Food and killing things are rather controversial topics in
today’s world, and probably rightfully so.. Thought about nutrition is all over the place: the conventional
wisdom is so, unstable that it’s largely anyone’s game to put their say in the matter.
As for killing things: well, that’s always been on the table. Sometimes it puts other things on the table, too. Let’s have a look at what those things ought to be.
The case for a high-fat, low-carb diet appears quite compelling, particularly to an endurance athlete like myself. How can I not be allured by the idea that reducing my carbohydrate intake will boost my fat-burning capabilities, and thus allow me to keep going longer and on less food? Why wouldn’t I want to be more efficient?
This isn’t exciting just for long-distance nutsos like me. Relying more on fat rather than glycogen (sugar) for fuel reduces your body’s insulin response (as you could figure, since insulin’s purpose is to reduce blood sugar), and thus, I would think, reduce your risk of diabetes. Certainly there are plenty of people in modern-day America who would like to do that.
A high-fat diet has also been correlated with increased focus (in intensity and duration), reduced fatigue (no more feeling like a trainwreck at 4 P.M. or “hitting the wall” in a marathon), reduced blood pressure, reduced risk of heart disease, and lots of other nice things I can’t think of right now (don’t I sound professional?).
The case I’m presenting here has been adapted mostly from individual testimonials, rather than large studies. Of course, these individuals are scientifically-focused, and their experiments on themselves were, from what I can tell, carefully conducted and well-documented.
I am reluctant to say too much since I have not experimented with high-fat dieting myself, and also since I’m not quite making any citations. However, I won’t leave you empty-handed: I’m referring primarily to Tim Ferriss, Dr. Peter Attia, Zachary Bitter, and Mike Sisson. See the bottom of this page for some handy-dandy links.
Based on the premise that fat provides more energy than carbohydrates (9 kilocalories compared to 4), lasts longer, needs less replenishing, and exists in practically-unlimited quantities in the body, it’s pretty hard for this not to make sense to me. Amazing ultrarunner Killian Jornet ran for 12 hours on half a liter of water on one energy gel, knowing that fat (as opposed to commercially-produced gooeyness) was undoubtedly the best fuel for his body (I’m unaware of his overall diet, however). Zachary Bitter, who holds the world record for farthest distance run in 12 hours, points to his high-fat diet as one of the most important factors in his success.
In Eat and Run, Scott Jurek wrote that who wins an ultramarathon is often determined by who eats what and when. Since eating can slow you down (moreso through retrieving the food than actually eating it) and cause tremendous gastrointestinal problems depending on what you eat and how much, it would make sense that eating less (provided you don't jip yourself of energy) increases your odds of success. A high-fat diet, as I said earlier, enables this.
Can this Work Environmentally?
A high-fat diet generally entails that you consume animal products, particularly meat. Even more particularly, these animal products should be of high quality, meaning that they do not come from factory farms, they are not grain fed, and they are not ground up and bathed in preservatives. Animal products such as these are processed foods, and I will take another swing at them later.
With high-quality animal products, the animals are grass-fed, they get some movement and time outside, the meat is made from only one (rather than 100) animal, and there are no unnecessary food additives, such as “chicken plumper” or the preservative potassium sorbate.
One potential argument against a healthy high-fat diet is that consuming high-quality animal products requires more resources than low-quality products. Most of the billions of animals that are killed in the U.S. (and presumably other developed countries) today are raised in overcrowded institutions known as factory farms, which no reasonable person would allow their children to see the inside of.
The argument, then, is this: if the majority of people starting eating high-quality animal products, how on Earth could we possibly find enough pasture-land to grass-feed all of those animals?
Globally, this is tough to answer, and for now I won’t go there. In the U.S., however, I’d roughly like to think it can be done. If we were to start feeding most of our livestock grass we could substantially reduce grain production, and let that damaged monocultured-land return to grass (well, if it can). In addition, higher quality foods and more fats means that we need less food (in terms of volume) overall; thus, we would not need to slaughter billions upon billions of animals any longer.
Fewer animals also means less waste. A substantial portion of the land near factory farms has been turned into elegantly-titled “manure lagoons,” which supposedly stink for up to 2 miles. Manure can be useful in crop fertilization and, if you’re Joel Salatin, chicken-feed, but because factory farms don’t actually grow the grains they feed their livestock they make no use of it. So instead the poo just sits there. And it never goes away.
I must mention here that a more sustainable and efficient animal-raising system likely integrates crop-raising as well. This means that instead of just raising animals or just raising crops, one farm raises both. Most big, industrial farms in the U.S. only take on one task, whereas smaller farms are more likely to take on both.
Because grass-fed animals take longer to reach market-weight than factory farmed animals the former may still produce more waste overall regardless. As far as I’m aware, the case is uncertain.
I will propose one point, however, which I think is necessary to the success of any high fat-eating society- agricultural or primal-, and it may be mildly unpopular. It is suboptimal to eat only one-fancily named part here or there of this animal or that one. To truly serve yourself, you must eat the whole animal. The whole darned thing.
In America it’s typical just to eat the muscles of the animal, which, if from a factory farm, is usually light-colored (in the case of birds), underused, and just pitiful. What we don’t care for as much are the organs: eyes, tongues, livers, you name it. There’s no way all the organs of these billions of animals are used somehow: the demand just isn’t there. I’d presume they get buried somewhere in the manure lagoon.
The practical purpose of this is not just to reduce waste as well as the number of animals we produce, though these benefits in themselves are substantial. It is also nutritional: consuming large amounts of only muscle-meat can easily result in an excess of protein. The organs contain a higher concentration of fat: thus, consuming both organs and muscles can provide you with the proper macronutrient balance. Miles Olson explains this in Unlearn, Rewild more elegantly than I do here.
I’d like to think that at least some people would give this a chance if the proper case was made to them. Just think of how many fewer animals we would have to kill if we merely started eating more of each one. I’m sure the numbers would be striking.
Okay, so overall this high-quality high-fat business sounds pretty great. If you could either kill (hunt) or raise your meat yourself or get your hands on whole, grass-fed livestock, it would be darned-near perfect.
It would be roughly ideal if most of the people in the world were hunter-gatherers who maybe engaged in small-scale crop cultivation. This would allow for land to thrive and for people to subsist on high-fat diets, rather than compromising one (or both) like we often do today. However, the Earth has been so degraded and highly-populated by humans that this option is not viable for most of us, so the high-fat club will have to remain on the farm.
Once you get that aside, why is Kim not on a high-fat diet? It seems stupid not to be.
Well, I have 5 flimsy, sorry excuses and one potentially-good reason. (1) Like most people I have a decent psychological attachment to the food I eat. As time goes on it becomes more apparent how much I eat due to a sense of structure, and likely also to cope with my insulin-activity, rather than actual hunger. However, the more I think about different diets and the more I let go of shame around eating, the result of An Unusual 30 Day Trial, the less attached I feel. So, I think I would overcome this one just fine.
(2) Yeah, money. Grains are cheaper than meat. But might I be able to spend less money on food if I’m eating less? And is my health not the best investment I can make, since it powers all the other areas of my life? Besides- I haven’t actually done much searching around or number-crunching, just as I suspect most people who write off healthier eating as “too expensive” do. Next!
(3) Social: I live with my parents, and I don’t think they’d want a whole cow in the freezer. Additionally, stomping out carbs would probably make eating outside of my house even less viable than it is now, but somehow I think I can deal with that. This is especially true if I can burn fat more efficiently, as that would mean I can comfortably fast longer.
(4) Responsibility: I’m sure you’ve heard this from at least one vegetarian before—if something is going to be killed for my sake, I ought to kill it myself. Let me undergo all the dirty work of my meal. I’m sure I could get past this for my health, though. I do intend on going hunting someday, but hopefully “someday” does not turn into “never” as it often does.
Maybe I could even find a place to live that makes hunting full-time more viable. Ethically, environmentally, and perhaps financially (though not timewise!), this would be the ideal way to sustain this diet.
Whether I go with hunting meat, purchasing meat (I will note that I have no interest in dairy), or a combination of the two, there are a couple other problems. The first is just another sorry excuse for me not running a test. The second one probably is also, but at least in the long-term it is a major question.
(5) Problem one is other diets: There are other diets that people appear to do fine on. More than fine, in fact. I mention him often, but it is with good reason: Steve Pavlina has experimented with a raw vegan diet, in which he consumed a high number of carbohydrates and overall calories. Mentally he felt fantastic; physically, he lost weight. He reported no insulin spikes over the course of 30 days. Steve has been a vegetarian for about 20 years. In that time he has run two marathons, and from the look of his blog has experienced good- probably awesome- health overall-- certainly better than most people I know. Yes, that includes my athletic, teenage peers.
Steve may not have been an ultra-endurance athlete at any point, but Scott Jurek sure is. Scott is also a long-time vegan, and likewise reported a positive experience with a raw diet. Scott has run close to 100 ultramarathons in his lifetime (50K – 150 miles), many of which included course records and wins. Sure, his feats have since been defeated, but surely veganism isn’t all bad if it can fuel a successful ultramarathoning career.
The reason I elaborate so much on this point is not to provide myself with excuse-cushioning, because I don’t need anymore of that. It’s to provide a context for the big question. Well, questions.
Man vs. Earth
(6) Mankind has come a long way since the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, and it is clear from people like Steve and Scott that we don’t need animal products to survive anymore.
So if I don’t need to eat animals, is it ethical to do so?
I don’t know if that was climactic or a buzz-killer. For some I suspect the latter. :P
Still, it’s an important question—one which is too often sidestepped. It begs a series of other questions as well. What should be of higher importance- human health or environmental health? Can the two be reconciled? Can we have healthy meat-eaters, healthy vegans, and a healthy planet all at the same time?
The Processed Meat Problem
First of all, on a global scale this probably isn’t even the most important question I could ask, since most Americans aren’t even in a position to ask it. Allow me to explain by raining boulders down on processed meat, just like I told you I would.
In short, there is no way we can have a healthy planet or a majority of healthy omnivores as long as we continue to rely on factory-farmed, processed meat. It is probably the worst object considered to be “food” that you can put in your body, perhaps aside from candy and soda. Across the board, there are no unconventional diets which advocate eating processed meat. Paleo, slow-carb, and ketogenic all encourage you to eat meat plentifully, but none of them want you to get it from the local grocery store’s deli (well, except maybe for the slow-carb diet on cheat day).
I don’t see processed meat as having nutritional value except in very small amounts or if there is absolutely nothing else to eat. If you refuse to buy high-quality meat due to financial cost, you should probably just be a near- or complete-vegetarian. Provided the rest of your diet is up to snuff, you probably have no need for processed meat in your life. Really it’s just a waste of your money. Even if you don’t experience significant health issues, you still may be compromising yourself by continuing to eat this sorry excuse for dog chow. Just remove it from your life.
Steve, Scott, and I all experienced increased health as we removed meat from our lives. For all of us it has meant increased endurance (and likely mental clarity). For me it also means being able to eat a meal and go for a run without the dread of excrutiating pain. It means not having to lay in bed after dinner or a race because my stomach (well, my GI tract) hurts more when I sit or stand up.
I want to clarify here that I suggest processed meat is unhealthy, but that does not mean that all meat is unhealthy. The difference between the two is so often overlooked, yet it is of incredible importance. I can eat organic grass-fed meat with no problem. I don’t do it often, but when I do it is a fine ol’ experience. Whenever I consume even the smallest amount of processed meat, my body screams in pain.
If this “food” disables me, fogs thinking, and suppresses endurance, I can’t see how it can be good for anybody. Of course, I know the paleo community makes the same argument about grains, and they are justified in doing so.
I know Steve would say that eating processed meat (though he typically doesn’t distinguish between processed and "humanely-raised") also is related to emotional desensitization since you must sidestep the fact that this living creature has endured a brutal life, death, and packaging- none of which you were involved in-, and you now are consuming it, along with its fear, mindlessly. If you’re okay with all that, can you really call yourself a conscious and caring human being? I’m not sure.
Whatever the case, I would like it known that while meat and meat production may not be in themselves bad, processed meat does no good for any of us. No reasonable person would let their child see the inside of a factory farm, yet so many of those same people buy into the factory’s continuity.
People buy this shit all because of cost, accessibility, sheer ignorance, and likely image. By that, I mean that people probably have bought into some unfavorable image of high-quality meat, such that it might be snobbish or pussy-like to do so. If you’d like to keep up that stereotype, we’ll see who is the weak one in about 30 years—or less.
In short, if you eat low-quality animal products I suggest you shut off your manly self-image for a while and consider whether you’re really doing any good for yourself—or anyone else. Maybe the veggies aren't as stupid as you think.
Possible Alternatives to High Animal Eating
If you want to improve your fat-burning capabilities eating lots of animals is a good way to get there, but it’s not the only way.
For one thing, you can consume a diet high in plant-based fats. Of course, for fat-burning you ought to do this regardless of whether you’ll be eating animals. I am interested in trying a diet of seeds, nuts, legumes, avocados, oils, vegetables, and a minimal amount of fruit (mostly berries) and “okay” carbs like sweet potatoes. Seed and nut butters would be included.
This is basically the vegan version of the slow-carb diet; whether I’d include a weekly cheat day or roll with the “30% protein within 30 minutes of waking up” rule is tentative. My biggest fear about this diet is insufficient calories, so perhaps the cheat day would help with that. For the long term, I’d likely include an egg and a serving of meat on a weekly to monthly basis, just as I do now.
You also can- and I presume, must- toy with fasting. I wrote about my experience of this in Efficiency, Optimization, and Slight Insanity/ Running 100 Miles (which, I won’t lie, is fairly sloppy).
Basically, when I go running upon waking up I often eat very little or no food beforehand. During the run, I put off eating (and drinking) as long as I feel I reasonably can. Usually I don’t eat until 5 hours into the run, and I never do before 3.5.
In the last several years I’ve grown accustomed to going 8+ (up to 15-18 some days) hours between meals, and I eat twice a day (not counting the two crackers before my run). Going fairly long between meals but still eating is known as intermittent fasting.
Also, roughly once a month, I fast for at least 20 hours. I have gone on 2-3 hour runs in a fasted state: the sense of being able to do so is pretty remarkable. I will note, however, that you can’t run very fast! I tried a morning speed workout with no food and bonked pretty quick. Nevertheless, my “record” is roughly 3 hours of running (maybe 2.5 due to stopping) on 21-24 hours of no food.
On top of all that, 2 years ago I had a little 3-5 month run with anorexia. I suspect that contributed to my fat-burning abilities, since my body had little choice but to burn fat (and probably some muscle, too). My endurance may have increased in this time, considering I went on 12+ mile runs with nothing but bones on my body (that’s when I set my “record,” too).
However, intense starvation is overall ineffective since you need muscles and well-functioning organs to last very long at existing. I do not recommend that anyone attempt extreme calorie-restriction. Do not say that I do, or I will get you banned from China somehow.
There is a fine line between self-starvation and fasting, and if you are frightened when you see your thinness in the mirror or feel your heart flutter, you need to get a sufficient, nutritious diet inside you. Period. Once you fix your diet and get back your pounds you can gradually start to with fasting again.
In his transition to a ketogenic (the most efficient fat-burning) diet, Peter Attia ate one massive meal each day. However many animals I may eat during it, I suspect that my someday-experiment will look the same. The few times I’ve done this I have felt fine, and that was with running.
Overall, I’m uncertain whether a high-fat vegan diet is viable or optimal—that will need testing. I am fairly certain, however, that boosting your fat-burning abilities- particularly to their heights- requires some degree of fasting, which becomes easier as you practice it more. 18 hours without food requires no sweat now.
Whatever the case, you don't have to make an all-or-nothing effort. Certainly cutting back on simple sugars and artificial sweeteners will serve you well, even if you still eat whole grains and fruit. Those two are probably far less detrimental to your health-efforts than unnecessary added sugars, in part because they are free of the other questionable ingredients you're likely to find alongside added sugars and sweeteners.
Probably the easiest step you can take is to stop drinking your calories. If you're an endurance athlete you could consider eating more complex foods than energy gels and other products made specifically for use during athletic performance. Since actual food takes longer to digest it likely does less to shut off your access to burning fat, which is crucial to your staying in the game. I suspect a substantial number of athletes trap themselves in a cycle of having to refuel constantly, since their fat-burning abilities have been shut off by an excess of glycogen.
I only have one ultramarathon (100K) under my belt at this point, but I have never used energy gels or sports drinks at all. Food (mostly bananas, granola, and larabars) and water have done just fine for me, along with a few salt tablets (s-caps) during the race.
If it's tough for you to actually eat during performance you could try Super Starch, a synthetic carbohydrate which is supposedly more complex than any naturally occurring carb. For this reason it does not cause insulin spikes nor does it detriment fat-burning ability. I haven't tried it myself, but maybe ucan. :) Peter Attia has used it if that makes you feel more comfortable with the thought, and he's a doctor!
Facing the Question
Well, that was a nice little aside to distract us from the question. Now let’s get down to the dirty stuff.
So we don’t really need to eat animals. Whether it is optimal for us to is uncertain. Specifically, eating a diet high in fat appears optimal, though whether most or any of this fat must come from animals is unclear.
On top of that, it might not even be eating fat that we seek, but rather fat-burning. People don’t care about eating fat in itself. It’s the benefits of increased health and endurance that they want. Perhaps they’d like the luxury of eating bacon all day as well, but even that is not simply about eating fat.
We need testing on all ends. We need to test high-fat vegan diets, high-fat omnivorous diets, high-carb vegan diets, and high-carb omnivorous diets (which may be also high-fat, depending on the amount of meat). Specifically, these should be relatively healthy by some standard: low or absent in processed food, high in (at least) vegetables. Specifically, green, leafy vegetables most of all.
I suggest that one individual tries all 4 of these, as each person may find a different best-diet for themselves. I’m on high-carb almost-vegan, so maybe I can check off both of the high-carb diets. :)
Now, if someone finds that eating animals is in the best interest of their health, would it be ethical for them to do so? Or should they let go of those last few percent-points of health and settle for high-fat vegan?
If someone such as Mark Sisson perceives that grains are wrecking their health, there is no reason they should continue eating them. That would be totally unnecessary. But should they replace those grains with meat, or have their round with high-fat vegan (or almost-vegan)? But might that still mean sacrificing human health for the survival of animals? Do we really need to do that?
Obviously we have easy access to animal’s bodies, both high-quality and low-quality. But are we entitled to them? I wonder if I can propose a parallel to this question: obviously we have easy access to women’s bodies, both high-quality and low-quality. But are we entitled to them? Can we do as we please with them, regardless of whether other people see our actions as wrong?
Ooh, there’s the stinger.
You might jump to a booming “No!” But certainly there are people who would say yes. Not so long ago in this good old United States, your woman was your property. You could drag her around town as you’d like, showing off your arm candy to all your business-friends and their women. It was her primary duty to take care of your physical needs and keep those snot-nosed creatures called “your children” out of your hair. By no means could you rape her: as her owner it was your right to have your way with her. By no means could she leave you—at least, not without your consent.
Certainly there are plenty of people, outside and perhaps even within the U.S., who still think like this today.
We might say that such people are behind the times and blind to the truth. They haven’t caught on to the idea that women are people too, equal to men. Clearly those of us who believe this are the leading progressives, marching down the path of rightness.
So at least in the U.S. the women got their rights and became people. Then blacks did. Then Catholics did. Then the gays did. Then the transgenders. Then some other religions hopefully have somewhere in there too. Are animals next in line- at least to some extent-, or is that taking it too far since they aren’t physically human beings?
Does consciousness matter at all in this? Surely it once was thought, by some terminology, that blacks are less conscious than whites. Their intellectual abilities are lower and they are overall less aware. I'm sure they've even been thought of as a different species. Now we know that this is far from true, and the conscious-capabilities of all races are equal.
What if animals- particularly those we eat- can think and feel pain just like we do, and they just speak different languages is all? Would you be okay with eating animals then? What, aside from social forces (e.g. conditioning, groupthink), makes it ethical to take one life but not another? Is there an answer to that?
One follow-up question is to ask what is necessary. We know we don’t need to eat animals to survive- I’ve established that. But if it improves human performance- both physical and mental-, could we argue that eating animals is necessary to raising consciousness? Is that not the highest necessity of all?
But are our accomplishments really so important? What if it would do more for consciousness to find a way to reconcile society and nature, and live harmoniously with the Earth? Then would it really matter who wins Western States this year, and whether consuming animal products helped them to get there? Or might doing just that involve eating animals, and maybe even raising them, too?
It might also help to look at this from a subjective-reality perspective. If animals are an extension of consciousness, what does it mean to eat them? Does it mean nothing, since I cannot be certain that the bouncy thing on my plate came from an animal? Does it mean that I’m killing an aspect of consciousness? That I’m exploiting it and acting selfishly, mistaking my identity solely for my ego? Does it mean that I am integrating an aspect of consciousness, reconciling my body with the body of another so that I can contribute to consciousness and help to further humanity?
Conclusion: We Must Test
Ultimately, the answer is that I don’t know. That may be anti-climactic, but I really just don’t know.
What I do know, however, is that life won’t let me continue as I have been living for long. I know that my fears of both a high-fat plant-based diet and a high-fat animal-based diet will require me to test them. I can do no other. I have to see through the beliefs that rule me, and if I do not act I cannot say that I have fixed those beliefs and come upon truth.
If you are considering trying out a crazy diet of any sort, just do it. Trust me- unless you’re going to eat nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days you will probably thank yourself. Even if you do that, you will be amazed at what happens to your body. Diet plays a huge role in how we think and how we feel on a day-to-day basis—believe me.
If you have been struggling with physical health issues or you don’t feel your best mentally or emotionally, consider toying around with what you eat. It may not rescue you from purposelessness or full-blown depression, but it certainly can act as a buffer to these things. Who knows: eating right might just give you the boost you need to solve these very problems. Perhaps it can help out with our ethical dilemmas, too. :)
Tim Ferriss: Popularized the slow-carb diet with his book The Four-Hour Body
Peter Attia, M.D.: Follows a Ketogenic diet. Website: http://eatingacademy.com/
-Relevant presentation: http://fourhourworkweek.com/2013/07/30/ketogenic-diet/
Mark Sisson: Follows the Paleo diet. Author of The Primal Blueprint. Website: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/#axzz3OBTEtiBi
Miles Olson: Lives somewhere in the Canadian wilderness. Book: Unlearn, Rewild
Steve Pavlina: Long-time vegan. Has succeeded with high-carb raw veganism. Relevant article: http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2008/02/raw-food-diet/
-Articles on the ethics of animal-consumption: Thoughts on the Santa Barbara Shootings (excellent!)
Scott Jurek: Notable vegan ultramarathoner. Has succeeded with raw veganism. Book: Eat and Run
Killian Jornet: Ultramarathoner; restricts calories on long runs. Relevant article: http://www.outsideonline.com/fitness/running/trail-running/FKT-Up-Kilian-Jornet.html
Zachary Bitter: Ultramarathoner; follows a high-fat diet. Relevant article: http://www.ultrarunning.com/features/interviews/zach-bitter-fastest-100-miler-in-us-history/
Joel Salatin: "Lunatic farmer;" author of various books. Presumably follows a high-fat diet.
Read Related Articles:
(Written on 7 January 2015)