Traditional thinking has asserted that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate copious amounts of animal protein. For modern adherents to paleo or keto diets, to follow in their footsteps is the perfect solution to our health woes. However, this thinking pattern neglects a vast body of anthropological evidence pointing to the contrary.
Granted, humans have subsisted off an incredibly wide range of foods. It was to our evolutionary advantage to eat as broad of a diet as possible, particularly with the geographic range of our habitat and comparatively low position in the food chain. Yes, with tools, humans are adept hunters. We owe our status of predator to our brains, which have allowed us to use fire and weapons to circumvent our lowly prey status. However, this does not indicate that we are biologically designed to eat meat.
For natural carnivores and omnivores, tools and fire are not necessary for transforming flesh into food. A lion has no issue tackling an antelope on the plains and eating the corpse raw. Carnivores use their incredibly acidic stomachs to break down the bacteria and parasites in raw meat that could poison herbivores with more alkaline systems. Humans are capable of eating raw meat, as sushi restaurants prove on a daily basis, but generally uncooked flesh can be dangerous and unwise for human consumption, leading to trichinosis, giardia, or toxoplasmosis.
There are a few physiological characteristics which denote humans as something other than natural omnivores or carnivores. The length of our intestinal tract, approximately 6 meters, is much more closely related to that of herbivorous animals. Carnivores have shorter intestinal tracts that quickly expel rotting and decaying matter from the flesh they eat.
While humans do have canine teeth, the majority of our teeth are flat-edged; better suited for crushing, grinding and chewing, rather than shearing. When humans do eat meat, knives do the work typically done by the sharp incisors and canines of a natural meat-eater.
Before the widespread use of weapons, technology, and agriculture, humans would have had to rely on foraging through their natural environment for food. The majority of pre-agricultural societies were predominantly plant-based (with the exception of seaside settlements relying on seafood or northern communities that had little access to vegetation), with the occasional spoil shared amongst all members of the tribe.
If humans were designed to eat meat, we ought to have more carnivorous instincts. Before societal conditioning kicks in at full force, presented by families, religious institutions, schools and media, children are generally compassionate to other forms of life. We will gladly take children to gardens and farms, but it would be traumatizing to take them to a slaughterhouse. Many children’s stories and movies feature farm animals as the protagonists. If we were honest with kids about how we serve up Bambi or Wilbur on their plates at dinnertime, we would likely have many more young vegetarians.
An omnivorous diet was strategic in times of desperation. We cannot blame our ancestors for eating what was available in order to survive – we would likely do the same in their position. However, we live in an incredibly different world now. Simply because animals foods are available does not mean they are advisable. Given the environmental and ethical conditions of animal consumption today, the more humans that eat animal foods, the more we dig our collective grave. It is simply not sustainable or practical for 7 billion plus humans to eat so much animal protein. The nutrients that humans need from animal products (generally understood to be an assortment of amino acids, omega 3s, and Vitamins D and B12), are either easily supplemented or absorbed from plant foods with the right dietary planning.
The decision to refrain from eating meat is an important, empowering, ethical stance. It means that you are willing to stand up for what you believe in – that you value compassion over tradition, and that you are in charge of your own health. In a society trying to turn us all into sheep, we must dare to break from the herd.