Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past few months, you probably read “New Age Caveman in the City,” the New York Times feature on aspiring Stone Agers in NYC. If so, you may remember Melissa McEwen as the lone cavewoman of the group, providing some refreshing gender balance to the paleo diet argument that rice cakes and rolled oats aren’t health foods — meat is.

Melissa discusses the paleo diet and all its meaty nutrients on her site Hunt.Gather.Love, on Twitter and sometimes in the comments of the blog you’re reading right now. On top of that, she’s scheduled to speak at the Ancestral Health Symposium in Los Angeles next summer and she’s just been interviewed by Let Them Eat Meat. You might say that Melissa is already a star in the paleo world.

But of course none of this would have been possible if Melissa had stuck with veganism.

Melissa holds building together

What’s all this about animal foods being nutritious? Didn’t you used to be vegan?

I’ve always had terrible health problems: stomach issues, migraines and allergies were the worst ones. I assumed it was because of my picky eating habits. Whenever I felt sick my mother would tell me it was because I didn’t eat enough vegetables. Then when I got to college I was diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease and irritable bowel syndrome. 

I read John Robbins’ Diet for a New America, which talked about how many common health ailments were related to diet, particularly animal products. I lived in a dormitory that had a vegetarian cafeteria and started eating there. A few things got better, but I still was on many medications. At one point I think I was on 13 different ones!

I was involved in several environmental groups and met many vegans that I admired. They convinced me that veganism was more logical than vegetarianism, since milk and eggs involve plenty of dead animals, so I cut those out too.

But I still didn’t feel great. When I moved into a dorm without a cafeteria I started experimenting with my diet. I did a pretty lengthy elimination diet and realized gluten was the probable cause of my GERD, but that other grains seemed to irritate my digestive system as well.

Did you try cutting out grains?

I did grain-free veganism for several months, but I struggled with chronic hunger. I would lapse by eating cheese at some public function and then feel gross and guilty. I ate at the local vegan restaurant, The Red Herring, as often as possible. But whenever I ate there I got sick.

Then I got really sick. It took my doctors some time to figure out what I had because they weren’t sure if my other illnesses had gotten worse or if I had a new illness. It turns out I had salmonella and that it had taken up residence. Most young people are able to clear salmonella within a few days, but it had tormented me for over a month. I had to go on some heavy duty antibiotics.

I fell into raw veganism because my digestive system was trashed and I thought maybe it would be the cure. So many people on raw vegan boards have stories about how it’s such a wonderful diet and because of it they are no longer sick. I believed them. I definitely felt much better… at first.

This is the common lament of raw veganism. It eliminates most problematic foods, but where is the nutrition? At this point I had been sick enough that I just wanted to get better and after reading Art De Vany’s writings on evolutionary diet and fitness, I decided to follow his recommendations.

So all along it was about what was best for Melissa McEwen, and not what was best for the animals?

When I was younger I wouldn’t have hesitated to save a dog before another human. I cried whenever I heard about dogs being hurt or how many animals shelters killed. I thought the world would be better off if most people died. I had some negative experiences growing up that probably caused this.

Reading enlightenment philosophy, encountering ecological humanism in college through the works of Aldo Leopold (and his disciple professor Eric T. Freyfogle), and having more positive relationships with other human beings really changed me for the better and helped me to throw off much of my misanthropy.

I was never a true animal rights vegan, but I did believe that it was wrong to eat environmentally destructive food. At the same time as I was going through the worst of my health problems, I was taking most of my classes in environmental and ecological economics. I realized that the environmental destructiveness of your diet is independent of whether or not it contains animal products. I also realized that globalization of food had blinded us to the true costs and benefits of our food and that the way to take that back was to consume local food.

Melissa med en get

What was your major?

I studied agricultural economics at the University of Illinois and then forest ecology at the Swedish University of Agriculture. I kept waffling between majors and so I took a diverse selection of courses — food/agricultural law, nutrition science, econometrics, environmental economics, entomology, development economics, toxicology, crop science and anthropology.

I plan on eventually doing a PhD in forestry or natural resource economics and I would also like to have my own farm.

Do you have any real world experience with this stuff?

I’ve worked on a couple of farms and agricultural projects in both Sweden and the Midwest. I’ve worked with beekeeping, dairy goats and cattle, and with growing vegetables for CSA (Community Support Agriculture project).

I’ve slaughtered chickens at Stone Barns and plan on doing some hunting this autumn since I am taking a course with Jackson Landers. 

And I have worked in local food infrastructural development since 2007.

You mentioned killing chickens and hunting. Is that the sort of thing every meat eater should do at some point in their lives?

It’s an increasingly popular notion, but when I was taking my chicken slaughter workshop, I took it with a friend who is Buddhist. I found out my notion of absolute responsibility for your food was a Westernized one. In Buddhism it is undesirable to kill your own food. Also, it’s worse to eat a curry with 30 shrimp than to kill one large animal like a whale. That’s not my stance, but I am less condemning of meat eaters who don’t want to do their own killing.

But in my own ethic it’s the only way to guarantee that the food you consume is consistent with your own philosophy. When you buy food from a package, no matter if it’s vegetable or animal, you can’t be sure of its impact or its quality.

An interesting example is the vegan blog that tested meat substitutes made in Asia and found they contained animal products. Such things are only possible when we’re alienated from food production.

Beet juice and hay on floor

Is veganism a city slicker phenomenon, a consequence of being estranged from nature?

I think the sort of philosophy behind it can be prevented by exposing children to nature, agriculture and other cultures. If you listen to the animal rights writers, you quickly realize that their goal is a homogenized globalized culture based on a Western ethical paradigm and a human separation from nature. Animal rights philosophy could be considered a “disease of civilization.”

A lot of vegans come to believe in the healthfulness of the vegan diet after going vegan for ethical reasons. Similarly, were you convinced of the advantages of paleo because you already enjoyed acting like a cavewoman?

My parents forced me to do sports as a child. I never liked exercise much, though I’ve always enjoyed climbing trees. Before paleo I didn’t care that much for meat either, especially seafood, and I instinctively knew red meat was BAD. As a kid my favorite foods were Kraft Mac & Cheese and Handysnacks (those dipping sticks in little packets with neon orange fake cheese).

A few years before I read Art De Vany’s blog, I had a history teacher who made me angry when he had the audacity to say that humans were healthier in the Stone Age. And when I first read Jared Diamond’s “The Worst Mistake,” I was incensed. Diamond argues that agriculture was humanity’s worst mistake, but I studied agriculture because I thought it was the foundation for human greatness.

Then why did paleo appeal to you?

Mostly because I was desperate. And as I read more anthropological and nutrition research, it became clear that humans were much healthier when they ate only fruits, vegetables, meat and seafood.

Some women avoid the paleo diet because they’re afraid of turning into raging she-hulks. Does paleo make more sense for men than women?

I am in the process of reading a new book by Wenda Trevathan called Ancient Bodies, Modern Lives: How Evolution Has Shaped Women’s Health. Women have this extra complex system for bearing children and it’s extremely sensitive to nutrition. The book cites research that shows that what a woman’s grandmother ate can affect her own reproductive abilities.

And women are more vulnerable to certain deficiencies, particularly calcium and iron, as well as to many diseases of civilization, since excess body fat and calorie intake seem to play havoc with hormones. I personally had several hormone-linked problems before going paleo: long heavy periods and chronic UTIs/yeast infections. These problems are now gone!

I actually think that the diet makes more sense for women. Whether you become a she-hulk is entirely up to how much and what type of exercise you do.

Melissa with bow

So the diet anecdotally works for you?

Definitely. After about six months of the diet, my GERD, asthma and IBS went away. My own quality of life is so much higher than it was in the past. Things that I didn’t even know were linked to diet have been ameliorated, such as my occasional acne and depression. I got my father into it and he has lost 50 lbs. And through my involvement with the NYC paleo meetup I’ve met dozens of people who have had success with the diet.

Is there any science to back this up?

The scientific literature to back it up is large and growing. We have archaeological evidence showing that people in the Paleolithic Era were tall, slim and had great bone structure. The hunter-gatherers studied in anthropology do not show evidence of “diseases of civilization.” And now several clinical trials conducted on modern humans following the paleolithic diet show major health improvements.

What studies come to mind?

Here are a few clinical trials:

Beneficial effects of a paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study.

Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet.

A paleolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease.

Effects of a short-term intervention with a paleolithic diet in healthy volunteers.

There are even more on similar diets, like low-carb. I think these clinical trials are not terribly useful, though, because they are so expensive to do and limited in scope. My own studies in mathematics and sciences have convinced me that we live in a complex world where it’s difficult to discern precise cause and effect. I am cautious about every study I read. And indeed many, if not most, have statistical errors.

The best evidence is from studies on hunter-gatherer or hortaculturalist populations who have been eating these diets their entire lives. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer and many other diseases common in our population are nearly unknown to them.

An important myth to dispel is that hunter-gatherers didn’t live very long. Here is one excellent point about that.

It’s also interesting to look at people whose diets were like this until very recently, like many Pacific Islanders and Native Americans with westernized diets. They suffer disproportionately from these foods. A Swedish person can eat white flour and sugar most of their life and only suffer for it later, but in these places we have very high rates of diabetes and obesity in young people.

This shows that there is significant variation between how different people and populations metabolize food. Scientists can’t explain this yet, but I think it will shed light on why so many people do badly on diets that other people thrive on. 

Paleo attempts to mimic the lifestyle we believe humans to have evolved on, expecting that will get us closer to optimal health. Vegans, however, say that now with science we can figure out what nutrients we need, eat plants to get most of them, and then supplement for the rest. Have we learned enough about nutrition to successfully pull this off? 

The archaeological record, from isotope studies of bones to shell middens, supports the idea that humans evolved eating animal products. At least most of the vegan commenters here aren’t under the delusion common in the raw vegan community that veganism is the natural diet for humans.

But some vegans insist that if they eat a “natural” diet that bacteria in their intestines will provide things like b-12. The consequences of this belief are documented in scientific literature, like in case studies of babies with neurological damage due to b-12 deficiency (also http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10867733 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18293883) and vitamin D deficiency. It’s clear that a vegan diet requires supplementation.

The effects of nutritional deficiency will always be more dramatic in the most vulnerable individuals, particularly pregnant/lactating women and children, but also the elderly. But the truth is that case studies don’t end up in the scientific literature unless they are incredibly severe, which has led to the unfortunate misconception that deficiencies are rare and always extravagant.

The human requirement for DHA was unknown until fairly recently because the effects of the deficiency were often subclinical. Now most informed vegans supplement with DHA, but really, who knows what else they are missing?

There are so many illnesses that plague humans that are poorly understood. Scientists don’t understand the full causes of the illnesses I had. Was there a nutrient that I was low in that hasn’t been studied enough? Vegans on this site frequently attack people interviewed who switched away from veganism because of mysterious health problems. Many of these problems, like depression, show association with diet, but scientists are not sure what the factors are exactly.

I suppose if these people were truly dedicated they would supplement every potential candidate that’s hard or impossible to get from plants. Not only DHA, Vitamin D and B-12, but retinol (some people don’t have the ability to convert Vitamin A to retinol), zinc, iron, calcium, taurine, K-2 and CLA. The importance of these last three is still being studied, but they show strong potential.

So a vegan who takes all those supplements is set?

But getting nutrition from supplements is not the same as getting it from foods. There has been a sea change in the nutrition science community regarding this. When I took my first nutrition science class in 2005 my professor stated that vitamins in pills affected health exactly the same as those in foods and all that mattered was getting the nutrients listed in the back of the textbook.

Now we have nutrition establishment published papers like Food Synergy: An Operational Concept for Understanding Nutrition and bestselling books rejecting reductive “nutritionism,” like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.

What inspired this change?

This is happening in response to a rash of studies tying supplements and fortification to serious side effects, even cancer. Even more frightening is that because supplements are so loosely regulated, many simply haven’t been studied very well and others have been found to either contain large amounts of contaminants or none of the nutrient they purport to contain.

Food Synergy operates on the idea that “the action of the food matrix on human biological systems is greater than or different from the corresponding actions of the different food components.” Numerous studies show different results from foods than from the nutrient that is supposed to make the food so valuable.

Why? Scientists still aren’t sure, but some guesses include: a buffer effect, interactions between nutrients that affect each others’ absorption, interactions and synergy with other constituents in the food (many of which have been poorly studied).

There simply haven’t been long-term cradle-to-grave studies on vegan diets. And once there are, there is still the epigenetic issue I mentioned before — what are the epigenetic effects of a vegan mother and grandmother?

Furthermore, many studies on vegans that show a positive result are conducted by vegans. It’s so easy to distort statistics. A couple of weeks ago, a vegan commenter and I tussled over taurine in vegan breast milk (taurine is definitively essential in infants). He pointed me to a summary of a study which stated that the numbers were nearly identical, but when I got a hold of the full text it showed statistically significant differences between the vegans and omnivores, but had so many errors that the whole thing was probably invalid. Science isn’t perfect. I’m sure taurine should be studied more, but it’s not a “hot topic” and it’s hard to get funding.

Ironically, much of the information that has led to improvements in vegan supplementation was discovered through animal studies.

Are there any other flaws in nutritional science?

Another problem is that normal values are typically computed from average American samples. Are they really “normal” for a human or are they affected by the typical unhealthy diet of most Americans? Then we have the issue of individual differences caused by genetics, illness and gene expression.

The latter is a relatively new field and has shown some intriguing differences between people’s reactions to food. Fundamentalist vegans claim that their diet is absolutely healthy and appropriate for every single human being…I just don’t see how that’s possible. I certainly don’t claim that about paleo.

The precautionary principle is a rational way to access the situation here. It’s typically applied to analyzing chemicals before they are put on the market. If there is not enough data, the conclusion is to be cautious. I’m not going to bet my health or the health of my future children on the current science.

And tolerated is not optimal. As a humanist I want to feel my best and I believe that while I could still be alive and functioning on a vegan diet, I would not have the quality of life I have on the paleo diet.

Melissa stirs lard

Does a belief in animal rights lead to a lower quality of life?

It really depends on the person, but in general if you believe animal suffering is a huge problem, then the world pretty much sucks.

When I was fairly sentimental about animals I took some wildlife management classes and volunteered at a nature center. If you think humans are the cruelest animals, you need to meet some hawks or bobcats, though of course that is in our own eyes since animals have no such concept. I was fairly horrified at the way they toyed with their food. Think about it: right now there are millions of animals dying slowly as some amoral predator rips them apart limb by limb while they are still conscious. We humans are really lucky to be at the top of the food chain.

I guess that really doesn’t answer the question, but when life itself is so counter to your philosophy, it might be a tough road to walk.

There are some animal rightists who hate people and drive them away, but most of the ones I know are more the self-sacrificial type, which can lead to other problems.

So basically you’re saying that nobody should ever be vegan under any circumstances?

I have no problem with people being vegans. I think people should be vegans if they truly are uncomfortable with the idea of animal death for food.

I do have a problem with people being guilted into making dietary choices that make them feel ill. Vegans always say the people who quit “did it wrong.” It’s a blame-the-victim mentality that’s sickeningly anti-humanistic.

I also have a problem with activists who employ coercive methods, increasingly against members of the small sustainable agriculture movement because we are more vulnerable and easier to attack than the large industries responsible for most problems.

I’ve worked with many respectable animal welfare advocates who either eat less meat or no meat. But animal welfare is very different from animal rights. The former’s goal is to improve conditions for the animals we use, the latter’s is to eliminate all use of animals.

I think people should learn the true goals behind the animal rights movement. I’ve met people who were surprised to learn that animal rights groups like PETA and HSUS don’t just oppose eating animals, but oppose life-saving medical research that uses animals. There simply isn’t an alternative to animal research right now. Scientists would certainly use one if there were because working with animals is often very expensive and unpleasant. 

Vegans have proposed an alternative to animal agriculture, though. Does veganic permaculture seem like a viable option for feeding humanity?

Not at the moment. A few farms are doing it commercially, but yields remain low and its sustainability and viability are dependent on the location of the farm. However, I do not oppose it. In fact, I was fairly disturbed to learn in my agricultural law class that you are allowed to use manure from factory farms in organic agriculture. It’s been proven that plants can uptake pathogens and toxins.

The most sustainable and efficient option is to have mixed farms like Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm where animals provide manure, but let’s get real — most large farms are not going to switch to this method anytime soon, and while the local food movement is growing, it’s still small. If there were an efficient veganic fertilizer on the market, I think it could have a positive effect.

Permaculture is another new method that’s low-impact, but also currently low-yield. I think commenters on here linked veganic + permaculture in an effort to counter Lierre Keith’s claims of how destructive agriculture is, but plenty of permaculturalists use animals in their system.

I am very interested in permaculture and have attended some awesome permaculture workshops, but it has a long way to go. At one of these workshops one of the attendees lamented that her permaculture garden wasn’t producing well. I joked that the way to make money on permaculture is to give workshops. There is a reason there aren’t many (or any?) booths at the farmer’s markets selling permaculture-grown food.

Another wild card is Wes Jackson’s Land Institute, which is doing perennial grain agriculture. I saw him speak at a conference recently and he claims his yields are getting better and better. He didn’t mention how they taste or whether they are healthy, though.

What would you propose, then?

My own vision for a sustainable agricultural method would be mixed-use agroforestry and would have elements of permaculture, perennial trees and grasses, grazing and hunting (pest animals are a reality if you are growing crops). I feel animals are uniquely efficient in most situations, being able to convert things that would otherwise go to waste into food and soil-building manure.

However, to say that veganic permaculture OR mixed-use agroforestry could feed the world sustainably is unproven at best. It’s possible that to do either would require very low human population levels, which will probably not occur for some time (I personally believe that demographic trends will lower levels significantly). But agroforestry is the most proven and there have been many high-yielding projects in several countries.

Agroforesty has shown particularly good results in rural areas in developing countries. Small farms might be the minority in the US, but most of the global poor are actually small farmers.

What would a sustainable system look like for these small farmers?

It has to be low-tech and it’s much better for the rural poor if they rely on local resources rather than imported seeds, pesticides and fertilizer, given the economic vulnerabilities in many developing countries. There is no question that animals would be best for this system. Heifer International has done great work in helping small farmers by giving them livestock. In many of these cultures livestock represent economic security and a way to provide food, labor and fertilizer. There is no appropriate substitute for this.

That’s not to say they are eating steaks every day. In a small sustainable operation, meat is usually a byproduct of culling after the animal loses productivity.

I would note that I do not believe my own diet is a model for the world. It’s a diet I eat for health reasons and I recognize that successful sustainable agricultural development projects would have varying amounts of animals or grains/pulses depending on the local situation.

Beegan

The vegan issue is so heated that it often comes between family members. You have a few vegan relatives. How has it affected your family dynamic? 

Growing up, my mother and my uncle often squabbled over family meals. He is an animal rights activist and really wanted us all to go meat-free, so he made a big deal over things like the Thanksgiving turkey. My mother would get angry because she felt he was forcing his viewpoints on others. I won’t go over all the nasty details, but suffice to say he tried to convert me once with some footage of tormented animals… didn’t exactly work, did it?

But things have mellowed out. Since my uncle travels in impoverished countries he often doesn’t have the luxury of being vegan. He still gives people vegan books, though, and he and my cousin regularly post links to things like Earthlings and GO VEG campaigns on Facebook.

We haven’t had a family meal in some time because we’ve all been scattered all over the world, but I imagine it would be fairly difficult with half the family being paleo, some others vegan and others with food allergies.

If you wanted to serve a dish to everyone it would have to have no meat, no dairy, no seafood, no chocolate, no nuts, no onions, no grains and no legumes. The only traditional family recipe left is a fruit salad called ambrosia. The rest could be salads and root vegetables.

You have had some disagreements with a vegan going by the name of “Rob” in the comments section of this blog. What meal would you cook for him as a peace offering that would satisfy both of you?

A paleo locavore vegan meal that would please us both would be hard to do. I guess some baked root vegetables, some raw kale and seaweed in local hazelnut oil, pickled carrot and beet salad and a red currant rhubarb walnut crisp. The hardest ingredients to find are local nuts and local oils that aren’t too high in omega-6. It would be much easier to do in California because of almonds and avocados…and easier in general if you threw a platter of local oysters into the mix.