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Humans are meant to eat meat... right?

Food is a topic that is close to many of our hearts, and there is no debate as fiery as that between meat lovers and vegans.

Veganism has seen a massive increase in popularity in recent years. According to research by the Vegan Society, Great Britain is currently home to around 600,000 vegans (2018), up from 150,000 in 2006. Indeed, supermarkets are recognizing this shift in consumer behaviour and as a result sales of vegan food products have increased dramatically, with sales estimated to value £740m in the UK alone [1].

Figure 1- Sales of meat-free food products from 2011-2021 (BBC)

These figures may come as no surprise to you. Popular documentaries such as “Game Changers” on Netflix have been commonly discussed in workplaces and pubs across the country since its release in the UK in November 2019. Indeed, 49% of those interested in reducing their meat consumption said that they would do so purely for health reasons, as widely discussed in “Game Changers”. Other reasons for making the switch to a plant-based lifestyle include concerns for animal welfare and the impact of global animal agriculture on our planet.

However, only 7% of British people identify as vegan, 14% as vegetarian, and just over 30% as flexitarian [2]. The majority of the UK population consume meat at least twice a day, and many don’t consider a meal complete without it. Despite this, many young consumers in particular are unaware of the Department of Health recommended daily intake of meat (maximum 90g per day), with many exceeding this limit unknowingly and consistently. Moreover, many consumers still remain unaware of the probable link between processed red meats and various cancers, as documented in numerous studies [3], [4], [5] and news reports [6].

“Humans are supposed to eat meat” is a statement often heard when discussing our diets. But, are we really?

Scientifically, we can look to an animal’s guts and dentition to give us some idea of what the animal is adapted to consume. For instance, the canine and carnassial teeth of a lion are particularly shaped to allow for efficient shearing of meat for consumption. Additionally, a lion’s stomach is huge and smooth-walled, with a relatively short small intestine, to allow for the rapid digestion of meat. Plus let’s not forget the lion’s sharp claws designed specifically for gripping and tearing flesh.

Herbivores such as cattle and deer on the other hand, have complex multi-chambered stomachs with an incredibly long intestinal tract, perfectly adapted for the consumption of tough, cellulose-rich plant matter. Instead of teeth on their upper jaw, they have evolved something called a dental pad, which is essentially a tough section of gum that is perfect for tearing clumps of grass from the ground. True herbivores have no claws, and instead stand upon hard hooves or cloven feet, perfect for providing traction when escaping predators. 

Figure 2- Goats have evolved a dental pad in place of upper teeth. This makes eating grass easier.

However, we must examine the guts and dental structure of animals with caution. Just because an animal has impressively large canines does not mean that it is ‘designed to eat meat’. Take the gelada for example – an Ethiopian primate with fearful canines the size of a lion, who feeds on a diet of grass. Clearly, these impressive teeth aren’t useful from a dietary point of view. Rather, the gelada uses his dextrous hands to pluck clumps of grass from the earth and is then able to pop these to the back of his mouth, where strong molars are able to grind the plant matter for consumption. This is a brilliant example of sexual dimorphism (a tool for impressing potential mates and displaying vigour) rather than dietary adaptation, and clearly demonstrates the complexities and subtleties of evolution.

Figure 3- The Ethiopian gelada showing his impressive canine teeth.

With this in mind, we can begin to think about what humans are ‘supposed’ to eat. Well, humans neither have the canines of a lion nor the dental pad of a cow. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our guts most resemble those of our closest relatives; the great apes. If we examine the diet of a chimpanzee for example, we can deduce that a human’s diet ‘should’ be compiled of vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, insects, and the occasional bite of meat.

 But who says we should eat what our primate ancestors have eaten in the past? Why should we limit our diet to ‘what we have always eaten’? Humans are an incredible species that has surpassed evolution in many ways through the development of modern medicine and technology, and perhaps now it is time to recognise that and propel our primitive diet into a more progressive and sustainable future.

 The reality is, humans do not need to eat meat to stay healthy in this modern age. There are sufficient nutrients and minerals readily available in nuts, seeds, and legumes, particularly in Western societies. The real question comes down to what we allow ourselves to eat, and the level of compassion that we can offer to the animals we have farmed and harmed for thousands of years.

Figure 4- A vegan diet can help reduce your risk of high cholesterol and heart disease, with no risks associated with cancer

Evolution is endless. Perhaps this is our opportunity to make our stamp on the human evolutionary timeline, by reducing or cutting out entirely our consumption of meat and other animal products, such as dairy. The benefits of adopting a vegan lifestyle are numerous, with lower levels of cholesterol, a reduced risk of heart disease, not to mention making the world a kinder place to live.

 If you’re interested in exploring the benefits of a vegan lifestyle further, you can check out this article by The Vegan Society called “Why go vegan?”.

References:

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-44488051 

[2] https://www.comparethemarket.com/car-insurance/content/cars-against-humanity/

[3] Santarelli, R.L., Pierre, F. and Corpet, D.E., 2008. Processed meat and colorectal cancer: a review of epidemiologic and experimental evidence. Nutrition and cancer60(2), pp.131-144.

[4] Cross, A.J., Leitzmann, M.F., Gail, M.H., Hollenbeck, A.R., Schatzkin, A. and Sinha, R., 2007. A prospective study of red and processed meat intake in relation to cancer risk. PLoS medicine4(12).

[5] Chao, A., Thun, M.J., Connell, C.J., McCullough, M.L., Jacobs, E.J., Flanders, W.D., Rodriguez, C., Sinha, R. and Calle, E.E., 2005. Meat consumption and risk of colorectal cancer. Jama293(2), pp.172-182.

[6] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-34615621