Earlier this year I wrote an article called 7 Good Reasons to Eat Less Meat, and shared some of the ethical, practical, and economical reasons why cutting back on meat consumption is a good idea. When it comes to sustainability, there's no question that reducing animal agriculture is good for the planet, and for our health. That being said, I wanted to share some of the reasons why I still do eat meat. While I had been leaning towards vegetarianism for the past few years, a recent health scare made me reconsider my eating choices, and forever changed the way I think about food.
How to be a Bad Vegetarian
As it turns out, I was actually a pretty bad vegetarian. What do I mean by that, you ask? Well technically I had cut out most meat from my diet, but I hadn't replaced it with a well-balanced selection of whole foods and veggies. Instead I subsisted mainly on bread, pasta, cheese, and sugar - with a couple bagged salads here and there for good measure. I ate a lot of highly-processed, refined packaged goods like frozen everything from Trader Joe's. I realized that all my favorite foods were pretty much variations of the same ingredients: pizza, mac and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, bagels and cream cheese, tacos and quesadillas. And of course I always had to have dessert: ice cream, cookies, crackers, and cake were regular treats.
From Bad to Worse
Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to me, my misguided diet choices were actually making me sick. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune condition earlier this year, and I believe that my poor eating habits (along with other factors such as stress and genetic disposition) were to blame. It wasn't necessarily a lack of meat that caused my problems, but rather the large amount of unhealthy processed foods, gluten, and dairy that I regularly consumed. I honestly didn't think my eating habits were THAT bad before, but this experience really opened my eyes to a new way of viewing things. I learned about a concept called 'leaky gut', which could be the root cause of many autoimmune conditions, and discovered a restrictive diet called the Auto-Immune Protocol that was designed to repair your digestive tract. After several months on the autoimmune diet, my condition improved dramatically, and my eating habits are forever changed. (You can read more about that experience here.)
The Auto-Immune Protocol
The Auto-Immune Protocol is a very restrictive diet that has been helpful to relieve symptoms for many people suffering from auto-immune conditions. The idea is to eliminate all inflammatory foods from the diet: No gluten or grains of any kind. No dairy. No eggs. No legumes. No nuts or seeds. No nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant). No alcohol. No sugar - no nothing! So what can you eat? Basically fruits, vegetables, and high-quality animal proteins like fish and grass-fed meat. It is, in essence, a stricter variation of the Paleo diet.
Now I'm not saying that everyone should become carnivores just because I got sick from eating too many Cheetos. But I think there are a lot of other bad vegetarians out there, and we might need to reconsider some of our food choices if we want to optimize our health. There are plausible theories why gluten and other grains may contribute to auto-immune conditions, and valid science to support that animals products may be a good source for certain nutrients. I still stand by everything I wrote in 7 Good Reasons to Eat Less Meat, though I'm not sure that universal veganism is the most sustainable goal for everyone. Here are 3 reasons why:
- Animal products are some of the most nutrient-dense foods
The modern American diet is very carb-heavy, and a lot of so-called foods are mostly filler. They add calories, but very little else in terms of nutrition. Fresh fruits and vegetables are absolutely one of the best sources of vitamins and minerals, but animal products like organ meats, liver, kidney, fatty fish and shellfish also contribute vital nutrients to the diet. They are rich in essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, protein, and collagen. Bioavailability is another factor to consider. We don't yet have a full understanding of what nutrients can be supplemented, and how they are absorbed in the body.
- Bad News: The Dairy Industry is No Bueno
If you are a vegetarian, but still eat dairy products, you are contributing to the inhumane treatment of animals. Just like the meat industry, the dairy industry is a profit-driven enterprise where animals are raised for maximum production, and slaughtered when they are no longer useful. Mother cows are forcibly impregnated over and over again so that they will produce milk, and traumatically separated from their calves. Male calves are sold for veal production. Many cows spend their entire lives in crowded, unsanitary conditions. The truth is, when it comes to sustainability and ethics, the meat and dairy industry are equal offenders. From this perspective, if you can't give up cheese, you might as well eat meat too. Or better yet, cut dairy out of your diet too.
- The Circle of Life?
I must confess I struggle with some guilt when it comes to my decision to eat animals. If we don't need to eat animals for our survival, then it doesn't seem right to continue to do so. Then again, all living things eat other living things. It's brutal at times, but that's how the world works. As my mom, a no-nonsense practicalist, says, "Big fish eat little fish". My mom is from Hong Kong, and she has always been adamant about using every bit of an animal, even though it grossed me out when she ordered platters of cow stomachs and gleefully munched on chicken feet. I believe this cultural sensibility is partly rooted in a history of famine, starvation and death, and a desire not to be wasteful.
Eat the Right Meats
If you're going to eat animal products, go for the best quality you can afford, and avoid fast food and factory-farm based products. These can be loaded with hormones, antibiotics, GMO's and other nasty stuff.
Instead look for organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, hormone-free and antibiotic-free animal products whenever possible. If you can find a local farm with humanely-raised animals, even better. When it comes to fish, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch is a great resource on sustainable seafood.
American meat consumption hit an all-time high in 2018 with the average American consumer eating 222 lbs of red meat and poultry each year. That comes out to about 4.25 lbs each week per person. With that in mind, if you're consuming less than that you're ahead of the curve. Continue cutting back on animal consumption, and encourage your community to do the same. Sustainability is all about finding balance.
What are your thoughts on the matter?