Monday, October 24, 2011

Confession of a Meat-Eater

Often when I meet someone and tell them I'm a foodie and quasi-environmentalist, they eventually, with great hesitation, get around to asking me the inevitable question "So, uh, are you a vegetarian?". Well, that is unless I've already regaled them with tales of my lamb dinner in Vermont or shared my 'bacon makes everything better' philosophy. In any case, I find the assumption that environmental-foodies are likely to be vegetarians quite an interesting one. In most cases, when I assure the questioner that I am, indeed, a meat-eater, I note a slight look of relief wash over their face. This is particularly so if the person is a male and possibly interested in dating me.

I have no shame in admitting that I am an omnivore. Recently I spoke as part of a panel on environmental issues. I discussed the importance of strengthening our local food system and developing sustainable agricultural practices. During the Q & A period, a woman in the audience asked me what my opinion was on the environmental impacts of the Western world's obsession with meat eating. I'm not always clued in to whether someone has an agenda when they make a query, but it was pretty obvious that this woman was a vegetarian and had a particular dislike for the meat-eating ways of most North Americans and, indeed, most humans. And in some respects, I can completely relate to her stance. The way we are going about raising most livestock for consumption these days is, at the very least completely unsustainable on an environmental level and, more notably, disgustingly inhumane. The current system is terribly unhealthy to the animals that are being fed foods they were never meant to eat, given excessive antibiotics, and made to exist their entire lives in deplorably cramped, dirty conditions. This state of unhealth and sickness is then being transfered to those of us that choose to eat meat from these cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, etc. And this meat is everywhre, it is pervasive. It's not just the meat you get at fast food restaurants, it's the meat you get in the frozen foods section of the grocery store as well as the fresh meat section.In many cases it's even the meat you get at some butcher shops, and 'real' restaurants.

All of that being said, I still believe there's a place for meat in our diet. This post is a sort of 'coming out', a confession to eating habits that I've been afraid to admit to for the past few weeks. You see, I'm testing out this new way of eating, most commonly referred to as the Paleo diet.

In a nutshell, the Paleo diet requires the elimination of all grains, legumes, refined sugars, and dairy products from one's diet. It emphasizes vegetables (minimal tubers like potatoes), meats, fats (from meats and certain other sources), along with consumption of ltd quantities of fruits, nuts, and seeds. The basic thesis behind this diet is that we have not genetically changed since our predecessors, the hunter-gatherers roamed the Earth. Homosapiens have been around for over 2 million years, we've only been farming for (at most, in certain parts of the world)10,000 years. That's a pretty short time in the spanof human history and for some people (e.g. native tribes, Western europeans), farming took hold much more recently or not at all (e.g. Inuits). So how is it that over the past 50 years or so, some scientists have determined that the optimal diet is rich in whole grains and low in fat? It doesn't really make sense to me, so I'm going against the grain (pun intended) and trying Paleo thing on for size.

But I've been reluctant to announce it to the world. I don't mind admitting to being an omnivore, but for some reason admitting I've cut out grains and eat animal meats high in fat seems to throw people off. A lot. Also, I've discovered, through keen observation of lunchrooms, dining rooms, etc., that people don't like to have their own food choices questioned. While I'm happy to have my choices questioned, even the mere mention of my choices could make someone else feel that I am judging their food choices to be subpar to mine. This is a tricky thing. As a budding holistic nutritionist, I naturally want to help people become informed about foods (although, of course, it must be noted that at this point, my nutrition decisions are not being formed from my nutrition program, as I just started this week). On the other hand, I don't want people to have a negative attitude towards eating/food or feel discouraged that what they 'think' is healthy for them, might not actually be all that healthy for them. So, for the most part, I've kept my diet choices to myself unless necessary to inform a dining partner or if someone directly asks me why I'm eating spaghetti squash instead of pasta.

I'm coming out now as a meat-eater, because I just don't feel like hiding it anymore. And because I think it's important not to feel guilty about eating a diet that, at first glance, may seem indulgent and environmentally unsustainable. But therein lies an important part of the Paleo diet. Adherents are meant to consume meats and vegetables that have been raised in natural ways, which would equate to free-run chickens who get to eat whatever is on the ground, grass-fed cows, pastured pigs, organic vegetables, etc. It is imperative to differentiate between a diet that is merely high in meat/fats (remember the Protein Power Plan), and one that emphasizes naturally raised/grown foods.

I'm not trying to raise the whole Vegetarian vs. Carnivore/Omnivore debate. I respect that each of us has to make diet choices based on our own health beliefs, values, cultures, etc. That being said, I expect I will return to the topics of meat-eating, grains, and vegetarianism at regular intervals in the future. There is much to be said and much to be questioned about the conventional wisdom surrounding diets and what is good/bad for us. I'm looking forward to being further educated via my holistic nutrition program of study. For those that want to learn more about the Paleo diet, here are some resources to get you started:! (check out the resource links on this site)

As a final note, after 3 weeks of eating 'mostly' paleo (I don't believe in being so strict about eating that it takes away the joy or makes socializing difficult), I have noted the following:
  • Elimination of sugars and grains has resulted in having no hunger pains. Ever.I have gone 7 to 8 hours after eating a relatively light lunch (perhaps 4 oz of pork tenderloin with a large salad) and felt no stomach growling or pains to signal hunger. This is, I reckon, due to lack of blood sugar highs and lows that result from eating foods with high glycemic load (e.g. sugars, breads, rice, pastas, etc.)
  • I don't feel tired at all during the day. Actually, this hasn't been a problem for me much in the past five or six years, as I've not tended to eat a lot of grains at any one sitting. There were, however, times when I would eat a lot of sugar and then feel sooo tired after a couple of hours.
  • I've lost a few pounds. Some people lose quite a bit of weight when they start eating paleo, but the fact is that the past 3 weeks have been extremely stressful for me, and I often cling to weight when stressed, so am not surprised my weight loss has been minimal.
I am sure there would have been more noticeable effects of my switch to paleo if I'd previously been a carb-addict and went from eating toast at breakfast, pasta at lunch and a stiry fry with rice at dinner to my current regimen of eggs for brekkie, a salad and meat for lunch, and sauteed veggies and meat for dinner, but I really didn't eat many grains/starchy carbs before. For me, the transition has mostly been about eliminating sugars from my diet and getting away from the oatmeal breakfast.

I have a feeling I'll see more results in my body as time carries on. Now that I'm back at the gym, I'm hoping for more muscle definition and, ultimately, more fat loss. It's hard to report any health impacts, because I have a clean bill of health, thus this way of eating is a preventative measure that I'll not necessarily ever be able to measure the impacts of (since 'not' acquiring a chronic disease is hard to attribute to a certain lifestyle choice on a case by case basis.


al said...

Good luck on your journey. I've been eating paleo for the last couple of months and I feel much better generally, and am sleeping better, too.

I have really enjoyed reading Dr. Kurt Harris's blog, especially his Paleo 2.0 posts: where he separates out the "what did our ancestors eat?" meaningless mental exercise to from the teal beneficial diet changes that can fall under a larger 'paleo' umbrella. Specifically, gluten is one of the worst things you can eat, but potatoes and sweet potatoes are quite beneficial and shouldn't need be avoided at all. Also, eating whole, real foods is much more important than counting calories or worrying about micronutrient balances.

Most of all paleo lets you enjoy food instead of feeling guilty whenever you eat for pleasure. It's a whole different way of approaching this stuff we need to survive and I think it's mentally a much healthier one.

Raeanne said...

Eat in such a way that makes you FEEL good. If grains don't make you feel good, don't eat them. Anything labeled a "diet" and or a label that denotes you eat in a such a way is of no importance whatsoever.

Shannon Courtney said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post Alex, much appreciated and I'll check out the blog!

Rae, I totally agree. I cringed using the word 'diet' in this post, but was too tired to be creative with my description. I do think that eliminating/limiting foods that are simply not good for one's health is a good move and I'm about 100% sure that sugar isn't good for me ;) Even though I kinda love it...