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. 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.
Dr. Peter Borten