use the protein it does get. Also, there’s a decent amount of minerals in legumes and nuts, but the high phytic acid content in these foods lowers the absorption effectiveness. On top of that, plants don’t provide the essential omega-3 fatty acids in animal form(plant form – ALA, animal form – EPA/DHA). Our bodies have to convert plant omega-3’s (flax, chia, etc) to animal form, and humans are tragically inefficient at that conversion. Same goes for vitamin A (plants – beta-carotene, animals – retinol), and several other nutrients. And straight up, there just is no plant source for vitamin B12.

Just 1 oz of beef liver provides 95% of daily vitamin A requirements in animal form, 277% of vitamin B12 requirements, and a solid smattering of complete and easy to use proteins and absorbable minerals, all for less calories than a typical apple. That is potent stuff.  If you choose to completely forgo animal products, you’ll survive, but it’ll be tough to thrive.

There are definitely negative health effects resulting from the use of antibiotics in CAFOs, and also the use of growth hormones, but that’s a knock on industrial agriculture, and not simply eating animals. In a natural and/or organic situation, consuming animals is healthy and beneficial for humans.

The Sustainability Argument

There are also many environmental sustainability arguments to suggest that humans should avoid animal products. Indeed, at first glance, meat-based diets consume much more energy than plant-based diets. I have been led to believe by various sources (example) that the drastic negative environmental consequences of animal consumption is a direct result of industrial agriculture, monocultures, grain-feeding, and their heavy reliance on fossil fuels. A manner of raising animals that mimics nature can result in healthier animal products, and a healthier ecosystem supporting that production.

The discussion of food sustainability is a very complex subject in general and beyond the scope of this post, so here’s an extreme example: raising beef on a natural grassland where they eat nothing but grass (that humans do not compete for) is much more sustainable than raising beef in a desert where they are fed monoculture products fertilized with fossil fuels such as corn and soy. Seems obvious enough, yes? Context is very important here. A better look at this subject is taken by George Monbiot.

Some questions about the sustainability of ten billion or more humans eating animals on a daily basis are still very valid however. My take? Eat the whole animal – meat, skin, bones, organs, and all. Don’t waste a thing. Also, since there’s about 200 million bugs in the world for every human, perhaps we should start taking a better look at them as a source of food. They look pretty nutritious! (Although perhaps a bit high in Omega-6…). Another idea would be to lower our intake of animal products while keeping the quality as high as possible. I’d be on board for that.

The Animal Cruelty Argument
factory farm, poultry, chickens, veterinarian
Images such as this one were influential in my decision to go vegetarian. I still avoid supporting operations such as this one. I could have used a worse picture, but I decided not to.

The image above is unnerving. It doesn’t look right. These chickens are cramped together, fed antibiotics and growth hormones, and get no access to the outdoors. I would definitely not want to work there, and would rather not consume the products an operation such as this produces.

What about a situation like the photo below?

chickens, free-range, organic
That’s more like it.

This one I can get behind. I spent a month at The Solar Barn in New Zealand, and the chickens were indeed looking like the second picture. When animals are treated as they are meant to be treated, there isn’t that much suffering. There is some, obviously, as the animals have to be killed before eating, but their lives up to that point are lived the way chickens want to live: roaming around outside and eating anything they can snap up (honestly, chickens will eat anything, including other animals! Mostly bugs though). Cattle and goats out to pasture are doing their thing. They’re OK! And when it comes to wild game, hey, those animals are fair game for you OR the wolves/cougars/bears. They’re going to get eaten one way or another. That is simply the ecologically sound predator/prey relationship.

It’s not pretty to think about killing animals, but that is what happens in nature and there is no getting around it. At The Solar Barn I took part in killing and cleaning turkeys and was surprised at how comfortable I was with it (I had no prior experience with this). They died quickly, and I was relaxed and at peace while I plucked off their feathers. We ate one, and it was delicious and nutritious.

Something I have come to accept about life is that for me to live, something else has to die. Even vegetarians/vegans are responsible for death. The corn, wheat, and soy in their diets come from monocultures. These monocultures are placed where there used to be a diverse ecosystem that was completely destroyed to make room for one crop. Water is usually irrigated from rivers and lakes which causes a multitude of death as well. There just is no living without death. That’s not good or bad; it just is what it is. When you die, micro-organisms and insects are going to eat you. They’d do it now if they could, but you and your immune system stop them. Do we judge them for that?

Conclusions – My Answer

So, back to the question: Should humans eat animals?

My answer: For optimal health, yes. The majority of humans should have at least some amount of animals and/or animal products in their diet. The amount varies by individual. I concede that there might be humans who are genetically better equipped to thrive on a purely vegan diet, but that does not appear to be the case for the majority of us.

This doesn’t necessarily mean t-bones and baby-back ribs every night for every human on the planet. If we’re destroying the environment and creating miserable lives for the animals involved, it’s not worth it. The goal is to find a balance between the reality of our nutritional needs, the inescapable limitations of our planet, and our diligence in the ethical treatment of the animals we consume. Industrial agriculture and CAFOs are clearly failing in this regard, so what are we to do?

Next post on this topic I will share with you the ways I have found to affordably source animals that are healthy, more sustainable, and were treated well. Plus, the stuff is divine.

Until then, eat well my friends.

And please readers, I would love to hear your comments or questions. Please leave them in the comment section below. 

– G

12 thoughts on “Should Humans Eat Animals?”

  1. Are all animals OK to eat? What about pigs, elephants, octopi, dolphins, dogs, cats…humans?

    What about the (other ethical) philosophical reasons of eating/not eating meat?

    1. Hey Shane! Thanks for the comment. Honestly, I am not qualified to answer that question entirely, but I’ll give it a shot.. I think this comes down to personal opinion, and there is no definitive answer.

      First off, I would only ever eat a human in an emergency situation, Alive (the movie) style. If they were already dead, and that’s all there was to survive. Even then, it would be super hard to do. Also, I would actively avoid eating endangered species. That would have too great an impact on the ecosystem, I would think.

      I think eating lower on the food chain makes sense, and I am personally much more comfortable with it. The species on the lower end of the food chain are generally much less evolved, and *probably* are just running off instinct anyway. Lower level fish (salmon, sardines, trout), and smaller birds (especially turkeys and chickens, not crows) I am totally fine eating. No question.

      When it comes to mammals, I have often noticed that people seem comfortable eating herbivores (deer, rabbits, cattle), and some omnivores (chickens, pigs), but not carnivores (lions, tigers, wolves). That being said, there are exceptions.

      I’d also point to my discussion above where I mention that our grain production is responsible for a ton of death as well. I’m not sure where to draw the line there. I think a mix of plants and animals is the answer, for now anyway.

      Please Shane – what are these other philosophical reasons you speak of? Please share if you are comfortable.

      1. Graham,

        Thanks for the reply.

        There are so many implications of eating anything, I think the best we can do is be informed.

        Are vegetarians/vegans inadvertently killing more small animals, birds. and bugs (ecosystems) in wheat fields than a carnivore that sources cows grazing on green pastures until death? For the carnivores, 1 cow can feed a person or a few people for a long time, however something like a chicken is only a meal. 1 tuna provides a lot of meat, but 1 shrimp is just a bite. When talking sheer numbers, I think some ethical decisions can be made here.

        But an elephant would be a lot of meat (if not endangered). Pork is probably one of the cheapest and widely available meats around.

        But these animals are smart. Pigs are smarter than dogs, and their skin and other organs have been used in transplants for humans. You mentioned crows, I mentioned octopi. These animals are very clever.

        Locally sourced is nice, but there are ruminants all over the midwest and northern states — but there are no people. There are large cities with no farms either, so I think a compromise is probably in order.

        Then you have stuff like red palm oil. The good companies harvest it sustainably, while others take away the rain forest and kill orangutans.

        Everything we do has consequences, and I think we should be mindful of what we put in our mouths, whether it is meat, vegetables, wheat, soy, corn…

  2. Great written article, well balanced.

    A couple thoughts:

    -Regarding your definition of “Thrive”. For most people, thriving is not what you and I were doing in the science venture era 5 afternoons a week at the gym. For most people thriving is going to work and doing their activities while feeling good. I would argue that with the meat overconsumption of most people these days, they would actually thrive by consuming a vegetarian diet, because a diet without meat for them would be far healthier than a diet with meat, provided they sourced the micronutrients that aren’t present in meat.

    -I’ve geared my workouts now more towards thriving in my activities and less towards building muscle. My two main-activities that influence this: Surfing and mountain biking. To this extent, building muscle mass can be detrimental. Professional surfers look towards increasing core strength and cardio without adding mass.

    Side note: I’ve been ocean wise pescetarian (but mostly this translates as vegetarian) now for just over a year to prove a point. We don’t need meat to be strong and healthy, and we can thrive on it.

    My ideal diet for health, taste, and ethics both environmentally and for ethical treatment: Find locally raised birds, eat them once or twice a month. Avoid red meat. Eat only sustainable seafood in moderation, again once or twice a month.

    Looking forward to the next article…

    1. Jeff! Long time no see. I really appreciate the comment and your thoughts – some very valid points, and I’m glad you’re doing what works for you. I’m going to try and clarify a few things, and then ask you a few questions (no obligation to respond). This is a good opportunity for me to take the conversation a bit further! Thank you for that.

      First off – I really tried to avoid using the word “meat” in this article, and I probably should have explained why (though, these articles tend to get WAY too long). Meat is only one animal product. There’s also gelatin (good for photo aging, see my last article), fat, and several highly nutritious organs that are generally ignored these days. I’ve come to embrace them (except for kidneys…I will get to those). I also tried to say “animal products” as well to incorporate dairy, eggs, and the like. I’ll talk about that in the next post in this series.

      Second – to be sure, I’m also a huge fan of veggies and fruits (see previous post in this series), but I do see the benefits to animal products in the human diet (flesh included).

      Third – I neglected to provide my definition of “thrive”. I remember our glory days pumping iron 5 days a week. As I got older (it happened…), it really started to wear me down, and my recovery and immune system suffered. I fought it for a while, but eventually I had to admit it was too much. I wasn’t thriving. I felt weak a lot of the time, and caught quite a few colds. I still lift, but it’s more like 0-3x a week now (usually 2), and I don’t look to make a ton of gains as I have other athletic and non-athletic pursuits that I now prefer. That being said, with the more relaxed schedule including lots of rest and recovery, I am bigger and stronger than ever (not elite, but decent). But hey – that’s just my goal. I won’t force that on anyone, but I will teach those that want to listen. I dig that your athletic priorities are surfing and mountain biking, and I can see why you’d want to avoid excess muscle while still maintaining sufficient strength.

      I like your definition of thrive (or most people’s, as you say), but I’d also add things like good body composition, great athletic performance, great skin, good mental health, the ability to withstand stress, high fertility, longevity, and the avoidance of chronic diseases. I’m sure there’s a few more I could add too.

      Now, I’m going to address a few things in your comments.

      “because a diet without meat for them would be far healthier than a diet with meat, provided they sourced the micronutrients that aren’t present in meat”

      I’m going to take the second part of that sentence as “provided they source micronutrients normally obtained from meat from a plant source”, or something to that effect.

      Why is that? Throw a little grass-fed beef or pastured chicken in there and it becomes less healthy? I don’t see why. Do you have any proof? I would disagree. See above.

      “Side note: I’ve been ocean wise pescetarian (but mostly this translates as vegetarian) now for just over a year to prove a point. We don’t need meat to be strong and healthy, and we can thrive on it.”

      I agree with you that this usually comes off as vegetarian. In truth, that’s what I was from 17-19 (less ocean-wise, I’m sure), and I called myself vegetarian. A fish is an animal, period. I’m not judging AT ALL, but I think you’ll agree here. Fish are highly nutritious bro! I’m glad you’ve stayed strong. I hope it stays that way for a long time.

      “Avoid red meat”

      Even if it’s local and grass-fed? Why?

      Again – I’m just exploring the discussion further. Great to hear from you. Sounds like you’re doing well. No need to respond, you busy guy.

      I really appreciate you commenting!

      1. Happy to reply. I love these types of discussions.

        Regarding pescetarian versus vegetarian. Definitely agree, fish, scallops, prawns are animals. Guilty as charged, I’m not a vegetarian. When I say it mostly comes off as vegetarian, it’s because I’m inherently lazy, and my vegetarian wife does most of the meal planning. Which means I only really eat fish when: 1. We go to a restaurant and I order fish or eat at someone’s house who is serving fish or 2. I get my butt in gear and plan a meal that involves fish (rare). Those events usually translate to once about once a month, maybe twice. My diet also includes eggs and dairy.

        I use the word vegetarian because it’s way easier to describe what my diet is the majority of the days of the year. Few people know what a pescetarian is, let alone a vegetarian. One time when I said I was vegetarian I was asked by a health care worker with a university degree, “So do you eat chicken?”

        Anyways… enough about me. A better example of someone who thrives by all sense of the definition as a vegetarian is my wife, who has been one in the true sense of the word for almost 3 years now. She would argue she’s never felt better, stronger, healthier. I would agree.

        Now going back to my statement and your response:

        “because a diet without meat for them would be far healthier than a diet with meat, provided they sourced the micronutrients that aren’t present in meat”

        “Why is that? Throw a little grass-fed beef or pastured chicken in there and it becomes less healthy? I don’t see why. Do you have any proof? I would disagree.”

        There are I think two types of populations that we’re referring to. Those who are truly pursuing health in their diet, and those who are generally eating. I come into contact regarding diet advice with more of the second type. I would agree throw in “a little” grass-fed beef or pastured chicken and it doesn’t become unhealthy. The problem is the definition of a little in North America. I think you and I may agree on the definition of a little, but the majority of our country wouldn’t. More important than the micronutrient argument to most people is the calorie argument. A simple equation of calories in needs to equal calories expended, and so many of us have trouble meeting that calories expended. And so I think for a good lot of people, a great way to do this is to incorporate more vegetarian meals into their diet because the amount of meat that is added in the form of mostly beef and chicken contributes to the calorie count by quite a bit.

        It’s alone the same lines with regards to red meat. While I’ve seen the odd article attempting to link red meat to heart disease and colon cancer, none of this has yet been convincing or methodologically sound. My argument is that red meat packs so much more calories, fat, cholesterol per serving that it leads to overindulgence. I’ve never seen a 2 ounce steak served to anyone not at the kids table, when I think it’s more appropriate to an adult portion.

        The red meat calorie argument of mine extends into the local sourcing of food. For instance, it’s not uncommon to see the small family of four suggest that they’ve bought a local half a cow or quarter of a cow for the winter. Then I realize how many calories are packed into that freezer of theirs. Or the hunter who shoots his quota deer or a moose, and is eating meat for even their afternoon snack because it’s there. I’m not sure that the sheer calories consumed equals more health and in some ways it causes me to wonder whether the portions are leading to increased risk of heart disease.

        I’m thrilled though that with health food stores and local butchers sourcing local meat, it’s becoming easier than ever to grab reasonable portions of grass-fed beef. Which is why I’m thrilled to see your next article about sourcing animal products….

        1. Hey Jeff! I’m glad you replied. I’ll be getting on my next article right after this.

          I agree with everything you say, but not the calorie count of beef or meat in general. It’s actually lower than I think you would expect.

          Check this link, and move the serving size selection to 100 grams.

          http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/beef-products/10526/2

          That is four ounces of grass-fed ground beef, coming in at 192 calories. That’s not much man. That’s the same or less as a couple pieces of fruit or 2-3 slices of bread, yet delivers a much different nutritional profile. Even grain-fed isn’t that much higher (granted it is, and there are more toxins and high omega-6). Even if I eat a pound of it (which I do sometimes), I’m under 900 calories. A big meal, yes, but considering I burn about 3000+ a day (and your average joe 2500), it’s relative contribution is welcome, not overconsumption. I go easy on the potatoes (at times), and I stay lean, no problem. I don’t necessarily recommend a pound of meat to your average joe, but certainly a 6-8 oz serving isn’t likely to tip the scales in a GOOD diet (if it’s loaded with tons of sugar and junk, well, it might, but I’d ditch the sugar and junk first).

          Same goes for most meats. Even a full cup (250 ml) of solid butter comes in at only 1628 calories. Couple that with the fact that there is no modern proof that dietary fat and/or cholesterol contribute to heart disease in and of themselves, and I think it will paint a different picture.

          Anyway – if you’d like to converse further, let’s move it to email. You can get me at graham@sustainablebalance.ca

          I really appreciate you reading and commenting!

  3. I got a solid mantra from a book I read, “In Defense of Food”, that goes: “shake the hand that feeds you”. I think it’s a great reminder to know exactly where your food comes from. I go to a local butcher here in Ottawa that can actually talk intelligently about the meat they sell. They know exactly where it comes from and have formed relationships with local farms. (They also have student discounts, so it’s financially viable for me…) I feel much better physically and ethically buying my meat there than a traditional grocery store. Plus, it’s delicious and doctors are always impressed by the level of iron in my blood. No deficiencies for me!

    1. Hey Catherine! Thanks for the comment. I love that book! Michael Polland does a great job sorting through the food selection process. I’m glad you’ve found a good butcher. It definitely makes me feel a lot better about it. Plus the products are vastly superior.

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