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Humans Are 'Meathooked' But Not Designed For Meat-Eating

Diana Miller
Getty Images/Cultura RF

I encounter claims that humans were designed to eat meat — that it's in our genes, that we have teeth made for eating meat, that we need meat to get all the right nutrients — all the time in casual conversation and in media in stronger and weaker versions.

In Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat, science writer Marta Zaraska does a great job of exposing these claims as myths.

Vegetarian animals ranging from gorillas to water deer, she reports, have bigger, sharper canines than we do; our canines aren't specially meant for processing meat. What we lack dentally is more important, in fact, than what we have. Gently open a (calm) dog's jaw, and there at the back will be the carnassial teeth, "blade-like and sharp and perfect for slicing meat." Lions and tigers, racoons and house cats — all carnivores — have them too. We don't.

All the high-quality amino acid proteins we require are readily available in plants, Zaraska says, listing soy, buckwheat, quinoa and potatoes as examples.

Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine even notes that when people switch from meat-eating to plant-eating, their intake of vitamins and other nutrients improves.

True, vitamin B-12 is an exception: It's found only in meat, eggs and dairy. Vegetarians, then, still do fine (because of the eggs and dairy); vegans need to eat foods fortified with B-12 or take a supplement.

Meat isn't necessary to keep us healthy.

Zaraska wrote Meathooked primarily to discover why humans across the world crave meat. Factors of biology, including certain genetic predispositions and culture, ranging from family habits and cultural traditions to the sexual politics of meat as explained by Carol J. Adams, all play a role, she says.

I think the meat-myth-busting, too, is a central contribution of the book — and I'd like to take it even further.

Zaraska raves about the fake meat she samples in the Netherlands ("succulent ... rich in flavors") and recommends that we all eat vegetables, legumes, fruits and grains rather than meat from animals. But a set of statistics laid out right at the start of the book frames her entire discussion in a grim way:

How are vegetarians, vegans and all the rest of us cutting down on meat for reasons of individual health, global health and animal suffering supposed to feel any hope for the world in the face of that news?

I emailed Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute (GFI), to ask what he thought about that meat-saturated future. Here's what he said:

A cross-cultural perspective (including an understanding of food and poverty) is going to be important here. Yet any worries that we're universally stuck with a meat-laden future may well be just another myth.

Polls show that as people start dropping foods from their diets, they tend to continue: " ... first goes red meat, then chicken, then fish, then milk and eggs," Zaraska writes. The full linear progression won't happen for everyone, for a variety of reasons (I still eat fish, myself), but the trend offers another reason for optimism. "Giving more kudos" to folks who take any steps to consume less meat, Zaraska suggests, may be the best way to go.

(The Washington Post even reported this week that some vegan restaurants avoid the V-word for fear of coming across too zealously.)

In describing people's cravings for meat, Zaraska asks: "After all, what would Thanksgiving look like without a turkey or a summer grill without a burger?"

She's just pointing out what many people feel — I know she doesn't mean literally that turkeys and burgers are required. Still, I posed Zaraska's question by email to Mary Lawrence, vegan chef and executive director of Ahisma Health and Harmony. She said:

That's no myth: We can eat well — maintaining our health and enjoying delicious flavor — without meat.

Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.