Lately, animal products like eggs, dairy, and especially red meat have been blamed for cancer, heart disease and a host of other health problems.
If you went by the headlines, you would think that everyone is going to die if they don’t switch to a vegan diet, like, yesterday. But humans have been eating animal products without ill health effects for our entire existence.
In fact, some of the healthiest and longest-lived peoples on our planet, the Okinawans (Japan), Maasai (Kenya and Tanzania)** and Hunzakuts (Pakistan), among others, eat traditional, omnivorous diets that practically revere animal foods like pork, goat, sheep, yak, raw dairy and seafood—especially during the winter, when many crops don’t grow.
Indeed, for those who live in cold, dry or mountainous regions like Mongolia, Afghanistan, or Norway, livestock convert the grass on poor soils and steep slopes that can’t be farmed into nutrient-dense foods that people can eat, like yak butter, kefir, and goat cheese.
These foods, along with meat and seafood, if available, are sometimes the only major source of calories and nutrients available for half the year. But these populations don’t face even a quarter the rates of cardiovascular disease, obesity or cancer that Westerners do.
So, is meat bad for you, or what?
Then and Now
In my grandmother’s day, people used to whisper the word “cancer,” it was so rare. Today 1 in 3 people will face the disease. That’s just two generations.
Although we have been eating animals, seafood and insects for millions of years, it is really only in the past 60 years or so that heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses have become prevalent in Western countries. And it’s only in the last 20 years that they have become tragically epidemic.
It is no accident that our national health began its noticeable decline at the exact same time that our industrial food system came into existence.
With the Industrial Revolution and all the wonderous, new conveniences it offered, Americans turned away en masse from eating traditional, nutritious foods raised in humane, sustainable conditions on family farms and toward eating pesticide- and chemical-laden, mass-produced “pseudo-foods” made by huge industrial machines.
And with the birth of consumer culture, food moved from farms to factories, and these new industrial food products—and the corporations to manufacture and sell them—became the norm.
It is also no coincidence that today’s unprecedented epidemics of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, autism, autoimmune disease, etc. has grown in tandem with the rate that these industrially-produced, highly-processed, and often genetically modified foods have become the very foundation of our diets.
The wide-scale adoption of industrial agriculture and food manufacturing has brought us new, high-tech food chemicals that humans have never tried to consume in our entire existence on this planet before now, like:
hexane processed, refined, bleached and deodorized high Omega-6 vegetable, Canola and soybean oils;
trans fats and hydrogenated oils;
high fructose corn syrup, refined, granulated sugar and chemical sugar substitutes in huge quantities;
MSG, artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, chemical emulsifiers;
isolated soy protein; maltodextrin and other industrial byproducts;
bleached, brominated flours and machine-extruded puffs, chips and cereals that are closer to bio-plastics than food;
fortified foods sprayed with cheap, synthetic vitamins that your body can’t properly assimilate;
toxic pesticide and herbicide residues in almost all food;
genetically engineered crops in 80% of the food supply;
eggs, dairy and meat from GMO-fed, filthy, confined animals full of hormones, heavy metals and antibiotics; and
irradiated and ultra-pasteurized foods.
More and more scientific evidence is piling up that it these modern, industrially-created “foods” that are making us all sick.
But even without a looking at the huge pile of studies showing that everything from pesticides to BPA to GMOs causes harm, it seems really obvious what is going on if you just look at a bigger, more global and historical picture.
People in the world who still hunt and gather, or who live in cultures that still strongly support traditional diets and small farming simply do not have the health problems we modern, industrial cultures do.
And, when Westerners facing chronic health problems give up the “Standard Industrial Diet” of boxes, bags and cans, and take on traditional diets comprised of home-cooked, local, organic food, they often find their vitality returns, their metabolism normalizes, and their chronic conditions improve or go away.
What more evidence do you really need to justify eating a clean, whole food diet?
Is it the Meat, or Something Else?
When we raise animals and fish in concentrated operations where they can barely move, and feed them industrial food waste and genetically-engineered, pesticide-laden grains and soybean meal that are unnatural and harmful to their digestive systems, they inevitably become sick—at which point we then we pump them full of hormones, heavy metals like arsenic, and antibiotics.
These “medicines” are also growth promoters because they damage the animals’ systems so that they start putting on fat, and therefore weight, very fast. (Sound familiar?)
Under such dreadful conditions, you’d have to expect that the meat, fish, dairy and eggs from these mistreated animals would be unhealthy—even toxic! Such adulterated food would therefore leave us open to a plethora of nutrition-related diseases, like cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and even tooth decay.
But if that wasn’t enough, we then take this depleted and deficient food and destroy it even further by processing it on high-speed machinery that is too big to clean, then we irradiate it, pasteurize it, treat it with nitrates, preservatives, colorings and MSG, ship it hundreds or thousands of miles, and finally take it home and cook it to death!
How can any food that has been produced and processed in such toxic, inconsiderate ways possibly be considered healthy or sustainable?
The Devil is In the Bathwater
When it comes to studies, the proverbial devil is in the details.
Not a single credible study that finds animal foods to be harmful was done using meat, eggs or dairy produced organically and humanely on fertile pasture and then prepared simply using traditional cooking and preserving methods—the way animal foods were consumed for thousands of years before cancer and heart disease became epidemics.
All of them rely on meat-eaters consuming a Standard Industrial Diet of very poor quality industrial animal foods and processed garbage, because that is who is easily available to study.
And on top of that, almost all of the studies that find fault with animal foods are either very poorly designed, or the data are very poorly interpreted.
For example, no study has ever found a direct cause-and-effect relationship between red-meat consumption and cancer. As for the population studies, they’re far from conclusive. That’s because they rely on observational surveys of people’s self-reported dietary habits and health afflictions, and those numbers are simply crunched to find trends, not causes.(See debunking articles at the end.)
Observational studies, by their very nature, CANNOT determine causes of disease or health.
How credible would a study about causes of death be if it relied solely on data acquired by mailing out a questionnaire that asked people to write down what they remembered eating over the previous four years? That’s how most of these recent anti-meat studies are conducted, but the news outlets screaming that eating meat will kill you don’t tell you that; it doesn’t lead.
In fact the closest we have come to a comprehensive, well-designed, clinical study of the health effects of pure, unadulterated, pasture-raised animal products is a massive 2010 study of 1,212,380 individuals which found that consumption of unprocessed red meat had absolutelyno association with heart disease or diabetes.
There are also a handful of studies that compare meat or eggs from industrially-raised animals to that of pasture-raised. Guess which comes out faaaaaaar better? (See studies at the end of article.)
But even without the “study of the day”, we can easily look at the health of our ancestors and of the people in the world who still eat a traditional, whole food diet for evidence of whether animal foods like meat, fish, dairy and eggs really do harm.
And based on a long history of human health up until the Industrial Revolution, and the continued health of the French, rural Asian, Maasai and other people who still eat mainly whole, unprocessed, farm-fresh and wild foods today, I do not think we can blame eating animal products in and of themselves for what ails us.
Rather, we must point the finger at the inhumane, toxic, and totally unsustainable manner in which we modern societies produce and prepare most food today.
I would argue that when we indict modern animal foods for causing poor health, we are unfortunately throwing out the baby with the bath water. It’s important that we make the distinction between the healthy, minimally processed traditional foods that we have thrived on for generations, and the toxic, industrial methods in which we produce, prepare (and essentially destroy) these foods today.
Returning to Our Roots
While amounts vary culture by culture, there are no traditional populations in the world that forego animal foods altogether. None. Virtually all studies of both ancient humans and modern peoples who eat their traditional diets tell us that the healthiest people in the world get a large percentage of their calories in the form of calorie-rich and nutrient-dense animal protein and fat, including seafood and insects.
Even people living deeply isolated in the lush tropical rainforests of South America and Asia get the better part of their sustenance from hunting mammals like monkeys and bats, reptiles, insects and even spiders.
Additionally, about 50-80% of traditional diets around the world is comprised of raw or fermented foods—including raw and fermented animal, fish and insect foods. Fermenting and culturing foods like cabbage, yogurt, salami, or pickled herring is an ancient, time-tested way of preserving food for the winter.
The remainder of most traditional diets typically includes foods that are more nutritious when slow-cooked at low temperatures, like stews, broths and gruels made from bones, organs, leaves, roots and grains, where the long, low cooking time really breaks these tough foods down, making them more digestible and nutritious.
And perhaps most importantly, none of the food eaten by these robust, disease-free peoples comes from large-scale, modern, industrial agriculture practices.
How did we ever fall so far from our ancestral foodways?
The culinary wisdom and and agricultural heritage that nourished and sustained us in good health for millennia is almost lost for most of us in the U.S.
It would seem that 75-100 years is just long enough for the generations who remember our food and farming traditions to die, so that we younger people—dependent on the industrial food system since birth—have no food roots, no customs to pass on, and no memory of how to raise, harvest and prepare healthy food in sustainable ways.
Fortunately, there are some of us who are endeavoring to study and preserve some of this ancient wisdom, and I count myself as one of them. I hope you do, too!
The good news is sustainably-raised, grass-fed animal products are available in most parts of the country now, and the number of sustainable small farms providing these wholesome foods continues to grow every year in response to the burgeoning demand.
In fact, using holistic managed grazing, permaculture, and agroecological techniques, it is possible to produce enough animal products to feed everyone who desires it a moderate amount of meat, dairy and eggs without harming the environment. In fact, holistically managed livestock can improve the environment, sequester carbon and restore ecosystems. We just have to commit to supporting these methods and to moderate consumption.
Quality is Everything
We get grass-fed, antibiotic and hormone-free, local beef from the farmer’s market and as part of our CSA share. You can also find small farms producing grass-fed eggs, meat or dairy in your area at EatWild.com. Another good place to find clean animal foods is through online retailers like U.S. Wellness Meats and Vital Choice Seafood.
Because cattle, pigs and chickens raised on pasture get plenty of exercise, sunshine and pesticide-free forage naturally inoculated with healthy probiotic bacteria, they tend to be naturally healthy and free of disease.
And unlike industrially-raised animals, naturally-raised meats, fish, dairy and eggs are very high in Vitamins A, B-12, folate, E, D, and K, as well as bioavailable heme iron, zinc and other essential minerals. During winter months, pasture-raised animal foods and wild seafood are pretty much the only good source of Vitamin D many people have access to.
Pasture-raised animal foods also contain lots of cancer-preventing, heart-healthy Omega-3s, and are rich dietary sources of cancer-fighting, weight-reducing Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA). Industrial grain-fed animal foods, in contrast, contain much more Omega-6s than are healthy to consume, which can contribute to nutritional deficiency and inflammation in the body.
Additionally, eggs from hens raised outdoors on pasture have from three to six times more vitamin D than eggs from hens raised in confinement. Eating just two pasture-raised eggs can give you from 63-126% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin D!
With so much nutrition in pasture-raised foods—and none of the hormones, antibiotics, heavy metals, Omega-6s, chemical additives or GMOs—why would anyone eat industrial meat, fish, eggs or dairy again?
Despite the fearmongering, both modern science and traditional wisdom tell us that animal foods, when raised right, can be very healthy, nutrient-dense foods.
So you really don’t have to go vegan to be healthy (unless you want to for animal rights reasons). Just be sure to avoid the industrial toxins that can make you sick by choosing only grass-fed or pasture-raised animal products produced naturally and humanely by a farmer you trust.
** Many claim that the short life expectancy of the Maasai (about age 45) is evidence of the dangers of their high-fat, meat and dairy-centric diet. Actually, despite eating mainly fermented raw dairy and cow’s blood every day, the Maasai have extremely low levels of cholesterol and heart disease. The Maasai have relatively high infant mortality due to lack of sanitation and access to modern medicine, which skews their life expectancy averages. What also shortens their life expectancy is the fact that the leading cause of death for the Maasai is syphilis, followed by homicide. The Maasai are warriors after all, and are known to raid each other’s clans in a lethal battle for cattle.