A Diet for the Digital Age

Place setting with healthy food pie chart plate next to globe plate
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Some people, despite the risk of reprisals, break the law intentionally, hoping to elude enforcement, seeking short-term gain. And sometimes they succeed; cheaters do, at times, prosper. Here, though, is a timely reality check: there are no lapses in enforcement when it comes to the true laws of nature. They are always enforced.

Accordingly, and despite a massive, dreadful global burden of overwhelmingly preventable chronic disease and premature death, more and more of my health care colleagues are focusing preferentially on environmental matters, as am I.

We recognize that there are no human health issues left to worry about on a planet ill suited to human habitation.

A Shift in Perspective for Our Age

Until recently, my focus on diet was comfortably limited to direct health effects. That has populated my research, my clinical practice, my journalism, and the pages of peer-reviewed papers and textbooks. But as the environmental impacts of our dietary choices become more salient and ominous, my focus has shifted to keep pace. In my opinion, there can no longer be meaningful discussions about diet for human health that do not address the health of the planet, too.

In that context, it seems to me that much of the public discourse about diet- in particular, how much meat we ought to eat- keeps tripping over one natural law, while ignoring another entirely.

The Law of Balance in Natural Systems

Let’s start with the law we are ignoring, because it’s the big one.

It’s the law no one gets to ignore for very long. Namely, the law of balance in natural systems. Yes, of course, animals eat other animals in Nature. But there is a rather constant constraint: predators are few, prey are numerous. Every time.

There were, before we wiped them out, vast herds of bison in North America.

There were never vast herds of grizzlies, or cougars, or wolves. They were more numerous than they are, of course, but always vastly less numerous than their prey.

There are still great herds of wildebeest in Africa; there are not, and never were, comparable herds of lions. Even at their most numerous, the scattered prides of lions were vastly outnumbered. That much more so now that human encroachment menaces ever more of their native domain, of course- but vastly fewer than their prey since long before that threat emerged.

The argument pertains only more so to tigers, notorious loners. Predators are few, prey are relatively numerous, be the predators lions, or tigers, or bears.

In all of nature, that’s how it goes. But we seem inclined to think we can have our meat, and eat it too- no matter how many of us there are. At best, that’s a leap of faith away from all of natural history. At worst, it is just as bad as it seems: a product of rapacious hubris, and a portent of our doom.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Defying the law of natural balance invokes the law most apt to trip us up: the law of unintended consequences.

At the compelling Common Ground conference held in Boston in 2015, none other than the founding father of our modern understanding of the Paleo diet, Dr. S. Boyd Eaton, asserted that he would go back to recommending routine meat consumption only when the global human population falls back to 100 million or so. In the Stone Age, we were not a voracious, global horde of nearing 8 billion; we were a hundred million at most, scattered across a big, mostly empty and seemingly inexhaustible world.

Dr. Eaton did not elaborate what apocalypse might stand between us and that steep decline in the human population, but his talk gave us pause to ponder it. Maybe it's the environmental disaster that will come from eating like there’s no tomorrow, a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.

The Diet for the Digital Age

None of us, of course, wants anything remotely calamitous enough to return our population to Stone Age levels. Assuming we are to avoid just such doom, and our numbers do not plummet- then the laws of nature say we cannot be substantially carnivorous.

True, we eat mostly domesticated animals these days, but it all reverts back to the same toll on the natural world. Diverting the necessary resources- water, land, food- to raise that much domesticated meat wreaks just as much havoc on the animal kingdom as if we just went ahead and ate every living thing with fur, feathers, and scales directly. Nature will not abide it.

We are a long way from the Stone Age. We live in what some have dubbed the Anthropocene, the age of human influence.

We also call this modern era the Digital Age, for all of the obvious reasons- but perhaps also because human fingerprints are all over everything of urgent significance, from melting glaciers to rising seas; from declining biodiversity to dwindling aquifers.

However far removed this age from that of our origins, and whatever we call it- it remains constrained by Nature’s laws. There is no escaping them.

We can promote our own health by adopting a diet made up mostly of minimally processed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds- and plain water preferentially for thirst. We cannot protect the health of the planet by doing anything but.

Admittedly, it sounds dramatic, but it is nonetheless true: as we decide how to eat in an age covered with the prints of human fingers, the fate of our world hangs in the balance.

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