Vegetarianism: A question of nature?
Author: Evan Keraminas
Herbivore, carnivore, or something in between?
Some natural hygienists argue that meat is not a natural food for humans, pointing out that other primates, the great apes in particular, are primarily vegetarian. They also note that humans are the only animal that must cook and "disguise" its meat to make it palatable. (Most people would not find an unadulterated cow, pig, bird, or fish carcass particularly appetizing.) Furthermore, they cite examples of human anatomy purportedly being "closer" to that of herbivores than carnivores; lack of sharp claws, for instance, or having long intestinal tracts designed for digestion of vegetable matter. However, such arguments have little basis in actual science. While it is true that the other great apes are mostly vegetarian, it should be noted that our closest relatives the chimpanzee and bonobo will supplement their primarily frugivorous diets with insects and the occasional bit of meat from small animals (flesh comprising perhaps 1-5% of the diet). As for comparative anatomy and physiology, humans are better classified as somewhere between herbivores and carnivores. Based on medical, archaeological, and modern anthropological evidence, it is apparent that we evolved the ability to be omnivorous to some degree.
Still, omnivorous is a far cry from carnivorous, and it seems that we humans are better adapted to a primarily plant-based diet where flesh is more of an optional supplement. Most modern hunter-gather cultures where they still exist rely mostly on the gathering aspect of their food economy, with meat generally providing approximately 15% of total food intake by weight. Notwithstanding the perpetuation of "man-the-hunter" hype, for many tribes past and present it might even be more appropriate to call this lifestyle a "gatherer-hunter" economy instead. (Peoples of the far north and harsh desert regions are notable exceptions due to their extreme environments which lack adequate vegetation.) The relative amount of meat in Western diets could therefore plausibly be deemed "unnaturally" high in comparison to most traditional societies. Other critics further argue that just because we can digest certain foods -- bacon or Twinkies, pot roast or Cheese Whiz -- doesn't mean that they are necessarily good for us, pointing out, for example, disease rates in meat-eaters versus vegetarians.
Differences between "wild" and domesticated meat
One must also take into consideration the difference between meat bought from the supermarket or fast-food drive through, and "wild" meat. Pork chops, for example, are approximately 51% fat by weight; by contrast, wild deer meat is about 19% fat by weight. Furthermore, there is a more favorable balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in wild game. In other words, even though these wild meats have less total fat than the flesh of grain-fattened, domesticated animals, they contain more of the essential or "good" fats. (The flesh of free-range animals is not quite the same as their wild counterparts, but it is nonetheless a healthier alternatives to "conventional" commercial meats, and there is a similar discrepancy in the fatty acid composition of free-rage versus battery eggs.) Also, with the amount of pesticide residue and hormones that make it into conventional meat, milk, and eggs, the composition of modern animal products is even further divorced from their "natural" states.
Ethical vegetarians who do not oppose meat-eating per se may still argue that hunting in open fields and forests with bows and arrows does not compare with factory farming, and that fishing on the open ocean or in a free-flowing river or stream is a far cry from trawling or farming fish in intensive cage aquaculture.
Got rat's milk?
Many folks -- even some who have no problem with flesh -- believe that the milk of nonhuman species and any byproducts thereof are unnatural foods for humans. (Rastafari is one religious movement which incorporates this belief into its dietary practices.) Humans are the only mammal who drinks milk after childhood, or consumes the milk of other species. It is therefore considered absurd that the U.S. Department of Agriculture ever proposed that dairy products are an integral component of a healthy diet. (Again, this has more to do with food politics than sound nutritional science.) The majority of the world's human population is lactose intolerant; in other words, the activity of the enzyme lactase is reduced after childhood and is no longer active enough for them to effectively digest and absorb milk sugar. Furthermore, it is probably safe to say that most of us would cringe at the thought of eating, say, rat's milk ice cream, dog cheese, or skunk butter. Perhaps it is only acculturation that makes make us believe that consuming the bodily fluids of a cow, goat, or sheep is acceptable.
Bibliography and suggestions for further reading:
Cohen, Robert -- Milk: The Deadly Poison
Cousens, Gabriel -- Conscious Eating
DuPuis, E. Melanie -- Nature's Perfect Food: How Milk Became America's Drink
Fox, Michael W. -- Eating With Conscience: The Bioethics of Food
Hill, John Lawrence -- The Case for Vegetarianism: Philosophy For a Small Planet
Jensen, Derrick -- A Language Older Than Words
Marcus, Erik -- Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating
Nestle, Marion -- Food Politics
Rappoport, Leon -- How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food
Reinhardt, Mark Warren -- The Perfectly Contented Meat Eater's Guide to Vegetarianism
Robbins, John -- The Food Revolution
Stepaniak, Joanne -- The Vegan Sourcebook