Humans have always consumed other animals, sometimes exclusively.
The traditional Inuit diet includes some berries, seaweed and plants. Still, mostly it is raw meat from sea mammals (walrus, ringed seal, bearded seal, narwhal, beluga whale and the bowhead whale), land mammals (caribou, polar bear, and muskox), birds and their eggs, saltwater and freshwater fish including sculpin, Arctic cod, Arctic char, capelin and lake trout.
In the Arctic, where the food chain is almost exclusively from the ocean, vegetarianism wasn’t available to humans. The only way to gain nutrients from plants was to leverage the roaming capacity and digestive efficiency of the caribou and musk ox by eating the aggregator.
Consequently, 50% of the calories in this Inuit diet come from fat, 30–35% from protein and 15–20% from carbohydrates, mainly the glycogen from raw meat.
Humans can use protein as an energy source as it is broken down in the liver through gluconeogenesis. Inuit studied in the 1970s had abnormally large livers and high urine volumes to deal with urea, a byproduct of gluconeogenesis. Carbohydrates get plenty of press, but all humans can live without them; they are not essential.
Grains and many other plants are relatively low-nutrient foods. Humans digestive systems are inefficient at extracting nutrients from low-quality food sources. Our physiological blueprint is to eat infrequent, nutrient-dense meals.
We are not obligate herbivores or carnivores. Circumstances and choices can make us either. Nutrient-dense meals can come from plants or animals or a mixture of both in various proportions.
Modern humans are omnivores—we eat a bit of everything—just as our ancestors did in the forest and savannas of Africa. Back in the day, there was little choice than to forage widely for high-value foods: the trees in fruit, the tubers beneath a particular type of foliage, some flowering grasses, animals we could catch, and the occasional carcass. And everyone had an eye for protein.
What we are opportunitsts, and always have been. We eat what we can with a preference for sugary, salty and fatty foods wherever possible.
The technical term is adaptive.
Humans are genius-level at adapting to what food is on offer whilst bending nature to produce more sugar, salt and fat that we like.
So will we change our ways?
Can we alter the eating habits locked into our DNA and honed by our ancestors?
Should we even try?
Eat less meat
We are told to eat less meat because it is healthier. And the message is getting through in the UK.
Health behaviour researchers at the University of Oxford analysed data from the annual National Diet and Nutrition Survey. They found that between 2008-9 and 2018-19, average meat consumption decreased from 103 to 86 g per person per day, a 17% reduction in a decade.
There was an absolute reduction of 13.7g of red meat, 7g of processed meat, and a 3.2g increase in white meat consumption.
A substantive change.
This could be a shift towards cheaper options, an explanation English Franciscan friar William of Ockham would have offered after a bit of thought.
But there are other substantial trends.
Cadbury, the biggest confectionery company in the UK owned by US giant Mondelez, recently announced a vegan alternative to the Dairy Milk chocolate bar.
The Cadbury Plant Bar substitutes almond paste for the “glass and a half of milk” said to go into every Dairy Milk bar.
All the feel-good of chocolate without animal products and a reflection of a growing market of people who only eat plants.
Journalist and author Anthony Andrew pulled a few numbers on veganism for an article on the unstoppable rise of the plant-based diet
- 79 million vegans in the world
- 500,000 participants in Veganuary in the UK in 2021, up 100% on 2019
- 66% of UK vegans are female
- 163% increase in Deliveroo’s vegan orders in the UK in 2020 over 2019
- 18,000 food and drink products with the Vegan Society’s vegan trademark
- $24.3 billion global vegan food market by 2026
One in one hundred doesn’t sound like many.
A busload of people randomly selected from the global population would have one vegan onboard, but the proportional jumps suggest a stirring of the dahl.
What sustainably FED suggests
Humans eat animals and animal products.
We always have because while our physiology is flexible enough to cope with multiple energy sources, the concentrated nutrient in animal products was an efficient way to gather food before it appeared on supermarket shelves.
Our diet has always been flexible and adapted to whatever food we could get our hands on before the hyenas. This is true omnivory—we are not obligated when it comes to food.
Humans can happily be vegetarians or vegans, for our physiology is flexible enough to allow it. And there are plenty of reasons for herbivory, including the hope of saving the planet. But it is not compulsory; just ask the Inuit.
Sustainably FED believes that a good diet is sustainable for a person’s health, wallet, the soil, and the producers that supply the food.
Animals play a massive role in this definition, not least because humans have always eaten animals.
Stewart, C., Piernas, C., Cook, B., & Jebb, S. A. (2021). Trends in UK meat consumption: analysis of data from years 1–11 (2008–09 to 2018–19) of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey rolling programme. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(10), e699-e708.