There seems to be an endless fascination in America with diets. This is different from simply a fascination with food, where people seek new kinds of dishes. The diet craze is more about the belief that there is some kind of magic diet that will make you healthier, cure all your ailments, make you live longer, and other goals that vary from group to group. One of those other goals for a certain subset of diet enthusiasts seems to be manliness and the diets that are promoted by its advocates seem to be very much meat-focused.
Manvir Singh writes about the appeal of these diets, the latest of which is called carnivory, which emphasizes eating only meat. This one strongly associates the diet with manliness.
Pore over materials on carnivory and the overwhelming impression is that men are endangered. They were once strong. They lived with nature and had stone-hard chests. They killed or were killed. But not anymore. Now they are either scrawny or obese. They have plummeting sperm counts and middling testosterone levels. “Alexander the Great conquered the world at age 25,” posted Carnivore Aurelius (IG followers: 717K), an anonymous meme-maker who dances between satire and sincerity. “The average 25 year old today has a panic attack if they leave their vape at home. WTF happened to men?”
Carnivory conjures up an Edenic past that contrasts with our current discontents: a mythical time when men were manly and bodies were fit and food was real and natural. Cleanse yourself of modern corruption, it urges, and the world and your body will be renewed. You will be strong. Your family will be healthy. The land will recover.
There have been previous incarnations of meat-based diets, such as the Atkins diet of the 1960s which preached carbohydrate restrictions, the Paleo diet of the 2000s, the Carnivore diet and so on. But there have been the opposite extremes as well. In “Diet for a Small Planet” (1971), author Frances Moore Lappé advocated a meatless diet. There have been other diets that advocated high fat or low fat or other extremes.
What is common to many of these diets is the appeal to our very deep ancestors, that it would be to our benefit to eat the way that our primitive ancestors ate. But clearly there is no consensus, at least among the diet promoters, on what they ate. While those who decry the end of manly men think that they ate the flesh and organs of large animals, sometimes raw, others claim that they were mostly vegetarians. Also it is not clear to me that what our cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer ancestors ate should be what we eat now. Why do we assume that what they did was ‘natural’ and thus good for them and for us? Surely modern knowledge can improve our diets?
It turns out that recent research suggests that what our primitive ancestors ate was all over the place.
The anthropologist Richard Lee reported that the !Kung, one of the so-called Bushman people of Southern Africa, got two-thirds of their calories from plants. Nor were they an exception. When he compared fifty-eight foraging societies from around the world, Lee found that half got the majority of their calories from plant foods; another eighteen relied mostly on fishing. Only eleven—less than a fifth—relied on hunting as their primary means of subsistence, and all but one were limited to either the highest or the lowest latitudes, far beyond our African homeland.
Since the publication of “Man the Hunter,” scientists have incorporated genomic as well as new archeological and paleontological methods into the study of diets from deep history. “The details differ and it’s easy to get lost in the weeds, but the overarching message from each is clear: we evolved as opportunistic omnivores,” Herman Pontzer, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, writes in his recent book, “Burn.” It includes a takedown of paleo-style tropes, including carnivory. “Humans eat whatever’s available, which is almost always a mix of plants and animals (and honey).”
In fact, high-protein diets are not good for animals either.
Some meatfluencers stress that human beings are animals and maintain that, if allowed to eat according to our animal instincts, we will favor a meaty menu. But the biologists David Raubenheimer and Stephen J. Simpson have been investigating animal alimentation for more than thirty years, and their new book, “Eat Like the Animals,” suggests that the meatfluencers have it all wrong. The authors started collaborating at Oxford, studying the eating preferences of locusts (grasshoppers, basically). First, they found that locusts preferred a certain ratio of carbohydrates to protein. When forced to live on foods higher in carbs and lower in protein, the insects ate a lot, becoming obese, and took longer to molt to adulthood. Conversely, when put on the insect version of the Atkins diet, they ate far fewer calories and were less likely to make it to adulthood. Second, they found that locusts with a decent food selection always ended up with near-identical ratios of protein and carbohydrates. “It’s as if, regardless of whether we were offered meat and pasta, or egg and bread, or beans and rice, or fish and potatoes, we always consumed the exact same balance of protein and carbs.” The critters somehow track which nutrients are in which foods.
These findings aren’t limited to insects. Raubenheimer and Simpson have since determined that the pattern is widespread across the animal kingdom, from beetles to baboons. And they have found that protein-loaded diets don’t just age animals; they kill them faster. “Our sexy, lean mice who ate high-protein, low-carb diets were the shortest lived of all,” they wrote of research published in 2014. “They made great-looking middle-aged corpses.”
Raubenheimer and Simpson find possible lessons here about human metabolism. As ultra-processed foods become stripped of protein, we behave like their protein-deprived locusts, becoming bloated on carbs. The elimination of fibre exacerbates the problem, they write, removing a brake that would otherwise slow eating, fill our stomachs, and curb hunger. At the same time, their work implies a Faustian allure to keto, carnivory, and other protein-heavy regimens. Cutting out carbs may make us skinnier and accelerate tissue development, shifting our bodies into a “growth and reproduction pathway.” But this comes at the expense of longevity. Repair and maintenance systems are sidelined. Misfolded proteins and other cellular junk accumulate. Pushed into overdrive, the body falters.
According to Raubenheimer and Simpson, two canonically healthy populations—the Okinawans, in Japan, who become centenarians at five times the rate of the rest of the developed world, and the Tsimané, of the Bolivian Amazon, who have the lowest incidence of cardiovascular disease ever recorded—consume diets that are, respectively, just nine and fourteen per cent protein. Most of their calories come from fibrous starches, such as plantain, cassava, or sweet potato. Raubenheimer and Simpson don’t propose that readers become Japanese islanders or remote Amazonians, and although they present suggested protein intakes, they warn against following them too strictly. Instead, they advise cutting out ultra-processed foods; finding good sources of fats, proteins, and fibre-loaded carbs; and listening to your appetite (unless you crave savory snack foods, which, they point out, trick the body into thinking that it’s getting protein when it’s not). “Our appetites are better gauges than our calculators,” they conclude.
It turns out that despite the seemingly amazing variety of foods that people in the developed world are exposed to in their supermarkets nowadays, our ancestors had much greater diversity to choose from.
For Grescoe and Saladino, the crisis of modernity is not, as many meatfluencers insist, an excess of seed oils, carbohydrates, and plant-defense chemicals but a collapse of diversity. Grescoe takes the reader to a twenty-three-thousand-year-old site in eastern Africa, where foragers once feasted on twenty species of mammal, sixteen families of bird, and nearly a hundred and fifty kinds of nuts, seeds, fruits, and legumes. He transports us to Çatalhöyük, a bustling Neolithic settlement in Anatolia, where the fare included sheep, goats, wild cattle, wild boars, waterfowl, and an impressive array of plant foods, such as plums, figs, acorns, almonds, hackberries, pistachios, and wild mustard.
It may look as if modern diets are wonderfully varied, both Grescoe and Saladino argue, but by historical standards they’re not. As a species, humans once ate thousands of plant foods, but only a hundred and fifty are cultivated at scale for food today, three of which—rice, wheat, and maize—constitute fifty per cent of all calories. Even within that trio, diversity is crumbling. In the twentieth century, American-grown hybrid corn came to account for fifty per cent of globally traded maize. Thousands of local varieties have been displaced. The result was a boom in calories but also a more fragile food system, as was made clear when a fungal blight ruined a billion bushels of American maize in 1970.
I like the idea of us being ‘opportunistic omnivores’ because it suggests a much greater flexibility in what we eat. I tend to eschew extremes and practice moderation. I do not follow any particular diet but I do tend to eat a reasonably balanced selection of food. ‘Listening to my appetite’ seems to drive my food choices. I am not particularly fond of vegetables but find that if I do not eat them on pretty much a daily basis, I start to feel a little off and even crave them after a few days. The same with fruits. If I eat meals that are too meat intensive, I tend to feel a little sick. So a little bit of this and a little bit of that seems to work best for me.