Human health and the mythology of meat

28 April 2017

It's no secret that people living to 100 or more in longevity hot spots like Sardinia and Okinawa have something in common: they eat mostly plants. So why do we cling to the notion that meat is central to a healthy diet?

For one thing, we're stuck on the idea that it takes animal protein to build muscle and – thanks to Paleo – some of us also think our health depends on eating like our hunter-gatherer ancestors.   

These beliefs come under scrutiny in The Reducetarian Solution, a new book on why reducing meat is healthy for humans and the planet.  Edited by Brian Kateman, co-founder of the Reducetarian movement, this book – like the movement – doesn't demand a meat-free diet. But it does offer good reasons  from a range of experts, including doctors, scientists and food writers, for eating less  and it demolishes a few myths.

Let's start with muscle.

"Meat is not required to build muscle," says Dr David Katz, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Centre.  "Rather, animal muscle can be built from any fuel that animal is adapted to burn – and we humans are adapted to both plant and animal food."

If meat protein is so essential for building muscle, how come some of the world's elite athletes are vegan, he asks. Why is it  that a race horse can build so much muscle by munching on plants – and why do gorillas acquire massive muscle on a diet that's 97 per cent vegetarian with a few caterpillars and termites tossed in?

What about the argument that humans haven't evolved to eat foods like grains and legumes produced by agriculture and we should stick with the flesh foods and vegetables eaten by our early ancestors?    

That depends on which ancestors we're talking about. The diet of early humans depended on where they were and what was available in their environment, according to Chris Stringer and Brenna Hassett, both anthropologists from London's Natural History Museum. Evidence from the teeth of people living before the invention of farming shows there was a fondness for carbohydrate-heavy foods and that pretty much  anything would  do (even, at times, the flesh of other humans – and no one's suggesting we revive that ancestral habit).

Stringer and Hassett also point to modern hunter gatherers such as the Hadza, of Tanzania, who've had more time to hone their hunting skills than our ancestors – and they still get 30 per cent of their calories from plants.  

In fact it's our ability to eat virtually anything that's helped us survive when other species died out, they write.  

"There's no design that makes us need to eat a meat-heavy diet to be healthy. What we do have are a series of environmental, cultural and social choices that humans with our big brains and fancy tool-making habits can make about how and when (if at all) we consume meat."

But if meat is a big and much loved part of your diet, the book also points the way to eating less. Start with small changes you can maintain – like a meatless meal once a week rather than a radical change of diet.  

Tweak the meals you're used to rather than attempt too many exotic dishes. Try chickpeas and button mushrooms as a swap for chicken in mixed dishes like sauces and curries or black beans and darker mushrooms in tacos. Meatless Monday is a good source of ideas.

Eat what you know – include familiar meatless dishes like pasta with tomato-based sauce or fried rice with vegetables (add legumes or nuts for plant protein).

Let vegetables, whole grains and legumes take a starring role on the plate so there's less space left for meat.

If you've been thinking about going meatless for a while and are ready for the plunge, why not sign up for No Meat May.

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