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Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc.
38 East Market Street, Rhinebeck, New York 12572 USA -  845-876-2626
Vegetarian - Vegan - Animal Rights - Health - Nutrition - Environment

The mission of the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc. is to promote the vegetarian ethic in the Mid-Hudson (New York) region, educate the community and aid anyone in the pursuit of a totally vegetarian (vegan) cruelty-free and healthful lifestyle.

Newsletters
Winter Issue - 2003-2004

Are Humans Designed to Eat Meat?
by Milton Mills, MD

Recognizing Truth

The major causes of disease and death in western countries are chronic cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and cancers. These diseases have been linked to diets high in meat and animal fat, and low in fruits, vegetables, unprocessed carbohydrates and fiber. Extensive research data have led many nutrition authorities to conclude that westerners should make major changes in their diet and lifestyle to promote better health and reduce risk factors for chronic disease. In effect, current consensus guidelines encourage Americans and other westerners to adopt a diet based more on plant rather than animal foods. Why should this be?

Standard western nutritional dogma "classifies" human beings as omnivores. The statement "humans are omnivores" has been repeated so often that it has acquired the patina of received truth. But like a patina, the "truth" inherent in this statement is only microns deep.

While it may be true that most humans are "behavioral" omnivores (that is, they choose to include meat in their diet) this behavioral fact says nothing about whether including meat in our diet is an appropriate choice from an anatomic, physiologic and heath perspective. What is surprising is that despite abundant evidence showing that large amounts of meat and other animal foods in one's diet leads to all types of chronic diseases, and that varied plant-based diets promote better heath, the idea that humans are supposed to be omnivores has rarely been challenged or critically examined by the scientific community. Thus, although national health policy guidelines clearly direct us away from animal foods and towards a plant-based diet, many in the scientific community remain oblivious to what is being implied. That implication is that humans are not omnivores inasmuch as increasing amounts of animal foods in the diet promote increasing levels of chronic disease.

Clearly, it is difficult to arrive at or recognize "the answer" if one never asks the appropriate question.

A Question of Design

Animals who eat meat and those who eat plants face very different issues when dinner time arrives. Plants, because they are sedentary, encase their tissues in tough fibrous coverings for support and protection, and thus require a large amount of digestive processing to extract nutritional value from them. By contrast, "meat" (in the form of live animals) usually does not want to be eaten and is, therefore, recalcitrant, combative and uncooperative - it tends to run away.

Accordingly, plant eaters (herbivores) are optimized for foraging, batch feeding and prolonged digestion, whereas meat eaters (carnivores/omnivores) are designed for predation and the consumption of huge, infrequent meals.

Meat eaters are all equipped for short bursts of extreme speed that allows them to ambush and/or run down prey. Their limbs have been lightened to allow for fast running and their paws have been modified into compact clubs armed with claws.

When tackling struggling prey, the most vulnerable parts of their anatomy - the abdomen and gonads - are shielded behind the muscular armored chest. Their incisors have been reduced to short pointed pegs, while their canines are huge sharp elongated daggers used for ripping and killing. Their jaw joint is on the same plane as their cheek teeth, and there is no horizontal side-to-side motion of the lower jaw.

This makes their jaws very stable and allows them to operate like a pair of shears. Their molars are sharp, jagged and blade-shaped. The upper molars vertically slide past the lower molars in a slicing motion when the jaw is closed. These animals do not chew their food. Instead, they slice off huge chunks of meat and swallow them whole. They do not have digestive enzymes in their saliva since flesh-digesting enzymes released in the unprotected mouth would quickly destroy the oral cavity.

Their strongly acidic stomachs are huge storage vats that account for 60-70% of the total capacity of their GI tracts. Meat has no fiber and is, therefore, easily digested. Thus, their small intestines are very short (only 3-6 times their body length) and are optimized for protein and fat absorption. Their large intestines are short straight and smooth and designed for evacuation purposes only.

What about "By-design" Omnivores?

The one design concession "by-design" omnivores such as bears and raccoons have made to plant eating is that one or more pairs of their molars have modified from sharp blades to flattened grinding surfaces.

This allows them to crush and swallow a limited amount and range of plant foods such as fruits, berries, roots and tubers. However, they otherwise retain the typical carnivore tooth design and jaw mechanics, and their short small intestines do not allow them to adequately handle large amounts of plant fiber. Hence, a true natural omnivore is a carnivore that has been minimally modified to eat a limited range of soft, pulpy plant foods, but is still equipped to run down, kill, dismember and consume prey.

I Herd That!

Large mammalian herbivores tend to be social animals living in large herds/communities/cities. Because they must cover significant distances looking for and gathering plant foods, their limbs are modified for prolonged energy-efficient standing and walking. Instead of claws, their nails are blunt and used for digging and peeling. They have muscular lips, a small mouth opening and well-developed cheek muscles.

This creates a "walled-in" oral cavity that facilitates the crushing and grinding action of chewing. The jaw joint is above the plane of the cheek teeth and the lower is "L-shaped" causing the upper molars to come to rest on top of the lower molars when the jaw is closed. This allows the jaw to function like a nut cracker rather than a pair of shears.

The upper molars cannot vertically slide past the lower molars. But because the lower jaw has a pronounced horizontal side-to-side motion, the upper and lower molars horizontally slide across one another creating the grinding action of chewing. Accordingly, the molars are not sharp and blade-shaped, but are squared, flat-topped and abut one another forming extended grinding surfaces. The incisors are broad, flattened and spade-shaped and used for cropping and peeling. The canines may be absent, as in cows and sheep; shortened and reduced, as in horses and humans; or dagger-like and used for defense, as in hippos and some primates. Herbivores also usually have carbohydrate digesting enzymes in their saliva that begins the process of digestion while food is still in the mouth. In fact, the purpose of chewing (including chewing the cud) is to mix food with digestive enzymes to facilitate the process of digestion.

Plant tissues contain large amounts of fibrous material. The end result is that plant foods require extensive processing to extract their nutritional content. Because of this, herbivores consume smaller, more frequent meals, and tend to have much longer and, in some cases, much more elaborate digestive tracts than their meat-eating counterparts.

In a typical herbivore, the stomach holds less than 30% of the total capacity of the GI tract. On the other hand, the small intestine is extremely long and is usually more than 10-12 times the body length and has an unlimited capacity for carbohydrate absorption. The large intestine or colon is also relatively long and complex and frequently has a pouched appearance.

Here's Looking at You

In every respect, humans show the anatomic and physiologic features typical of an herbivore. A full and complete discussion of these features is well beyond the scope of this short article. What follows is a random sampling of facts.

Upright posture leaves the human abdomen, ovaries and testes completely exposed and, potentially, fatally vulnerable. Whereas standing and walking are very energy-efficient for humans, running is not.

We are extremely slow runners and have very poor stamina. We have a carbohydrate-digesting enzyme in our saliva called salivary amylase.

The human esophagus does not handle poorly chewed food very well. Over 90% of the people who choke to death each year choke on meat.

Human body length (head to tail bone) is typically 2.5 to 3 feet. Thus, at >25-30 feet in length, the human small intestine is clearly designed for digesting plant material.

Only herbivores have an appendix. No matter how much fat and cholesterol you feed carnivores like dogs and cats, they NEVER develop coronary artery disease.

In places where people eat a high fiber, whole food diet, appendicitis and diverticulosis are unknown.

Studies in western countries have shown that on average, vegetarians have smarter children, suffer significantly lower rates of chronic disease, obesity and dementia, and live longer than their meat-eating counterparts.

So, to answer the question posed by the title of this piece: NO, we are NOT designed to eat meat!

And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food." - Genesis 1:29

Return to Winter Issue - 2003-2004

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