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.