A battle between the vegetarians vs. the meat eaters. Both sides claim that their dietary principles represent the natural order of consumption.
Yet everytime you open the refrigerator there seems to be new diet trends popping up, but no extreme eating regimen sticks out more than the Atkins Diet. The carb-phobic diet book was written in the ‘70s and got insanely popular in the ‘90s; since then, people have obsessed over their meat intake. And lately, we’ve been hearing far too much about meat-only diets—and a little less about vegetarian diets.
What is the truth? Are humans by nature herbivores, meant to consume plant life for nutrition, or are our predatory instincts the norm for a primarily carnivorous diet?
Most of humanity munches away on whatever they want, without much concern about the evolutionary aspects of eating greens or red meat. But there are some biological characteristics that determine what we can and should consume.
We take a look at how the meat and vegetarian diets compare and ask the experts which one is healthier.
The advantages of a meat diet:
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is only found in meat, fish, eggs and milk, although it is sometimes added to cereals and margarines. It is vital for the formation of red blood cells and nerve fibres. If our bodies don’t produce enough red blood cells this can lead to iron deficiency known as anaemia.
Protein: Two-thirds of protein comes from meat, fish, eggs and dairy food. However, protein can also be found in cereal products, nuts and pulses. Recent studies show most of us eat more protein that we need. The recommended intake is 45 grammes for women and 55 grammes for men.
Iron: Iron from animal sources is more easily absorbed than iron from plant sources. This is because various substances contained in iron from plant sources can bind iron, reducing absorption.
However, Vitamin C found in fruit and vegetables aids the absorption of this kind of iron. Vegetarians should drink a glass of fruit juice with their cereal to help absorb iron because it promotes a more easily absorbable acidic environment.
Omega 3: Research shows that high levels of the omega-3 fatty acids found in mackerel, herring and sardines help keep blood healthy and stop clots forming. It is already recognised that eating fish protects against a number of conditions including heart disease and high cholesterol.
Saturated fat: Meat contains saturated fats which can block the absorption of essential fats – important for maintaining cell structure. Too many saturated fats can make the body’s cells less flexible and affect the flow of nutrients in and out of the cells.
High intakes of some saturated fatty acids can increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood, and therefore increase the risk of heart disease.
Fats and spreads (eg margarine, butter, lard) fish and meat products, milk and cereal are major sources of saturated fatty acids.
Nutritionists recommend eating the lean side of meat – rather than fatty joints – because it contains higher levels of nutrients and lower levels of fat.
The advantages of a vegetarian diet:
Vitamins: Antioxidants found in Vitamin C, Vitamin E and beta carotene are our body’s defences against free radicals – highly-reactive molecules that may lead to premature ageing and disease.
People with high intakes of antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables are about half as likely to get cancer compared with people who have low intakes.
Specific antioxidants that have been linked with lower cancer risk include the carotenoid lycopene (found in processed tomatoes and linked with lower rates of prostate, lung and digestive cancers), vitamin E (linked with lowered incidence of several cancers, including colon, prostate, breast and cervical cancer), and the mineral selenium.
Fats: Vegetarians tend to eat less saturated fats – found in meat and dairy products – and more unsaturated fats – such as olive oil, peanut oil and sunflower oil. A high intake of saturated fat can cause raised blood cholesterol and lead to heart disease.
Vitamin B12: Not getting enough Vitamin B12 causes some concern for vegetarians, as it is only found in meat, fish, eggs and milk.
However, only small amounts of B12 are needed and vegetarians can get it from eggs and milk. Vitamin B12 is also often added to yeast extracts, soya milks, veggie burgers and some breakfast cereals.
Protein: Only one-quarter of protein comes from cereal products, pulses and nuts, therefore as a vegetarian it is important to find out about other protein sources. These are pulses, soya products, bread, cereals and dairy foods. However, recent studies show most of us eat more protein that we need.
The nutritionist says: ‘We need protein at every meal, and should eat either meat, chicken, fish or tofu, eggs or cheese.’
Although protein levels are higher in a meat diet, so is fat intake which has been linked to heart disease.
These days you can’t compare the chemical intake from the meat or veggies as the one is injected and the other is sprayed. Both have harmful substances.
Common and Uncommon Traits
But there are other factors to consider. Jaw shapes and the existence of flat molars suggest that humans are akin to herbivores, as does alkaline saliva compared to the acidic saliva of most carnivores.
However, the presence of human “canine teeth” suited for ripping and tearing flesh might suggest a closer relationship to animals that eat their kill. Our single-chamber stomachs resemble those of carnivores, too, unlike the multiple chambers common among herbivores.
Our Evolving Diet
Vegetarians stand by their conviction that we humans were practically built for a no-meat diet. They say we have acquired an unnatural carnivorous diet with negative consequences. They point to the emergence of heart disease and certain cancers that have been scientifically attributed to the growing consumption of meaty fast foods and juicy steaks.
Evolutionary research indicates that we probably started off as frugivores (fruit-eaters). The Australopithecines, predecessors of Homo erectus, had an almost exclusive diet of prehistoric fruits.
Our Neanderthal ancestors, on the other hand, were apparently pioneers in the acquisition of meat as a dietary staple. The shift in eating habits might have been crucial to the survival of their species. It grew out of need, not nature.
A New Theory Emerges
The most recent theory holds that we are, in fact, neither carnivores or true ominvores. We are herbivores that can eat like carnivores, so we do.
Flash forward to the present day and the question remains—should we eat meats or beets? The answer might still be found in our habitually opportunistic eating behaviors.
We rely on the current contents of the supermarket shelves and of our fridges to guide our choices. We allow our cultures, and what’s readily available, to define us. We eat what we choose, not necessarily what’s best for us.
Cavemen ate meat to survive. Must we, too?
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