A Well Done Love Story
Local experts weigh in on why we’re so drawn to eating meat
By Jon Shoulders
Few dietary topics are more discussed, examined, and fretted about these days than those related to meat consumption. Anyone remotely interested in nutritional well-being has probably, at some point, read a few blogs or news articles on topics such as omnivorous diets versus vegetarian or vegan diets, diets that include red meat versus diets that don’t, or the benefits of grass-fed over grain- and corn-fed beef.
So if we’re going to chew the fat on this topic — health benefits and drawbacks, which types of meat are the safest and most nutrient-rich, and just what it is about meat that we as a species are so drawn to — let’s start at the beginning. The actual beginning.
According to Jeanne Sept, professor and department chair at Indiana University-Bloomington’s Department of Anthropology, the evidence for meat eating among our evolutionary predecessors goes back about 3.3 million years. “There were little bipedal critters that wandered around and they had sort of ape-sized brains,” she says. “The evidence found on fossilized bones with what are called cut marks shows they were likely bashing the bones with stone tools to extract marrow and scraping meat and sinew off the bones.”
Sept says the brains of our evolutionary ancestors began to grow larger than apes approximately two million years ago, allowing for greater problem-solving capacity and the ability to fashion tools for hunting. One argument among anthropologists is that the calorically dense and nutrient-rich nature of meat might have played a role in that growth.
“The evidence for meat eating was about a million years before you see the evidence of a proto-human with a brain larger than an ape’s brain, so if there was an advantage to eating meat it may be a question of how often it was eaten,” she says. “Through time it would have maybe allowed brains to grow. The brain requires a constant supply of energy and balance of the critical essential fatty acids, and one of the arguments is if you can get access to fat of any kind that’s a great way of getting both calories and essential fatty acids.”
So are omnivorous tendencies hard-wired inside us? Is this why so many humans today include meat as the centerpiece of virtually every meal? Not necessarily. Sept says meat eating isn’t so much programmed into our brains as it has simply been a means to help satisfy our bodies’ high caloric and nutrient demands for a long, long time.
“In terms of our evolutionary history we’ve been eating meat for a long time but we haven’t been gorging on it,” Sept says. “It hasn’t been a daily meal in most places through history around the world. That’s something we’ve taken to astonishing heights in the Western world recently. And that isn’t necessarily good — everything in moderation is a good guide.”
* * *
If meat is going to remain in our diet (which in many cultures, particularly Westernized countries, is rather likely), one thing we can all probably agree on is that, when possible, it’s a decent idea to seek out the most healthful, nutritious meat available. That means more focus on the how — not just the what.
“There are so many choices for meat, but what a lot of people I think maybe lose sight of is that looking at how it’s raised, how it’s processed, and how it’s handled is as important as which type of meat you pick,” says Greg Gunthorp, owner of Gunthorp Farms in Springfield Township. “That plays such a vital role in long-term health for the person consuming it.”
Gunthorp, a fourth-generation chicken, turkey, duck, and pig farmer, says those who fail to seek out properly raised meat can fall short of sufficient amounts of nutrients like the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is critical for brain health and can be difficult for the body to assimilate if not coming from an animal source. “If you’re sourcing from animals that didn’t eat what they were supposed to when they were alive, then those nutrient benefits can really be diminished. A good example is grass-fed ruminants like cows and sheep, or flaxseed in the animal diet, both of which can increase omega-3 levels.”
Staci Small, a registered dietician and owner of The Wellness Philosophy in Greenwood, a nutrition assessment and counseling facility, says a few other nutrients, particularly vitamin B12, zinc, and iron, are conveniently — but not exclusively — obtained from animal sources like fish, chicken, and lean cuts of steak.
“You have to make sure to seek the things you need, including those three specifically, if you’re choosing not to eat meat and fish,” she says. “That also goes for omega-3 essential fatty acids. You can get ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) from flax and non-animal sources, but DHA mostly is going to come from animal products, especially fish. There are some algae-based supplements that can give you some DHA, but they’re a little hard to find and a little expensive.”
Small says balance is the name of the game for those incorporating meat, particularly red meat, into their diet. “If you’re eating 12-ounce steaks every time you eat meat, and you’re doing that three times a day, that’s obviously too much and can lead to cholesterol and heart problems,” she says. “If you’re having red meat occasionally with tons of vegetables, whole grains and fruits, that’s a completely different scenario.” Small adds that incorporating lean red meat options like bison, which is typically lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, is preferable to sticking exclusively with cow meat for steaks or burgers.
Then, of course, there’s the ubiquitous protein amount issue. Small says 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, for a generally healthy, mildly sedentary individual, is a solid rule of thumb. “Meat is protein rich, but it’s also not that hard on a vegan diet with beans, nuts, even whole grains, to get to that protein level,” she says.
* * *
No matter what any individual might choose to include or restrict in his or her diet, every human body needs certain, specific nutrients, and a lot of them. Small says the factors that influence our dietary needs — stress, exercise level, chronic infections, etcetera — can cause our nutritional requirements to vary widely, and further underscore the need to source the foods that will nourish our bodies sufficiently — whether those sources include animal products or not.
“I’ve seen several pregnant women in my office over the years who have had a history of vegetarianism, and at some point in the early pregnancy they get to the point where their physiology overtakes that choice, and they are driven to eat meat,” Small says. “There’s no scientific basis, but it’s interesting because it shows how much the body drives us toward nutrients we need, when you think about a pregnant woman needing more protein and iron and things. It’s fascinating because they don’t want to eat it and they’re going against everything they believe in to eat meat. It’s just the body saying, ‘I need that source that’s going to get me what I need.’”
Based on what he has observed within the food industry, John Adams, executive chef and owner of Marrow restaurant in the Fountain Square district of Indianapolis, says high meat demand is here to stay, despite a growing number of vegan and vegetarian restaurants locally and nationwide. “A lot of people out there expect a range of proteins when they sit down and look at a menu,” says Adams, who sources local ingredients when possible for Marrow’s globally themed menu. “Obviously, meats aren’t the only way to get the proteins and nutrition that they can provide, but I think in the Western world our lives are very fast-paced and meat packs that punch of nutrients that’s convenient and will fill you up quick.”
According to Sept, there’s something about meat that just might be hardwired into us, and it has nothing to do with nutrition or biology. Unlike nuts, leaves, or fruits, a hunted and captured animal — even smaller game like rabbit — is generally larger than a single individual can consume, and as such meat was likely shared among our ancestors, possibly forming a basis for social gathering.
“There seems to be something ingrained in human nature — maybe it’s the acquisition process and the food sharing,” Sept says. “If you think about today, what do we do on many evenings and on holidays, we sit down and share a meal. Some anthropologists think that being able to acquire meat, delay consumption, and bring it back to a campsite or a sleeping place where others would also converge at the end of the day and potentially share that food — that might have been the beginning of a very fundamental part of what it means to be human.”
Adams says sourcing and consuming locally produced meat facilitates social cohesion among farmers, restaurateurs, and customers. “Using a local supplier of meat tends to lead to a good relationship, where I go and visit their farm and see their operation,” he says. “There’s a transparency that comes with that, which you won’t get with the bigger, industrial operations. And then as the consumer, when you opt for that local product you’re helping those relationships and getting something of good quality. So everybody wins.”