Why do I crave beef?
Remember those dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History? Those exhibits of human origins that are larger than life? Imagine yourself as the ancient caveman or woman of 35,000 years ago, carrying a spear thrower made out of antlers or ivory, and stalking his next meal, an innocent bison, or saber-toothed tiger, to satisfy his craving for beef.
The Cro-Magnon was first and foremost a meat-eater, as the high protein value of the meat gave him the biggest payoff. Most of his day consisted of finding and hunting food, so he needed the calories from large animals to sustain him until his next meal, or through a period where the hunting wasn’t as plentiful.
Oddly enough, these large animals began to disappear as Cro-Magnons became more and more efficient at hunting and killing large game. By the end of the last ice age, 12,500 years ago, reindeer accounted for nearly 95% of all the large animals that Cro-Magnons ate. This decrease in the larger animals caused them to turn to rivers, streams, lakes and oceans to find other sources of food, and they invented fishing nets, hooks and harpoons, which helped them to catch salmon and seals.
A club-wielding carnivore?
The popular conception of Cro-Magnons as being strictly meat-eaters, is, well, a primitive one. Research suggests that our prehistoric cousins also supplemented their diets with fruits, berries, nuts, seeds and roots when they could find them. In what is now modern-day Europe, the cold temperatures meant that Cro-Magnons inhabiting the region had to make do with basic plant material, such as grasses.
Other research has identified plant microfossils trapped in Cro-Magnon teeth — perhaps they led a more complex lifestyle, harvesting and cooking a variety of plants in addition to hunting prey.
The cavemen needed the nutrients from meat to survive until their next meal, because they didn’t always know where it was coming from. In a world where our next meal is a short car ride or phone call away, not to mention right in our fridges, this is no longer necessary. We aren’t exerting the same amount of effort as Cro-Magnon Man but we still eat like him.
This is exacerbated by the fact that diets such as the paleo diet are popular. People want to go back to basics, which is great, but eating like our ancestors so far back fails to take into account the changes in our lifestyles over thousands of years.
So then why the hankering for a steak?
Transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle is nothing to shake a shish kabob at. It takes perseverance and discipline, and those food cravings can easily throw us off track. If you want to eat whole foods, but still have the occasional meat craving, explore what your body really wants. A craving for meat can be the result of a dietary deficiency such as iron, protein or vitamin B12. It could be ties to a familial pattern dating back generations, or it could be feelings of guilt if we don’t eat the traditional family foods.
There are some great substitutions to allow for a smoother transition, without feeling deprived. For protein, try adding more beans and legumes to your diet such as soybeans, lentils or things such as garbanzo or kidney beans, as well as tofu and other related foods. There are some great veggie burgers out there, and these are my absolute favorites! I put them on a bun, with some lettuce and mustard – delicious!
While red meat can be high in iron, plant foods are actually better sources, such as again, soybeans, as well as dark leafy greens like spinach, and many kinds of beans. Vitamin B12 may be a problem for those on a vegan diet, as most sources are animal-based. Many people remedy this with a supplement.
Why Eat Plants?
Michael Pollan is famous for his diet advice: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Eating what stands on one leg (plants) is better than eating what stands on two legs (poultry), which is better than eating what stands on four legs (mammals).
For those who didn’t do the hunting themselves, post-caveman era, meat was a luxury. Those who had the meat could barter it, and the rich could purchase it. Once it became an everyday thing, as easy as picking it up in the supermarket or going through a drive-thru, we started seeing the consequences of animal-based diets on our health. Millions of Americans have hypertension and other cardiovascular-related diseases that can be directly linked to the saturated fat in their diets.
In contrast, people who eat a plant-based diet show a huge difference in their health. Eating this way can prevent diseases and results in longevity and overall wellbeing.
Not only is eating animals bad for our health, slaughtering them is bad for the planet. It takes more than two acres of land to produce the standard American diet for one person. This includes land to raise animals and the food that they eat. The same amount of land can feed fourteen people on a primarily plant diet.
Why It Is Hard to Stick to a Vegan Diet (and Tips for Success)
A study by the Humane Research Council found that 70% of people who tried to go plant strong failed. Why? Among the many reasons, people who changed to veganism for their health were among the highest fail rates along with people who changed their diet quickly.
Dietary changes for health or weight loss are often given up when the dieters don’t get the results they want quickly. These people reported not feeling like the diet was helping or felt like they were less healthy by cutting out animal products. Those who changed to vegan quickly started strong, but faded, as they didn’t feel it suited their lifestyle, or had cravings too much to handle.
Here are some tips to transitioning and sticking to a plant-based, whole foods diet:
- Start slow, and don’t let failure stop you. If you’ve always eaten animal products, a swift change will definitely not be easy. Try cutting out a few foods at a time, or make one meal a day vegan, and slowly decrease the animal products you use. Slipping up is not failure, it’s human. If you cave and eat something you shouldn’t, just get back up on the horse for your next meal.
- Find variety. Don’t let yourself get bored with your choices, use this as an opportunity to try all of the foods out there. So many people fall into a rut of dinner with a piece of meat center stage and vegetables as an afterthought. Think outside the box and look elsewhere in the supermarket for your dinner’s starring role.
- Educate yourself. Figure out what nutrients you’re getting from animal products and find vegan options that will supply them.
- Surround yourself with supportive people. Making a huge change to your diet isn’t easy, especially if everyone around you eats meat. Seeing them enjoy their food and possibly being critical of your meal choices can derail your progress.
- Get enough fat. A meat-heavy diet is also heavy on the fat, and you can feel like you’re missing something without it. Try adding healthy fat like nuts, avocados and natural oils, (keeping oil to a minimum). This will have a huge impact on your diet as you’re switching bad saturated fats for good unsaturated fats. Take a look here for more info about oil in foods.
- Change your diet, don’t just make it vegan. When trying to go vegan, don’t just replace your foods with veggie versions like fake meat products. They are ultimately unsatisfying if meat is what you want. Try leaning more towards vegan-friendly cuisines like Indian and Asian foods.
- Expand your cooking skills. Going vegan is a great excuse to get better acquainted with your kitchen, plus you’ll save money as well. Meat takes up a huge part of the grocery budget while in-season vegetables can be mere pennies in contrast. Explore a local farmer’s market for the freshest local produce.
- Plan ahead. Don’t leave yourself wondering what you can eat for your next meal, as this will result in more slip-ups. Extend this to get-togethers with friends and family: bring at least one dish you can eat, and you may change someone’s mind on how tasty being plant-strong can be!
The important thing to remember is that change takes time. This helped me make the transition with affordable, nutritious choices. Look how long it took our prehistoric pals to transition from animals to plants! I like to call it “leaning in” to a plant-strong life. So as you walk out of the museum, remember that the basis for our human origins are complex. Not only are we dealing with our genetic ancestry, but also our family history and traditions, which is why you probably still crave beef. Let me know in the comments below how you are doing, and if your cravings for beef have you sidelined?