Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Should you eat like a gorilla or a tiger?

While reading the book The Beauty Detox Solution by Kimberly Snyder I was introduced to a new idea. Simply put, it proposed the human digestive system is more like that of an herbivorous gorilla than that of a carnivorous tiger, thus we should be a vegetarian. This makes sense since we are so closely related to gorillas. We share about 95-98% of the same genes, depending on which scientist you talk to. However I wanted to explore this option more.

One of Kimberly Snyder’s points is both humans and gorillas cannot break down uric acid like tigers can. Uric acid is a by-product of digested animal protein and is easily broken down by the body via an enzyme it secretes called uricase. Many other animals from bacteria to mammals produces uricase but humans and other primates do not. Interestingly, humans do have a gene that encourages the production of uricase, but it is non functional which seems to be an early mutation in primate evolution.

Too much uric acid in the body, caused by a high meat diet can cause kidney problems and gout. Researchers have also found statistical links between high uric acid levels and high blood pressure, diabetes and senile dementia. It should be noted that uric acid can be advantageous as an antioxidant in our our bodies but the according to we produce a lot of uric acid simply from the breakdown of our own cells as part of day to day cell regeneration. Thus, we do not require to eat meat to get uric acid and eating too much meat can increase the amount of uric acid in our systems, leading to health issues

Gorillas and humans have a much longer intestines compared to a tiger in relation to body size. This is a second point Kimberly Snyder uses to support why we should imitate other primate diets. However there is a primary difference of the digestive system between other primates and humans found in the gastrointestinal tract. Other primates are able to break down cellulose. They have large colons and the large intestine is filled with microbes (bacterial) and enzymes for fermenting, detoxifying food, and breaking down cellulose. Humans can break down cellulose a little but not as effectively as our wild friends.

Susan Schenck on says, “when man split off from chimpanzees, he traded an energy-intense digestive tract with the ability to digest cellulose for an energy-intensive brain. The energy used for the brain had to be subtracted from elsewhere, and it came at the expense of the digestive tract”. She also states that DHA found in fatty rich meats was vital to brain evolution in humans.

DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid which although found in meat it is also available in ground flax seeds and flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybeans, walnuts, wheatgerm, pumpkin seeds, tuna, salmon and eggs. Research has found that we require omega-3 fatty acids along with a balanced intake of omega-6 fatty acids which are found in vegetable oil (sunflower, soybean, corn, sesame, cottonseed, grapeseed, walnut), walnuts, brazilnuts, almonds cashews, seeds (flax, hemp, sunflower, sesame, pine nuts, and pumpkin), shellfish and egg yolks. On the site it states, “A diet must be balanced with a ratio in the range of 2:1 to 4:1, Omega-6 to Omega-3. Western diets often contain a ratio of 10:1 to 30:1 and higher. People need to concentrate on eating more Omega-3 foods”.

It seems safe to say that although genetically we are very close to other primates including gorillas and chimpanzees we do require more fatty acids in our diet. However from the lists in the previous paragraph it is evident that there are many available vegetarian or vegan options. We may have evolved by eating meat as a primary source of fatty acids, but we now have the knowledge to substitute meat with other foods offering similar nutrients.

Another interesting argument supporting vegetarianism that I came across was that plant-eating creatures have the longest lifespan. Elephants, horses, and chimpanzees are at the top of the list while lions, tigers, and wolves are about half that. Since humans' lifespans are even are we meant to be herbivorous to live longer? Most scientific studies comparing vegetarians to non-vegetarians found vegetarians only live for about a year or two more on average. Some of this benefit could be attributable to non-dietary lifestyle factors such as the avoidance of smoking and a high socio-economic status.

If you are looking at living longer a great book to read is Blue Zones by Dan Buettner. He has identified areas within the world which has a higher rate of centenarians (people living to 100+y.o.), then finds factors each of these groups, scattered around the world all have in common. Nine common attributes were found. As well as being moderately active, having a good attitude and a healthy social life eating a diet with a “plant slant” is recommended. The book's website recommends, “Try to limit it (meat) to a portion the size of a deck of cards and only twice per week. Beans, including fava, black and soy and lentils are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Snacking on nuts–about a handful a day has been associated with and extra 2-3 years of life expectancy.” This evidence supports restricting our meat intake.

As well as examining whether we should be vegetarian from a biological point of view, there are other issues, becoming ever more important to consider. Environmentally there are advantages to becoming vegetarian. WWF Canada states that raising animals for food creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. Producing one calorie of animal protein requires more than 10 times as much fuel, creating 10 times the greenhouse gas emissions, than one calorie of plant protein. By not eating meat, you can prevent 1360 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere each year. A vegan who does not eat meat, fish or dairy foods, creates 1.3 fewer tonnes of CO2 than a meat eater every year. Furthermore meat production requires far more water usage than producing vegetable, fruits, etc.

In her book Eat Your Heart Out by Felicity Lawrence not only covers eating meat from an global environmental impact but also discusses local communities who have been destroyed by meat production due to contamination from animal excrement from nearby farms and large companies bullying and out competing local farmers. The world’s largest animal rights organisation PETA also encourages us to choose vegetarian to stop the cruel conditions in which animals are raised and slaughtered on many large scale meat farms.

There are very few animals (remembering we are animals) that can live fully with a limited diet. The exceptions are special animals which have very restricted feeding habits. Some examples are the Three-toed Sloth which feeds on only 2 species of tree, Koalas which feed on only a few species of eucalyptus , the Giant Panda which feeds almost exclusively on bamboo; American Anteaters, Aardvarks and Australian Banded Anteaters all of which exist only on ants and termites. Many animals which are classified as herbivores would still ingest some animal protein such as insects on the plants they eat. Our primate relatives do eat some animal protein. Orang utans, gorillas and chimps have all been observed eating insects, eggs and rodents. Some chimpanzees will hunt and eat other monkeys, much to the disappointment of vegetarian Jane Goodall.

It appears that we are not tigers, nor gorillas, but highly evolved and intelligent humans. We have unique dietary requirements which involve a variety of nutrients. Although some of these can be sourced from meats, and have done in the past, these nutrients are available from other, non-meat sources as well. Excessive meat eating has negative impacts on our health and well being, as seen in many Western nations. eating meat also has a negative impact on the environment and people involved in the production and supply of meat. So, should you be a vegetarian for health reasons? It seems to improve your well- being. Also as Nobel-prize winning author Isaac Bashevisy Singer states, "Yes, for the health of the chicken!" and we can probably add for the health of the planet too.


Anonymous said...

Thank you...i so much enjoyed reading your explanation on a question i have thought alot about. Knowledge does help with good choices.

Adam Barralet said...

Thanks Anon,

I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. I hope the post helps you to get closer to discovering what is right for you.

Emanuel Jefferson D.C. said...

I've always wondered why the medical profession does not teach this to the general public. I have not eaten meat for the past forty years. At seventy five years old, I have no medical conditions, and take no medicines. Socrates had it right when he stated "when a nation begins to eat animals there will then be a need for physicians and undertakers."

Adam Barralet said...

Dear Emanuel,
Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I hope many others will hear your testimony and be prompted to follow your lead!