Mainly because of the meat?

February 8th, 2012  |  Published in What to eat

Folks who grew up in Ontario in the 1970s may recall a slogan that a largely-defunct grocery store chain, Dominion, used: Mainly because of the meat! It even had a little jingle.

I remember, as a child going to the Royal Agricultural Fair, sitting on a rough wooden bench amidst the scent of cow crap and funnel cakes, staring at a wall upon which this slogan was emblazoned, puzzling over the vibrations in my eyeballs that the complementary-colour green maple leaf presented when juxtaposed with the giant quasi-cursive red “D” in the logo. (Was it accidental that this slogan was chosen, in light of the suggestion that according to Biblical tradition, Old Man Upstairs gave humans “dominion” over the animals? And low, low prices every day?)

Some years later, I watched the deliciously atrocious 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special on a bootlegged videocassette. (Younglings: “videos” were once plastic boxes containing long flat tapes upon which movies and home pornography attempts were inscribed.)

Aside from Carrie Fisher’s cracked-out coke glaze and the peculiar social interactions of Wookiee families, what struck me most wasn’t the show itself, but the ads. Watching the episode a decade later, in the chilly and paranoid depths of the Reagan years, it seemed like an innocent anachronism: ads to “buy union”.

Yes, dear readers, this was a time when unions were viewed not as a charmingly naive anachronism or Commie plot, but rather, a way of life for millions of average North American schmoes who punched a clock with the secure knowledge that no matter how shitty life could be at the widget factory, they had enough money for a cold Molson Golden and a TeeVee upon which to enjoy episodes of Barney Miller.

Anyway, much like stubby beer bottles, plaid Chesterfields (that’s “sofa” for you Americans), culturally celebrated labour organizing, and Hollywood women having their own boobs, meat-eating as a point of pride seems like a relic from a previous age. It’s hard to imagine a mainstream supermarket now trumpeting its carnivorous wares.

These days, we’re often uncomfortable with our meat-eating history. It’s a bit itchy for many of us now. We all grapple with it in our own ways.

And we struggle particularly with the “truth” of human needs: What, as a species and as individuals, is “best”? What is “healthy”? How do we balance competing desires and slog our way through the mucky, emotion-muddied morass of this decision? Etc.

Recently I posted about protein sources and the importance of “quality protein”. Here’s another layer to this discussion. In an upcoming article in the American Journal of Human Biology, researcher Staffan Lindberg reviews the diets of modern hunter-gatherers to see what they can tell us about Paleolithic diets.

Why study these diets? As Lindberg explains:

Paleolithic diets are increasingly acknowledged as templates for healthy diets, partly because very low age-adjusted rates of cardiovascular disease and other nutrition-related disorders have been observed among contemporary hunter-gatherers and traditional horticulturalists. Another reason is that the majority of Westerners are affected by atherosclerosis and associated abnormalities, and our understanding of the main underlying causes is very limited. If there is a healthy diet for humans in general, irrespective of ethnicity, it makes sense to focus on the time period up to the emergence of fully modern humans in Africa.

The article covers a lot of ground, which I won’t go into here, but one point stuck out at me: meat consumption. Lindeberg writes that meat:

…is consumed in considerable amounts by the chimpanzee. In one observational study, adult chimpanzees consumed an average of 65 g meat per day in the dry season. For humans, available archaeological evidence is consistent with, but does not prove, regular high-meat intake in the last 2 million years. Contemporary hunter-gatherers have generally been able to eat large amounts of meat or fish, although the figures are based on rather imprecise ethnographic data. Of the 229 hunter-gatherer populations studied during the 20th century, the majority (73%) were estimated to get more than half their caloric intake from meat, fish, and shellfish.

Among those five African populations, for which more exact, quantitative data were available, meat and/or fish constituted on average 26, 33, 44, 48, and 68% of the food.

Now bear in mind that “meat” isn’t just the proverbial woolly mammoth steaks, but also includes small game such as turtles and rodents. (In the case of the chimpanzees, “meat” often includes “other chimpanzees”. Humans have a similar self-nibbling streak, and in fact cannibalism persisted in isolated regions until the 1960s or so. Don’t think you’re so evolved, Europeans — you were eating people regularly in the Middle Ages, FYI. Soylent Green!!)

Nevertheless, the numbers are very interesting. OK, so, are these folks a heart attack waiting to happen? Apparently not.

Hunter-gatherers have had exceptionally favorable levels of serum cholesterol, blood pressure, and other cardiovascular risk factors, even with very high-meat consumption.

Truswell and Hansen found no evidence of sudden, spontaneous death when interviewing 96 adults among the San tribe, hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari desert, Botswana, South Africa. However, wild game meat has a lower fat content and a higher percentage of omega-3 fatty acids than domestic meat. Animal experiments do not suggest that meat causes atherosclerosis, the main underlying cause of cardiovascular disease. The notion that “animal protein” causes atherosclerosis is based on studies with milk proteins, typically casein. In Western human populations, an association between coronary heart disease and reported consumption of meat/meat products has been found in a few case–control studies, while other epidemiological studies have been less convincing.

One problem with knowing the “truth” about meat consumption is that we simply are not eating “meat” like our ancestors did. There is a huge difference between a wild-caught game animal (especially one you caught yourself, expending physical effort in the process) and a piece of baloney.

Still, it’s food for thought. Are we still, as a species, who we are “mainly because of the meat”?

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