February 13, 2015

Is Meat Unhealthy? Part VIII

Health can be defined as the absence of disease, and that is the lens through which we've been examining meat so far.  However, most of us have a broader view of health that also includes optimal growth and development, physical and mental performance, well-being, fertility, immunity, robustness, and resilience.  What role does meat play in this broader view of health?

Non-industrial cultures

One of the things I keep coming back to in this series is the strong natural affinity that our species has for meat.  Every culture that does not prohibit meat consumption for religious reasons (e.g., Indian Hindus) seeks and eats meat avidly.

A key fact that stands out from my recent conversations with anthropologists is that hunter-gatherers and subsistence agriculturalists place a high value on meat, even if they already have regular access to it.  Here's an excerpt from a paper by Kim Hill, Magdalena Hurtado, and colleagues (1):
Observations of the exchange rate between other foragers and their agricultural neighbors indicate that meat is worth much more than carbohydrate calories (e.g., Hart 1978; Peterson 1981). Hart, in his study of exchanges of meat and casava between Pygmy foragers and neighboring agriculturalists, found that approximately four and one half times as many calories of casava were exchanged for each calorie of meat given. In addition, it appears that almost everywhere in the world meat calories from domestic animals are probably expensive to produce relative to plant calories, and yet subsistence farmers continue to use at least some of their "cheap" plant calories to produce "expensive" animal calories (see Harris 1985 for discussion)
Why do humans around the globe value meat so much?  This strongly suggests that we've evolved an affinity for meat because eating it provides a reproductive advantage.  In other words, meat may increase our "Darwinian fitness".

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