“The doctor of the future will give no medication but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, diet and in the cause and prevention of disease”—Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931)
I love being a carnivore. Some of my most-satisfying moments have involved family and friends around a well-appointed table of meat, vegetables and drink. My cravings often consist of a cheeseburger and beer in a local tavern, although my lifelong battle of the bulge precludes too-frequent indulgences in that particular pastime. The Buckenmaier family dinner (and most other meals for that matter) for generations has centered on some form of animal protein. I also hunt and fish and derive a primal sense of pride and satisfaction from being able to provide meat for the family table from my own hand. I feel this way of eating is hard-wired into my identity.
Apparently I am not alone in my love affair with meat. According to National Geographic, the meat consumption per person on the planet has almost doubled from 1961 to 2011.1 Interestingly, the graphs of meat consumption for the various countries provided on the web link demonstrate relatively high but stable rates of consumption in developed economies (e.g. the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, but also rapidly increasing rates of consumption in developing and emerging economies, such as China, Vietnam and South Korea.
I found this trend concerning, because meat production consumes far more energy per consumer than plant-based food sources. Another very interesting web link presents data compiled by a team of researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm that depicts the megajoules of energy per portion of a variety of food items.2 Wild shrimp and tropical fruits, interestingly enough, were the most energy expensive foods due to the intensive use of fossil fuels used to harvest and bring these foods long distances to market. As expected, beef, poultry and pork also are energy intensive products. Plant-based food sources, particularly when harvested near the point of human consumption, tend to consume the least amount of energy to produce per calorie consumed. In short, I think it is a rather obvious statement that eating a more plant-based diet is friendlier to the Earth in terms of energy consumption than calories derived from the consumption of meat.
There also is the issue of factory farms that have replaced the family-owned farming fields of the past. With little effort, anyone can find evidence on the internet of the barbaric and miserable conditions that many food animals must suffer in large factory farm operations to support our nation’s love affair with meat. Animals are raised in very small spaces, often contaminated with their own excrement. Although these operations may be financially efficient for the corporate farmer, they are disastrous and cruel to the physical and mental well being of the animals. Certainly there are farmers who shun this approach in favor of processes that are more humane, although the expense of this type of farming is passed along to the consumer. In reality, the source and living conditions of our meat and animal products are rarely considered by the consumer obtaining these products in the clean and packaged environment of the local supermarket.
Health issues when consuming meat also must be considered. There is no doubt that its consumption provides an excellent source of protein and other micronutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12 that can be more difficult to obtain readily from a plant-based diet. However, meat today is not what it used to be, with modern processing using commercial feed, antibiotics, growth hormones, preservatives and other chemicals influencing our health in ways that are poorly understood. This meat is far different from the meat of our ancestors, harvested from the natural environment and free of these processing issues. Processed meats have been linked to heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and other diseases.
So what is a human carnivore to do? Many, including some of my friends, have removed meat from their diets over these concerns. This approach has a mind-boggling variety of approaches, from veganism (abstaining from the use of all animal products in the diet) to vegetarianism (abstaining from meat, poultry and seafood in the diet) and a host of variations of these themes. I certainly have no “beef” (I could not help myself) with those individuals taking that course. I applaud their lighter carbon footprint on our planet, and I am often envious at their weight loss, although I usually avoid their dinner invitations. Personally, I am not ready to commit to this lifestyle. I would sorely miss the Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas roast beast and the occasional pub cheeseburger.
That is not to say I am not concerned about the concepts I have discussed all too briefly in this editorial. I am a firm believer in Benjamin Franklin’s sage advice to enjoy all things in moderation, and I certainly feel this concept applies to animal protein in my diet. My wife, Pam, and I have committed ourselves to less meat in our diet (meatless Mondays for example). Although it is more expensive, I prefer animal products that are farmed humanely and organically, and I appreciate that I am blessed with the resources to support those products. I understand that many do not have the luxury of this expense. Finally, I am committed to finding meatless options at home and in restaurants and look for food options that are produced locally to further reduce my own carbon footprint.
Once again I am not necessarily offering any solutions to the issues regarding animal protein that I have raised. I do believe this is a topic all healthcare providers should educate themselves about—both for their own health and their patients’ well-being by emphasizing the vital importance of diet choices to health. I believe the healthcare community should advocate for both a clearer understanding of how modern meat processing impacts human health and more humane practices in the production of animal-based foods. Finally, I feel it is appropriate as healthcare professionals to raise these same issues regarding animal nutritional sources with our patients, allowing them to explore the health implications of meat products in their own diets. As the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, appreciated, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.”
1. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/what-the-world-eats/. Accessed 14 September 2018.
2. https://spectrum.ieee.org/static/the-energy-to-create-your-food. Accessed 14 September 2018.