Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Is Meat Unhealthy? Part IV

In this post, I'll address the question: does eating meat contribute to weight gain?

Non-industrial cultures

I'll get right to the point: humans living in a non-industrialized setting tend to be lean, regardless of how much meat they eat.  This applies equally to hunter-gatherers, herders, and farmers.

One of the leanest populations I've encountered in my reading is the 1960s Papua New Guinea highland farmers of Tukisenta.  They ate a nearly vegan diet composed almost exclusively of sweet potatoes, occasionally punctuated by feasts including large amounts of pork.  On average, they ate very little animal food.  Visiting researchers noted that the residents of Tukisenta were "muscular and mostly very lean", and did not gain fat with age (1, Western Diseases, Trowell and Burkitt, 1981).

!Kung man gathering mongongo fruit/nuts.
From The !Kung San, by Richard B. Lee.
Another remarkably lean hunter-gatherer population is the !Kung San foragers of the Kalahari desert.  The !Kung San are so lean that many of them would be considered underweight on the standard body mass index scale (BMI less than 18.5).  Average BMI doesn't exceed 20 in any age category (The !Kung San, Richard Lee, 1979).  Is this simply because they're starving?  It is true that they don't always get as much food as they'd like, but on most days, they have the ability to gather more food than they need.  The fact that they are able to reproduce normally suggests that they aren't starving.  Richard Lee's detailed work with the !Kung San indicates that approximately 40 percent of their calories came from animal foods during his study period in the 1960s.  This was mostly meat, with occasional eggs when available.

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