To Meat or Not to Meat?

IF WE’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO EAT ANIMALS, HOW COME THEY’RE MADE OUT OF MEAT?

I saw that line on a bumper sticker when I was about 16, shortly after becoming a vegetarian. I laughed heartily at it; it was a good reminder not to take myself too seriously.

I stopped eating meat mostly because I just didn’t like it. And also because of their inchoate methods of preserving, long before I knew beef casings that are completely natural that are available easily. But in the early 1990s I encountered John Robbins’s Diet for a New America, and my reasons for not eating flesh became more numerous. If you aren’t familiar with him, Robbins is the vegan son of the cofounder of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream empire, and he left the ice cream business in part because of his opposition to the mistreatment of cows and his emerging belief that humans shouldn’t consume animal products. In Diet for a New America he explores the ethics of factory farms, the environmental impacts of animal production, and the health effects of consuming dairy and meat. It made sense to me and I felt empowered in my position.

But when I began grad school in Chinese Medicine some years later, my Asian professors were perplexed by the high rate of vegetarianism among the students. They asked us, “Why wouldn’t you eat meat if you can afford it?” To them, vegetarianism was an involuntary choice necessitated by poverty.  They pointed to our sharp canine teeth and the place of meat in the history of human diets. They weren’t familiar with any of the issues or fads around meat eating and vegetarianism; they only cared about what’s best for human health. So I decided to set aside my biases and earnestly seek the truth.

When I began my clinical internship, I met numerous vegetarian patients – and even more vegans – who were weak and had insufficient immune function. Their pulses, which should have felt something like a jumping piece of spaghetti at the wrist, were often more like a faintly twitching thread. Often, they were under the impression that not eating meat in itself would make them healthy – even if they never gave much thought to what they did eat instead

In my practice, ethics and preferences began to take a back seat to biological necessity. When these patients began to eat meat – often because I advised them to experiment with it – nearly all of them felt stronger and healthier. I even met some people who thrived on meat, whose bodies seemed to crave meat over anything else and whose only intolerances were to certain plant-based foods. Eventually I started eating a little meat now and then. (I can’t say I noticed much difference in my health from doing so, but I was already eating plenty of animal protein in the form of eggs and yogurt.)

Coincidentally, meat was making a big comeback. When I first moved to Portland, it had a large selection of vegetarian restaurants. Fifteen years later, many of these had been replaced with restaurants that were unapologetically meat-based with barely a flesh-free dish on the menu. Elk burgers, pork bellies, and lard were so hot. With the advent of Paleo diets, people were flocking back to meat as if it they’d been deprived their whole lives.

Meanwhile, I became a father, I became more connected to the earth, I realized I had never really forgotten all those points that Robbins made 30 years ago, and I found it increasingly difficult to be willfully ignorant of the impacts of my choices of consumption. One of those impacts is that meat production – in the prevailing manner and scale – is devastating to the planet.

Thus, I found myself in the middle of the complex intersection of nutrition, industry, environment, ethics, and politics – and I’ve never again had an easy answer to the question of whether people should or shouldn’t eat meat. 

We’ll look more closely at the pros and cons of meat consumption next week. I’d love to hear about your experience with – or without – meat in the comments below.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten

17 thoughts on “To Meat or Not to Meat?

  1. Seems the moral of the story is balance. As you stated “One of those impacts is that meat production – in the prevailing manner and scale – is devastating to the planet.” When did extremism become the health fad? All veggies, all meat, all fat? You speak often of balance in emotion and physicality. It appears to me this too should be practiced in our food consumption.

  2. Wow this is an amazing article! This sums up so much of my own inquires and journey around eating meat. In my ideal world (and in my heart) I would love to be a vegetarian and not eat animals. I look into the eyes of my dog, Honey every day and think how could I feel so much love for this animal but turn my head to the killing and suffering of other animals happening so people like me can eat meat? But I’m allergic to eggs and dairy, so vegetarian automatically means vegan for me. And I’ve found myself to be someone who’s health suffers when I go this route. I’ve also wondered if I’m just not “doing vegan right” and if there’s more that I can experiment with along those lines….Looking forward to the next article.

  3. Thank you for this. I have followed a similar trajectory. Last spring I began eating meat after many years. I noticed an immediate increase in energy and focus. I believe my body NEEDS animal protien. I make a point to only eat locally sourced, humanely raised meats. In addition to being more humane they really do pack more of an energy boost for me. I am now needing to “come out” to my vegetarian and vegan friends.

  4. My mother was put on a strict vegan diet by her doctor, in her fifties for her cholesterol and heart health. Cardiovascular disease runs in my family with my grandfather, her father, dying at age 40 from a massive heart attack. He was otherwise fit and slim- it was a shock to everyone. I feel that I have no choice but to give up meat. I wish I was one of the lucky ones with great genes but meat has been linked to increased cholesterol, blood pressure, and clogged arteries. So that needs to be addressed, too. Especially for the many with family history. There is a book, I can’t remember what it’s called, that actually argues cardiovascular disease is a food borne illness due to aninal consumption. I’d like an article that looks at that side of subject if possible.

  5. I don’t think it is acceptable to treat large herbivores who know pain and fear like we do. In fact, I cringe inwardly every time I see a cattle truck in the highway. It is also a tragedy to the environment. I personally will not go back to meat eating.

  6. I, too, do not like meat; taste, texture or especially the ground meat and the chance of chewing on something that doesn’t feel like meat – yuck. Because of that, I became a vegetarian over 20 years ago. Not being educated enough and having support from family at home – I gained weight, found if difficult to plan meals besides pasta “something” – I failed to continue vegetarian.

    Now, five years ago I really researched, was educated on the animal cruelty in the agriculture industry. I went vegetarian which still included egg and dairy. I still did not feel good about eating egg and dairy, I became vegan. I never really liked eggs or cheese anyway. When I stopped dairy my bloating went away and my stomach flattened. I assumed to be lactose intolerant. I felt so good, lost 30 lbs, looked younger and healthy, and also took the right supplements. I ate foods I enjoyed. I thought I would never change my lifestyle.

    Well things changed again. A new relationship, where they consume A LOT of dairy, sweets, and some meat. I now again eat some cheese and some dairy. Each time I feel physically terrible; bloated, heavy and I also feel bad just knowing I renigged on my own morals about cruelty. Now, I at least got them to compromise to pescatarian meals.

    In the end, I am going back to vegan regardless. I enjoy that the best. By body responds the best. Some folks just do better on certain diets.

    Thank you for your article. I am looking forward to your pros and cons opinion next week.

  7. I was a vegetarian for years in the late 80’s and early 90’s because of the ethical ramifications. When I became pregnant with my first child, I craved meat to the point of distraction. After a month of these cravings, I caved. I look at it this way, my body knows what it needs in order to function. Does me craving that cream filled donut constitute a need? No because it is fleeting. I was craving meat so intensely that I could not concentrate. I felt guilty for doing it but knew it was a necessary evil at that time, or at least I thought so. After birth, I returned to vegetarianism and breastfeed successfully. My oldest two daughters are vegetarians now with their two younger sisters starting on the path now and I follow basically a Mediterranean lifestyle. I do eat some meats on the rare occasion but rarely. It’s what works for me and my family. Maybe we all need to just do what works for us, our families and our lifestyles in order to be happy and healthy.

  8. If you do choose to eat meat, there are local, sustainable options. When eating out, you may not have these options. Ask where your ingredients come from. Choose vegetarian if that feels like the best option.

    Once, I asked a server where the fish was from. The reply: Sysco.

  9. Thanks for this article. My journey as a vegetarian started at 19, shunning meat simply because our butcher, at the time, convinced my roommate and it was far more cost effective for us on college budgets to buy a whole side of an animal and have him dole it out to us when we wanted it. After consuming All that meat over a period of a couple of months, we simply turned our back on meat, having essentially overdosed on it. Next it became a bit of a crusade for me, then a “religious” and health decision that resulted in raising four children, now adults, all vegetarians. Of the four, two now eat meat, one remains a vegetarian, and one is a vigilanté vegan. I have remained a lacto-ovo vegetarian at 70, have enjoyed good health ( including fast and sometimes miraculous healing), upon occasion order the chicken special without the chicken ( with less perplexed looks from wait staff than years ago), and, having read about the studies on the longevity and healthy lifestyle of the Japanese and Seventh Day Adventist who are/were vegetarians, probably will remain one.

  10. It would be disingenuous of me to not share my experience and ever growing thoughts on the subject.

    To keep it brief, every choice has an impact. Agricultural based fueling is not without negative impacts on the environment, social justice, and the human body. I was a vegetarian for twenty years, and some of those years I followed a rigorous vegan diet and lifestyle. When pregnant, my body overrode my brain based choices. Meat and animal products were mandated by my body and the creation of another human being. I was horrified to discover what my body and growing child demanded for fuel. I gave in to what my body demonstrated as prefered sources of protein.

    In the past two years, I witnessed three relatives perish and pass while on meatless diets. All three were brutal deaths.

    And, now, journeying out of my fertility years, returning to consuming meat has saved me from disorganized thinking and physical manifestations of exhaustion and other dysfunctional coping that are fuel related.

    I am disturbed by the idea that the conversation offered appears to be without mention of the overall impacts of fueling the population as a whole. I would suggest that population impacts the environment in a more rigorous manner than meat consumption. There is no escape from the impact of food sources and the best we may do is be mindful in our practice of living.

    1. Good point, feeding the masses is a large part of the problem. Furthermore mass agricultural practices are as harmful to the environment as mass meat production.

  11. This is an interesting and confusing conundrum that it seems many people are facing right now. I am looking forward to the next installment. There seems to be conflicting information about whether meat (and animal products in general) are good for you, bad for you, or if it’s more about balance. I do wonder however, if meat raised in a more natural, humane way (pastured, grass-fed, cage-free, etc) is better for us than regular mass-produced meat…it’s certainly better for the livestock animals. This possibility is something I don’t really see much in this sort of discussion.

  12. I always knew that someday I would becomes a vegatarian. During my ministry training, I heard the inner prompt and knew that it was time. I have always “heard” animals so it was a logical next step on my path. As a professional intuitive and practicing shaman, it is essential to my peace that I am in harmony with nature.

    After 17 years, I did the Virgin Diet and found that my inflammation was the result of eggs and dairy. It was shocking to discover how deeply my soul, spirit and intuition were impacted by the change to veganism. I could “smell” how animal products were affecting people. Thankfully, I learned to turn that awareness down! However, I can still “feel” how someone’s diet impacts their vibration.

    I have decided that my life cannot be dependent upon the death or suffering of animals.

    We still have a long way to go before our food production positively impacts the earth. I am dedicated to organic plant sources. If the animals are honored, a vegatarian diet is an honorable path. However, I cannot comprehend how humans can justify eating animals at this point in our evolution.

    If we are to heal this plant and actualize our true potential, we will need to increase our vibrational awareness and harmonize our individual frequencies.

    I understand that there are many sides to every story♡

  13. Very interesting topic. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say about it. Pardon me whilst I ramble a bit. 🙂

    I didn’t like meat very much as a kid and became vegetarian around the mid-90’s after I couldn’t keep meat down during my pregnancies. But I often cooked meat for my ex-husband and kids, I just didn’t put it on my plate or ate a very small serving. Getting my family to let go of the meat after “declaring” I was vegetarian caused a lot of stress, and the pediatrician fussed at me, even though I was providing other proteins for my kids. Then we moved to Japan. You’re very right about the Asian attitude toward meat being a wealth thing, rather than a health or animal-compassion thing. While living there, I chose to return to eating meat for a few reasons.

    1) I wanted to fully enjoy my experience living in Japan, so I wanted to try things like sushi, sashimi, takoyaki, nikuyaki, donkatsu, etc. A big chunk of cultural texture is lost if you’re unwilling to eat local foods when you travel, attend festivals, or visit friends.
    2) I wanted to respect my Japanese hosts and be a grateful guest, rather than a picky eater. One of the reasons people started to look sideways at vegetarians in the 90’s in America is because it turned into a religion … because everything in American culture comes down to politics and religion, which is why we are SO divided. Vegans preached at carnivores about being disgusting, and carnivores mocked vegetarians for being “crunchy” tree-huggers, etc. I didn’t want to be “that American” if I was offered sushi. Because I saw plenty of scrunched-up “ick” faces on other Americans while living in Japan, and once a group of tourists even loudly complained about Japanese food while on a Japanese tour bus. I know the bus driver and tour guide understood them. More Japanese people understand English than can speak it well, so there was no way they didn’t hear that. It’s just RUDE.
    3) I was in a place where availability was different. Seaweed was abundant, but things like nutritional yeast … not so much. Soy milk is a very different thing in Japan, too. And while my Nihongo reading skills were okay, examining labels to make sure there was no animal product in something became a tedious, difficult labor. Either I had to order and pay more for shipping American foods overseas, or I learned to cook something without the American “health food” ingredients.
    4) Going back to family issues … I gave up. It was too much stress. I decided that, like with my Japanese friends and contacts, putting food preferences before relationships was wrong.

    Returning to meat didn’t mean I ate it every night. I still wasn’t crazy about it. I served meat dishes only once a week or had it only when we ate out. My sensei and friend and I discussed this once because she was surprised to hear I was a vegetarian in the States, and she didn’t understand American meat consumption in the first place. She said she was shocked to see how much meat some of her other American friends consumed. She held out her hand, palm open, and pointed to it, saying something like, “A chicken breast this big can feed a Japanese family of four. Yet Americans eat one chicken breast each … at every meal!” She was genuinely astonished and confused. And after being vegetarian and going back to meat, I realized I consumed meat probably a lot like how she would have cooked it. One or two chicken breasts is more than enough to add to a stir-fry or soup or curry because the rest of the meal is loaded with veggies and rice.

    I now cook meat maybe once every few weeks, and it may last me for a few meals because I live alone these days. But it almost always is a small part of a variety dish (soups, stews, etc.). Otherwise, I love nuts and beans and drink almond and soy milks. I eat eggs. I even bought some takoyaki from Uwajimaya on my last trip to Seattle. 🙂 But it’s very difficult for me to eat a slab of meat as such all by itself because I just don’t like it that much.

    Also, my Japanese friend said that Buddhist monks don’t eat meat because of their high regard for life, and, historically, butchers used to be considered very low-class in Japanese society when Buddhism had a lot of influence over the government for that same reason. (Mixing religion and politics tends to influence a civilization’s social status hierarchy. So if the religion has dietary restrictions, which then become law, people outside of that religion become viewed as lower class, and might risk breaking the law by choosing to eat differently.) … But that’s definitely not the case nowadays. In modern Japan, meat is both viewed as a luxury treat and more commonly consumed. Eggs and seafood are consumed more regularly for protein, then chicken and pork, with beef being on top of the list. But they eat more western foods now, too. So fast food, spaghetti dinners, and French pastries are loved, but are often adjusted to Japanese tastes, like McDonald’s offering a tsuki-mi burger during Moon Viewing season in late summer (this is a chicken patty with a moon-like fried egg, teriyaki sauce, and lettuce), or pizza being served with sea urchins. 🙂 All countries alter foreign foods to suit their local palettes, but western foods (fast food in particular) are closely tied to increased meat consumption in Japan. (And, sadly, rising rates of obesity.)

    Okay, done with long ramble. 🙂 I usually don’t have much to say, and you probably don’t need any more feedback on Asian nutrition habits; I enrolled with your on-line nutrition course a couple of years ago, and loved it. I just suspect my experiences with going from a vegetarian American food culture to a meat-eating Asian food culture will confirm much of what you say for this discussion. If not, I’m curious about where it differs. Either way, I look forward to hearing more. ^_^

  14. I don’t think that it is possible to humanely raise animals who are killed for their meat. I think that people are kidding themselves by saying that the manner in which a sentient being is raised makes the difference. The being is eventually murdered for his or her body. End of story. That’s why I don’t eat meat. I will take a b-12 and any other vitamin necessary to protect my health, but I consider it a moral responsibility to be a vegetarian/vegan.

  15. Dr. Peter,
    I too am confused on this, a proclaimed vegetarian at 10, scant meat eater again at 15. Whole 30 survivor and was a straight carnivor. I am matriculated in acupuncture school, which brings up a whole new set of “rules”. But I think the problem is with the system- the over production, the disconnect from how our food gets to our plate. Also the extensive noise around what and when and how we should eat with the excessive new diet, widget, or trend is exhausting. I appreciate your forum to discuss this.

  16. I have to agree with you that a part of the problem is the disconnect from how our food gets to our plate. I may be shunned by many people posting on this blog, but I have chosen to live a lifestyle that brings me up close and personal to the food I am eating. I have a large garden and preserve as much food as I can in addition to hunting animals. It has been a life changing experience for me to get into hunting and I believe that being able to kill the animal I plan to eat brings a whole new meaning to fueling my body. My boyfriend and I have a goal to only eat hunted meat and participate as little as possible in purchasing meat from factory farms. My body suffers without meat and in the act of spending months in search of an animal I become in tune with what it means to harvest one and use it to fuel my body.

    On another note, I believe that vegan and vegetarian diets may be just as bad for the environment as a meat based one. Typically these diets include or require unique foods/supplements that are from far away places and cannot be produced locally. The amount of energy it takes to produce and transport these products can be astronomical. Possibly eating whatever foods can be locally grown might be the best option if the environment is the focus for your food choices. I look forward to further discussion on this topic, thank you Peter Borten

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