By Chris Zinn
Imagine you have a few friends, each of them on opposite sides of the dietary spectrum. One of the claims that meat is essential to a healthy diet, and you should be consuming a large amount of meat in your diet if you want to be healthy. On the other end, your next friend suggests that a plant-based diet is the only way to go.
Who is right?
Today I want to talk about each point of view, and why the two extremes might have more overlap than you think.
Let’s get into it.
In This Corner: The Carnivore Diet
If you haven’t heard about the carnivore diet, the idea is that you should be eating mostly meat and staying away from most plants.
Not a convincing sales pitch for this diet I know… so let me explain a little bit more.
We evolved eating certain amounts of meat, and certain types of meat throughout all of human history. To now suggest in modern times that we don’t need that same diet anymore is a problem.
Animal meats contain nutrients like creatine, carnosine, choline, Vitamin K2, Vitamin B12, and many more. Some of these nutrients are present in plant foods, some are not, and if they are available they aren’t as bioavailable in plants as they are in meat foods.
Bioavailability refers to the ability of the nutrient to be absorbed by the body. For example, a common claim from vegans is that spinach and broccoli have the same amount of protein as steak if you eat enough of them.
The problem lies in the bioavailability of the vegetable’s protein. Something such as spinach may not be as effectively absorbed by the body as the protein in the meat.
The reasoning behind this diet is to be evolutionary consistent with how our ancestors ate.
Dr. Paul Saladino is the leading authority on the science and application of the carnivore diet.
He claims that most plants are toxic. How toxic they are depends on how genetically equipped your body is to metabolize them. This is similar to how some people can drink coffee at 7 PM and fall asleep fine, and others can’t have it after noontime without pulling an all-nighter. Whether or not your body can metabolize certain nutrients is very individualized and depends heavily on genetics.
Dr. Saladino also claims that since plants and animals have co-evolved, plants have needed to develop toxic defense mechanisms. Seeds, roots, etc. are toxic to protect themselves from humans and other animals. Even if consuming these toxic plants isn’t immediately noticeable, he claims long-term health effects such as inflammation can lead to much bigger problems later on.
He contrasts this with the notion that 99% of animals in the wild are not toxic to humans. As long as you kill it, and roast it over the fire, you can probably eat it. He uses this as another example of why biology and evolutionary history are essentially begging for humans to eat mostly meat and keep away from the spinach.
He makes another point, and maybe one that isn’t as far out in left field…the inclusion of two types of processed foods in our modern diets are the worst things we could have made common-place: seed oils, and processed sugars (specifically the overconsumption of sugar).
There are a few reasons why excessive sugar intake is a no-no.
It causes all sorts of inflammation in the body. And;
It makes it much easier to overeat which causes obesity and a host of other problems associated with that.
So, to recap, the carnivore diet requires that you stay away from overly processed foods, stay away from most plants, and eat whole animal products.
Fair enough. Now to the other side of the spectrum.
And in This Corner: Plant-Based Diets
The opposing viewpoint to the carnivore diet is, of course, plant-based eating. The idea of this diet is to obtain most of your calories from plant products and avoid animal products for several different reasons.
A general rule of thumb is if you can tell where it grew or came from in nature that's a good place to start.
Dr. David Katz is the founder and former director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and Past President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.
Dr. Katz has several reasons that he considers a plant-based diet to be a superior approach to carnivore diets or even traditional diets.
Direct human health effects - how the diet impacts human health
How we treat fellow creatures - philosophical ideals on consciousness
Environmental footprint - water usage, land use, carbon footprint, pollution, etc.
He also uses a few evolutionary examples to provide evidence that we should be eating a diet consisting mostly of plants such as the fact that carnivores don't have as many molars as we do. Instead, chimps, gorillas, and other primates eat mostly plant-based diets and they have similar teeth to humans.
He claims that anatomically and physiologically, we are omnivores which means we have choices.
That’s useful in the same way that you ought to feed a horse hay and grass and oats and not hunks of meat, and you should feed lions in the zoo hunks of meat and not hay and oats and grass.
If adaptations matter to every other animal on the planet, it’s extremely arrogant for humans to think we are the exception to that rule.
However, where some people start to lose the vegans and the plant-based crowd is when they start talking about consciousness and suffering. Not that we shouldn’t care about other sentient beings and the suffering we cause to other animals; of course, we should care about that.
However, I'd argue this is more of a philosophical debate than a physiological disagreement.
The last point Dr. Katz mentions is the question of environmental impact and sustainability. This is a legitimate concern as we grow to about 8 billion hungry mouths on planet earth. It’s no doubt that animal products cause much more of an environmental footprint than a more plant-based diet and “there are no healthy people on an uninhabitable planet”.
So clearly it’s important to sustain our current food production with a growing population, but I’m not an environmentalist and I don’t have the answers to that daunting question so I’m going to stick with the nutrition side of things.
That leaves us with a few things to consider…
The Winner Is...?
Now if you just read those 2 sides and felt a certain type of way about either one of them, whether it was you shouting, “steak rules!” while banging your fork against the table; or you meditated in the corner with your eyes closed and whispered “all living things matter”, I want you to try something.
If you feel strongly about either side, that’s fine. However, it most likely means you are only focusing on the differences between the two and not the similarities.
To find which type of diet is optimal for most people, the best thing to look for is commonalities across the board.
Go back and read those two sections again and try to pick out the similarities again.
No really, go. I’ll be waiting.
Back already? Riiiiiiight. Let’s just go over what similarities you found between the two extremes.
Both sides aim to take away processed foods and eat only whole natural foods. In other words, “you can tell where it grew or came from in nature”. They do this in different ways, but each side reduces heavily processed foods by focusing on the natural versions of their diet type.
Next, each side aims to decrease caloric intake by the same means as reducing processed foods. Removing sugar and high-fat foods removes a lot of excess calories. It’s harder to overeat on a plant-based diet (not enough calories in foods), and it’s hard to overeat on a carnivore diet (high protein and fat content are very satiating).
A reduction in calories will aid in fat loss or prevent obesity which will improve health.
So, when you compare similarities, you can start to see the important pieces of each diet and start to form your answer to the question of “which diet is right?”
The bottom line - there's no absolute right or wrong here. There's only a right or wrong for you!
How Do I Eat?
The best way you can learn to understand how you want to eat is to know what you value.
The best way to personalize nutrition is to ask yourself, what is native to you or what is comfortable? What is your preference, or what foods do you like to eat or do you crave? Do you have any health or performance objectives?
After you do that, there is plenty of evidence to sift through to determine what the best method of eating for you is.
If you want the pleasure of eating food you enjoy with people you love, and the pleasure of good health you’ll find that eating the way you want and eating the way that's right for you will serve you best.
Want to find out more about how to craft an approach to eating that will fit in with your needs, goals, and lifestyle? You can get started today working with Med Gym's own Certified Nutrition Coach, Chris Zinn, in our Nutrition Coaching Program!
If you've tried diet after diet and struggled to reach your goals, nutrition coaching may be the answer you need. Working with a qualified nutrition coach to craft and stick to the plan that is the right fit for you can be game-changing!
Contact us here to learn more about nutrition coaching and how you can get started.