By Meredith Luce RD MS LN
When we watch a lion hunt and kill a gazelle on the Discovery Channel, we usually don’t detest the lion for his instincts. We cannot argue with Nature’s undeniable food chain. While we may cringe at the bloody scene or project imagined feelings of cuddliness onto the gazelle, most of us understand that predators are a necessary part of a healthy ecosystem. We humans, as the most sophisticated predators, need not deny our own animal instincts. We can be carnivorous and responsible too.
In a world of 7 billion people and counting, responsible, moderate meat eating is the most balanced and efficient dietary choice on the market. Human bodies need amino acids, which are the protein building blocks of all our cells. Because animal meat provides these essentials in their most concentrated, absorbable form, it helps balance a diet of fruits and vegetables, providing the grounding yang to plants’ nourishing yin.
Seeking a balance of plant and animal nutrients is the key to optimizing health: a diet that is overly vegetarian or carnivorous quickly leads to overconsumption. The more you eat, the more you stretch your stomach. When your stomach’s elastic lining expands, the hormones that affect digestion and hunger control—Leptin and Ghrelin—malfunction. Soon, your stomach’s ability to detect that it is full becomes impaired, your desire to consume more and more food increases, and you unwittingly take the first, treacherous steps towards obesity.
The harsh truth is that plants yield proteins of lower biological value than animal sources, which means that vegetarians must consume more food to meet their daily protein requirements. Consider that 8 ounces of chicken supplies the 56 grams of daily protein that male adults require (46 grams for women). If we obtain half of the 56-gram requirement from 4 ounces of chicken, we consume 220 calories and three-fourths of a cup in volume. In order to receive the same protein intake from kidney beans, a typical vegetarian substitute, you would need to consume 19 ounces of beans (3 ½ cups!) at a whopping 840 calories! Even if you stretch your stomach to tolerate this enormous quantity of beans, you would still have to make up the missing amino acids with some other grain or vegetable to get a complete protein equivalent to the biological value of chicken.
Why should a discussion of eating practices center on the ethics of meat eating while we ignore our most destructive habit of total overconsumption?
Our immoderate behavior strains our agricultural system and encourages irresponsible farming of livestock. The entire world’s population was not mean to eat steak. Our land cannot sustain it. Our timid palates exacerbate this problem: we need to expand our tastes beyond the usual options and include wild game, goat, eel, herring and even insects. Changing tastes is often as easy as changing terrains. Journalist Matt Forney shares in this NY Times article how scorpions and snails move to the top of his kids most requested snack list after moving his family to China. Expanding our choices reduces the strain on our supply system, decreases our reliance on the most calorically dense meat varieties, and reduces the impact on any one species.
Today, one billion people are obese, and billions of us could certainly consume less. Excluding an entire food group from our diet is supremely unethical when we consider than 1 billion people around the world are starving, especially as the responsible, balanced consumption of meat could have such positive health and environmental consequences for our society.
Overconsumption (aka gluttony) strains the earth’s declining ability to satisfy the appetites of the 21st century. Forget the forks over knives battle, and turn, instead, to the concept that less is better. Less is enough.