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The Straight Dope

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Is man a meat-eater or a vegetarian by nature? According to the enclosed clipping from a vegetarian magazine, "The intestinal length of carnivores (meat-eating animals) is three times the body length to allow for quick removal of flesh wastes that putrefy in the intestines. Man's intestine length, like other herbivores, is six times his body length and is designed for digesting vegetables, grains, and fruits." I'm not a meat-eater but my girlfriend is and she is not convinced man is a natural vegetarian. We decided to leave it up to you. (Why I agreed to this I don't know, it's obvious from your aggressive tone that you like your steak rare.) Please, don't embarrass yourself by quoting that garbage from the National Beef Council that meat is our best source of protein. Even high school kids know better than that. --L. Williams, Culver City, California

Listen, wimp--whoops, too aggressive. Gimme some of that tofu burger. Ah, I can feel the testosterone receding already. Now then, let us reason like gentlemen. There are some intelligent arguments for vegetarianism, but claiming that man is "naturally" herbivorous isn't one of them. The settled judgment of science is that man is an omnivore, capable of eating both meat and vegetables, much as certain four-year-olds might like to convince their mothers otherwise.

Like the hard-core carnivores, we have fairly simple digestive systems well suited to the consumption of animal protein, which breaks down quickly. Contrary to what your magazine article says, the human small intestine is a little over four times body length (23 feet), roughly the same as for cats (three times body length), dogs (3 1/2 times), and other well-known meat eaters. By contrast, some herbivores (plant eaters) have intestines as long as 20 to 25 body lengths. Cattle are 20 to 1 and horses are 12 to 1, for example.

Herbivores also have a variety of specialized digestive organs capable of breaking down cellulose, the main component of plant tissue. Humans find cellulose totally indigestible, and even plant eaters have to take their time with it. If you were a ruminant (cud eater), for instance, you might have a stomach with four compartments, enabling you to cough up last night's alfalfa and chew on it all over again. Or you might have an enlarged cecum, a sac attached to the intestines, where rabbits and such store food until their intestinal bacteria have time to do their stuff. Digestion in such cases takes place by a process of fermentation--bacteria actually "eat" the cellulose and the host animal consumes what results, namely bacteria dung.

The story is roughly the same with teeth. We're equipped with an all-purpose set of ivories equally suited to liver and onions. Good thing, too. I won't claim meat is the ideal source of protein, but on the whole it's better than plants. Sure, soybeans and other products of modern agriculture are pretty nutritious. But in the wild, much of the plant menu consists of leaves and stems, which are low in food value. True herbivores have to spend much of the day scrounging for snacks just to keep their strength up.

So make no mistake: we were born to eat meat. That's not to say you have to. There's no question that strictly from a health standpoint we'd all be a lot better off eating less meat (red meat especially) and more fruits and vegetables. But vegetarians aren't going to advance their cause by making ridiculous claims.

What does JCT stand for, as in "I-45--JCT 2 miles"? I almost had a wreck yesterday trying to figure it out, and I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. Help please soon. --Dangerously Distracted Dallas Driver

That does it. Next time I wash the screwdriver before the lobotomy. JCT, my poor lad, stands for "junction."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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