UN to Humanity: Eat Plants or Else!

In an earth-shaking study that appeared last month, the UN made an inflammatory claim: “A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, food impacts and the worst impacts of climate change.” Never has the UN said anything more faulty.

Indeed, there are two critical problems with this claim. Firstly, it is nutritionally absurd. Secondly, the study’s premise is flawed. In this article, I’ll discuss the first problem.

The UN’s position sounds great to those of us who follow mainstream nutrition information. For decades the scientific establishment has lambasted animal foods – with all of their delicious saturated fats and cholesterol – as optional at best and fatal at worst. Most of us have probably heard by now how “great” plants are to eat, and that we “don’t need” animal foods to be healthy. Even the American Heart Association instructs us to eat “poultry without the skin,” and “trimmed lean meats” and get no more than 7 percent of our energy from saturated fats.

But a bit of common sense and unconventional wisdom inverts this thinking right on its head. Every traditional population on the planet utilizes animal food and always has. Even meat-shunning Hindu vegetarians prize clarified butter, ghee, and eagerly use dairy as a staple. You would think the diets that have sustained our species for thousands of years work. If they didn’t – that is, if dairy, meat, animal fat and eggs were really bad for you – why would the vast majority of cultures prize these foods? How would we still be alive today? Wouldn’t our entire species have died off a long time ago amidst such artery-clogging madness? The answers to these questions are self-evident, and cast a dark shadow over the supposedly authoritative information we’ve been fed for decades about nutrition.

Anti-animal food advocates tend to miss an important nuance about the human body: it has a high requirement for saturated fats and cholesterol. That’s right, folks. Every single cell in our body requires these molecules for structural stability and metabolism. Let’s keep it real here: the brain is mostly fat, folks. Any biochemist or physiologist can tell you that.  It makes sense, therefore, that traditional populations have always prized animal foods, especially the fattiest parts thereof. Dietary fat is the body’s fuel of choice – not starch, which can upset blood sugar. What’s more, the traditional fats – from the olive tree, sesame and mustard seeds, coconut and palm trees, lard, suet, tallow, butter, cream and so on – actually improve absorption of minerals from plants, especially beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A. Yet the vegetarian and vegan crowd often holds that low-fat, high-carb, plant-based and industrial seed oil-laden diets are good for us.

Moreover, meat and seafood are concentrated sources of zinc, the B vitamins, iron, phosphorus, selenium, anti-microbial saturated and monounsaturated fats, cholesterol, essential fatty acids, choline, betaine, readily accessible protein and fat-soluble vitamins. All of which are vital to human biochemistry.

So our body needs large amounts of the nutrients found in animal foods daily. Isn’t this a compelling reason for why the thought of dairy, eggs, animal fats or meat only makes the ordinary human drool with desire? Our gorgeous bodies are the product of millions of years of evolution. And for the million or two years until agriculture, meat was the most logical fuel source for our species. This isn’t surprising at all, as our brains are enormous for our size, and use up to 25 percent of our energy, compared to 8 to 10 percent for apes who consume far less animal food and have smaller brains. In other words, your noggin is a gas-guzzler and it requires an efficient source of noggin fuel. That source has always been meat – a food that concentrates fat, protein, cholesterol and trace minerals, the vital building blocks of life. Unsurprisingly, we crave animal foods over most others because our body knows these foods are highly nutrient-dense.

Another gaping hole in the arguments of plant advocates is that animal foods today are much different from those our ancestors enjoyed as little as 100 years ago. In fact, animal foods today are of inferior quality and often toxic compared to a century ago. Not only has the soil quality in this country declined since 1900, we’ve been pumping our livestock with 75 percent of all antibiotics used in this country. Animal foods have been shown to have high toxin loads, not just of antibiotics but also of pesticides like dioxin. Food animals in this country live in such cramped and filthy conditions that they endure acute stress until the day they are slaughtered. Intense stress is bad for any organism; in this case it negatively affects the quality of the animal food. More upsettingly, livestock in the U.S. are fed mostly grain. This diet is unnatural, promoting hyperacidity among animals evolutionarily adapted to grazing on grass, bugs, and seeds. Exclusively grain-based diets leads to too many omega-6 fatty acids in the food, which over time causes inflammation and chronic disease.

Michael Pollan gets it right when he says, “You are what you eat eats too.” So meat, dairy and eggs are still very healthful foods as part of any balanced diet, provided that it comes from livestock raised on pasture, produced with minimal, if any, toxic inputs.

Colin Murphy is a fourth-year music major. He can be reached at murphyc@uci.edu.