The Protein Blues: Confessions of a Confirmed Carnivore

By Garland West June 30, 2021 | 6 MIN READ

Global Food

The Protein Blues: Confessions of a Confirmed Carnivore

Food Technology

By Garland West June 30, 2021 | 6 MIN READ

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I love a good piece of beef. Maybe a steak on special occasions, or just a hamburger off the grill in the backyard. But I’ve also been known to chow down energetically on Mom’s Sunday pork roast, and I still say her fried chicken is the undisputed Food of the Gods. There are probably a few dried-out, half-gnawed chicken nuggets under the driver’s seat in my car, too.

Yup, I’m a carnivore. 

I’m also intelligent enough to see the merit in all the hoopla about meat and its role in health and the environment. I’m not what most folks would call a ‘woke’ kind of guy, but I’m not exactly ‘sleepy,’ either. I understand the importance of making smart choices about the proteins in my daily diet for my own good and that of the planet. I accept that moving forward, plant-based proteins – and plants in general – are likely to play a much larger role in the choices I make about what I eat. I find myself asking a lot more questions about the proteins I consume and where they should come from. I have choices to make.

plant protein, The Protein Blues: Confessions of a Confirmed Carnivore

Right off, I could choose to stop eating meat altogether. Ain’t gonna happen. 

It’s a personal choice. I like meat. It tastes good and gives me a happy, warm feeling and a sense of after-dinner contentment. It provides essential amino acids, some very difficult to find in plants, and satisfies many other nutritional needs.

It requires the use of environmental resources, sure, and like a lot of other things, has some carbon footprint.

But I’m far more inclined to look at those more as an investment than a cost, especially when I see the growing clamor for protein from meat by hungry and undernourished people around the world, not to mention the efforts being made across the animal production industry to better manage the use of resources.  

What’s more, I still struggle with the idea of where all this will end. The beef industry obviously is in the cross-hairs of a lot of people, and it’s already having an effect when profit-minded retailers and restaurants make marketing hay out of a very public decision to no longer sell or promote beef products. Pigs and chickens require water and feed and create environmental issues, too. Maybe not as much as cows, but there are a helluva lot more of them than there are cows on the planet.

Do we simply accept the logic of the argument and say animal protein’s day on the consumer’s plate is over?

To me, all of life has an environmental cost of some sort, animal and human alike. Our day-to-day lives are not perfectly aligned with the environment. For instance, most of us discard our mattresses after a couple of years – and doing so makes up 450 million pounds of waste a year. Since the beginning of Covid, we are all now addicted to hand-sanitizing gel that degrades slowly and accounts for 60% of all drugs in sewage and wastewater.

The question is the value created, measured against the price we pay. I’m happy to listen to all arguments and sides on the issue. I’ll consider your case. But I reserve the right to make my own choice – to find my own balance point in the debate. But my second option is much tougher…

Do I increase the non-animal portion of my caloric consumption? 

I can make vegetable-based and laboratory-produced protein products part of my personal menu. I’ve tried lab-grown meat products, as well as some produced solely from plants, all in the name of intellectual curiosity and discovery. Some of them were okay. I might eat more of them from time to time. But I just couldn’t shake the sense that I was eating something artificial, something more lab-based than nature-based. 

I know the science that supports the products, but I still have this ingrained sense that I like a real hamburger a lot more than chemically-manipulated grass or a burger fresh not from the grill but the petri dish.

Irrational in some way, probably. But very human.

The smart side of my brain says this is most likely the best course for me moving forward. But I still have a few mental hurdles to get over before I go all-in on this option. Remember, I still have nightmares from time to time about the movie Soylent Green, and whoever came up with the damning label “Frankenfood” is a stone-cold marketing genius for the anti-meat, anti-GMO, and anti-science crowds. Enough said about the psychology of the fear of food.

I didn’t blink at all when I read about the report at the elite World Economic Forum in Davos that cited weeds as a potentially significant source of food for a hungry world. I’d already seen promotions from various back-to-the-earth groups (and maybe a few survivalists) making the same point, some offering actually to sell me weed seeds, presumably, so I could get a head start on the trend and avoid having to scrounge on my own along roadsides, in ditches, and almost everywhere in my neighbor’s lawn.

I couldn’t help but think about all those hours I spent as a kid destroying this invaluable food source when my parents made me pull weeds from our backyard garden for hours on end, either to build my character or punish some filial sin or probably both. 

Maybe I think even bigger and go all European in my approach.

plant protein, The Protein Blues: Confessions of a Confirmed Carnivore

The European Union’s food regulatory agency recently issued approval to the use of mealworms in animal feed – and as a human food. Other parts of the world embraced insects as food long ago. Nothing says “oh, yum!” to me more than a heaping plate of grubs, maybe with a side of worms and a nice side salad of dandelions and other home-grown weeds.

In our childhood – age 14, actually – my younger brother once ate three worms on a dare, and we all know how that turned out. He still can’t do eights and nines in the multiplication tables. 

Going European also would make it easier to leap to the next level of protein management.

Why not just man up and go vegetarian or vegan?

Put aside a Pavlovian liking for meat that goes back to the Eisenhower Administration. What kind of plant-centric diet should I follow?

Start with the basics. Vegetarians consume some animal-derived food products, such as milk and eggs, and vegans don’t. But I’m not exactly au courant on the ins and outs of vegan eating, so let me do a quick search in cyberspace and see if that offers any helpful guidance.

Right out of the Google gate, there’s what’s called the Whole Food Vegan Diet. This diet allows me to eat fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. The Raw Vegan Diet also seems to involve no animal products – I suppose meaning fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and so on, only not cooked. Except for some foods that are allowed to be cooked to 104 degrees, for some reason. One set of Raw Vegan devotees apparently follow the diet up till 4 p.m. every day. After that, I suppose, anything goes.

plant protein, The Protein Blues: Confessions of a Confirmed CarnivoreA so-called Gluten-Free Vegan Diet just adds gluten to the list of what not to eat. Next, my search engine gives me the Fruitarian Vegan Diet, in which I’m supposed to avoid plants and eat only fruits, nuts, and seeds. Except some Fruitarians also prohibit the consumption of seeds since they contain future plants. 

The Paleo Vegan Diet restricts me to the pure and unprocessed foods consumed by my Paleolithic ancestors. That would let me eat lots and lots of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, seeds, and nuts, but no grains or legumes, since they weren’t around as food options for the Stone Age connoisseur. 

And a Freegan Diet permits consumption of processed vegan foods, including mock meats and vegan ice cream, whatever the hell that is.  

Now I don’t mean to disparage people who want to tailor their diets for health, environmental, religious, ethical, or other reasons.

But all I see in this search is a lot of “don’t eat this” and “don’t eat that,” at least at certain times or on specific days, and certainly never when Taurus the Bull is astrologically ascendant or some Kardashian hasn’t opined on the matter.

Try as I might, I suspect my efforts at plant-centric eating would leave me underfed, undernourished, and underwhelmed. 

Maybe I just avoid the whole subject with others…

…my friends, relatives, coworkers, church members, LinkedIn communities, Instagram and Twitter followers, neighbors, extended warranty salespeople, therapists, and anyone else I ever meet. If trapped into some comment on the subject, lapse into the double-talk and non-sequiturs I sometimes use to convey senility, or if absolutely necessary say all the politically correct things needed to get me out of the immediate pickle.  

I then retreat to my basement or my garage or my two-man tent in the backyard or my sofa-cushion fort in the rec room, where I surreptitiously chow down like the hungry dog I am on year-old frozen meatloaf, Slim Jims, Vienna sausages, Spam, BBQ chicken wings, and any other meat product I can hoard.

I join the growing legions of the Meat Underground, secure in my knowledge of the secret handshakes and high fives its members use to connect with like-minded but guilt-ridden meat junkies. There’s no 12-step program for us, so we just have to do the best we can, one day at a time.  

Maybe I just stop eating altogether.

My health plan is pretty good, so maybe I could simply opt for regular intravenous feedings of essential nutrients. That sounds like a pretty efficient, Spockian way to deal with the matter. 

I can’t face the final years of my life as a social pariah because I made the wrong choice about what kind of protein I consume. And it sure seems right now that any choice I make – short of not eating at all – is going to be morally offensive, irresponsible, perhaps sinful, environmentally callous, unscientific, irrational, politically charged, or just flat-out wrong to all the experts so eager to guide me to the truth on questions of food, nutrition, the environment, social responsibility, humanism, science, and morality.  

I just don’t know what to do. Other than, of course, grilling a hamburger while I ponder the matter further. And maybe a nice cold beer would help, too.

Let me get back to you on this one.