Meat as Health Food, Food Preference as Wisdom

A Chinese friend of mine had a cold. After a few weeks, she was still sick.  I suggested she eat meat — it would provide the amino acids needed to make antibodies. She did want to eat meat, she said, but her mom thought that meat was bad for a sick person — an idea from Traditional Chinese Medicine, I guess.

Yesterday I had a desire to eat meat. That was odd; I didn’t usually feel that way. I ate all the meat in the refrigerator (slices of cured meat) but it wasn’t much. I ate three eggs. That, too, was odd — usually one egg is plenty. In the evening, I distinctly wanted more meat but decided against going out to get some. This morning I woke up with the flu. I could tell by the joint pain. So that’s what joint pain is, I thought. I’d read about flu and written about it, but, before this morning, cannot remember having it.  How is the flu different from a cold? I once tried to find out. I might not have come down with today’s case of the flu were it not for two events: yesterday’s decision not to eat meat; and, the day before, running into a friend who had just left the house after being home-bound for four days with the flu. He shook my hand twice.

Humans (including me) are exceedingly gullible; my evolutionary explanation is that this makes us easier to lead. Gullibility — we believe something just because an authority says it — is cement. It keeps members of a group together. Better that 10 people do one thing (e.g., live in one place) than ten things, in many cases. Pointless to waste time on unresolvable and divisive arguments. Doctors, both Western and Eastern, take advantage of our gullibility. As my friend says, “doctors hurt you” because they tell you to do something different from what you want to do (e.g., eat meat). What you want to do is actual wisdom. We’ve been shaped by evolution to want to do what is good for us and what we want to eat is a giant clue to what we should eat. In nutrition research, this line of thinking, which is called dietary self-selection research, is nearly moribund, in spite of a great 1939 article about what happened when young children ate what they wanted. The idea that we want to eat what we should eat is what first led me to think we need to eat fermented foods to be healthy. Fermented foods, much more than other foods, satisfy our desire for sour, umami-flavored and complex-flavored foods. For example, it is easy to produce complexity via fermentation; it is hard to produce it in other ways.

As for my flu, I went to the store and got pork and duck. By evening I felt much better.

 

21 Responses to “Meat as Health Food, Food Preference as Wisdom”

  1. Frankr Says:

    What if we want to eat sugars & starches, beer & drugs because of the good effects? Clearly all but arguably beer is unhealthy.

  2. Sam Says:

    Seth,
    I agree with you based upon yours and my own experiences.
    But I am confused that If we are hard wired to crave what we ‘need’ – we should stop craving when that is ‘not needed’…???
    Then what about constant craving of sweet things that leads to excess sugar consumption.?

  3. Allen K. Says:

    That 1939 article is indeed great!

  4. Angelyne Says:

    Where does the craving for carbs enter with this this idea. I often crave chocolate, especially milk chocolate. I do no crave dark chocolate. It’s very distinct. If I pick up a milk chocolate bar, I will feel compelled to finish it, especially if I had a glass of wine or two and my inhibitions are lowered. It’s very difficult for me to put it aside. (My husband has this rule that chocolate should be shared equally, damn him :) Yet, I’ll have no difficulty ignoring a bar of dark chocolate. So I’m clearly craving sugar, not some other component of chocolate.

    Apart from chocolate, which is the only “bad” thing that I allow myself, for the most part, I’ll crave vegetables. I don’t remember ever craving meat of any sort. I think if it was up to my natural inclinations (and judging from the past), I’d eat a SAD diet based on grains, vegetables, milk products and some meat, eggs and fish.

  5. Frankr Says:

    I should say that in general I think it makes a lot of sense to listen to your body when it comes to what your food urges are…

  6. Alrenous Says:

    Angelyne,

    First, coffee drinkers crave caffeine. Imagine a child who had a cuppa with every meal. What do you think would happen to the resulting adult if they tried to switch to decaf? Were you raised on starches, like everyone else?

    Second, discard any biases against introspection. Look at your craving for sugar in detail. I’ve had cravings for salt, fat, vegetables, meat, and sometimes particular foods, which I can compare it to. Is the sugar craving the same kind of craving? Is the satisfaction the same? Can you tell the difference?

  7. dearieme Says:

    Of all the vitamins, the best are the “B” vitamins i.e. beer and bacon.

  8. Seth Roberts Says:

    “what about constant craving of sweet things that leads to excess sugar consumption?”

    glad you asked…see my next post.

  9. Seth Roberts Says:

    “What if we want to eat sugars & starches, beer & drugs because of the good effects?”

    1. I think a lot of addiction comes from people wanting to feel better when they feel bad. Comfort foods are a small example. If you got rid of depression, I think addiction would become much less of a problem.

    2. I think the view that sugar is unhealthy is too simple. See my next post. Lots of people have bad results on a low-carb diet — the notion that starches are unhealthy is also too simple. Paul Jaminet, for example, had bad results on a low-carb diet.

  10. Seth Roberts Says:

    “It makes a lot of sense to listen to your body when it comes to what your food urges are…”

    I agree, and I am also saying something else: It isn’t obvious what those cravings mean. It isn’t obvious why we crave X or Y. And if we try to figure out why, we may learn something useful. Sugar is a good example. Some people crave it. Well, why? I don’t think the answer is obvious at all.

    Until yesterday I had no idea that craving meat more than usual meant I was in danger of getting sick. I had never heard anyone say that. The discussion about meat was at a superficial level: some people (e.g., vegetarians) said meat was bad, others (e.g., paleo) said it was good. These views and the supporting evidence did not help me understand why desire for meat might go up or down.

  11. Brandon Berg Says:

    Taking into account the fact that many of the foods available today were not available in the distant past, it seems likely that we may crave certain tastes as a proxy for nutrients that have historically been coupled with those tastes.

    For example, a craving for sugar may actually be due to a need for nutrients found in fruits, such as potassium or vitamin C.

    Seth: Interesting idea. But, if so, why do sweet things not taste good when we are hungry? (Which is why dessert is separate and comes at the end of the meal.)

  12. Frankr Says:

    I think a good rule of thumb is, eat paleo foods that you CRAVE (I am including some starches here because I think some types were around). We should not listen to what we CRAVE when it comes to desires for substances that were not around int he paleo era because our body did not have a chance to evolve a craving or distain for them.

  13. Frankr Says:

    One other thing that the mainstream is not talking about is ancestral foods based off of ancestry. The ideal diet for a typical NE Asian person may be different from the ideal diet for a Sub-Saharan African or N. European.

  14. Wil Says:

    This appears to be a very complex topic. But it at least seems clear that the addictive nature of certain foods (and/or components thereof) that are damaging can also drive food cravings. For example, carbohydrates in general are addictive as anyone who has tried (and even succeeded) in transitioning to a life style of carb restriction can testify.

    There has been quite a lot of writing about the topic of the negative effects of certain carbohydrates on humans; such as by Drs. Michael & Mary Dann Eades, Dr. William Davis, Drs. Phinney & Volek, Gary Taubes and, more recently, Dr. David Perlmutter.

    Dr. Perlmutter, for example, approaches the issue from his perspective as a neurologist (e.g. damaging brain effects from gluten) and Dr. Davis from his perspective as a cardiologist (e.g. the gliadin protein of wheat which can penetrate the blood/brain barrier and lead to autoimmune diseases).

    All well worth reading and supported by scientific references.

  15. Seth Roberts Says:

    “There has been quite a lot of writing about the topic of the negative effects of certain carbohydrates on humans; such as by Drs. Michael & Mary Dann Eades, Dr. William Davis, Drs. Phinney & Volek, Gary Taubes and, more recently, Dr. David Perlmutter.”

    Have any of them explained why evolution has shaped us to like the taste of something that is bad for us?

  16. Seth Roberts Says:

    “We should not listen to what we CRAVE when it comes to desires for substances that were not around in the paleo era because our body did not have a chance to evolve a craving or distain for them.”

    I think we should figure out why we crave them.

  17. Jason Says:

    Trusting our appetite is important, but our body may also crave proxy foods that don’t fulfill the underlying nutritional deficiency. People who chew ice are iron deficient. Chewing the ice does nothing to treat this anemia, but they still have an appetite for ice caused by a lack of iron. An impulse to eat meat when we are on the verge of sickness does not necessarily mean that meat improves flu resistance. It could be a crossed signal, just like iron anemic pagophagia.

    Seth: “It could be a crossed signal”. The connection between desire for meat and sickness makes a lot of sense: Antibodies are made of amino acids, meat is made of amino acids. Unlike ice and iron deficiency. Crunching ice is a modern substitute for crunching bones, bone marrow is iron rich.

  18. Jason Says:

    When I started taking an iron supplement, my compulsive desire to eat large quantities of Mexican cole slaw (basically fresh raw cabbage in vinegar) and other crunchy things went away. Before the iron pill, I spent a year incorporating raw cabbage into all kinds of meals, and frequenting a specific taqueria that had a salsa bar with free slaw that I would put inside my burrito. Then, just as quickly, I improved my iron intake and the desire for and love of raw cabbage were completely gone.

    Based on that experience, when I later felt an intense desire to eat an unripe green tomato, I assumed the cause was a nutritional deficiency, but not necessarily one that an unripe tomato would fix. I had never eaten a green tomato, but the desire to eat one was very strong and clear in my mind. I decided to take a fancy multi-vitamin for children that had a small amount of lots of vitamins, minerals, and herbs in it. I also decided to eat some unripe tomatoes, because why not? The desire went away after a week.

    For many years I ate no candy or really junk food of any kind. This year I started eating candy when I craved it. Sometimes I very much want to eat a pound of Skittles, and other times I have absolutely no desire for candy, and take little pleasure in it if I eat some anyway. I assume, like my cabbage and tomato experiences, that the Skittles are a proxy for some underlying nutritional need, but unless it’s a need for pure carbs, I doubt the Skittles treat that need. My personal instinct is that there is something about the fruit flavoring that is appealing. I only crave fruity candy. Even though I use cocoa and eat dark chocolate, I never crave chocolate.

  19. Stu Says:

    I agree that food cravings are telling us something, it’s just not always obvious. In the study Seth referenced they stated that ‘meals were often combinations of foods that were strange indeed to us, and would have been a dietitian’s nightmare – for example, a breakfast of a pint of orange juice and liver’. Orange juice and liver are seeming unrelated yet they both contain very high amounts of vitamin C, perhaps that child was deficient in vitamin C and instinctually new to eat those foods.
    When I ate zero starches and sugary foods I developed tennis elbow which wouldn’t heal, had poor sleep, was tired and suffered brain fog and fatigue. And all I wanted was to eat starchy foods. I read Paul Jaminet’s book and started eating starches and sugary plant foods again and those problems are now a thing of the past. My instinct were probably right all along, I just needed to eat ‘real’ foods rather than processed ones

  20. Wil Says:

    Referring to several authors mentioned above Seth said: “Have any of them explained why evolution has shaped us to like the taste of something that is bad for us?”

    Seth, that’s a valid question. My answer is that I don’t think any of the referenced authors have addressed this question explicitly. However, my own view is that it’s unlikely that evolution is solely or even mainly responsible for our bad eating habits, but rather societal drivers such as, for example, the marketing of packaged food products with messages that bombard all of us daily on TV, the Internet, and in print media. It seems clear that children are particularly susceptible to this kind of advertising and bad nutrition habits are the result, extending well into adulthood.

    A number of the referenced authors have also discussed the fact that many such products have one or more components that are addictive. To the extent this may be true, the suspicion is that some packaged (junk?) food companies are not only well aware of it, but have adopted this as a business model in order to grow sales.

  21. Brandon Berg Says:

    “But, if so, why do sweet things not taste good when we are hungry? (Which is why dessert is separate and comes at the end of the meal.)”

    I dispute the premise, or at least its universality. Sweet things taste just fine to me when I’m hungry. I think people usually eat dessert last because sweet things blunt the appetite for more substantial foods but not vice-versa. “Don’t eat that—it’ll spoil your appetite” vs. 甘い物は別腹

    Seth: Look at the experiments on the question done by Elizabeth Capaldi (although I am afraid they are hard to get ahold of). “But not vice-versa”…okay, what explains the asymmetry? My argument doesn’t depend on the assumption you question. It is obvious that we eat dessert after meals, which raises the questions: 1. why after? 2. why are heavily-sweet things, such as pie and pudding, segregated?