The End of Paleo: Our Meat Obsession Cannot Continue

Population has risen steadily, but the demand for meat has gone through the roof.  This stunning graphic shows how much more meat we produce and eat than 30 and 50 years ago. We probably aren’t even aware of our own recent meat obsession. Trendy, extreme diet crazes like Paleo are bringing it to a head however. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that the typical American consumes around 127 pounds of meat per year – on average, that’s 40 percent more than other developed countries. This has to do with the increase in wealth to afford meat but also the “efficiencies” that were gained by the industrialization of meat production.  The factory farming of cows, pigs and chickens has kept the price down, while trying to keep up with our exponential demand but at what cost. This trend in meat consumption is not sustainable for our planet and there are major health trade offs to cheap meat we need to be aware of.

Think of the value meat must have had back when we lived in villages and traded for goods and services, which relatively speaking was not long ago. Cows were prized possessions, mostly for their milk, and meat was a special treat. Key word is treat, not a heavy daily intake and a part of every meal like it is today. The Paleo Diet’s story is that if we go back even farther, a lot farther, we find hunter gatherers who lived off meat and nuts, berries, and vegetables they could pick. The concept is that this is how humans were meant to eat and that our digestive systems are not supposed to eat cultivated grain products.
First, humans have lived off ancient grains for thousands of years without problems and our system is extremely adaptable to handle almost anything. Second, Paleo humans lived quite a rough, short and uncivilized life partially because of there diet. Paleo purports this archaic diet and lifestyle for the modern age when the main goal back then was to survive and yet they died by 30.  Even more ironic is that they usually died of hunger because the efficient, sustainable, storable grains were not yet cultivated. Yes processed sugar, soy, wheat breads and pasta, etc. aren’t helping anyone stay lean and full feeling. We shouldn’t however throw out our amazing, healthy, filling, efficient whole grains and beans because of there stripped down versions. Beans are a super food for goodness sake. Please eat brown rice, quinoa, farro, bulgar, kidney beans, lentils, etc. and see how they effect you.  Grains and beans give me great sustained energy, stable digestion and a feeling of fullness.
Another part of the Paleo lure is that eating a higher percentage of your calories from protein is better for keeping a lean muscular body.  Unless we track and calculate our protein intake, most of us don’t really know what it currently us, nor what it ideally should be. Humans have shown that they can live well with different proportions of protein, fat and carbs in our diets but there is a minimum amount of protein that should be determined in grams not percentages of total. Above that amount our body will take excess protein and do an inefficient process to turn it into energy. As it turn out, we tend to get plenty of protein for the need of rebuilding our cells, yet America is currently in the midst of a protein and meat obsession. We can partially thank the Atkins and now Paleo diet crazes for this irresponsible focus on eating so much more meat and protein than is necessary for regular people. Unite’s nutritionist will be happy to help you determine your protein intake as a part of a custom menu plan.

Simply put, Paleo is a bogus concept and it’s “ancient roots” have been warped into a nostalgic, strange story to make it popular. Did you know that if everyone ate a Paleo diet, we simply could not produce enough meat for the population?  If we keep trying to eat and produce more meat, the environment will be ruined in short order. Raising and killing cows and pigs for beef and pork are the biggest culprits in energy inefficiency and waste production with tons of greenhouse gases emitted and copious amounts of fresh water used. It is simple to understand really. Creating animals for eating consumes way more energy and input than plants require, especially the big animals, so the industrial process tries to optimize this unnaturally. To keep up with demand, forests are cleared and burned to make room for the cows and pigs.

The other big issue to be aware of is how unhealthy some of this industrial meat is for our body. The animals are kept in pens and fed the cheapest, non-organic grains and given synthetic hormones to grow faster than normal. If you haven’t yet please watch one of the many documentaries on food manufacturing such as Food Inc on Netflix or internet. Imagine those bulk packs of super cheap, low grade burgers and hotdogs that have become such staples in American life from sports venues, to school menus, to home barbecues and fast food. Oddly, the price of buying a meat and bread burger is now less than a salad bowl. Meat can be great, but this low grade hormone meat, particularly beef and pork, is cheap for a reason and hurting adding to our problems. This might be the only kind of meat we will be abel to afford if we demand to eat it so often. Furthermore, they are now finding that the “bad” saturated fats in red meats, is really only “bad’ in the industrialized versions, with grass fed remaining healthy. Our bodies and the environment feel the impacts of this low grade meat, so STOP buying them!

There is a natural balanced diet that can achieve our health goals and be practical about the world we live in today. What is effective about Paleo, is true of all natural diets: cutting out or reducing processed, sugary carbs will help support fat loss. What is not effective about Paleo is the ability to sustain cutting out an entire type of food, which is a staple for most cultures and in all ways healthy.

So what am I suggesting we do about this meat issue?

Well 25% of the world is vegetarian and gets along just fine, so we can take a few ideas from them.  Vegetarianism has shown to increase longevity and reduce risk of illness, not to mention be completely sustainable from a feeding the world stand point. Like many of you however, I grew up eating meat, I like it and would be concerned about getting my protein intake if I dropped meat altogether. There is no need to cut meat out but we should all think about reducing our meat intake to previous levels, especially certain types of meat.

There are many sources of protein but when you look at the statistics they have wildly different impacts on the world.  See the chart on energy efficiency factors of the food groups below and note the tremendous difference between grains (102%) and milk(45%) compared to pig (8.5%) and beef (4.3%). After I saw this graph and did my research about what we are sacrificing personally and societally, my view of meat eating has changed forever.  Here is what I will be doing about it:

  • Reduce my meat/fish intake to once per day, choosing efficient and healthy chicken and fish with beef and pork as a treat.
  • I will buy/order high quality, hormone free, grass fed beef, wild caught fish, organic chicken, etc. to ensure the best nutrition for my body and safe guarding the environment.
  • Replace my reduced meat/fish intake with more efficient protein sources: dairy, eggs, beans and whole grains, again going for the local, organic, hormone free versions, especially with dairy!
  • Keep the bulk of my food intake from sustainable, nutrient dense plant sources: vegetables, whole grains/beans, plant fats, fruits.
  • Buy organic, local, non-GMO produce as much as I can, especially looking out for the Dirt Dozen!  I am in my third year of using a local CSA, Crop Share, through Lancaster Farm Fresh that gives me weekly pickups of seasonal vegetables, fruits and eggs!


Coach Gavin McKay
Founder Unite Fitness

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