Grains vs. Meat


I keep hearing this doctor on the radio at 4 a.m. who says that it’s not natural for humans to eat grains (gluten, barley, wheat, oats), that the only thing it’s natural for us to eat is meat. He also tells people not to eat cruciferous vegetables. I know it should be a fairly simple and obvious answer, but I cannot think of a retort to the assertion that humans evolved to eat meat—i.e., cave men chasing down animals and killing them. Because I guess it’s true that people really didn’t start growing grains until fairly late along their evolutionary timeline, right?


> He also tells people not to eat cruciferous vegetables.

I haven’t heard that one before.

Saying that humans evolved to do something is attributing intent on the part of the unconscious process of evolution. Humans may have evolved doing something, but that does not mean they should do it or that they will be most healthy or happy by doing it.

While we still do not know everything about nutrition, I tend to think that nutrition science has progressed far enough that there is no need to play it safe by basing our diets on what our prehistoric ancestors might have eaten. We have a pretty good idea of what diets are generally linked to long, healthy lives – much longer lives than those lived by our ancestors.

Tom Billings recently posted a new article to, What is Humanity’s Ancestral (Natural) Diet?. It is very interesting, though it doesn’t talk much about grains.

There is ample evidence that, yes, humans have been eating meat a lot longer than we have been farming grains. That doesn’t mean that humans didn’t eat grains over most of our history, but they probably ate a lot less than we do now. This could also depend on when you consider “human history” to have begun.

It also does not mean that grains are unhealthy or that meat is healthier than grains. To find out about these things, we can look at studies on people who eat more grains versus less. That research looks fairly positive for people who eat more whole grains.

This study found that intake of whole grain cereal was associated with reduced mortality:

Liu S, Sesso HD, Manson JE, Willett WC, Buring JE. Is intake of breakfast cereals related to total and cause-specific mortality in men? Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Mar;77(3):594-9.

Refined grain cereal did not confer any protection, but also did not increase mortality.

Here is a study showing that whole grains were linked to lower rates of type 2 diabetes:

de Munter JS, Hu FB, Spiegelman D, Franz M, van Dam RM. Whole grain, bran, and germ intake and risk of type 2 diabetes: a prospective cohort study and systematic review. PLoS Med. 2007 Aug;4(8):e261.

On the other hand, I’ve never seen a study linking meat from birds or mammals to a lower risk of mortality or type 2 diabetes.

Disease Rates of Vegetarians and Vegans summarizes the studies that have compared vegetarians’ mortality rates to non-vegetarians. No study has shown regular meat-eaters to have a lower mortality rate than vegetarians. Pesco vegetarians and lacto-ovo vegetarians had lower mortality rates than regular meat-eaters.

That is not to say that someone cannot eat large amounts of meat and no grains and still be healthy. But, in my opinion, such a person is taking more of a chance with their health than people eating more whole grains and less meat.

Finally, I would like to end by pointing out how much I appreciate my prehistoric ancestors’ suffering through their “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” lives so that one day I could comfortably eat a delicious bowl of pesto pasta made from domesticated grains and herbs, while watching The Colbert Report on my computer. We’ve come a long way since our days as hunter-gatherers!

24 Responses to “Grains vs. Meat”

  1. beforewisdom Says:

    Unfortunately carnists are not the only aggressors in the “war on grains” as I call it. Like root vegetables ( aka the evil “nightshades”, … *play scary music* ) grains are a frequent conversational fetish among food cultists and orthorexics of all kinds, including vegans. Most of those are raw foodists who have read books contradictory to basic science and written by authors without credentials. Then there are those vegans with “low carb envy” of omnivores. They don’t understand that a plate of brown rice and the latest vegan baked good while both “carbohydrates” have a world of qualitative difference. They cut down on both indiscriminately, notice themselves feeling better, losing weight and declaring a distrust of “grains”.


  2. larry Says:

    Here’s a good video on meat:

  3. Robert Stanton Says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I think you might already have posted a link to the ‘Palaeo-Veganology’ blog, but I thought I would repost, as it seems very relevant to this topic. The blogger is a palaeontologist who takes on claims that meat-eating is natural because it was practiced by our ancestors.

  4. Jack Norris RD Says:


    Are you the blogger who writes the paleovegan blog? This is the first I’ve heard of it. It looks very interesting, I’ll check it out.

  5. Robert Stanton Says:

    Not me! I just found it about a month or so ago myself. Lots of thought-provoking stuff there.

  6. AJ Says:

    The naturalist argument is broken. We should not be concerned nor place our ideas on what our ancestors ate in the past. What matters is what the CURRENT evidence says what healthy food is: whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and 1-2oz of nuts and seeds. What matters most is what matters most and as populations eat more of these foods they tend to be much healthier than those that sub out those food choices with other foods, meat included.

    I am not implying meat cannot be a part of a healthy diet, but merely the fact that it does not constitute a healthy diet. The p values are given to the whole plants for the most part.

  7. Betty Says:

    “Saying that humans evolved to do something is attributing intent on the part of the unconscious process of evolution. Humans may have evolved doing something, but that does not mean they should do it or that they will be most healthy or happy by doing it.”

    That is an interesting statement and got me thinking! Just how do we decide what is a traditional diet? Our very earliest diet? (All raw.) What about the development of cooking? Does that mean that everyone should eat only cooked food? And then there was the major change – the development of agriculture, ie, cultivation of grains.

    Personally, I think there is too much emphasis on looking for “the ideal diet”, as if that’s all there is to the much-vaunted vibrant good health. While I do not eat meat, and havne’t in a long time, I think that there is some wisdom to be found on beyondveg.

    But none of this means we should eat only according to our earliest historical era, or only according to the next stage of “evolution”. I say, let everyone struggle to find what’s best for them, and what they like to eat, because it will be a struggle for you if you have the capacity for anything deeper than eating at McDonald’s 7 days a week.

  8. Reijo Laatikainen Says:

    I like the tone of this post. Paleo diet is so much hyped even in Finland and broadly in Europe. I guess you might have seen this recent cohort study (US Nurse cohort) which demonstrated that nuts, poultry and fish are the most healthiest sources of dietary protein and red meat was associated with increased CV risk.

  9. Zach Says:

    “To find out about these things, we can look at studies on people who eat more grains versus less. That research looks fairly positive for people who eat more whole grains.”

    epic fail. ANYBODY who knows ANYTHING about nutrition knows the folly in drawing conclusions based solely off of epidemiological studies. not only are many of the studies promoting high-grain, low-fat diets done with much bias (i didn’t bother looking into these particular studies, but in general, a lot of studies are completely biased and need to be examined carefully before being trusted), but association DOES NOT prove causation. there are way too many variables to take into account

  10. Jack Norris RD Says:


    I agree that prospective cohort studies do not prove causation – double-blinded, randomized clinical trials (DBRCT) backed up by mechanisms found through biochemical research are the best way to “prove” causation. But there is very little that could ever prove absolute causation between eating patterns and chronic disease — it’s not even possible to do DBRCT with nutrition. Nutrition science is more a matter of determining the probability that a food might be healthy or unhealthy. In that regard, these studies do, at the very least, add some evidence that whole grains can be part of a healthy diet. When you add in the fact that there are underlying biochemical mechanisms that reasonably explain the benefits of whole grains, such as positive effects on blood sugar and the binding of cholesterol in the digestive tract, it becomes plausible that eating whole grains might very well cause a reduction in cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes compared to an average diet low in whole grains.

    If you are going to reject all nutrition studies that associate grains with good health out of hand as being biased, without even looking into them, what is there to talk about? Theories about what some subset of our prehistorical ancestors ate at some time in history? Don’t tell me that’s what should be used to prove causation.

  11. Betty Says:

    How about people just deciding for themselves what foods suit them? What is wrong with that? If you ate the Std Diet for decades, and felt unwell, then changed over to cooked grains and vegetables for six months and feel great, well, there you are. If after 5 years, though, you have a whole bunch of worrisome symptoms, then maybe the diet should be considered as one cause.

    Do the same thing for every possible permutation and combination of foods, work in your total lifestyle, and see what is happening for you. I am not against science but I think we all know that figures lie and liars figure.

  12. Theveganscientist Says:

    I find it goofy that people say one use of technology that altered our food supply is “natural” and another use is “unnatural”. Biologically primates are opportunistic scavengers, not predatory omnivores.

    We evolve culturally and have been doing so for millions of years. The cultural adaptation that allowed scrawny hominids to hunt anything larger than a mouse was the use of tools.

    Technology allowed hominids to acquire meat. It was not evolutionary pressure. Though evolutionary pressure from complex extended families may have driven tool use.

    Technology allowed hominids to acquire greater nutrient absorption through the use of fire.

    Technology allowed humans to grow crops and human the human population has increased exponentially as a result.

    Grains were introduced into our food supply thousands of years ago. This addition worked well for human. I don’t understand this whole “running back to the cave” belief, when the cave was filled with vitamin deficiencies, starvation, disease and death. The cave no longer exists anyway. Our entire environment has changed and cultural adaptation has largely replaced evolution.

    We actually have lost the ability to know instinctively what food is. We are told (cultural adaptation) what food is. Interestingly enough though, if you go to: you will find some curious case studies of what children thrown to the wild and forced to fend for themselves ate.

    When the children were adopted by a surrogate family (wolves, monkeys, etc…)) they ate what the family ate. When they were all alone, they were vegetarians. That is, killing was not instinctual, but learned.

    The one exception seems to be mimie LeBlanc, but there seems to be some indication she was an Inuit who was stolen from her family and was trying to be pedaled off as an African slave. She may have been taught to hunt by her family before she was kidnapped.

  13. Zach Says:

    I didn’t say I rejected the studies you cited as bias. I didn’t look into them, so I gave you the benefit of the doubt and assumed that those particular studies that you cited were not corrupted. In general, however, you have to be really careful with these types of studies. When people start mistaking correlation for causation, you get people believing nonsense like The China Study.

    Sure it’s possible to be healthy and still consume grains. It’s also possible to be healthy and eat doughnuts and drink Pepsi every day, or smoke marijuana every day. That doesn’t mean that doughnuts or marijuana are particularly healthy though. Grains are basically just empty calories, and are basically just less unhealthy versions of cookies. You say that they have beneficial effects on blood sugar, but that’s definitely false. Grains have a huge glycemic load, so their effect on blood sugar is not much better than cookies. And I don’t see why binding to cholesterol in the bloodstream is a good thing, the pregnenolone derived from cholesterol is necessary to create testosterone, so I think dietary cholesterol is very healthy. Considering there’s no connection between dietary cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, decreasing your intake of cholesterol has no benefits. Some people say that grains are a good source of fiber and nutrients, but you’d have to consume a ton of calories from grains to get the same amount of fiber and nutrients that you could get from a small amount of fruits and vegetables. Sure it’s possible to be healthy while consuming grains, but I don’t see why anybody would. They’re just empty calories and are better replaced with protein, fruits, and vegetables

  14. Jack Norris RD Says:


    My response.

  15. Paul Says:


    “Considering there’s no connection between dietary cholesterol and cardiovascular disease”. Based on what? If that’s true, why do heart attacks go down when we give people at risk statins? The lipid hypothesis is pretty well accepted.

  16. Jack Norris RD Says:


    I think Zach was talking only about dietary cholesterol, meaning that dietary cholesterol doesn’t raise blood levels of cholesterol.

  17. theveganscientist Says:


    I don’t know how much a “ton” of grains is, but I do know whole grains contain ~330-400cal/100g dry weight and roughly 10-16% protein. [1]Doing the math, they provide 50-80g protein/2000 cal. 14% protein/cal is a good target value for most folks, since the protein/cal intake scales nicely with athletic activity and coloric requirements. [2]

    400cal of oats contain 17g of protein, 26% the RDA of Iron, 11g of fiber, 50% thiamin. 400cal of Teff provides 40%+ of iron, copper, magnesium, phosphorous, 18% calcium. Amaranth and quinoa are similar.

    400Cal of whole wheat varieties (hard red, kamut, durum) provide ~14g protein, 20+% of zinc, copper, magnesium, Iron, B1, B3, B6 and 12g fiber. They also high in selenium.

    In general, whole grains are a good reliable source of protein, B1,B3-B6 vitamins,fiber and minerals.

    I don’t agree that getting 25%-40%+ of the RDA of many vitamins and minerals in 400 calories is considered “empty.”

    [1] Rice is a little low @8%, but most others are in the 10-16% range.

    [2] For example, my caloric expenditure is 3800cal/day from the athletic activities I perform. 3800Cal/day x 0.14 = 380calprotein/4cal/gprotein =133g/day. At 10% this value is 95g/day. Btw, despite the phytates, my iron is usually high ~150. Drinking green tea seems to regulate it to a nice 110-120.

  18. Daniel Says:

    My take on the natural human diet:

    I can show you a long-lived human society that subsists mostly on animals and zero grains.

    I can show you a long-lived human society that subsists mostly on plants and zero grains.

    What I cannot show you is any long-lived human society that subsists mostly on grains.

    “One of these things just doesn’t belong…”

    So grains are “filler.” With that removed from the picture, we are left with the next logical question (if you care to ask and I do): which should we favor… animals or plants?

    Look outside the human experience. Look to other animals. Who’s smart? Who is calm and composed and relates to us? For gods sake, who is “man’s best friend?”

    Meat-eaters, no?

    Now who’s dumb? Docile or skittish, who is ultimately subject to the powers of the predators that be?

    Plant-eaters, no?

    I ask you: do you think humans got to where we are today eating more animals or more plants? I would say animals.

    (aside) You know, our fellow primates who eat a higher plant-to-animal ratio are living in jungles and savannas right now, doing their damnest to play catch-up with us. Picking grubs out of holes with sticks and killing animals in the clumsiest and most brutal fashion. The possible future of any long-standing, still-evolving, now-vegetarian human society?

    The final question I might ask is: intelligence… who cares about it?

  19. Jack Norris RD Says:


    This is the sort of logic that reminds me of a scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, where they determine a woman is a witch because she weighs approximately the same as a duck (according to their methods). Witches burn and wood burns. So witches must be made of wood. Wood floats and ducks float. Therefore if she weighs the same as a duck, she’s a witch.

  20. Bettie Says:

    “I can show you a long-lived human society that subsists mostly on plants and zero grains.”

    Please do.

    The Japanese are traditionally heavy on grain, specifically rice, but others also. I recall seeing a Kurosawa film where these 2 Samurai were bitching bitterly on account of having nothing to eat but millet rather than their heaps of beloved rice. Every Japanese movie depicting life a long time ago, that I’ve ever seen, everyone ate rice, rice and more rice, with a bit of something else (probably fish and vegetables) and sometimes rice wine.

    This doesn’t prove a darn thing, of course, except that maybe it is indeed true that the Japanese have unusually large pancreases, enabling them to utilize every bit of nutrition from their rice.

    No, it is not one world.

  21. Sarah Says:

    I wanted to add this to the discussion, even though the comments are dead on this post. Jack, perhaps you can blog about Otzi or forward it along to the Paleovegan blogger. I don’t know if he’s blogged about Otzi before as I don’t read his blog very often.

  22. Jack Norris RD Says:


    > even though the comments are dead on this post.

    I’m not sure what you mean by that.

  23. Sarah Says:

    Hi Jack,

    I just meant that it’s been a while since anyone’s posted on this thread, so I assumed that perhaps no one would check back on it. I’ve noticed that some bloggers don’t answer questions on older posts. I’ve only been reading your blog for the past 6 weeks or so, so perhaps you are not like that 🙂 I’m new to the blogging world, so perhaps my expression doesn’t make sense. Basically, I just meant that it looked like a dead thread, if that makes sense.

  24. Jack Norris RD Says:


    Oh, okay. I thought maybe my site said comments were closed or something. This website seems to have a mind of its own sometimes. 🙂

    I leave all comments open and I respond if appropriate. I will sometimes delete old comments if they no longer seem pertinent to the topic.

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