Dec 292016
 

As a vegetarian (who doesn’t intentionally go around prophesying) I often encounter the hackneyed old “but we’re evolved to eat meat”. The obvious response is that just because we’re evolved for a certain kind of behaviour does not mean we should necessarily follow it. And of course, it’s not true – we’re evolved to be omnivores not carnivores.

But here’s the thing: Eating certain forms of meat exclusively for a moderately extended period of time can cause death by what is effectively starvation. As a very rough rule of thumb, the wilder an animal is, the leaner its meat is likely to be. So any of our ancestors who ate nothing but meat were likely to be at best severely malnourished and likely to die young.

Of course our ancestors didn’t eat like that or we wouldn’t be here. They ate anything they could get their hands on – animals that didn’t run fast enough, proto-vegetables, grains, fruits, nuts. Anything that wasn’t poisonous.

We’re also evolved to eat more than we need. The idea is that we store fat in reserve for hard days ahead, but these days any “hard days” rarely involve lack of food. Another example of how we should be prepared to intelligently disregard evolved eating habits.

Does this mean we should all become vegetarian? No, of course not. There are plenty of reasons to stop eating meat, but this is not one. It may be a good reason to eat meat less frequently – have high quality meat three times a week rather than junk meat seven times a week.

The New Defence

Oct 282015
 

In response to the WHO announcement of the dangers of processed and red meat, as a vegetarian I could say "I told you so". But that wouldn't be the case – I'm not a vegetarian for health reasons.

But what I can do as a vegetarian is comment on the issue from a position of neutrality, or at least slightly more neutrality than someone who is having his favourite food labelled as cancerous.

There's been a few reactions from butchers who comment that we're evolved to be carnivores; wrong! We're evolved to be hunter-gatherers which makes us omnivores. Hunter-gatherers don't have meat every day, and even if they hit a particularly lucky streak it wouldn't be every meal. Essentually we're evolved to eat meat on an occasional basis – perhaps every other day.

And even if we're evolved for a hunter-gatherer diet, that doesn't mean to say that such a diet is the best possible diet for us. Although hunter-gatherers probably (if they avoided all the accident risks of such a life) lived longer than their agricultural cousins and descendents, that doesn't mean they lived long in comparison to modern expectations.

Processed Meats

Apparently the biggest risk is down to processed meats. But which ones?

Even I know that there are many different ways to process meat; or cure it. And if there are many different ways of curing meat, there are many different levels of risk. There are those who say that the risks associated with processed meats are to do with cheap processed meat, and proper bacon and sausages are fine. They could be right, or completely wrong. Who knows?

So it would be helpful to identify what level of risk is attached to each different processed meat. Or even more craftily perhaps someone can discover a new way of curing meat so we can have safe bacon and sausages (well, you anyway).

In the meantime, eat processed meat in moderation and to be safe seek advice on what "in moderation" means.

Red Meat

The risk of cancer associated with red meat is much lower than the risk associated with processed meat. Of course lower doesn't mean no risk, but just about anything has it's risks.

And the less red meat you eat, the lower the risk.

Cooking

This is a tiny bit speculative. There are a group of chemicals called nitrosamines which are nearly all cancer causing. They are formed in various different ways (particularly ways involving sodium nitrate which is added to cured meat to make it look red or pink), including two particularly interesting mentions: frying and the combustion of tobacco (i.e. smoking). 

It is possible that exposing certain organic materials above a certain temperature forms nitrosamines; in other words cooking meat in ways that produces burning or charring could produce nitrosamines. 

So you may be able to reduce the risk associated with that big lump of steak by eating it rare.

 

Feb 012013
 

Every so often I get asked why I am a vegetarian, and I usually come up with some sort of humorous answer; partially because the real reasons are a little mixed up and confused. Probably the biggest reason I am a vegetarian today, is that I was a vegetarian yesterday. I have been a vegetarian long enough that the thought of eating dead animals just doesn’t occur to me.

Although I’ll be honest in this little rant, I am not a proselytising vegetarian. I am not even an especially good vegetarian given that I have on occasions worn leather (belts, and shoes mostly). But I’m also not a “vegetarian” who eats fish, which is not vegetarian at all. I don’t object to eggs (with the exception of stuff like balut) or dairy products. I also try to avoid products made with animal rennet and gelatin without making a fetish of it.

I became one of those nutty vegetarians way back in 1987 or 1988 whilst I was at University for a variety of reasons :-

  1. I was never that keen on eating meat for taste reasons. Most of the “real” meat dishes were unpalatable – steak, lamb, mutton, etc.
  2. I was becoming increasingly concerned with killing animals for food; animal welfare in meat production during the 1980s was practically non-existent.
  3. Someone asked me. Whilst this is no reason to give up in itself, it pushed me over the edge.

Since then, I have discovered other reasons. Some of which you may agree with; some may seem like complete rubbish. But that is not the point as these are the reasons why I am a vegetarian.

But We’ve Evolved To Eat Meat!

No we have not evolved to eat meat; we have evolved to eat everything (omnivores).

Although we have evolved to eat everything, we have decided not to eat certain kinds of food:- carrion, insects, horses, dogs, and of course our fellow humans. But all of those things are a matter of taste or morality. So we have evolved to eat everything yet we can choose not to eat certain foods because of concerns bigger than filling our bellies.

One mistake that people make when they portray people as omnivores is to assume that we are evolved to eat meat on a daily basis. Perhaps, but the information on the diets of hunter gatherers is understandably somewhat vague. What is known is that many of the hunter-gatherer groups still around today will eat meat as and when it is available; and it is not available on a daily basis in the large quantities that meat eaters in the West consume it.

Or to put it another way, we may be evolved to eat everything, but not meat every day. And the kind of meat that we eat is definitely not the same as that eaten by a hunter-gatherer who would be eating very lean meat indeed.

So you could say that going vegetarian or partly vegetarian is good for health reasons, although that is not why I’m veggy.

Meat Is Murder!

Perhaps that is putting it a little extremely, but some kinds of meat are murder – cannibalism.

The suspicions are that the annoying fellow in the next valley has been on the menu for most of human history, and cannibalism is rather quickly resorted to in times of extreme necessity. We all accept that going out and shooting your neighbour to fill the larder would qualify as murder. So does killing a gorilla or a chimpanzee qualify as murder?

Without specifying physical or biological attributes, it is actually quite hard to distinguish between chimpanzees and humans. Communications? We both do it. Tool use? We both do it. Mourning the dead? We both do it.

It is true that most humans can communicate and reason better than chimpanzees, but they are not that far behind. And if you accept that they are perhaps a bit more than “mere” animals, are they not worthy of some level of respect? At the very least not killing them. Indeed the average ape is probably more worthy of respect than some humans (think of Harold Shipman).

And if you accept that chimps are worthy of enough respect not to kill and eat them, where do you draw the line? Some people eat horses; some don’t. Some people eat dogs; some don’t. And it goes on.

And some people choose not to eat animals at all. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with liking animals. There’s very few animals I like, but as far as I’m concerned just because you don’t like somebody is no excuse to chop ’em up and put them in your freezer.

It’s Green

In the old days, vegetarians used to argue that producing livestock was an inefficient way of feeding the world, which it is. After all the feed that livestock eat has to be grown itself. It turns out that we have more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet; starvation is caused by poor storage and poor transportation.

However it has also been discovered that livestock is one of the largest contributors to total greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities.  The figures are disputed but transport is supposed to contribute 13% of greenhouse gas emissions and livestock production up to 18% of emissions.

See :-

  1. http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1839995,00.html
  2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/7509978/UN-admits-flaw-in-report-on-meat-and-climate-change.html
  3. http://www.un.org/wcm/content/site/climatechange/pages/gateway/the-science/causes-of-climate-change

The criticisms of the 2006 UN report boils down to the fact that the UN took all of the emissions due to meat production into account and overestimated the effect of methane, whereas they only took into account the direct emissions caused by transport. This is a valid criticism, but on the other hand transport accounts for practically no rain forest deforestation whereas livestock production is right up there. And those who criticise the UN for their report come up with daft statements like less meat production would result in “…more hunger in poor countries”; of course in the global sense, people in poorer countries cannot afford meat!

If you don’t consume vast amounts of electricity and gas, and don’t drive a chelsea tractor down to the corner shop it may very well be that the biggest single change you can make to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to cut down or eliminate meat consumption.

Don’t You Miss It?

No.

It is true that for the first few years of being a vegetarian, you get occasional cravings for certain meat products – in my case it was BLT sandwiches. But as time goes on, the cravings disappear.