The Humanist Carnivore: An Oxymoron?

Many will be gearing up for December feasts that often include a holiday ham or turkey. But is it okay to be both a humanist and a meat-eater? Nutritionist Dr. Ann Childers says yes.

A few weeks ago I posted the Belief-O-Matic from on my Facebook page. The Belief-O-Matic is the online test that began my journey to humanism and inspired me to find the American Humanist Association. My post generated a curious outcome.

To give you some background, I am a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist who became active in bariatric medicine (the study of obesity and metabolism) when I realized many of the drugs I prescribe have the potential to cause catastrophic weight gain, potentially limiting their use. It turns out Low Carbohydrate, Paleo and Primal approaches to diet are effective in stemming weight gain from these drugs, while simultaneously promoting health. My interest and writings generated a number of Facebook followers who embrace Low Carbohydrate, Primal and/or Paleo lifestyles.  Given that the overwhelming majority of people in this population are dedicated meat eaters, I was not sure what to expect when I posted the Belief-O-Matic. Imagine my surprise when all but one Low Carbohydrate/Primal/Paleo respondent reported scoring the category of “humanist”! The single outlier reported scored as a Quaker, which is fascinating given that Quakers were influential in founding humanism.

That humanist endeavor to live life centered on reason and compassion raises questions as to whether a balance between humanism and carnivory can be struck. Can anyone who regards him or herself as a carnivore live an ethical life with consideration to animals and natural resources? Issues of world resources and animal welfare are monumental matters of much debate both within humanist circles, and I while I will not attempt to settle these I can provide clues as to how well-managed carnivory could be viewed as ethical, and why I believe humanism and carnivory are not mutually exclusive.

The knowledgeable and compassionate humanist gives the decision whether or not to eat meat serious study and care. From the carnivore’s viewpoint, humans require animal products for survival and quality of life. Were we to live off the lands with four seasons, as so many of our ancestors did, this concept would become starkly apparent.  Without furs and food from wild game, winter spells starvation, hypothermia and death for humankind.

Although modern times offer a year round variety of plant foods along with dietary supplements, warm homes, synthetic clothing and medical care, malnutrition remains a problem when animal foods are excluded from the human diet. Heme iron from meat is the most readily available iron source in the human diet; low iron can mean anemia in adults and mental retardation in infants and young children. B12 is most easily generated by the stomach from meat, fish, eggs and poultry. It takes years to deplete B12 when animal foods are removed; depletion leads to psychiatric disorders, nerve damage and dementia. Vitamin A can be derived from plant sources by nearly 60% of people studied; however, more than 40% have an inherited inability to convert beta carotene to Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency promotes night blindness, general blindness, short stature and more. Zinc, calcium, and a number of other nutrients are also most easily derived from animal products, as are the omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. When animal sourced foods are included, diets become more sustainable in terms of human health.

Humanist carnivores are concerned with the effect of meat eating on land management. Modern science suggests living in harmony with domestic range animals and sea animals can enhance our health while improving the grasslands they graze and the seas they roam, so long the land, ocean and their inhabitants are carefully managed. On land, for example, evidence shows herds of grazing animals can be utilized in a way that rapidly salvages lands on the brink of desertification, rather than creating the deserts typically left in the wake of poor long-term herd management. Studies are underway, and several models are proposed where judicious utilization of very large herds (in one case employing 25,000 sheep was reported to increase land productivity by 50% in the first year) is considered to be of particular benefit.

Animal welfare comes into stark focus when discussing vegetarian, and especially vegan, dietary habits. Vegans and other animal welfare groups justifiably highlight the mass cruelty found in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs, or factory farms) where most of America’s meat is raised and fed, and critique methods by which meat is harvested. Such groups have been instrumental in changing animal husbandry for the better. The humanist carnivore is also concerned about animal welfare. Those educated about Paleo and/or Primal lifestyles are taught foods from well-managed, organic, pastured, free-range, humanely-treated animals are superior to foods from inhumanely treated animals in their contributions to human health. Animals managed well require little in the way of veterinary interventions and seldom need antibiotics, making them unlikely breeding grounds for disease and antibiotic-resistant micro-organisms. Humane killing is another central theme, where animals are dispatched without undue pain, distress or fear. It turns out undue stress and fear at the time of slaughter can damage animal meat, rendering it unmarketable, so that practices benefitting animals once again benefit consumers.

Issues described above are just a few of the issues considered by humanists who consume animal sourced products. For further discussion of the ethics of meat eating you may wish to read Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie. Another resource is Joel Salatin. At Polyface Farm, Mr. Salatin demonstrates that humane, sustainable farming increases productivity and product quality. His farming practices are captured on YouTube and he is the author of a number of books.