“Every man desires to live long, but no man wishes to be old.”
― Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
An image of “The Pink City,” Jaipur, India appeared on my laptop screensaver thingy. I showed my wife the image since we both visited that city together 8 years ago when we backpacked India as part of a two week adventure holiday which was kicked off by attending our friend’s wedding in Ahmedabad. This also coincided with her trying to shop for clothes online at Target and was struggling to find anything in her size because everything is now in plus sizes. Plus has become the new normal it seems. This isn’t me bragging about how great my wife looks (she does look pretty damn great), but truth be told, she is 5’4” and a 117 lbs. If you knew nothing else about her and only those two numbers, 15-20 years ago that would have been nothing unusual. There would be petite, normal, and plus size, the majority of clothing being in the “average or normal” range, and she would have found clothing quite easily. Instead, she has to shop in the “juniors” section. I’m sure she is not alone, but I find it fascinating that because of the obesity epidemic, my wife is no longer normal….
So, I teased that she’ll have to shop from India as I then showed her the image on my laptop. She teased, “Well there, I was the plus size!” She was. We both were. We were giants when compared to the average heights and BMIs of those we met in Gujarat. I remarked about how we then had the opposite experience when we walked around Amsterdam on our layover coming home from that trip. We are walking around during rush hour and all of these “giants” were flying past us on their bicycles! That is when I remarked, “That was a real “Gulliver’s Travels” moment for us, wasn’t it?” First, we were in one land where we were the giants, only to all of sudden (okay, not really… it’s a 12-hour flight from New Delhi to Amsterdam) be in a new land where we were the tiny ones.
We briefly reminisced about that remarkable trip, and then she went back to working on her PhD and I had my inspiration to write this post, which has nothing to do with travel, but everything to do with meat. Confused about how I got from backpacking India to dodging bicyclers in Amsterdam to meat?
My challenge, and goal, for this post is to take those and other experiences, couple it with other pieces of information I’ve read and gathered, and hopefully, tie it all together into something that will be kinda, sorta, coherent.
The story I want to tell is the story of, up to this point, what I have been learning and thinking about as I dig deeper into this complex, sometimes objective, sometimes very subjective, and very, remarkably, like oh-my-God-get-over-yourself, politicized, and hyper-emotional topic.
But before I begin, I will make it clear from the onset that I am not an idealogue; I don’t protest an identity of being a “vegetarian,” “vegan,” or “carnivore,” I am not here to preach that there is only one way of eating. But if you have read some of my previous posts, especially the one about Taíno, my Puerto Rican horse, what will come to light in this post is not a wholehearted change in my philosophy, but a change in the ratios/percentages of the foods we may want to consider consuming under the umbrella of whole foods. I will also admit from the onset that as much as I am enjoying my experiment… I totally crushed a bag of mesquite kettle-cooked chips, a Reese’s peanut-butter cup snack pack, and three pumpkin beers last night! I love the Autumn! White girls get their pumpkin spice lattes; I get to enjoy pumpkin ales!
So, what have I learned that required such a long, unnecessary, but fun-to-write preamble?
I think we need to be eating more meat.
But not just bacon, sirloins and ribeyes. The increase should be ‘nose to tail’ of these animals: organs, especially liver and kidney, bone marrow, and if and when safe, brain. It should also include a much greater variety of animals. There is more to life than just filet mignon… which means, unless you have seafood allergies, lots of fish and shellfish. I’ll even add insects into the mix. You’ll say “gross!” But what the fuck do you think a lobster or crab is when we get right down to it? I’ve eaten deep-fried cockroach. I’m not above doing it again! Although the oil it’s deep-fried in does matter, so there is that caveat. (I didn’t ask the street vendor about that when I was in Bangkok.)
Why am I thinking this way now?
That’s the real story I want to share.
Things I have read and watched in the past about whole food diets were good! Great even! But I could find holes in some of their arguments. Again, I do need to be clear here: I’m nitpicking. Whether you proclaim to be a vegan, vegetarian, keto, paleo, carnivore, Anglican, or Episcopalian (he last two don’t count, just a bad religious joke… they’re really the same. And yet not)… the one thing they all agree on is doing your best to eliminate the refined, heavily processed sugars from your diet. This in itself would do wonders for Western diets. Just kick the sugar habit and most, if not all, of our chronic diseases would disappear. When I talked about Taíno, I made the argument that if you simply went outside to find food, what would you find that you could eat? You’d find fruits, vegetables, and animals. Not breads, pastas, craft beer ☹, cookies, cakes or chocolate bars. This still holds true, but in making that statement, despite knowing the truth/differences, I still failed to fully appreciate the huge differences between what is actually edible in the wild when it comes to fruits and vegetables, and what we find in the modern produce section of our supermarkets. I could also walk outside our Puerto Rican apartment and pick mangos from a mango tree that grew in the flipping parking lot. I may have been prone to thinking it was much easier to forage for such foods than it really is. (I’ll follow up with another anecdotal story of my own shortly.)
Okay, Doc, it’s back to the future time.
Here is what we know, so far, about our ancestors. We split from chimps and gorillas, etc., about 5-6 million years ago. We anatomically came into being about 200,000 years ago, although new evidence suggests we might be older, pushing closer to 300,000 years ago. Along the way, we have split and intermingled with other similar hominid species such as Neanderthals and Denisovans, and possibly other subgroups. We have been very successful at physically adapting to the unique environments we have moved into as we have spread across the earth over the last couple hundred thousand years. Nitrogen content, discovered in the remains of our ancestors, points to a conclusion that we are an apex predator. Only on unlucky occasions did we get eaten by saber-toothed tigers or bears, oh my! We know for a fact, across the globe, that when we compare Neolithic skeletons to older Paleolithic skeletons or contemporary hunter-gatherers of the same time-period, Neolithic skeletons are inferior. Statures are, on average, far smaller. Brain casings are 200-300 cm³ smaller. Jaw development is poor and dental decay is disproportionately high. Oh, and we have had fire for over a million years, possibly 2 million years. Chimps and bonobos have yet to accomplish this feat. But while on the subject, chimps will eat meat. They hunt. They’re just not as good at it, despite their physical attributes, as we are.
Here is what we are not sure of when it comes to the archaeological record. For whatever reason, our brains exploded in size over the last 2 million years. Anthropologist have ideas, hypotheses, but there is no real consensus on what the real driving mechanism was for this. Personally, I think all the ideas which have been proposed have real merit, to varying degrees, as to how our brains got so big. I say they all have merit because I don’t think it was just one of these ideas by themselves that drove our brains to evolve the way they did, but all of them, working in a synergistic way, did. The ones I would like to zero in on, though, is that we clearly started to eat more meat than our other primate cousins. We also moved to shorelines and started eating far more seafood. We discovered and can manipulate fire and started cooking our meats with it, which aided in digestion of these meats. (I have also recently learned of two interesting genetic mutations we have that directly affect the development of our brains that other primates, in fact all other animals that we know of, do not have.)
The Crux of the “Carnivore” Argument:
To be clear, most “carnivore” diet experts are not outright anti-plant. They’re just questioning how big of a role they truly play in our diets and argue that they served as survival foods and consolation prizes if and when we came up empty from the hunt.
The first major argument proposed is just the sheer amount of toxins there are in plants that just aren’t good for us. Not just “not good for us,” but will outright kill us upon ingestion. It is not in a plant’s best interest to be eaten; therefore, they have evolved many chemical defense strategies to deter being eaten by animals. Of course, many animals have evolved coping strategies and chemical solutions to counter these defenses. We are just no longer one of those animals. When it comes to various traits of saliva composition, intestinal tracts, colons, and stomach pH levels, we have far more in common with a lion or cheetah than we do with a deer, buffalo, or any other ruminant. To the point, about 6 million years ago we stopped eating bamboo shoots like gorillas and outsourced the bulk of our nutritional needs to ruminants. I have said this before: we can’t eat grass, so we eat the creatures that do.
The counter argument to the above line of logic, and one that anti-aging experts are a fan of, is regarding what is known as hormesis. Hormesis is any process in a cell or organism that exhibits a biphasic response to exposure to increasing amounts of a substance or condition. Within the hormetic zone, there is generally a favorable biological response to low exposures to toxins and other stressors (thank you Wikipedia). In other words, the “benefits of antioxidants and polyphenols” is not insomuch that they are good, but that they are in fact bad. Just bad in a good way. Much like high intensity exercise sucks! But it is these stressors that end up forcing our bodies to perform certain biological tasks and do what is necessary that triggers and leads to the positive health outcomes we are looking for. I don’t think carnivores disagree with this so much, as they are making the case that we experience enough of these hermetic stressors in our environment already, even eons ago, that we just don’t need to consume plants to trigger this effect. In fact, those with colitis, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, kidney stones, etc., could be because too many of these toxins (phytic acid and oxalates) are in your diet and causing you real grief.
This is as deep as I’ll go in this post regarding plant toxins, but I will encourage you to read The Carnivore Code by Dr. Paul Spaldino for an in-depth explanation on this topic along with how he addresses other topics such as fibre.
I want to move on, because as much as I would like to talk about how much cyanide there is in apple seeds… I want to move along to the elements of the discussion that I have found more persuasive and then share how my gym teacher logic factored into wanting to write this and share.
It’s the topic of bioavailability: all foods we can eat, plant or animal, have nutrients. Toxins in plants aside, there is still the question of how easily our bodies can absorb said nutrients from said plant or animal. As it turns out, animal foods kick the snot out of plant foods when it comes to our ability to break down and absorb the key nutrients we need to not only survive, but thrive.
Another factor in bioavailability, aside from our ability to absorb said nutrient, is also how much of said nutrient is in the food we are eating in the first place. Naturally, this varies from animal to animal and organ to organ and plant to plant. Some of these are inconsequential, and so we can default to the original question of how easily we can absorb said nutrient. But others are not, and the key one I want to discuss is protein. It’s no secret that we need protein in our diets. Proteins are made up of amino acids, and there are 11 essential amino acids we require on a rather frequent and regular basis, because we don’t make these 11. Hence why they are called “essential.” I won’t say that it is impossible to get these 11 from plants, but it is really hard to do. It is why I won’t say you can’t be a vegetarian or vegan, but they have to be very careful and work extra hard to make sure they do get these in their diet. The easy one to target is the vitamin B family. The B12s and 6s are essential for us, are easily found in meat and other animal products, and really hard to get from plants.
Aside from which proteins we need to have, the question then is, “Well, how much?” How much protein do we need on a daily basis? What are the requirements for the human body to live optimally? Although there is a range and it can depend on your level of activity and what your goals are (bodybuilding or some other athletic endeavor), the current findings and consensus among the experts (and this question has been studied a lot, mind you) is that ideally, we want to consume 1 gram of protein for every pound (0.6kg) of lean body mass. This applies to both men and women equally. Men will therefore need to ingest more, on the average, because, on the average, we tend to be bigger and carry more lean mass.
Now, I have questioned this requirement often and it certainly does have its detractors in the clinical world because, as I will explain, trying to consume the optimal amount of protein can be hard to do! But it does get easier when we eliminate many of the other foods, that although might taste good, offer little to no value and simply serve as unnecessary fillers, taking up precious space in our stomachs, i..e. breads, pastas, potatoes, and even that Greek salad. I’ll get started on broccoli shortly.
I have also had to accept the reality, despite my best efforts in what I thought was a pretty darn good diet, that I may still have been left protein-deficient more days than not. As I break down my numbers for you (and I hope you do the same), I think you’ll see why I now think this, and you may see this problem for yourself come up as well. But first, a quick chart for you to look at that breaks down grams of protein per ounce, and as a bonus, calories per ounce. This post is not directly about calories, but you might see a pattern there as well.
From Animal Sources
Calories/Ounce Grams of Protein/Ounce
Beef 71 7
Eggs (1 egg) 78 6
Chicken 68 6
Pork Chop 65 7
Pork Belly 147 2.6
Lamp 83 7
Sausage 85 3
Salmon 59 6
Tuna 39 8
Haddock 29 7
Scallops 32 6
Shrimp 28 7
Oyster 56 2
Mussels 49 7
Lobster 27 4
Crab 24 6
Calories Ounce Grams of Protein/Ounce
Broccoli 10 0.8
Kale 14 0.25
Cauliflower 7 1g
Tomato 5 0.9
Lettuce 4 0.4
Pepper 11 0.5
Walnuts 185 4.3
*Almonds 162 6
*Mushroom 6 0.9g
Wheat germ 108 8.9
Bread 71 3
Potato 26 0.6
(1 medium sized)
Potato Chips 156 2
You may have noticed a couple of glaring exceptions from both lists (pork belly, almonds, and walnuts), which is why I might still caution the bacon and sausages. Almonds and walnuts also come with a caveat: toxins. And they can be fattening when consumed in large quantities. But, fair enough, their protein count is impressive.
So, we’ll do the math on me (I hope you do as well on yourself), and here is where my gym teacher logic and other cognitive biases started to chime in as I was finishing Dr. Saladino’s book, leaving me thinking “I think this guy is onto something.”
Right now, I’m roughly 200 lbs. and around 17% body fat. I’m not fat, but admittedly, I’m not competing on stage anytime soon. So, subtract 30 lbs. of fat from my body (that does sound like a lot when you say it like that), and we are looking at around 166 lbs. of lean body mass, give or take. As noted above, most of our animal products are ranging between 6-8 grams of protein per ounce (33g). I went with 7 as an easy number and good average. This means that in order to get the adequate/optimal amount of protein that the experts recommend on a daily basis of 1 gram per pound when there are only 7 grams on average per ounce of meat, 166/7g = 23.7, I need to eat close to 24 ounces of meat/animal product a day. Yeah. That’s a lot! I have been roughly this size since I was 19 years old. I can almost guarantee that I have never eaten a pound and a half in one day, ever! I’ve come close when I’ve had an 18 oz. ribeye, but that’s been about it. This is why I have always had my doubts when all the textbooks have made the recommendations of getting 0.8-1.2 grams of protein per pound of lean tissue and sided with the detractors. But then again, not getting adequate protein my have affected my ability to recover from all my workouts and my football, hockey, and rugby practices, not to mention the games. What if eating more protein could have helped reduce my risk of injuries? Could I have consumed more protein shakes? Maybe, but I tended to hold off on those due to both costs and the fact that there’s also so much other crap in them (sugars).
That all said, it’s doable. I can eat 23-24 oz. of animal product a day, split it up over a couple meals, allow myself to adapt to it, and build up to that. Yes. I can certainly try. (And I have been over the last 5 weeks.)
You may have noticed what’s in the vegetables. Aside from the almonds as an outlier, you have cauliflower at 1g of protein and kale sucks at just 0.25g. Broccoli has 0.8 grams, so let’s go with that as a not very accurate average, but at least I’m not picking on kale. So, how much broccoli would I need to eat (or really, any other vegetable) to get the recommended protein? 166/0.8 = 207.5 oz. of broccoli. I would need to eat 12 lbs. of the stuff. That is just not going to happen! Never mind the farts, although they would be epic, our digestive system is just not built to consume that much of any plant material. Gorillas? You bet’cha! Humans? Not on your life.
It was looking at the protein counts and doing some simple arithmetic that helped convince me of what the “carnivores” are saying. At least, it convinced me to give it the ole’ college try. So, we are eating more animal product each day and cancelled our Misfits subscription which supplied us with organic vegetables every week. Now we end up only eating veggies when we order or dine out. Otherwise, it’s steak, eggs, tuna, salmon, pork, and sometimes chicken. Overall, it’s been feeling good and we are saving a ton of time in the kitchen now that we no longer have to take the time to chop up all the vegetables for the crockpot or stir fry.
Now for a handful of passing thoughts/stories. We were not always the giants I made us out to be when we backpacked India. You see, while Gujarat, India is known to have a population which leans more vegetarian, the Punjab do not. They eat meat, maybe not cow, but they do eat a lot of lamb, and it showed. They are considerably taller compared to the Gujaratis, as I discovered while visiting there.
My next observation follows up my mango story, and what we would find if we went foraging in the woods: I took a mushroom hunting course two weeks ago. 10 of us went out into the woods for 2 hours. We did find some mushrooms growing that if we ate them, we’d die (the angel of death mushroom). We also found a dozen or so individual mushrooms that weren’t deadly, but also weren’t really edible. We did find about a ½ a pounds worth of honey mushrooms, which are edible, more or less. Fair enough, it was not a full-on “foraging” course (I hope to do that soon). But it did force me to rethink what we’d find in the wilds of New England. Edible plants are just not in enough supply the way fish, deer, squirrel, and a whole host of other animals might be.
Now, just a couple final thoughts. When I told my wife of the diet I was thinking of trying, she, without hesitation, volunteered to join me in my experiment. She started researching recipes and going over costs and in general got really excited about eating more meat. Have you ever known anyone to ever really get that excited about eating only vegetables? Yeah, me neither. I’m also sure there are some exceptions, but why do most kids the world over not seem to really dig vegetables at dinner? Could it be that their little bodies know something we have forgotten as adults?
This leads to my last fun observation. How many kids really like milk? Right! It’s about the same as the number who like vegetables. Very few. Why is that? It’s probably because once we are weaned off our mother’s milk, we aren’t supposed to continue drinking it – especially another mammal’s milk. Hopefully you noticed that I didn’t include milk as an animal product we should consume. This is because we shouldn’t. Aside from the many articles I’ve read about milk and its non-healthy-for-us qualities, I would like to recommend the movie “Forks over Knives.” Here they go into great detail about one key ingredient in milk that is just not good for us: casein. It’s a protein. It’s a protein we don’t need and can’t process well. It’s a protein linked to issues that range from causing leaky gut to cancer. There might be a reason why most of us don’t like milk, unless it is packed full of syrup to make it chocolate or strawberry milk. So just to reiterate, I think we may need more animal products in our diet, but milk is not one of them. To conclude, my hope is that you will continue to do your own homework on the subject and draw your own conclusions, and go from there as we all strive to be the best and healthiest we can be. Even if a couple craft beers or spiced rums get enjoyed along the way.
Saladino, Paul MD. (2020) The Carnivore Code. New York. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Mason, Paul MD. Carnivore Diet and Optimal Health
The Dr. Gundry Podcast. Carnivore Diet: Crazy delicious, or just plain crazy? Ep47 – Paul Saladino Interview
The Joe Rogan Experience #1050 – Dr. Shawn Baker