Living on Garbage

Living on Garbage
Living on Garbage

One of my many memorable recent reads has been neuroscientist Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir. It’s an adventurous chronicle of his early years spent studying a Kenyan baboon troupe.

At its heart sits, a tourist lodge garbage dump. Although they shared it with hyenas and vultures, the baboons found the lodge restaurant’s scraps so alluring that some of them abandoned their ancestral diet.

The dump offered a feast of everything you’d expect from a restaurant catering to Western safari tourists. Leftover chicken legs, slabs of beef, and custard pie were now feeding baboons accustomed to a diet University of Pennsylvania’s Robert S. O. Harding, PhD described as:

  • 80% grass seeds, blades, and roots

  • 18% fruits, seeds, and flowers

  • 2% beetles and other invertebrates

Dr. Sapolsky observes how the garbage-eating baboons’ metabolisms changed in comparison to those of their primarily plant-eating relatives.

“Not surprisingly, cholesterol, insulin, and triglyceride levels rose, other aspects of metabolism went to hell in the same way that ours does when we eat the stuff.”

But the meat had yet another horrifyingly insidious effect.

To avoid being a spoiler, however, I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say, Dr. Sapolsky’s rage on learning what it was doing to the baboons bordered on murderous:

“Never in my life have I felt closer to drowning in anger! …In my fantasies, I managed to murder the meat inspector.” 

Two of my take-home messages from A Primate’s Memoir?

  • Eating meat endangers us with seriously unhealthy metabolic changes.

  • Even worse, it exposes us to pathogens that cause serious food-borne illnesses.

Baboons’ ideal diet is not found in a dump full of meat scraps. As Dr. T. Colin Campbell writes in Whole:

“Primates’ diets haven’t changed much in tens of thousands of years, unlike those of humans. So we would expect a primate’s instinctual food choices to produce sustainably healthy outcomes… For example, just noticing that chimps and gorillas have strong bones and muscles while eating WFPB [whole-food, plant-based] undercuts the notion that humans need lots of animal protein to grow and maintain muscle mass.”

Fortunately, most baboons and other primates still eat primarily plant-based diets. Only a tiny minority live on garbage.

Unfortunately, for humans it’s the other way around.

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