Myth busting – Part 5
This post is Part 5 of a continuing series of posts tackling persistent myths in the world of healthy eating, with a particular focus on the consumption of animal foods as a source of ill health and environmental destruction.
You may like to read the whole series starting from Myth busting – Part 1
Myth: But big strong animals like gorillas don’t eat meat. A gorilla is a vegan and he’s made of muscle! So who needs all that protein now then?!?!
You may have seen this image circulating on social media sites, lots of folks who don’t really know much about health and nutrition like to share this image as some kind of ‘proof’ that it is healthiest to be a vegan, and no one needs to eat animal foods at all.
I don’t want to sound rude, and this next line isn’t meant to be an attack on any vegans or an insult to anyone specifically, but in all honesty, sharing this Internet meme as some kind of ‘proof’ that people shouldn’t eat meat is pretty much the highest display of ignorance out there in the whole ‘meat vs. vegetarian’ discussion.
Not ignorant because the people sharing it don’t know much about the digestive system of a gorilla; that’s fair enough, most folks probably don’t; but ignorant because the people sharing this are stupid enough to think the digestive function of one animal somehow acts as some guide of evidence-based scientific guide to the digestive system of another. That is just plain dumb.
Why would the digestive system and food habits of a gorilla have anything to do with a human?
Oh because gorillas have muscles, therefore this is ‘proof’ of how to build muscles?
Well elephants have muscles too; maybe I should eat an elephant’s diet?
And ants have muscles too, in fact ants have an astronomical strength-to-weight ratio, I’ll wager an ant, for its size, is far stronger than a gorilla, so perhaps I should look at an ant’s diet as a nutritional guide.
No, because I’m not an ant, I’m a human. And I don’t want to be an ant, nor an elephant, nor a gorilla. I actually quite like being a human, it kinda works for me. Sure, I want to be strong and have big muscles, but then I also want to be a pretty fast distance runner, not something gorillas are famed for. And I also want to work in an office, and engage in productive work for my company, and live a vaguely normal, successful, human life. I mean, I just think that next time I’m in an important business meeting, sitting my 400-pound hairy ass down in the corner of the room, grunting at folks, beating my chest from time to time and then throwing the furniture around and ripping a colleague’s head off in a territorial threat display probably isn’t the fastest way to that promotion I was looking for.
So I don’t want to be a gorilla, and I don’t want to look like a gorilla, act like a gorilla or smell like a gorilla, so I don’t really see any imperative to eat like a gorilla.
If sharing this Internet meme on Facebook while wearing your ‘Meat is Murder’ t-shirt is the extent of your personal campaign to educate the world about the horrors of factory farming and do your bit to help improve animal welfare, then I’m afraid all you are going to achieve is to perpetuate a new rumour that vegans are downright stupid. So do the world, the vegan movement, and yourself a favour and instead of sharing this crap on social media, use the Internet for something good – try research. Educate yourself. Learn about agricultural policy and animal husbandry and write to your MP and lobby for change. Don’t waste your time sharing stupid shit on social media.
[As an aside – if you really want to get excited about the possibilities of a plant-based diet, go study leafcutter ants. They can carry huge weights, many times their own body weight, they can run fast, they can fight, they have incredible societal structure and work amazingly well in communities without developing national boundaries and going to war over religion or resources like we do. Ants live entirely on a fungus diet, they have enzymes and bacteria in their guts that extract all the nutrients they need from fungus, a fungus which they grow underground on leaf pulp – that’s what they collect the leaves for. They have been on Earth making the most of this amazing symbiotic relationship for over 50 million years – compared to the genus Homo which so far isn’t even 3 million years old. So fuck the gorilla as a model of what plant-based nutrition can do – big up leafcutter ants!]
Truth: Gorillas are not vegan or vegetarian!! Gorillas eat lots of insects and small bugs every day, some inadvertently, but most on purpose. Gorillas are known to seek out termite mounds and eat termites on purpose, and it’s believed these provide a vital quantity of iron to the gorillas’ diet, which otherwise might be a nutritional deficiency.
Most apes, including gorillas and chimpanzees, eat insects such as ants, grubs, larvae and spiders, on a daily basis. So these apes are definitely not vegan. Gorillas rip bark off tress and eat the insects and larvae that live inside, as well as eating the bark. It is estimated that insects and grubs (‘animal foods’ in truth) make up around 5% of a gorillas’ diet, measured by calories.
Chimps (genetically, our closest living relative among all the apes, not as strong and muscular as gorillas but still more muscular than humans) regularly actively hunt other large animals and kill them, but then oddly sometimes they don’t eat all the meat, often only a little of it. It seems the hunt & kill is often for territorial dominance as much as it is for food. Few other animals on Earth do this, only humans, who sadly wage war over territory all the time, so it seems our ancient common ancestry with chimps (7 to 8 million years ago) may have left us with another thing in common.
But obviously, a big 330 pound gorilla eating a couple of pound of insects per day isn’t doing it for “protein gains” like a bodybuilder! No, quite right. In reality, gorillas get their proteins from the plants they eat. While some apes eat a lot of fruit, gorillas do not. Gorillas mostly eat plants, tough fibrous plants. A gorilla has a completely different digestive system to a human, its intestines are much longer and foods are in there for a long time, allowing tough starchy foods to ferment. A gorilla’s intestines contain entirely different digestive enzymes to a human’s intestines, which allow the gorilla to extract short-chain fatty acids from the fibrous plants, for energy. Yes, that’s right, a gorilla gets almost all its energy from fats – gorillas may eat a very high-fibre diet, but they effectively get all their energy and nutrients from a very high-fat diet) And gorillas can synthesize all the amino acids they need themselves, not relying on eating those amino acids in their diet. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.
So gorillas eat lots of fibrous plants, which are in their digestive tract for a long time, where the fibre ferments, thanks to the microbial action of bacteria and digestive enzymes breaking these fibres down, enabling the gorilla to extract fats for energy, and the gorilla synthesizes all the amino acids it needs for proteins to build those big strong muscles. We humans cannot synthesize all our own amino acids – 9 amino acids that we need have to come from dietary sources, otherwise we would die without them. They are available from plants, but in almost all cases they are far more plentiful, and far more biologically available, from animal foods – meat, fish and eggs.
Gorillas eat for around six hours per day; they chew for six hours every day. That’s around 50% of their waking life – chewing. That’s what they have to do to get through all that fibrous plant material. By contrast, humans chew for around 7% to 8% of their waking life. Extracting nutrients from fibrous plants is hard work, it takes time…some people say that eating a raw vegan diet feels a bit like that too, always chewing!
Comparing humans to gorillas, saying “We don’t need to eat meat, see gorillas are big and strong and they are vegans” is just ignorance. Gorillas are not vegans, and humans are not gorillas!