Updated 25 January 2014

Are vegans unnatural beasts?

World Vegan Month is a noble celebration in many respects. But aren't humans meant to eat meat? By Olivia Rose-Innes

Like them or not, vegans are worthy of respect for the strength of their convictions.

Even if we knew tomorrow that the key to longevity involved, let’s say, downing a weekly cheese omelette and a lamb chop every six months, I believe 99% of them still wouldn't budge.

This is because 99% of them became vegans primarily for ethical reasons.

Nonetheless the more selfish health reasons remain important too, and even ethics-driven vegans are vociferous that their meat-free way is the healthiest way.

At the centre of this debate is the question of what is truly natural for humans to be consuming. And surely that includes eating meat, as we've always done?

“Natural” doesn’t equal "Good"

Natural*, of course, isn't always synonymous with good. Nor with healthy.

It’s natural, for example, to have sex without contraception, but the result is women leading exhausted lives as human incubators, bearing multiple children. In the past (and still in poorer parts of the world), it also frequently meant death in childbirth. We forget that having one or two kids is an odd recent development: it’s the new cultural norm, but it’s hardly natural.

There are loads more examples of things people have always done, like killing and enslaving each other, that just no longer seem like a great idea – unless you’re a psychopath (in itself a possible natural genetic variation).

“Natural” can’t be ignored

Natural may not always be desirable, but we’re still fools if we ignore how we’re adapted to survive in the natural environment.

Our technological advances have outstripped our biological evolution: we are still more or less the same physical model we were tens of thousands of years ago. Whenever we do something hunter-gatherers couldn’t technologically (like fly) , we risk physiological problems (like jet lag).

Thus when it comes to diet, it makes sense to look at how our ancestors ate. This is no easy task however.

Firstly, we aren’t sure how people did eat in times before any reliable historical record. And secondly, how far back do we look? Millions of years back, at our hominid forebears? A quarter of a million years back, at the first members of Homo sapiens? Or much more recently, when we discovered agriculture, about 10 000 years ago?

Some scientists think we should rather look at our present closest relatives – chimpanzees, and other primates – and emulate their diet.
It's a complex, hotly contentious issue among experts in the field, never mind the rest of us. I haven’t scratched the surface myself when it comes to the literature, but I’ve managed to tease out a few strands of general agreement to share here:

  • We’re omnivores: generalist consumers. Our teeth can chew vegetation and tear meat (though not especially well). Our digestive tracts closely resemble those of our close cousins the chimps, who eat mainly plants, sometimes insects, and occasionally small animals like lizards. Rarely, they’ll catch and eat a monkey. 
  • Humans survive, and thrive, eating all sorts of things. Throughout history, we’ve endured hard times eating whatever we could, including on occasion worms, weeds, bits of old hide and even each other. This doesn’t mean we necessarily SHOULD eat these things, just that we CAN.
  • Scholars disagree on how much meat our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, but they probably relied far more on gathering plant foods, and rarer delicacies like eggs and grubs, than on hunting. They may have done some unglamorous scavenging of carcasses too.
  • Humans nowadays eat a grotesque amount of animal products. Red meat and high-fat dairy is fuelling the current epidemics of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It is also environmentally disastrous.
  • Ovo-lacto vegetarians following a varied diet get all they need - protein, good fats and B-vitamins - with no more effort than meat-eaters.
  • Vegans need to supplement with vitamin B12, and must pay more attention to getting sufficient vegetable protein and good fats. But this is perfectly possible.
  • A return to meat-light omnivory is an essential step, not just for our health, but for our survival as a species. Anyone taking the extra-large step of not eating animal products at all, and thus helping carry the rest of us, deserves to hear the following at least once a year (said with sincerity):
“Happy World Vegan Month! And thank you.”

*I'm using the 'not artificial/human-made' definition of 'natural' here.
My own dietary status:still working it out. Currently ovo-lacto vegetarian; occasional pescetarian, but less and less so.
I am considering insects...

Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.




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