A doctor once gave me a recipe for avoiding heart disease: have a naturally long and lanky build (he was short and squat), don't smoke, get plenty of exercise, and eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, with moderate amounts of lean meat. "In other words," I replied, "live the life of a traditional tribal Aborigine." Then, as soon as I uttered the words, I realized their significance: until recently, the hunter gatherer lifestyle of the Aborigines was the way of life of all human beings and their immediate ancestors for a couple of million years. It was the lifestyle for which our bodies evolved.
There is not the slightest doubt that meat eating was what made us human. It is practised by chimpanzees, which hunt monkeys, and occasionally human children, but it took on a new importance when our ancestors left the forest for the open savanna. There, they adopted a lifestyle based on walking erect, freeing their hands for tool using, and living by their wits. The last began the process of an ever-enlarging brain, and a brain is very energy and protein hungry. Meat was needed to satisfy it. Indeed, because of this need, human lives have been stretched out. An ape matures much faster and dies much sooner than a human being. What is not often known is that the same was the case with our sister species, the Neanderthals. A five year old Neanderthal looked like an eight year old human child, and at age forty they were as decrepit as a seventy year old. They also had a brain slightly larger than ours. But it appears meat played even a greater part of their diet than with Homo sapiens.
Not only that, it led to the evolution of the human family. Because of its extended childhood, the human child requires the care of both parents. As I has explained in my essay on the evolution of human sexuality, when that happens, a species evolves a pair bond ie marriage. Don't get me wrong; in most hunter gatherer societies, woman the gatherer provides the largest amount of food. But when she is pregnant or nursing, or when the child is small, more is needed, and the most obvious solution is for the father, being stronger and unencumbered by small children, to go out and obtain a high protein, high energy food ie meat. So why shouldn't we eat meat?
Firstly, you must understand that the initial impulse for vegetarianism came from two sources: the doctrine of eastern religions that animals contain recycled human souls, and simple humanitarianism, or not wanting to kill animals. If you accept either of these propositions, of course, you won't need any other incentive. However, since most people don't, it has been necessary for its proponents to insist it is a healthier lifestyle. But is it?
The answer is a definite Yes and No. The body does not store protein. Muscle is mostly protein, and meat is mostly muscle, so meat is the best source of concentrated protein. Protein is also found in vegetables, but you have to eat a lot of them. Also, proteins consist of, and are manufactured from, amino acids. Legumes are low in the amino acid, methionine, and grains are low in lysine. Furthermore, red meat is the best source of iron and, in particular, absorbable iron. In other words, red meat contains natural ingredients which allow iron to be absorbed into the body. Leafy vegetables, such as spinach, while they contain iron, are low in such ingredients, so you have to eat an awful lot of them to get the same result. Vitamin B12 can also only be obtained from animal products, but not necessarily meat. There is also some evidence that vegetarians are more susceptible to depression and anxiety for lack of the special materials needed for the manufacture of brain chemicals.
None of this means that you can't get a healthy diet without meat, only that vegetarians need to watch their diet just as omnivores do - perhaps more so. My goddaughter attempted a vegetarian diet without the special precautions her mother used to take, and she ended up slightly anaemic.
The down side? Remember what the doctor said: moderate amounts of lean meat, not large amounts of fatty meat. Fat is an essential part of the diet, but too much is definitely a bad thing - and it is easier to overdo it with meat than with vegetables.
You will know doubt have read by now that red meat was announced to be a risk factor for bowel cancer, and cured meats (ham, frankfurters, salami, and bacon) even more so because of the smoke or nitrates involved in the curing. In another book-turned blog I described how the Australian Government appointed a team of specialists called the Repatriation Medical Authority (RMA) to investigate the risk factors for all diseases. They are extremely thorough and fair, so I hold their opinions in high esteem. So far, they have listed the risk factor of meat as only a possibility, not a probability. Possibly they will change their minds in the near future. In any case, the current (possible) risk factors are 100 grams [3½ oz] of red meat or 25 grams of cured meat per day for at least 10 years within the 25 years prior to the onset of bowel cancer.
If we are going to compare well planned vegetarianism with current western meat consumption, then vegetarianism is healthier. But this is a false dichotomy. You don't have to adopt either; you can adopt a more realistic third way. The current recommendations for meat eaters is 85 grams of red meat (about the size of a pack of cards) per day, and there is no reason why it should not be varied with white meat ie chicken or fish. Most westerners eat too much meat, while most of the rest of the world doesn't eat enough.
What about other arguments, such as that vegetarianism is better for the environment? Bovids, ie cattle and antelopes, produce a lot of methane from flatulence, and it is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The slaughter of the buffalo in America before they were replaced with cattle reduced the country's greenhouse output, and no doubt the current destruction of Africa's wildlife serves a similar purpose. But the effect is small, and would be partly counteracted by the need to open more land to plant production to cater for vegetarians. Millions of sharp hoofed domestic animals in Australia's marginal lands are adding to desertification. However, it was the planting of wheat which produced the dust bowl in the U.S. And let's not get involved in the effects of slash-and-burn agriculture in the Third World.
Overall, I think we should try not to compund the issues of bad agricultural practices with the vegetarian-omnivore divide, for both are involved.
What about cruelty to animals? Look! There are quite a few agricultural practices I would like to see improved. If we are going to raise animals to be killed and eaten, we should at least do it humanely. But let's keep it in perspective. In a healthy natural ecosystem animal populations are stable over the long term. That means that every individual, on the average, succeeds in producing one and only one offspring which survives to breed. The implications should be obvious, especially for species with a large reproductive potential. Think of the size of the average litter of piglets, and then calculate how many the average sow will farrow in her lifetime. How many of those piglets must die - and die young - if we do not end up waist deep in wild pigs?
Nature is cruel. Animals are killed by predators. Others starve to death, or their weakened bodies succumb to parasites. They kill each other in fights over mates and resources. Youngsters are expelled from their mother's home range, and are then pushed from pillar to post by older territory holders until they establish a territory of their own or, more often than not, perish miserably. Essentially, the effect of domestication is to replace deaths from a myriad of natural causes by death from a single super-predator: us. Indeed, a young animal stands a better chance of surviving to adulthood if it is domesticated than if it is wild.