This is a sensitive topic that many people are very passionate about – whether or not to eat animals (vegetarian) or even any animal products such as dairy or eggs (vegan). I realize that for some it is a religious issue, and I will never argue with someone’s religion because that is a matter of faith or belief. Other times it is based on a love for animals, or a moral stance based on the cost to the environment to produce meat. But I am going to focus on people’s health, and from that perspective, the vegan or vegetarian (V/V) diet is not the best for health in my opinion.
One thing that I am sure about is that humans are by definition – omnivores. That means that at the level of our DNA, humans are intended – literally supposed to eat plants AND animals. Our current human DNA is essentially the same as it was in caveman times, and cavemen were definitely omnivores. This can be determined by the type of teeth we possess, the size of our jaws, historical research with carbon dating, and many other factors. It is well known in the rest of the animal kingdom that when you deprive animals of foods that are supposed to be part of their intended ancestral diet, they get sick and will even die. In humans in general, the farther we stray from our ancestral diet and lifestyle the worse off we are.
For example, humans are dependent on Vitamin B12. The only reliable sources of Vitamin B12 found in nature are in animal products. It is common sense that eating a diet where – in order to survive and not get really sick on multiple levels – you have to take a supplement - then that is not a diet that is inherently good for you. While I am a big proponent of supplements for optimal health – they are intended to be just that – a supplement. They are not meant to be the sole source of an entire critical nutrient necessary for life that is completely missing from your diet.
As well, our health is very dependent on certain omega-3 fractions – especially EPA and DHA. DHA is very important for brain development and more, and EPA is critical for heart health and many other things. These omega-3’s are found in good quantities mainly in fish oil and grass-fed wild animal meats and products. DHA can be obtained in reasonable quantities from algae oil supplements, but algae was probably not part of our ancestral diet, and it is low in EPA. While ALA (another type of omega-3) is obtained from seed oils such as flax, ALA is not an equivalent omega-3 oil. Only tiny quantities of this are converted into EPA and DHA so it is not an acceptable substitute for EPA and DHA.
Because vegans/vegetarians are eliminating an entire major source of food for humans, many V/V’s add lots of extra foods in the carbohydrate category – baked goods, breads, pastas, potatoes, fruits and sweets. This is why I have seen so many V/V patients who have diabetes and obesity. Carbs raise blood sugar and then insulin, and this causes weight gain and a slew of other health problems. Starchy carbohydrates and sugars also feed cancer cells. Unfortunately, one of the common ways to get protein in a V/V diet is to eat something like beans and lentils that are usually about 50% carbohydrate (and also very high in toxic lectins), so it is very hard to keep your blood sugar down on this kind of diet. And GMO, heavily processed soy products aren’t health food either.
However, many people have an incorrect idea about what a “paleo” type diet might mean. The cartoonish picture of a caveman eating a huge piece of meat is probably not accurate. If it did happen that animal was by definition wild and grass fed, and it was most likely a fairly rare occurrence. So our paleo ancestors didn’t binge on steak every day. They did eat a majority of plant-based foods and even insects, but their diet did include meats and bone marrow. In fact, the only foods that one has to eat to be healthy are fats, meats, and non-starchy vegetables – not even fruit. One of my favorite nutrition books, “It Starts With Food” by Hartwig, explains these nutritional concepts very well.
The usual meat that is available today in the standard grocery store – factory-farmed, Round-Up laden, corn and antibiotic-fed - is not the type of meat that our ancestors ate at all. Factory farmed meat is also often cruel to the animals and it is bad for the environment to produce. Those are problems, but the solution is to not eat that type of meat. Wild fish, pasteured eggs and fowl, and grass-fed or wild meats are more expensive, but you don’t have to eat a lot of it to get the health benefits – 3-6 ounces per day is often enough.
So, emotion and religion aside, for optimal health I think that humans should eat the diet that evolution designed for us. Lots of plants, yes, but also some meats and animal-based foods as mother nature intended.