Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Raw deal

A friend of mine, a veterinarian in Scotland, has proven to be a wonderful source of topics for Skeptophilia, mostly on health-related issues.  Her skeptical, evidence-based approach has given her a keen eye for nonsense -- and man, in this field, there's a lot of nonsense to choose from.

Her latest contribution was so over-the-top at first I thought it was a parody.  Sadly, it's not.  So, dear readers, allow me to introduce you to:

The Raw Meat Carnivore Diet.

Once I ruled this out as an example of Poe's Law, my next guess was that it was the creation of someone like Andrew Tate to prove to us once and for all that he's the alpha-est alpha that ever alpha-ed, but again, this seems not to be the case.  Apparently, this is being seriously suggested as a healthy way to eat.  And it's exactly what it sounds like; on this diet, you're to eat only raw meat from ruminants (beef, bison, lamb, elk, etc.), salt, and water.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Jellaluna, Raw beef steak, 2011, CC BY 2.0]

At the risk of stating what is (I devoutly hope) the obvious, this is a really really REALLY bad idea.  Cooking your food remains the easiest and best way to sterilize it, killing pathogens like E. coli, Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter, and Staphylococcus aureus, as well as other special offers like various parasitic worms I'd prefer not to even think about.  The writer of the article, one Liam McAuliffe, assures us that the acidity in our stomach is perfectly capable of killing all of the above pathogens -- which leads to the question of why, then, anyone ever becomes ill from them.

Then there's a passage about an experiment back in the 1930s showing that cats fed a raw meat diet were generally healthier, which may be true, but ignores the fact that cats are damn close to obligate carnivores, and we're not.  To convince yourself that cats and humans have evolved to thrive on different diets, all you have to do is look at the teeth.  Cats have what are called carnassial molars; narrow, with sharp shearing edges, designed to cut meat up into chunks.  Our molars are flat, with cusps, typical of -- you guessed it -- an omnivore.  Citing the cat experiment as a reason we should all eat raw meat is a little like observing that cows thrive when allowed to graze in verdant fields, and deciding that henceforth humans should eat nothing but grass.

This brings up something else that Mr. McAuliffe conveniently neglects to mention; to have our digestive systems function properly, humans (and other omnivores) need to have a good bit of plant-derived cellulose in our diets -- what dietitians call "roughage" or "fiber."  Without it, our intestines clog up like a bad drain.  Eliminating all the vegetables from your diet is a good way to end up with terminal constipation.

What a way to go.  Or not go, as the case may be.

Then, there's a bit about how cooking meat reduces the amount of nutrients it contains -- specifically the B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin.  Once again, this may well be true; but even if it is, the next question is, how many of us are deficient enough in these nutrients that the loss from cooking is actually a problem?  Let me put it this way; how many people do you know who have had beriberi (thiamine deficiency) or pellagra (niacin deficiency)?  (Riboflavin deficiency is so rare it doesn't even have a name.)  The fact is, if you're eating a normal diet, you are almost certainly getting more of these vitamins than you need, and the small amount of loss from cooking your t-bone steak is far offset by the benefit of not dying from an E. coli infection.

Not to beat the point unto death, but McAuliffe's contention -- that we are, in his words, "hypercarnivorous apex predators" -- is nonsense.  Our closest relatives, chimps and bonobos, are thoroughgoing omnivores, who will certainly eat meat when they can get it but also love fruit, and will chow down on starch-rich roots and stems without any apparent hesitation.  What's optimal for human health, and which has been demonstrated experimentally over and over, is a varied diet including meat (or an equivalent protein source), vegetables, and fruits -- just like our jungle-dwelling cousins.

So.  Yeah.  Go easy on the moose tartare.  I'm of the opinion that a steak with a glass of fine red wine is a nice treat, but let's avoid eating it raw, okay?


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