C.J. Hunt, creator and host of the ‘documentary’ The Perfect Human Diet, claims to have “rediscovered” what human beings are intended to eat: meat. The documentary describes how he arrived at this conclusion after “a ten year global journey”, and the documentary website calls this conclusion the “solution to the number one killer in America”, meaning heart disease.
Hunt says that diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other nutritionally-derived health issues could be completely resolved by adopting a primarily meat-based diet. Before you protest that most Americans already have a meat-based diet, in fact we don’t: like most human beings around the world, we have a largely cereals-based diet. We get most of our calories from the carbohydrates in grains, be it bread in America or rice in Cambodia. I will agree with Hunt’s point that carbohydrates are bad for humans. We are simply not designed to efficiently process those kinds of nutrients. Aside from the health implications for individuals, further evidence for the detrimental impacts of agriculture can be found in abundance in Ishmael. But I digress…
According to Hunt, the “paleolithic diet” was composed primarily of meat. He calls anatomically modern humans (AMH) “carnivorous”. While it is absolutely true that many hunter-gatherer societies ate primarily meat, it is certainly not a prerequisite for being AMH, and meat made up half (or less than half) of many other societies’ diets, who focused more on seed, nuts, etc. What they all had in common was that they were omnivorous; it is unlikely that humans would have survived long if they’d depended solely on meat (or solely on any one thing), and the diversity of the early human diet is confirmed even by one of the anthropologists whom Hunt interviews. This is another fact of our modern diet: it seriously lacks diversity.
Hunt takes as evidence for humans’ naturally carnivorous nature the hunter-gatherer humans and Neanderthals of Stone Age Europe. There appears to be good evidence* that these people consumed a lot of meat; for much of the year, vegetation would have been scarce, so their very survival would have probably meant a dependency on animals. (The Neanderthal diet of that time seems to be more understood than the AMH diet of that time. For instance, there is confusion about what other sources of food AMHs were getting during the cold winter months if they could not store food.) However, remember that data derived from isotopic analysis can’t tell us precisely how much of their diet was meat, just that most of their dietary protein was coming from animals: “Isotopic analysis provides information about the sources of dietary protein over a number of years, even though it does not measure the caloric contributions of different foods.”
Taking the diet of AMHs of Stone Age Europe as our baseline of what the “paleolithic diet” of hunter-gatherers was like is not only racist but probably inaccurate. Hunter-gatherer societies around the world vary greatly in terms of the types and quantity of animal protein they consume(d), but Hunt chooses to universalize these particular AMH and Neanderthal diets (which also were not identical, by any means) as “normal” paleolithic diets. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given that Privileged White Man Claims to Embark on Global Journey, Goes Only to North America, Europe and Australia. *facepalm*
It might also be interesting to note that most early human ancestors ate almost nothing but plant matter. This is several millions of years, as opposed to the 1.5 million years that we have (we think) definitely been eating meat in any quantity.
One more issue with Hunt’s assumption that the European AMH diet is some kind of “gold standard” for paleolithic diets: Hunt takes the comments of various anthropologists and archaeologists out of context to support his image of the Perfect Human Diet as one centered primarily (or even entirely) around meat. Vegetation, fruits, and nuts are thrown in as an afterthought, and aren’t really discussed by Hunt, at all. Part of this seems to be a reaction to the “low-carb” fad of weight-loss diets. For Hunt, protein is what should replace carbohydrates. Why does “low-carb” equate to “high protein”? (I suspect there is an argument to be made here regarding animal protein consumption and masculinity, but I’m not going to go there.)
Despite some of the obvious holes and inconsistencies in Hunt’s argument, I tried to entertain the thought of everyone assuming such a diet. After all, many people think avoiding meat altogether is equally (or even more) wacky. However, it doesn’t take much consideration to decide that more humans eating more meat is a bad idea, if not for the individual then most definitely for humans as a species as well as for the planet.
As things stand, livestock-related emissions contribute 14.5% to GHG emissions each year, which is only going to continue to increase as countries like China (sorry China, you always get blamed– I’m not blaming you, you just have a lot of people, but we’re still friends!) continue to consume more meat. Consider this: per capita, only Luxembourg eats more meat than the United States (figures courtesy of The Economist). So even though China on the whole eats twice the amount of meat as the U.S., the average American citizen still eats more than twice the amount of meat as the average Chinese citizen.
Consider how things will change as China and the rest of the world eat ever more meat (for which we will have only ourselves to blame as we promote a capitalist American lifestyle throughout the world). Consider how things might look if Americans decided to focus their diet even more on meat, and if the rest of the world began to follow suit. I have a feeling that greenhouse gas emissions from livestock would suddenly come to the forefront of the discussion on climate change.
Finally, in response to the paleolithic diet fad, I appreciate this comment from Scientific American: “Ultimately—regardless of one’s intentions—the Paleo diet is founded more on privilege than on logic. Hunter–gatherers in the Paleolithic hunted and gathered because they had to. Paleo dieters attempt to eat like hunter–gatherers because they want to.” Given that this documentary was created by a man at the top his “foodchain”, it makes sense that privilege is a central factor in this “logic”.
Thoughts on this??
*This book is downloadable for free! Pretty cool! Also, one of the co-authors of this book appears to be the same Michael Richards interviewed by Hunt for his documentary. But, if you wanted to explore that source more deeply for yourself, here it is.