Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Are We Supposed To Be Vegan, Vegetarian, Carnivore, Omnivore, Herbivore, Or Paleo

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

So What Are We Supposed To Eat?

It seems now everyone is preaching their preferential diet as the dogma to live by. There are many arguments; whether we are an omnivore or an herbivore (vegan or vegetarian or raw). Diet becoming like a political affiliation or religion, relying on a lot of faith and willingness to make personal sacrifices for belief.

For a long time, health had a unified front, less fat, more whole grains, less calories, lots of cardio, moderation, and less meat. Since then the views have splintered because it wasn't working and people wanted more information, data, and we wanted to know where these ideas even came from. Whether these ideas were ever founded in fact.

Health is under the umbrella of biology, biology can only work under the lens of evolution. Then evolution must always be the platform to compare any health idea.

I think you should eat any way you please. If your reason for eating a certain way is evolutionary or based on what you think science claims, and not because of any moral, religious, cultural, or preferential reason, then let's clear the air.

Herbivore Argument

On that side people will argue that meat doesn't agree with us. The comparisons are drawn with carnivores to prove this point. This is already a problematic comparison, comparing us to a group that only eats meat when even the most meat loving human will only meat less than a third of the time. So a group that only eats meat compared to a group that sometimes eats meat is like comparing apples to oranges.

Why don't we have fangs and claws? Why don't we have the stomach acid of carnivores? Because man evolved without needing those things. Man had the superior intellect, ability to use tools, and fire. All of which were needed for survival.

We may not have the stomachs of carnivores, but we also don't have the stomachs of herbivores either. If we did we would have multi-chambered stomachs or highly developed digestive sacs.

What about our jaws? We can move it side to side like other herbivores. Yes we were designed to eat lots of vegetable matter. But we also weren't designed to chew cud for hours, vomit it up and chew it again or be able to poop out highly nutritious pellets that we would eat again to absorb more nutrients.

We also didn't need to have jaws of lions because we became the apex predator due to our intellect.

Our small intestines are much longer than carnivores, and more like the herbivore. But if you measure us from mouth to anus, the length of it would put us somewhere between a lion and a cow. Right near the middle as far as length, like an omnivore should be.

What's also interesting is though we don't have the ability to break down meat like a lion, we can't break down cellulose either like a horse or a cow. If we could break it down like that, there would be no need for a juicing craze. We would be able to break down all that cellulose and extract the nutrients on our own.

But the whole point of why it's so popular is because of that very fact, that the human body can't break down the nutrients so we need to juice it out instead. Juicing is natural they say, it's what we were meant to do. Except we never evolved with juicers and we were evolved to eat the plant in whatever form and combination it came in. We evolved right along with the plants we ate. We go and study native diets to see how they fight off diseases, and the foods they eat in what combination. Then we use reductionist science to get the good stuff and put it into a drink. How is that anything like eating a native diet? We need a blender and a juicer and chemists to get closer to how the natives ate? It's like reducing an orange to a vitamin C pill and telling you it's just as good as an orange. Certified nutritionists will actually use that logic with clients and sell them on cleanses and pills.

If we were designed to only eat plants, why do we need to juice to break down the cellulose? Why can't our stomachs break it down like every other herbivore can? Why do we need the juicer to extract all the nutrients when we were meant to only eat plants? It's completely contradictory. Their argument for why we should juice is the same argument why we aren't good herbivores.

Use a holistic reasoning. Not a genetic one. Or just say it makes you feel better. Or take a moral high ground about animal cruelty. Don't use evolution. It's totally the wrong talking point. There are much better ways to build your case.

What about chimpanzees? They mostly eat plants. Mostly. Even they will go out of their way to get meat. That's not the counter argument though. The counter argument is, as close as chimps are to us, we are much closer genetically to the neanderthal. The neanderthal was the predecessor of man who mostly ate meat. Which also isn't efficient, because any food source can become scarce. There is about 6 million years of evolutionary difference between us and the chimpanzee as well. Things change.

Gorillas don't eat meat (though they do eat bugs). Yes and they are the reverse of us and much larger. They have a huge stomach and a small brain. We have a huge brain and relatively small stomachs (until we began stretching it out of course with overeating). Gorillas also spend the majority of their day eating. And whatever is left for sleeping. We are designed much more efficiently than that.

Why do native tribes do so poorly now in the hunt when their tools are more advanced than the stone tools used in the past? Well why are there so many extinct animals? Modern versions of early tribes like Pygmies don't have the same abundance of animals to hunt because wild animals are now scarce. They have less resources, less ability to be successful in the hunt.

From The NY Times:

"Protein deficiency is one danger of a vegan diet for babies. Nutritionists used to speak of proteins as “first class” (from meat, fish, eggs and milk) and “second class” (from plants), but today this is considered denigrating to vegetarians.

The fact remains, though, that humans prefer animal proteins and fats to cereals and tubers, because they contain all the essential amino acids needed for life in the right ratio. This is not true of plant proteins, which are inferior in quantity and quality — even soy.

A vegan diet may lack vitamin B12, found only in animal foods; usable vitamins A and D, found in meat, fish, eggs and butter; and necessary minerals like calcium and zinc. When babies are deprived of all these nutrients, they will suffer from retarded growth, rickets and nerve damage.

Responsible vegan parents know that breast milk is ideal. It contains many necessary components, including cholesterol (which babies use to make nerve cells) and countless immune and growth factors. When breastfeeding isn’t possible, soy milk and fruit juice, even in seemingly sufficient quantities, are not safe substitutes for a quality infant formula.

Yet even a breast-fed baby is at risk. Studies show that vegan breast milk lacks enough docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, the omega-3 fat found in fatty fish. It is difficult to overstate the importance of DHA, vital as it is for eye and brain development.

A vegan diet is equally dangerous for weaned babies and toddlers, who need plenty of protein and calcium. Too often, vegans turn to soy, which actually inhibits growth and reduces absorption of protein and minerals. That’s why health officials in Britain, Canada and other countries express caution about soy for babies. (Not here, though — perhaps because our farm policy is so soy-friendly.)

It Gives Sugar The Pass

Making meat and fat the enemy just masked the real issue of the modern diet. Sugar. Sugar got the pass and the food industry thrived and obesity exploded.

Making meat and fat the enemy hasn't always been the stance of health and medicine, it's a fairly recent stance and it seems we are righting the course once again.

Scarcity and Thrifty Genes

We were designed specifically for scarcity. We were never meant to be able to eat as much as other animals. We could eat a small amount and be able to do a great deal of activity off of that little amount of energy. We were the most adaptive of mammals. It's our strength. It's why we gain weight so easily, because humans were never designed for a world where food is unlimited. Those thrifty genes that kept us alive during famine, is what's killing us now with obesity. Your body needs less food than you think. And we adapted to eat nearly anything around for food.

What about "The China Study?" A lot of criticism has been written about this book already so I won't recap it all. And yes more vegetables is good for you. Denise Minger at Raw Food: SOS does a much better job than I can breaking it down. She is by no means a hardcore meat lover. Quite the contrary, she is a raw foodist. One of the problems with "The China Study" is hand picking statistics and data.

Another good read on another site that is aligned with vegetarians is the International Vegetarian Union. They have a great article on What Did Our Ancestors Eat. The site promotes vegetarianism and veganism throughout the world. Here is the first line of the article:

"You sometimes hear the argument that humans are "naturally vegetarian" or that they evolved as vegetarians. This is somewhat dangerous to pursue as the scientific evidence all indicates that we are omnivores, i.e., we can survive on a wide variety of plant and animal foods"

It is completely fine to be a vegetarian or vegan. The problem is the use of evolution to justify it. In the above article, though they outline how our ancestors ate meat and evolved to eat meat, they explain we would all still probably be better off if we ate more plant matter or a completely plant based diet.

To say we should eat this way is justifiable. So eat that way. Justify it with preference. Actually you shouldn't have to justify it at all. Your choice is your choice. But to say we always ate this way (just because that's how you choose to eat now), is just plain ill-informed and ill-conceived. It's working backwards, and rewriting human history. It's classic confirmation bias.

Even indigenous cultures of India ate dairy and eggs. There has never been a vegan society, it would not be efficient and effective in the long run.

There was also scarcity of meat, and the price became expensive for most poor cultures. Something only for the royalty. Was it always no meat or did people adapt based on resources?

Omnivore Argument

Then you have the ice age. Prior to cotton, to weaving, to sheep wool, we used the skin of animals to stay warm. We humans are pretty efficient. It's not survival of the strongest, it's survival of the most efficient, the most adapted. We used every part of the animal. We used it to make tools, we used its skin to stay warm, we used its fat, we ate its meat. The hallmark of early man is the spear, it's what really put us on the map. It's why anthropologists always show us with a spear. It was the first sign of the intellect that would develop every other tool.

We also domesticated dogs to help us hunt. We developed tools to become better hunters. The use of tools, the strategy for the hunt, these are the reasons why our brains developed and evolved as they did. We are close to the chimp in genetics (we're also close to the cat) but they are no way near us in intellect. Also nowhere near us in eating habits.

The Brain

What about the brain? If we were purely meant to graze, our brain wouldn't have needed to develop as much, instead evolution would need to do more in advancing our stomachs, give us better hands like maybe hooves for grazing long periods. Predators tend to have larger brains.

"You can't have a large brain and big guts at the same time," explains Leslie Aiello, an anthropologist and director of the Wenner-Gren Foundation in New York City, which funds research on evolution. Digestion, she says, was the energy-hog of our primate ancestor's body. The brain was the poor stepsister who got the leftovers.

From NPR on how the introduction of meat made us smarter. Not only was it the hunting, but also the cooking that expanded our early minds.

Our brains use an immense amount of energy, and in the early days, cooked foods and meat were the only way to get the amount of energy our brains needed.

Evolution is about survivability. Everything served a purpose, to help us survive.

Binocular vision

Forward facing eyes, typical to mostly predators (not always, like fruit bats and other primates). We have one of the most advanced forms of sight, and part of our brain design was to organize the immense information stream. Both which were useful for the hunt. Without the need to hunt, there wasn't an original cause to have a big brain.

New Movement

There is a current movement right now that's growing bigger and bigger. People who are trying to eat like our ancestors. Whether the diet is called paleo, paleolithic, evolution diet, ancestral, primal solution, low glycemic, anti-sugar, or Crossfit diet. Dr. Robert Lustig who is a world renowned doctor and scientist, even speaks about this way of eating in his now world famous Sugar: The Bitter Truth which is required viewing for all my clients. Tim Ferris in his book "The 4 Hour Body" covered a lot of this as well.

The conclusion this new (but kind of old) form of eating and living is coming up with that is different from other known diets is calorie counting doesn't work effectively. Yet calories are what vegetarians, vegans, raw food, to just normal to healthy eaters all have in common. This new movement is about ingredients and where it came from and if our body can process it, how it affects our hormones, how it affects our blood.

That maybe it wasn't macronutrients, but too much processed foods, too much sugar.

Sugar no longer got the pass and this upsets people. We can give up savory but asking people to give up sweets makes people angry. Maybe you don't need to give it up, but thinking that's not the issue is preferential thinking.

No one went into it to prove meat and fat were good. It was the first movement with the least confirmation bias. It was data driven. Are all the interpretations correct? Maybe not. Are they realistic? Maybe not. But it was the first time people started asking, how were we evolved to eat? The required question of all biology yet we hadn't asked it regarding our health yet.

Like with most things, first know the rules before you break them. But you won't know how to bend or modify the rules if you don't know the rules in the first place. Comparing everything to our ancestry then see how we have splintered off. And see how you personally tolerate certain foods.

It's not a coincidence this is happening the same time along with the Crossfit boom, the explosion of The Tough Mudder, barefoot running and Vibram shoes. Physical culture is making a come back. People don't want to hear generic advice, they want to see the data. They want to know what was the environment and situation when we didn't have the health problems of the modern era.

Times are changing and the clock is turning back. Maybe this is the point where humans have to evolve or perish under current conditions. Scientist have been warning us about our current rate of consumption, and now that we are on the other side of peak oil, we have a timeline until we perish unless we make a huge shift. Because there are more humans and each new human being is more voracious in their consumption of food and energy. Well maybe this is that evolutionary shift that we needed.

When you avoid whole macronutrients like fat and meat, you have to important food from all over the world to get the nutrients you need from plants. Go to an expensive health market, how many things are made locally? What's the environment cost to get all the nutrients you want? All the super foods? All the quinoa? What is it doing to the native countries who are shipping away their staple crops? Can they afford their own food? What's the cost of our obsession with eating every plant nutrient available?

People think kale is the most nutrient dense food. It's not. By far the most nutrient dense food is organ meat. You don't have to eat organ meat or even like it, but that's the facts.

My Argument

If your reason for not eating meat is moral, ethical, religious, cultural, or just preferential that is perfectly fine and should be respected. If your reasoning is because you think it's based on science or that it's more aligned to human nature, there is not enough evidence to prove that.

Having a very restrictive diet early on seems a very inefficient way to promulgate the species. Especially when our hallmark was the spear. Efficiency means we use all of our advantages and exploit the disadvantages of every other species. Survival of the most efficient, that is what being human means. We have warm blood to keep warm, stand up tall and can see further down the savanna, have hands free to use tools, etc. Why would choose to be so inefficient with our eating? Some tribes did. They were the ones who died off.

You will often find people who turn vegan or vegetarian lose weight but it's hard to keep muscle on without taking a large amount of shakes and supplements. We were designed to drink shakes, powders, juices, and pop pills? Probably not but it's a convenient way to live.

Hunter Gatherer

Some people think their culture was always vegetarians or vegans. If that were the case, what did they eat prior to agriculture? What did they wear for that matter? Agriculture has been around for about 10,000 years. Scientists say it takes over 20,000 to make any evolutionary leap.

So what did these natural vegetarians and vegans eat? All these cultures have one thing in common. They eat lots of grains. Either through rice or bread.

Grains are something man domesticated and created. Like the cow. We took something wild (a grass) and started the domestication process around 10,000 years ago. Even grains as we know them now cannot be eaten raw. We needed the ability to mill it, cook it, process it, make it into breads, etc.

So while we were waiting for that to happen, what were these native cultures eating? Where did they get their grains and breads?

So if grains are one of our staple foods but has only been around for 10-12 thousand years, are we even well adapted to eating them? We've had animal meat longer than we've had grains, yet we are more adapted to eat grains than meat? And now more adapted to eat processed grains and sugar?

We are humans, we thrived not by being the strongest but by being the most adaptable. So we evolved over a very long time to eat meat along with plants.

It's about eating a variety of nutrient dense foods and most of us don't do enough of that. We eat things that are fast to eat and are too rich in flavor.

False Assumptions

A lot of people assume once they decide to change their eating habit to some new extreme, that somehow they have been magically blessed with everything they need to know about diet. From juicers, to cleansers, to fasters, macrobiotic, to zone, to raw vegans, to vegans, to vegetarians, to pescetarians, to paleo eaters. We as a whole group are pretty misinformed about eating. And just because you decide to jump on another bandwagon will not automatically mean you know more than your friend who still eats the way you used to. Why does changing your diet all of a sudden mean you are now more educated?

Here is what I will say though. With both sides of the argument and looking at all the evidence, we can conclude that we were never designed to eat so much processed foods. Processed grains, processed carbs, pastas, breads, vegetable loaves, meat composites, etc. All modern eaters probably eat too much pastas and breads actually. When did natural herbivores eat so much bread and pasta and rice? Actually grains are inedible raw to begin with. So how could that be native to our diet?

Just because you avoid meat doesn't make you a vegetarian. To be a vegetarian you have to actually eat a lot of vegetables. A lot of them should either be steamed or raw. But right now under today's definition, if you drink alcohol and beer and wine, eat lots of breads, muffins, waffles with syrup, shakes, juices, fast foods, chips, junk foods, candy, and other non-plant material, then you're still a vegetarian. Well guess what, that's the same crap nonvegetarians eat.

Across the board all the sides bicker over minor differences, when meat eaters, vegetarians, and vegans 90% of the time all eat the same crap. Stuff out of packages, out of boxes and cans, out of restaurants, take outs, fast food places, snacks, bars, drinks, sweets, sugar, fructose, potatoes, anything with soy in it.

So we can all argue all day, but many Americans no matter what their eating preference, is mostly eating the stuff our bodies can't handle without getting sick or fat.

And we will never be evolved to eat the stuff we do now. Food evolves much faster than we can adapt to it. Taco Bell in the 90s used more real ingredients than Taco Bell today.

We discussed the intestines and stomach and what we were designed to eat, well let's talk about our blood, our vascular system. We were never designed nor evolved to take on so much sugar and energy into our bloodstream and so quickly as well. It enters our blood so quickly not because it's cooked or it's meat, it enters our blood because it has already been predigested through processing. Instead of mama bird chewing it up for us, some machine did it. It's why fiber is so important. Makes energy enter our body slowly, but leave our system quickly. It's why I am opposed to drinking your meals.

It's All Modern Diet

All derived directly from the birth of agriculture. They may be different in details but both would perish without agriculture and farms and corn, soy, potatoes, or grains. On the other side is the ancestral diet. Pre-agricultural diet.

It's even scarier to think about sustainability and the cost of fuel to get some of these precious vegetables and fruits to us. I hate the attitude that if somehow I eat a berry straight from the Amazon, I am more green and hip. You know how much carbon footprint you left on this planet for just one berry? And on the other side the greenhouse effect of all the animals we domesticate for food.

Everyone needs to eat more locally grown vegetables. Not some vegetable juice or composite. Real vegetables. Right now you can hate vegetables and still be a vegetarian. A huge percentage of Americans don't even get 1 serving of vegetable a day, and the standard of what a serving of vegetable (it doesn't even really have to be a vegetable, it just had to be at one point) is pretty lax to say the least.

I have a client who was a vegetarian for 15 years. She told me a story about how she took some business people out to dinner. They had steak and a side of steamed vegetables or salad. She had some really heavy pasta dish with no meat of course, and bread. She looked at her plate and their plate, and realized though she was the vegetarian, they were the ones eating more vegetables than she was. She has since added meat back into her diet (not a lot but a moderate amount) and a lot more real vegetables and a lot less grains and she has lost over 40lbs and has been in the best shape of her life. Her diet previously consisted of instant preheat vegetarian meals and loaves, rice, pastas, breads, pastries, and sodas.


Let's use evolution as the platform of any health discussion. Otherwise it won't be science, it will be belief. There are many people who do fine on a vegetarian or vegan diet. But still evolution is the baseline. This is where we started, this is where we ended up. From there we can see how different groups of people based on regions and distance from the cradle of life adapted.

No matter what, it's a lifestyle post agriculture and it's good to know what we did pre-agriculture. Early diet matters.

Technology can aid us with services like InsideTracker that allows users to test blood biomarkers. Different people can tolerate different things but we won't know that unless we have an initial framework to compare our hypothesis.

Food is not politics or religion or the foundation of your race believe it or not. Food is information. Inform yourself correctly.

Counter Points To This Article

  • Presentism - To look at history through the lens of the present. If I eat this way now, we must have always eaten this way.
  • Cognitive Dissonance - Discomfort in holding two conflicting cognition. So we hand pick what we want to believe so it's aligned with our current belief systems. 
  • Correlation - A possible link between two things. Doesn't mean it's true or scientific and not the same as cause and effect.
  • Cause and Effect - Direct link between two things.
  • Culturalism - Judging another culture by the rules of your culture.

As for me, I may be guilty of all of these terms. But so are the rest of us.


Sam Yang from an early age has been obsessed with connecting the dots between martial arts and efficiency, health, mindset, business, science, and habits to improve optimal well-being. For more info, join his newsletterYou can also connect to All Out Effort on Facebook and Twitter.

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