It usually surprises people when they find out I’m vegan and that I also believe humans are omnivores. Normally we’d think about these two beliefs in an opposite spectrum. After all, how can I go against my “natural” desire to eat animal products. How can I deprive myself of essential nutrients in meat. Omnivores need meat to survive, right? This surprise often comes from a misconception about the human diet.
Are we omnivores?
First we must establish if we’re omnivores or herbivores. An omnivore is defined as:
“An animal or person that eats a variety of food of both plant and animal origin.”
By definition, then, we must be omnivores. We can eat animal products, and they provide us with nutrients that we can digest and utilise.
However, there is also significant research suggesting we’re better suited to eat plants, and that becoming omnivores was an evolutionary necessity in times of food scarcity. This paper talks about how the fact that we get atherosclerosis (hardening of our arteries) implies we’re not suited for meat eating.
Atherosclerosis affects only herbivores. Dogs, cats, tigers, and lions can be saturated with fat and cholesterol, and atherosclerotic plaques do not develop.
–William C. Roberts, M.D.
There is still debate in the medical community regarding this, with reputable doctors on both sides of the argument (both vegan and non-vegan). However, for the sake of this post, I will play devil’s advocate and accept that humans actually are omnivores. That is, we evolved to eat both meat and plants.
Herbivores by choice
Even if we are omnivores, there’s nothing stopping us from being vegan. The science is clear about the potential health benefits of vegan diets, and the fact that a well-planned vegan diet is healthy for all stages of life. In other words, humans are not obligate omnivores; we can survive and thrive solely from plants.
It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.
Eating meat, then, goes back to being a personal choice, which is not a justification in any case as the “personal” part of the choice goes away once an animal victim is involved. Or, the argument reduces to “it is natural to eat meat”, which is a logical fallacy known as appeal to nature. In any case, the fact that we may be omnivores does not debunk veganism in any way.
If we know that animals suffer in the food industry, even in the most humane farms (according to randomly selected footage from farms worldwide), and we can reduce this suffering by demanding less of these products, why get caught up on the technicalities of our “natural” diet? Given that the most environmentally sustainable diet is a vegan diet (see here and here), why choose to eat meat in our modern world? If the United States could feed an additional 350 million people by adopting a fully plant based agriculture system, why not give it a go?
It’s worth it.