Meat, manliness, and the search for the perfect diet

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.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    There have been previous incarnations of meat-based diets, such as the Atkins diet of the 1960s … What is common to many of these diets is the appeal to our very deep ancestors

    Atkins’ first publication was in 1972, although its peak of popularity was in the early 2000s. I flirted with it around that time when it was fashionable. It made no claims about connection to ancient diets, merely claiming that by eschewing carbohydrates and substituting protein and fats, including saturated fats, your body enters a fat-burning state.

    I’m always vaguely baffled by people’s willingness to believe in “ancient wisdom”, be it astrology, acupuncture or Atlantis. You want “wisdom” that can extend your healthy life? The best time to look for that is right now -- as a species we’ve never known more about nutrition and health than we do today… except modern popular culture has “had enough of experts” and who wants to take notice of their pencil-neck doctor who will just tell them to give up smoking and stop eating steak, the worthless killjoy libtards? Chomp some raw steak and mainline some ivermectin while you’re at it, and bugger your BMI it’s a meaningless number anyway amirite, SHEEPLE!!1!!!1!

  2. Robbo says

    Steve Martin mocked diets back in the 70s in his book “Cruel Shoes.”

    Here is one of the essays in that book:

    Dr. Fritzkee’s Lucky Astrology Diet

    The problem with the diets of today is that most women who do achieve
    that magic weight, seventy-six pounds, are still fat. Dr. Fritzkee’s
    Lucky Astrology Diet is a sure-fire method of reducing with the added
    luxury that you never feel hungry.

    Here’s how the diet works:

    First Month: One egg
    Second Month: A raisin
    Third Month: Pumpkin pie with whipped cream and chocolate sauce.

    If after the third month you haven’t gotten to your dream weight, try
    lopping off parts of your body until those scales tip just right for you.

  3. SailorStar says

    This is a highly inflammatory opinion around here, but I’m going to say it anyway because I believe it’s important: The human race is not one monolithic clump. Diets that work for some people, do not work for others. People who wouldn’t dream of telling someone with a deadly peanut allergy that peanuts are the perfect food and therefore the allergic person is an idiot for not eating peanuts at every meal, have no problem bragging that they are super-duper vegetarians who only eat one egg a year and subsist on plants and pasta, so therefore everyone else should do the exact same thing.

  4. says

    I’m starting to think we should round up all the diet “influencers,” herd them into an Internet Thunderdome, and force them to argue with each other until all their viewers can see they’re all more or less equally uninformed and bogus.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    I propose the Pre-Paleo Diet: fruits and seeds as available, grubs, worms, and snails. Consult Jane Goodall for details.

  6. Matt G says

    The debates around diet and nutrition always make me think of Bertrand Russell:

    The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.

  7. birgerjohansson says

    A few months ago, authorities found the remains of an American family that had disappeared after they went out in the wilderness because the mother had an obsession about “living off the land”

    Starving and freezing to death is not a good way to go. I think I will stick to pasta.

  8. birgerjohansson says

    There is *one* consistently good advice: Do not eat what Homer Simpson eats when he strives to become so overweight he is formally disabled.
    (also, blockning a leaking vessel of radioactive compounds with your ass is probably not healthy)

  9. says

    Something to consider when regarding so-called “paleo diets”: In those days, eating meat could easily get you killed by the “owner” of said meat. A mammoth, caribou, or wild boar is not going to just sit there if you walk up and start chewing on it, unlike, say, some apples or nuts on a tree, or berries on a bush.

  10. mnb0 says

    “the belief that there is some kind of magic diet”
    There is. It consists of two words: less sugar. But that requires what American politicians of both parties call “socialism”.

  11. SailorStar says

    Are people under the misimpression that “paleo” means “only meat”? Paleo means eating foods that existed a hundred years ago, five hundred years ago, a thousand years ago. Paleo is immensely tailor-able: meat, dairy, eggs, plants of all kinds including vegetables, berries, legumes…just nothing overly processed. No franken-foods like the fake meat that are far less healthy than actually eating meat, no heavily-supplemented foods like the vegetarian diets require to stay alive.

    There are any number of Scandinavian cooking shows featuring real foods found in that part of the world that epitomize paleo eating. There are a number of American cooking shows that do the same thing. The Mediterranean diet that’s approved by so many doctors and nutritionists is paleo.

    Or, you know, someone could have the vegetarian cup-o-noodles or the new vegan “queso” at taco bell that’s made from hydrogenated plant oils and sugar. 100% vegan, 0% nutritious.

  12. birgerjohansson says

    During the paleolithic era people collected a lot of grain. They just did not plant them.
    As the population density was very low, they probably lived well from grains, tubers, nuts, other wild plants with a bit of animal protein.
    Using the *Kung as model, they would have endured some seasonal periods of mild malnourishment.

    (Periods of more extreme shortages- like drought worse than the usual det season- would probably have killed off many children and kept the population on a stable level)

    It would be interesting to know which edible plants were available for the humans that made a wooden structure from two logs 370,000 years ago.

  13. SailorStar says

    @larpar, 14: yes, the Paleolithic Era takes place before humans settled down to farming, so their grain exposure would have been very limited. Meat, eggs, nuts, berries, wild vegetables. According to a number of scientific studies including Science Daily (, the start of farming took a toll on human health and longevity.

    “The current review was undertaken to compare data from more recent studies involving different world regions, crops and cultures. The studies included populations from areas of China, Southeast Asia, North and South America and Europe. All of the papers used standardized methods for assessing health at the individual level and examined how stressors were exhibited within the entire skeleton, rather than a concentration on a particular skeletal element or condition.”

  14. Holms says

    Also it is not clear to me that what our cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer ancestors ate should be what we eat now.

    Certainly not, and not just because some of what they ate out of necessity was unsafe. We actually have a pretty good example of human evolution in our digestion system, one that many people are familiar with: lactose tolerance / lactase persistence. Our ability to digest lactose has increased, and likely is not the only change to our digestion.

    Why do we assume that what they did was ‘natural’ and thus good for them and for us?

    People will differ as to what counts as processing our food, but at the broadest interpretation, we have been doing so since the invention of cooking. The natural state of meats in particular is less safe than cooked, as unless the meat is known to be fresh, there is the possibility of a large bacterial or parasitic load.

    I remember some guy made waves on youtube’s dude-bro manly-man scene, by promoting a diet consisting of uncooked red mean and especially uncooked liver. His claim was that by eliminating every other food from your diet and by working out and living ‘natural’ and blahdy blah, you too could become the physical specimen he was.

    He was later discovered to be taking steroids.

  15. anat says

    SailorStar, I have yet to see a paleo-promoting source claiming dairy to be paleo. Most paleo-promoters object to pulses and grains, or at least call to limit them significantly. The paleo lifestyle objects to foods that became available thanks to agriculture and the modifications created by breeding by humans. (Of course that should exclude meat from domesticated animals too -- even grass-fed beef is nothing like wild mammals in proportions of fat and muscle.)

    As for fake meat, see the work of Christopher Gardner (the SWAP-MEAT studies):
    A randomized crossover trial on the effect of plant-based compared with animal-based meat on trimethylamine-N-oxide and cardiovascular disease risk factors in generally healthy adults: Study With Appetizing Plantfood—Meat Eating Alternative Trial (SWAP-MEAT) and Assessing the effects of alternative plant-based meats v. animal meats on biomarkers of inflammation: a secondary analysis of the SWAP-MEAT randomized crossover trial. The bottom line: Comparing 8 weeks of meat consumption vs 8 weeks of plant-based meat alternative consumption (all participants spent 8 consecutive weeks each on either diet, the order of the two diets was randomized for each participant, they were instructed to prepare the meat or meat-alternative in the same manner, consume at least 2 meals a day with meat or meat-alternative, and keep the rest of their food intake similar) -- on the meat-alternative people had significantly lower levels of TMAO (an emerging risk factor for cardiovascular disease) and LDL_cholesterol, compared to the meat phase of the experiment. However biomarkers for inflammation were not significantly different. So no, meat substitute do not worsen health, as far as can be seen so far.

  16. SailorStar says

    Circling back, Paleo-type diets include a variety of foods--just not heavily-processed foods or (most) grains. A perfectly Paleo meal could be a mixed-green salad with sliced chicken on top. Or some bison or venison with a broccoli-cauliflower-squash side. Or a noodle-less goulash of ground beef, tomatoes, and other mixed veggies. Or a seared fish on a bed of mixed greens and capers. Or a bowl of chicken vegetable soup. A snack might be an apple and a wedge of cheese. Or a hard-boiled egg. Or a serving of nuts. The options are practically limitless and it’s very easy to get complete nutrition without expensive supplements of dubious quality (an investigation of several brands of supplements showed they didn’t even contain what they were claimed to have).

  17. John Morales says

    SailorStar, pretty much all those foods (nuts, meats, veggies, fruit) you mention have been bred to be unrecognisable from their original forms in the last couple of thousand of years.

    So, in paleolithic times they did not exist in the forms we know today.

    Of course, ‘diet’ has two main senses as a noun; the type and quantity and other restrictions one places on what food to eat whent, and what one actually does eat. Everyone has a diet, in the latter sense, but only needy people have a diet in the earlier sense.

  18. John Morales says

    Of course, there are varying estimates of the timeline.

    “Almond trees are widely believed to be among the world’s first domesticated trees. Archaeological evidence of cultivated almonds dates back to 3,000 B.C. But some geneticists think that humans probably started cultivating sweet mutated almonds much earlier than that, around 12,000 years ago.”


  19. SailorStar says

    John Morales, you’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. We can only eat the foods that exist on Earth. Pastured meats and veggies you grow in your backyard are better than frankenfoods like highly-processed and over-salted fake meats. If the chicken running in the field is not genetically identical to the chickens that roamed around the savannah 12,000 years ago, there’s nothing anyone can do. Corn hasn’t always been that yellow stuff on the cob; it started out around 7,000 years ago from a grass called teosinte. Other grains from grass include wheat, rice, barley and oats.

    Anat, you’re also making the perfect the enemy of the good. Many people tolerate milk just fine (which is a large part of the Caucasian and even North African world) since about 5000 BC, when humans started keeping livestock. Cheese is a great source of protein and calcium for those who choose to eat it. From Polyclinic: What dairy products are paleo friendly?
    Many people on a paleo diet today also include some sources of full-fat dairy, such as butter, cream, yogurt or whole milk. It’s ideal if the dairy you eat or drink is from grass-fed cows. People who have dairy allergies or sensitivities don’t need to include it in their diet.Dec 10, 2020

  20. anat says

    SailorStar, it has nothing to do with perfection but with definition. I have been following diet debates on the internet from the days of usenet, and have yet to encounter anyone using your definition of paleo. In the 1990s Paleo meant diets consisting of only foods that were commonly available to hunter-gatherers, based on the understanding of their time, and usually that meant no dairy, no (or very little) grains, no beans and other pulses, limited nuts (no more than what one could prepare by hand in a day from the whole nut), no nut butters. Some would say only people with Native American ancestry should eat plants originating in the Americas. I have yet to encounter a different definition. What you seem to be following is a whole food diet of some kind, but it isn’t Paleo.

    BTW the expert panel of US News and World Report tends to rate Paleo rather middling -- 19 out of 24 in 2023, while the Mediterranean diet has been ranking 1st several years in a row. And the Mediterranean diet uses way to much grains and pulses to be Paleo-compatible.

  21. SailorStar says

    @anat, There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Don’t you think it’s a little bit smug and supercilious to imagine that if you haven’t encountered something, then obviously it could never exist? You asked for proof that some paleo people eat dairy products. I provided proof out of a quickly-googled list, you denied it because obviously nobody could ever know anything better than you do.

    To get back to Mano’s post, human beings search for the diet that’s best for their health. Many people (apparently not you, but the world consists of more than you) find dairy works in their diet--and has worked in the human diet since roughly 5,000 BC, when bands of nomadic people in North Africa and across Europe took herds with them when they travels. The Australian Aboriginal peoples (in Australia 50,000 years) drank milk from their herds, ate grubs and whatever greenery they found in the rainy season. The traditional Masai diet is blood and milk from their cattle, along with the meat. It was rounded out by honey and tree bark. It kept them healthy for thousands of years. Are you going to argue that there were no Masai posting on usenet, so therefore the Masai never existed? That Australian Aboriginals also don’t exist because none of them posted with you on Prodigy?

    Anat, it appears that you would counsel someone with a deadly allergy to peanuts that they should be eating peanuts because it works for you, personally.

    And now you’re arguing that the Mediterranean Diet--which makes a lot of use of yogurt, WHICH IS DAIRY, and also features meat, was voted #1 in a news magazine. That must really chap your hide because your favorite diet is vegetarian and therefore it’s the only healthy diet for the rest of the world.

  22. John Morales says


    The Australian Aboriginal peoples (in Australia 50,000 years) drank milk from their herds […]


    No. No milk. No herds. Not for them.

    (Babies sucked from mother’s teats, that’s about it for milk drinking)

  23. Dunc says

    The Australian Aboriginal peoples (in Australia 50,000 years) drank milk from their herds

    I am very curious as to what sort of animals you think Indigenous Australians were herding and milking prior to the arrival of Europeans.

  24. Holms says

    Many people (apparently not you, but the world consists of more than you) find dairy works in their diet--and has worked in the human diet since roughly 5,000 BC, when bands of nomadic people in North Africa and across Europe took herds with them when they travels.

    You were asked about cheese in particular.

    The Australian Aboriginal peoples (in Australia 50,000 years) drank milk from their herds

    You assert a fantasy very confidently.

    Anat, it appears that you would counsel someone with a deadly allergy to peanuts that they should be eating peanuts because it works for you, personally.

    Anat said no such thing.

  25. Silentbob says

    @ 33 Morales

    You’re badgering me for more positive comments? Okay, that video was fucking hilarious. X-D

    Thanks for sharing.

  26. Nick Wrathall says

    I am not in agreement that a paleo diet did not include grains. From where did the first farmers get the idea that grains were a good source of food if not from their paleo ancestors? Or is it to be assumed that early farmers, having no prior knowledge, stumbled upon the wonders of grains when they decided to settle down and farm the land?
    One could similarly argue that there is no evidence of human speach prior to the advent of writing, which would be just as silly.

    Seeds, tubers, and fruits were integral to the diet of pre-contact Indigenous Australians, but so were grass seeds, which were ground up to make flour

    There is evidence in Australia of a seed grinding economy at least 30,000 years ago. I would be very surprised if theirs was the only one.

  27. SailorStar says

    Here are two studies about diet that were quite eye-opening:

    This one shows people who are strict vegetarians have genetic differences from meat eaters. In other words; your ancestors’ survival on varying diets affect your best diet:

    This one talks about the people of a village that was destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD: they ate a varied diet, including more meat and seafood than the typical “Mediterranean Diet” has. Notice the lack of grains. “(O)ur study shows a significant contribution of proteins and calories from terrestrial animals and marine fish, the latter much higher than that consumed by populations in the Mediterranean in the 20th century.”

    Diets in the Bay of Naples generally included bread, olive oil, poultry, wild game (like boar), fruits and vegetables and, of course, fish. Being right by the water, seafood was a key component of the diet and, even when fish or shellfish wasn’t being served, items were often eaten with garum, a fermented fish sauce.”

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