Since the release of the documentary, Gamechangers, I have been asked at least once per day about my opinion of the film’s message. The idea that a meat-free diet is better for performance and the planet.
I’ve punted my technical response to Dr.Peter Attia, Chris Kresser, and Sustainable Dish/Sacred Cow as this is work they all do at a deeper level. Robb Wolf is also someone I suggest you hit up on social media if you’re interested in a more accurate picture of the sustainability and health landscape.
I will, however, say a few words on meat. Here’s an overview of my philosophy as well as when and how meat consumption can indeed be a problematic thing.
It is worth noting that while my diet is omnivorous, I have no skin in the meat game. If I indeed were convinced by decent evidence that the consumption of meat would cause my performance or health span to decline, I would stop. I find meat to be delicious, but there are many delicious foods that I will not eat due to their potential adverse health effects.
Meat is not my identity. It is something that I eat alongside vegetables, fruits, and lately, even some oatmeal and a few pseudo-grains. I eat what I currently understand to be best for my health, and I do not hold onto any dietary dogma. I routinely speak out against carnivore, keto, and paleo crowds who push dietary dogma.
My issue is never with the food. It is with the misrepresentation of both health and harm.
With that in mind, here is what I currently know to be true regarding this controversy.
Truth #1: Vegans and Vegetarians are going to have a healthy user bias. What does that mean? It means that any person who cares enough about him or herself to completely rearrange their diet, cut out certain food groups, and intentionally eat more whole foods is also going to take better care of themselves in other ways. Studies that show the benefits of meat-free diets compare vegan/veg populations to the average meat-eater. This is the person who eats fast food 5-7 days per week and gets 75% of their meat calories from hot dogs. In these studies, when compared to vegan/veg populations, the meat-eating groups also smoke more, drink more, eat more processed foods and sugars, weigh more, and exercise less. Then people have the nerve to conclude that the absence of meat is what results in the minor statistical health differences.
Truth #2: Red AND processed meat. In the vast majority of these studies, red meat and processed meat are not separated from one another. Why is this? It is because these are epidemiological studies that take random survey results from food frequency questionnaires to make their conclusions. The fewer categories they include, the easier it is to survey people. Thus, red meat and all processed meats are grouped into a single category. It is also worth mentioning here that there are no studies- literally zero- that compare a vegan or vegetarian diet to a whole foods diet that is low or absent in processed sugar and includes unprocessed meat. For people who take their health seriously, a whole foods diet that includes meat is vastly different than the standard American processed food diet that acts as a comparison in these studies.
Truth #3: Results are expressed in relative risk (vs. absolute). ‘Eggs increase your risk of cardiovascular disease by 35%!’. We’ve all seen a headline like this. Keep in mind (as mentioned in point #2) that the egg consuming comparison group is likely getting their eggs from McMuffins. In addition to that, the 35% increased risk is expressed in relative terms, not absolute terms. This is to make a scary headline. Absolute would be your actual individual increased risk of disease associated with the consumption of a particular food. Your relative risk would be the increase in risk in a specific size of the population. For example, if the average risk of heart attack at 45 years of age is 1 in 10,000, and those 45-year-olds who showed the highest egg consumption in the survey had a 35% increased relative risk of heart attack (compared to the control group), that means that instead of having a 1 in 10,000 chance of suffering a heart attack the group would have a 1.35 in 10,000 chance of suffering a heart attack. When you look at it that way, the result is not even statistically significant. Anyone who shows study results in relative risk vs. absolute (when absolute risk can be displayed instead) is not to be trusted.
I am not going to get into the grimy corners of the documentary. Topics regarding the financial interest that is involved in plant protein IPO’s, as well as the vegan athletes who were cut from the film after going back to a meat-eating diet, are interesting and notable. Still, I’d prefer to stick to the physiology that is more tangible.
Now with that behind us, it is worth discussing when meat-eating can indeed be a problem for both our health and the planet.
Problem 1: Iron absorption
While most people are not going to suffer from a high iron intake, iron overload is indeed a potential health concern for a significant amount of the population — the most prominent group in this boat or those who have hemochromatosis. But there are many people without that disease who are genetically designed to store too much iron. Put one of these people on something like the carnivore diet, and you’re just asking for organ damage and early death. If you’re eating a significant amount of meat and you notice weird physiological symptoms like fatigue, joint pain, skin color changes, and even burning tongue, you might be in this population and flying under the radar.
Problem 2: Too little plants is probably an issue
I have said before that I don’t believe the most significant benefit of plants to be in their micronutrient content. Many plants are indeed quite nutrient-dense, but it can be challenging to assimilate those nutrients. This is especially true for raw plant foods and foods that are more difficult to digest, like nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and grains. I believe the most significant benefit of plant consumption comes in two parts. Part one is the hormetic effect we get when exposed to a plant’s natural defense mechanisms. Hormesis is the process of becoming stronger when exposed to mild stress (like when we exercise or do cold/heat exposure). This is highly theoretical, but I believe that when we are exposed to a variety of plant defense systems (sometimes called ‘anti-nutrients), it makes us stronger, more resilient, and able to better combat specific pathogens. Part two of the plant benefit relates to the iron issue I discussed in the last point. When we consume these same plant nutrients, they increase or decrease the absorption of other nutrients. For a person who is absorbing too much iron, eating meat alongside a variety of plant foods mitigates that effect. This happens with various processes of malabsorption and over-absorption. I believe this is the same reason why beverages like coffee and a variety of tea leaves show potential health benefits. It isn’t in the nutrients. It is actually in the anti-nutrients that so many people fear. Again, this is just my hypothesis
Problem 3: Eating meat from the grocery store is contributing to an unhealthy planet. If you are getting meat, dairy, or some varieties of fish from the grocery store, you can do better. If you are getting your meat from a local butcher, especially from animals who are fed their natural diet and living a reduced stress life, you are contributing to a healthy planet. If you want to see an example of the epitome of sustainability in farming, check out Joel Salatin from Polyface farms, and he will show you what is possible. This should go for plant foods as well. If you are skipping the steak for reasons of environmental sustainability while eating fruit in the wintertime from the other side of the planet, you are living in philosophical conflict.
Many other points can be made, but this post is getting lengthy, so I will leave you with this closing thought.
The places where people can agree are the places where we can make a change. The places where we agree are the places where conversations should begin. I think most people can agree that factory farming, unsustainable fishing practices, animal treatment, overproducing mono-crops, and eating a diet that is made up of 60%-70% processed foods are problems worthy of our attention. The more time we spend arguing about where we philosophically disagree, the more we push people into their extreme views and give them a distaste for change. Telling someone who eats at burger king that s/he is a murdering piece of shit and you hope s/he dies as a result is not going to lead to change. Teaching that same person how s/he can reduce the environmental impact by getting burgers from his or her local butcher and making them at home more often is advice that may be taken. As I see it, the loudest and violent protesters of meat consumption don’t want to make a difference. They want a common enemy and a sense of purpose. It goes the other way too. Carnivores are just the new vegan. A group made of troubled people who are so desperate for meaning and a ‘team.’ So they jump on a dietary ideology and do the meat version of vegan groupthink. We need less arguing and more conversations in the middle.
If we all ate primarily whole foods, got our meat locally, and did our best to buy our produce locally and in-season, the world would change. This is an attainable goal. What is achievable is what matters. Everything else is just social posturing and purposeless driven nonsense.
The difference between ‘bad’ to ‘good’ is in doing a few key things that you struggle to do routinely, and to cut our a few key things that you struggle to kick. When it comes to health, for instance, this may look like watching less T.V., reducing or eliminating late-night snacking, and making a more significant commitment to exercise and getting to the gym. If you are making these considerations, you will achieve good health.
But what does it take to achieve excellent health? The answer will have a certain level of individuality to it, but in general, the road to greatness is filled with routine tasks that 99.9% of other people will never take on.
Here is a list of some of my ‘good to great’ routines.
*these are not panaceas. These are not the ‘thing you’ve been missing. Chances are you need to work on the basics I mentioned in the opening paragraph, and if you have not mastered the basics in your own life, most of these actions will be a waste of your time.
1. I take cold showers
Unless I am run down, I am taking a cold shower. 5-10 minutes of the lowest temperature I can tolerate. Sometimes I’ll do this in the morning, and sometimes I’ll do it after a workout. If you read about the benefits of cold showers, you will find many appealing yet exaggerated claims. I don’t take cold showers for these reasons. I take cold showers for one reason: it is something I can do every day, that I would prefer not to do, that my mind begs me not to do. Breaking through that barrier makes other difficult decisions easier to make. In a world of comfort and temptation, this is an essential skill.
2. I time restrict my eating
Most days (but not all days), I don’t eat until after 5:00 PM. I train fasted, I don’t slam post-workout recovery shakes, and it has benefited my life. But again, not for the reasons that you will find in a google search. Intermittent fasting ‘may’ help with fat loss. It ‘may’ help with cellular cleansing and other health parameters. But it may also cause you to crash eat at the end of the day and be a miserable bag of dicks all day long. I intermittent fast because it makes me productive during my working hours. I don’t have to prepare food, or slow down and digest a meal in the middle of the day. I have increased mental clarity when I need to be at my most creative. And most importantly, when I have my first meal of the day, I am HUNGRY. I don’t recall who said it, but ‘hunger is the best condiment’ is the most accurate food-based phrase I have ever heard. When I have been without food for 16-20 hours before eating, I can eat a whole food meal without anything on it, and it will taste better than the most expensive meal I’ve had at a Michelin star restaurant. Most people don’t even know what it feels like to be hungry, and this is a problem for countless reasons.
3. I don’t take days off
Like, none. Every day of my life, unless I am sick as a dog, I am exercising. Sometimes I am doing two-a-days. Sometimes I am just walking and stretching. The variance is always changing to match my daily energy levels and ability to recover, but I am consistently exercising. My drive to exercise has little to do with burning calories, and everything to do with discipline. When you move, you think about all of your other habits a little differently. I call this the ‘activity anchor.’ On days when you exercise you are going to snack less, watch less T.V., make better meal choices, and likely go to bed a bit earlier. On days when you don’t exercise, you’re much more likely to say ‘fuck it’ and be a gluttonous sloth (terrible combo). Exercise is a simple way to enhance your decision making elsewhere in your life. This is critical for success.
4. I go to bed before 10:00 PM
Sometimes even before 9:00 PM, and with very few exceptions. What are you doing after 10:00 PM? I’ll answer that for you: eating, sitting, and wasting your time and trying to squeeze out a little cognitive satisfaction from another dull, routine, purposeless day. That may come off as harsh, but it’s true. The only reason we stay up late is to attempt to squeeze more out of an unsatisfactory day. Do you know what nobody ever says? ‘I regret not staying up, watching that show, and eating three bags of chips last night.’ It is well documented that lack of sleep causes both direct and indirect physiological consequences. You become insulin resistant, you eat more, and you have increased cravings for problematic foods. What is the most natural solution to this problem? Go to bed before 10:00 PM
5. I don’t budge on my principles for anyone or anything, ever
Is it your birthday? I don’t care. Is it Christmas? I don’t care. Every week there is a reason to justify drinking too much, eating like shit, and moving in the opposite direction of where you want to be. To make matters worse, your friends and family members will do everything in their power to pull you away from what you are trying to accomplish. ‘Are you sure you don’t want another drink? Why don’t you try a little of the dessert? You don’t want to eat any of the (insert highly appealing food that is on the road to fatness here)? No. No. No. Do you not understand what the word ‘no’ means? I am an adult. When I say one time that I am not interested in consuming something, that is the actual answer to your question. Let me be clear: indulging is fine. There are a time and a place for indulgence in everyone’s life. In my experience, however, indulgence happens on my terms and my terms alone. When the wine doesn’t taste as good as the first sip, I’m done. If a food comes out that is alright, but not top-notch, I am not eating it. I don’t even like desserts, so why the fuck would I ever eat some to make you feel better? People mean well, but they aren’t helping you, and you aren’t helping yourself by giving in to their pressure. I refuse to do this under any circumstances. I don’t care who it is or how offended s/he gets. That’s his or her problem, not mine. I have a trajectory. I want to stay there.
So now you know a little more about me (and why I am perhaps not the most fun to be around). I’m not sure what inspired me to write this post, but the vital thing to understand is that if you want to be healthier, you need to make some simple, routine changes that deliver high impact. If you’re going to be doing 80 push-ups on your 80th birthday, you might need to take things further. You decide who you want to be and what sacrifices are worth the outcome you shooting for. But if greatness is what you’re after, you will need to get familiar with discomfort- and so will those around you.
Not reaching our goals and remaining in equilibrium is preferred over facing the pain of our perceived failure. We are afraid that given the opportunity, we default to our ‘true selves’. Our ‘true selves’ being the combination of every criticism we carry from a life of being emotionally beaten down. This, of course, is not reality, but we perpetuate the pain so effectively that it may as well be real. ‘You fucking idiot, you fat loser, you’re disgusting, you’re a failure’. Sound familiar?
When you make mistakes about your character, you are carrying the torch for every person who has beaten you up (emotionally) along your path. Our disconnection from who we could be if we let all that shit go is the greatest tragedy of human existence. The vast majority of us can never escape this internal pain. We prefer small, daily cuts of the razor blade than ripping off the well-adhered band-aid. We avoid the more acute pain that ultimately releases us from self-imposed (but not self-created) constraints.
If you choose not to consume animal foods, I understand. Perhaps you feel like you are supporting a cruel industry or harming the ‘planet’ by buying standard animal products. I would argue that you could accomplish the same goal by adjusting your purchasing practices, but that’s neither here nor there. What I cannot accept is the unsubstantiated argument that animal foods are unhealthy. Even the best epidemiological evidence to suggest a link between meat and disease has more holes in it than a strainer. On top of this, you just have to look at the recent boom in plant based alternatives to see the contradiction. Beef has one ingredient. Beef like plant burgers has between 10-40 ingredients, and most of them aren’t plants. Beef like plant burgers don’t fall off of a vine. They are made in a factory. So if you are avoiding animal products for cruelty and environmentally driven factors, that is admirable. If you are pushing the meat = disease agenda while promoting fake factory made meat, that is irresponsible.
If your child is struggling in school, s/he is lazy or disinterested. If you or someone you love has an eating problem, s/he has a lack of willpower or limited self control. These are not the problem(s). Maladaptive, harmful behaviours are an attempt to solve a problem. So if you want to help your child succeed in school or kick your own habit of overeating you need to ask ‘what is the actual problem that this behaviour is attempting to solve’? The core issue is never the one that sits on the surface.
Fat loss, recovery, and improved sleep are just a few of the claimed benefits of cold exposure. These adaptations may come from something like a daily practice of cold showers, but I doubt the effect is highly significant. So why do I partake in this seemingly ridiculous practice? I take cold showers because I can’t think of a better way to force myself to take an action that part of my brain is highly resistant to. Every time I begin to turn the shower knob in the cold direction, part of my mind begins the negotiation and excuse making that is common in the resisting mind. This is the same brain centre that tries to stop me from waking up early, having tough conversations, and writing posts like this one. A cold shower is a daily opportunity to say ‘I am the boss, and I say we do something uncomfortable’. I believe this is a powerful daily act that most are missing from their lives.