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What Can the Diet of Gorillas Tell Us About a Healthy Diet for Humans? PDF Print E-mail
Written by H. Leon Abrams, Jr.   
Tuesday, 17 February 2004 01:27

One of the arguments proffered by vegetarians is that our primate ancestors were vegetarians and, to be healthy, we should eat the same kind of diet.

An article entitled "The Western Lowland Gorilla Diet Has Implications For the Health of Humans and Other Hominids," which appeared in a recent issue of Human and Clinical Nutrition, makes this argument. With reference to the authors' study of the vegetarian diet of gorillas, the research is sound, but to claim that humans would be better off with a vegetarian diet like that of the gorillas is spurious and equivocal.

One misconception about the gorilla diet is that it contains no animal products. On the contrary, all of the great ape groups take in some animal protein, whether overtly or inadvertently, by consuming insects, insect eggs and the larvae that nest on the plants and fruits they eat. In her pioneering work on chimpanzees, Jane Goodall discovered to her amazement, and to the amazement of the rest of the world, that chimpanzees kill and eat monkeys and make a tool to extract termites from their hills (homes), and that they went to considerable effort to obtain these foods. It is also significant that meat is the only food they share with other chimpanzees.

All monkeys, lemurs and apes are classified as vegetarians and/or fruitivors, but they consume a small amount of animal protein by unconsciously eating the small insects, their eggs and larvae on the plant foods they select to eat. The National Zoo in Washington, D.C. tried to breed the near extinct fruitivorian South American golden marmoset in captivity with no result, but when a little animal protein was added to their diet, they began to breed, which proves that they require a small amount of animal protein to be healthy and reproduce.

With the exception of humans, the native habitat of all the primates is in the tropics. By contrast, for thousands of years, humans have inhabited all the land masses of the world, except for Anarctica. The first humans, the Australopithicines, circa 2 million years ago, were omnivorous. Recently, some researchers, in examining their fossil teeth, have claimed that the Australopithicines were vegetarians; but the evidence indicates they were omnivorous. It is clear that by the time "humans" evolved, from Homo erectus through to what is now considered "modern" humans, such as Cro-Magnon man, humans were primarily meat eaters. According to J. Brownoski, (The Ascent of Man), it was meat-eating that led to the rise of modern man. Homo erectus invented stone tools for hunting big game which led to the invention of more advanced stone tools by Cro-Magnon to modern humans.

It was the quest for meat that led Homo sapiens to colonize the world. They followed the herds of animals. When overpopulation caused the animal food supply to dwindle, many moved on, from tropical Africa to North Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas and Australia. They walked and adapted to the cold climates and were able to do so because meat is compact energy, and one kill of a mammoth or other big game could feed many people and lasted for a long period of time; whereas gathering plants and fruits to eat was seasonal. Until the early part of the 20th century there were peoples who lived almost entirely on animal food. For example, the Eskimos of North America and Lapps of Scandinavia lived almost entirely on animal protein and were very healthy.

However, when we refer to meat, remember that meat entails fats which are necessary for sound health. The protein and minerals in the meat cannot be utilized without the nutrients in the fat. Both Steffanson and Brody, who spent time with the Eskimos and Indians of North America, reported that these people saved the fat from game animals and always ate their meat with fat.

The Eskimos ate raw meat, which is very healthy, but there is a caveat for modern society: fresh meat often contains bacteria and parasites that can cause illness, and even death, therefore it is recommended by the government that all meat should be cooked well enough to kill all such pollutants.

Humans only turned to plant foods as major food sources when, due to the ever-increasing human population, herds of animals became scarce. They learned to domesticate some animals and invented agriculture.

Humans learned to use fire, to any extent, in the Paleolithic age. Cooking certainly was necessary, because grains cannot be eaten raw. It is also interesting to note that when humans began eating a diet high in grains, the incidence of tooth decay increased considerably. Tooth decay increased dramatically when refined grains (wheat and rice) became staple diets for a large percentage of the world's population.

For normal growth and sound health throughout life, the human species requires eight amino acids which their bodies cannot manufacture, vitamin B12 and some essential minerals. The only viable source of these amino acids and of vitamin B12 is animal protein such as red meat, fish, shell fish, eggs, milk, insects and worms. The lack of these amino acids results in serious illnesses. For example, kwashiorkor is a deficiency disease which impedes the normal development of vital brain cells and stunts growth. People may be getting all they need to eat to satisfy their hunger from grains and other plant foods. They may even become plump on a diet of grains, but their normal growth and development is stunted. For instance, some Maya Indian peasant groups of Guatemala primarily have only corn, beans and squash to eat. They like meat, but are too poor to purchase meats or raise animals. Feeding domesticated animals would sacrifice land needed to grow the grains on which they subsist. This condition is common over much of the world.

Unlike humans, the digestive tract of gorillas is equipped to manufacture the essential amino acids and other vital nutrients. The human digestive system is not so equipped and we must rely on animal proteins.

It is interesting to note that advocates of vegetarian diets who use the diet of apes as a rational to support their food choice--asserting that the ape diet is more "natural"--fail to advocate eating a diet of all-raw plant foods as the apes do. The basic plant foods that humans eat must be cooked. Vegan advocates also say that by combining grains with legumes, one can get the essential amino acids. Though this may be theoretically possible, in practice it is not viable and extremely difficult or impossible to accomplish, particularly if robust health is to be achieved and maintained generation after generation. Of course, due to modern technology, many of the essential nutrients can be supplied by synthetic or processed products, but these merely duplicate what is naturally in animal protein and are often extracted from them. To be on the safe side, it is wise to procure essential nutrients from their best source--animal protein.

Anthropologists have wondered why certain foods came to be prohibited by some religions. The anthropologist, Dr. Marvin Harris, in his two extremely readable, informative and enjoyable books, Cannibals and Kings and Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, shows that the prohibition of pigs (pork) by the Jewish religion and cows by the Hindu religion came about due to the ever-increasing pressure of population growth.

Pigs eat grain. It takes lots of land to grow grain for wheat which could feed more humans than it could feed pigs that require the grain to become meat on the human dinner-table. So wheat was in competition with pigs and the wheat won out when human referees decided wheat was more efficient in feeding the growing population. So pork wasn't worth the grain and was prohibited by the religious leaders as a strategy to feed the population more efficiently.

Likewise, in India where beef was widely eaten at an earlier time in history, the Hindu religion prohibited it because the cow was more valuable for its milk and dung than as edible beef. Milk from the cow provided animal protein and the dung provided fuel for the fires to cook food. Religious sanctions are a very powerful societal force of control. (In these books by Harris, only a few pages are devoted to this subject, but the books are highly recommended for gaining insight into human behavior.)

In economically diverse societies where animal protein is scarce among the poorer classes and more abundant in the increasingly affluent sectors of society, it is interesting to note the differences in body height that seems to reflect the way people are forced to eat. The less affluent sectors subsist primarily on grains and a few vegetables and lack the height that is found among the more affluent ruling classes. This situation can develop as a result of overpopulation because too many humans inhabiting in a region can deplete the carrying capacity of the land upon which the food is produced.

The ancient Maya of the Classical Period used the slash and burn strategy to create more arable land as their population outgrew the surrounding forest. In order to create fields in which to grow corn, squash, beans and chili peppers, forest land was cleared by the destructive method of cutting down trees and burning the debris. This is a very brutal strategy within a fragile ecosystem that rapidly exhausts the soil. The Mayan diet consisted chiefly of the vegetables they grew, a few fruits and game. But the game became scarce as the forest was cleared for farm land and only the tiny ruling class had access to animal protein. (They had the domestic turkey and dog, but these animals ate the same food as humans.) This ecologically unstable situation led to the collapse of the Classical Maya civilization when they abandoned their great cities. The point for this article is that the skeletons unearthed from the Mayan burial grounds reveal that the ruling class was taller than the masses. The nobility supplemented their basic diet of corn, beans and squash with what animal protein was available; whereas the masses had practically none.

So what can the diet of gorillas tell us about what constitutes a healthy diet for humans? Little if anything. Humans are omnivores and need animal protein as well as plant foods to maintain sound health. The author of this article and Dr. Melvin E. Page recommend, as presented in their book, Your Body is Your Best Doctor, the following as a sound diet to help maintain optimal health: Eat a variety of fresh animal protein and fats, a wide variety of fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts and whole grain breads and cereals.

For a complete bibliography on this subject, see "The Relevance of Paleolithic Diet in Determining Contemporary Nutritional Needs," H. Leon Abrams, Jr. The Journal of Applied Nutrition. Vol. 31, Numbers 1 and 2.

Editor's Note: Many practitioners still recommend the use of raw meat for its health-building properties, pointing out the careful handling and protective factors in the diet can minimize the risks of parasite and microbial infection.


This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2000.

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Comments (23)Add Comment
I get a kick out of the vegan worship
written by Michael Parish, Nov 03 2013
It always amazes me that vegans haven't figure out that breast milk is an animal product. It is higher in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than cow's, sheep or goat's milk. It with the other food analogs that mimic its components are the natural food of man. The primary reason for the greater height in America and all Western countries since WWII regardless of country of ancestor origin is the increase in milk product consumption. Young Asians are much larger than their parents as a result of including increasing amounts of milk in the diet. Casein the primary protein in cow's milk is highly anabolic and why there was a successful body builder in the 70's (Bill Pearl) who was vegetarian (not vegan). He drank large amounts of milk each day and ate large numbers of eggs. In fact the whole body building culture in the 70's and 80's centered around milk and eggs. I'm not saying that a vegan diet isn't healthy. I'm simply saying that adding a level of animal products to a already healthy vegetable diet would make it even better. Do larger people die younger? The answer might be yes, but if you're a short male try getting a date let alone finding a suitable mate. What's the point of living a long life when you're doomed to living it alone without a wife or the children that result from the union.
written by Nat, Oct 24 2013
I agree with many of these comments. In addition to several of the flaws pointed out below, when humans were hunter-gatherers it was, in fact, MEAT that was very rarely consumed. Evidence shows that human ancestors didn't begin to incorporate meat into their diets generally at all until they harnessed the power of fire and were able to cook meat. And it was also a reaction to climate changes when plant life became more scarce.
plenty can be learned from the gorilla diet if you look beyond outdated diet ideologies (both paleo and vegan)
written by mneave, Oct 20 2013
I grew up in a traditional Mexican family eating tons of beef chicken pork and eggs and from an early age I hated the way that made me feel. I struggled with indigestion, heartburn, and constipation. When I went away to college I went vegetarian eating mostly raw veggies, beans, rice, whole grain carbs, fruits and some diary and I suffered from horrible depression, hair loss, pms, insomnia, skin and respiratory allergies, and chronic fatigue. I later went back to paleo for a couple of years and my health suffered more so I've tried both paleo and vegan style diets for long periods of time and they were both awful for my health. Your article is well written but failed to make the point that like Gorillas we are omnivores but we all need to find our own unique adaptable mix of fuels that keep us healthy. We also need to stop raping and pillaging our planet by consuming less food (we don't need that much food). Eating adequate calories is just as a good a solution for health and for what we're doing to our planet as clinging to outdated diet ideologies that may not be beneficial for many folks who do better with a more balanced eating approach.
sustainable food source = sustainable life
written by michelle, Mar 13 2013
what a fun time i had reading your notes on nutritional evolution and ancestry. i was particularly humored with the notation about grains being diverted for human consumption rather than piglets based on unsubstantiated religious doctrine. I am curious how you came to this conclusion, as religion and the widely practiced avoidance of animal protein has been ongoing longer than our cultivation of both grain and pig farming? ...was that in the footnotes? In addition to the overwhelming evidence that diets high in animal sources are associated with increased mortality, obesity, heart disease, cancers, diabetes, hypertension, cognitive dysfunction and other neurological disorders, the practice of cultivating them as a food source is also damaging to our planet. The production of cows for food alone serves as 18% of our total green house gasses...that's 5% more than all the automobiles currently running on all the roadways of our planet. >>>i wonder, if we all followed the "paleo" / "insert high protein diet dejour here" as you and your colleagues recommend; what would die first, the humans or the planet? I'll close on this, you brought up an interesting noodle of information about ancient cultures and only aristocratic diets receiving animal protein and the poor peasants and less fortunate having to get by on other foods...well, the aristocrats died early, usually between 29-50 years (autopsies on their mummies found clogged arteries in 30% of them) while those struggling field know, the ones from which most of us came from, lived well into their 80's. I wonder if there's a connection....?
Nice article but what about digestion?
written by Suzanne, Nov 07 2012
I've been poking around the archives and have to say that I'm really enjoying the articles here. One thing about this article that I was wondering about was... what about the differences between gorilla and human digestion? Gorillas have these huge, heavy duty colons, filled with massive populations of helpful bacteria, that dwarf those of humans' with our relatively longer small intestines. Humans' small colons are longer than those of of any primate, gorillas in particular. On the other hand with their massive colons and attendant populations of gut bacteria, gorillas can convert large amounts of raw plant materials, undigestible by humans (or gorillas themselves), into nutrients that they can digest via bacterial fermentation. For our part our longer small intestines, where chemical digestion as opposed to fermentation takes place, seems to indicate that more processed (i.e. cooked) foods have been a large part of our diet for a very long time.

Anyone seriously suggesting that humans should base their diet on that of an animal with such very different digestion is mistaken. If we're going to be making stuff as it suits us why not bypass plants altogether and obtain energy directly from the sun? A better idea would be to look at healthy human populations and see how they eat. Which is precisely what the Weston A. Foundation does. Right on WAPF folk, from Paleo eater Suzanne smilies/smiley.gif
written by veggie, Jul 24 2012
By pointing out a few cultures who survived on meat mostly, you have actually highlighted the fact that most traditional diets are mainly plant-based! Until recent modern times, how many cultures have a big steak on the menu every night?? It's always with urbanisation and westernisation that consumption of animal products increase. And studies after studies show the adverse effects these have on arteries, blood pressure, cancer rates etc etc. Traditional diets for most people of the world of beans and corn, tofu and rice have been consumed for thousands of years because they already provide all the essential amino acids!
written by stoney, May 20 2012
I am not impressed, you need to do more work if you think this is true

It is false that we must get our complete protein from animal sources. The following plants contain all 8 essential amino acids:


written by Julian, Mar 01 2012
Hi Ashley, keep up with the blood tests and let us know what they say after 3 or even 4 years if you make it that far. I lasted almost 4 years on 811 before it detoxed my muscles, teeth out, B12... smilies/sad.gif
written by Ashley, Oct 22 2011
I get all the protein I need from raw fruits and raw greens.
Quite easily. I also had my blood tested for any deficiencies and I am perfectly healthy. I have been vegan for over two years. Read the book 80/10/10.
written by silvia, Feb 15 2011
hi loving your website, I just want to add that in my family we are 4 sisters, my sister and I always liked to eat a lot of meat and eggs and animal protein,and we both grew very tall, but my other two sister have always eaten very little animal protein and so they are very short, that is very true and very impressive, we have always thought that it was their diet which did not aloud them to grow properly, well thats our experience .thank you so much for your website.
Stature = inverse relationship to longevity
written by Leah, Jan 26 2011
The author hasn't done his homework. Human stature and body weight is directly inversely related to longevity. In other words, the taller / heavier a person is, the lower their life expectancy. The scientific data is irrefutable.

Heavier and taller people also have higher rates of all types of cancer, particularly hormonal cancers (breast, prostate etc.).

Being tall / heavy is NOT healthy. In the past, humans equated it with good because the taller / stronger you were, the more likely you were to do well in the physical labour that was required for survival. It didn't mean you were healthier or lived longer.

I found the article interesting, but if you're going to suggest content that isn't true (i.e. that being taller and heavier means you're healthier), then I really don't have time for your organisation. Please give me facts, not outdated and incorrect ideologies and beliefs.

As for me, I wish I were a whole lot shorter and smaller (I'm a 6 foot tall, 90 kg woman). I'd have a better chance of a long life and good health, statistically-speaking.

Finally, regarding animal products, is your organisation recommending humans become insectivores? This would coincide strongly with anthropological evidence of human traditional diet from the Australasian and Asia-Pacific region, as well as data from Asia minor and various parts of Africa. I've read through your info and website, but don't see much evidence of support for this good source of animal protein, and found no recipes for insects in "Nourishing traditions".
For some, being vegetarian is not about health or longevity...
written by GT, Jan 24 2011
Sometimes a person will decide to go vegetarian because of a concern about animal welfare, rather than the American 'me me me!!!' obsession with health and life-extension.

I'm 46, 6'1" and 105kg, and reasonably healthy (I can't say for certain because I have not needed to visit a doctor in the last 20 years; the next 20 will be the test). I've been trying hard (with some lapses) to be vegetarian for about 3 years now. I can still bench 100kg cold, and throw a man the same size as me across a room.

Making sure that you get a balanced diet is reasonably difficult, but not impossible - it requires a bit of research, which in turn requires an IQ above about 110, so most 'Generation Me' folk might find it too hard.

In fact for me, the difficulty is that the more you find out about the ghastly way modern 'post-Enlightenment' society treats animals, the tighter you have to ring-fence some protein sources (no eggs - even free range - from commercial producers, because of the tens of millions of male chicks that get minced by the egg industry; likewise male calves being sent to their deaths by the diary industry).

So for me, EVEN IF vegetarianism led to a small decrease in life-expectancy, or a small decrease in human performance, I view it as a small price to pay to display my empathy with sentient animals other than those we keep as house pets.

Besides, the cumulative effects of bathing in flouridated water plus the crushing tax-burden from paying for bankers' palaces, are far more life-shortening than can be made up for by any silly old hamburger. (I'm capitalist - but not CRONY capitalist).


Taller isn't always better and shorter doesn't always mean unhealthy
written by Elderberry, Dec 25 2010
It is not an absolute that being taller is better or healthy. A person can have stunted growth and not reach their full potential, such as a plant that is deficient in nitrogen does not have vigorous growth. At the same time a plant fed chemical fertilizers is large and yet within is deficient in trace minerals and not as resistant to disease as a smaller more nutrient dense organic plant. The environment may be equally important as diet to height, pygmies in Africa average about 4 ft. they live in the thick tropical jungles and inorder to navigate they must be very short. Whereas Masai living on the plains are 7 ft tall and stay cooler for they lose alot of heat. I don't think an Inuit would do very well in the arctic at 7 ft. tall unless they were equally fat like a polar bear or whale and that would require alot of hunting! Anyway, point is short can be equally healthy if the specimen is strong internally.
Taller isn't always better
written by Elderberry, Dec 25 2010
The African Pygmies that live in the tropics of Africa average 4ft. tall, ie, under 5 inches. The information I have read is they are genetically small because they would not beable to navigate the thick jungles as tall people such as the tall Masai that live on the open plains averaging over 7ft. Some say their height helps keep their bodies cool, is that why the inuit are shorter? Ofcourse one can have stunted growth as well as weakness and not grow to your their full potential as a plant does that doesn't get proper nutrition, at the same time it may be equally weighed by the importance of how the environment shapes us as well. Although some plants grow unusually large on chemically fertilizers but looks can be deceiving for their nutrient content is less than organic food and their strength, ie, ability to resist disease.
Sport nutrition
written by Jeff W., Sep 18 2010
It would be interesting to see controlled studies comparing physical performance between vegan/omivore competitors. I'll bet big on the omnivores in lifting and throwing performance. Where in the world to find competing groups not confounding performance with steroids?

Endurance sport might be a source to draw vegan and omnivore subjects. It may not be as big a difference, but I would still bet on the omnivores in a large sample.

Gymnastics? Martial Arts? Modern Pentathlon? Biathlon? Bet omnivore.

There was a champion bodybuilder in the 1970s that claimed to be a vegan. I'd venture to guess that steroids had more to do with his physique than his food. Again, if you could control for steroids, you could show a difference in the ability to build muscle mass between the two diet types.
Stature = Health?
written by Eileen, Sep 10 2010
You point out that people who eat lots of animals are taller than those who don't. That may be, but your implication seems to be that more height equals better health. I'd like to see you show your research on that. My grandmother wasn't even 5 feet tall and she lived to 101.
Human: Smartest or dumbest
written by esr, Apr 27 2010
We are so dumb we are the only animals on earth that don't know what the hell to eat. Are we vegans or omnivores? All other animals know instinctively what to eat. The exception is domesticated animals like dogs and cats that eat what we give them, and they are getting fatter and more prone to human diseases and infirmities. I'm confused. Do I go veggie and risk nutrient depletion or go animal and risk getting clogged arteries and high blood pressure. Scott's right, you got to find your own path.
written by Sally, Mar 29 2010
Isn't is also true that the higher the percentage of plant food in the primate diet, the smaller the brain size of the species as related to body mass? And, therefore, since we have the largest brain size as correlated with body mass of all primates, isn't it 'natural' that we would have the highest animal product percentage in out diets?
Kudos to the person who points out that BIG agribusiness is the true enemy here in the US. Anyone reacting out of education rather than emotion can figure that one out! Bravo to everyone here seeking contrary points of view.
written by Mishe Simantel, Mar 15 2010
The claim to taller people (as mentioned in the ancient Mayan culture) is unsubstantiated.

It is false that we must get our complete protein from animal sources. The following plants contain all 8 essential amino acids:

Regarding Ruminants
written by Lewis Habben, Feb 13 2010
So, with all our mental capacity, we cant figure out how to culture protein? How about ruminants, like cows, they grow 1000 lbs on grass. They use bacteria to provide them with their protein needs.

If we can find the answer, there it lies. Figure out how to replicate the ruminant.
Fight the Agri-business Corporations NOT Each Other
written by Veverly, Jan 27 2010
Whether one is a vegetarian or an onmivore is irrelavent! We ALL have the choice to chose ones diet - to consume what ever we feel is healthy or necessary for our own individual health! There will always be science (true or not) to support both sides of the subject.

I am a vegetarian who is VERY healthy yet I do not oppose omnivores. I have also met ominvores who are also VERY healthy who in turn do not oppose my diet/lifestyle.

However, I do oppose the giant agri-business corporations such as Monsanto (and the like) that are destroying our food supply for profit thus creating a health crisis among both vegetarians and omnivores!

Rather than fighting one another let us focus on removing the dangerous aspects of food production, it automatically makes for a much safer food supply (meat or plant based).

If we return to natural farming practices, there is no need for “organic” regulations because ALL food would be safe and natural.

This is how it was in the past … all food was essentially organic as a matter of course. A pure food supply is what we need for health whether it be meat or plant based!

The offending substances in the food supply are antibiotics, hormones, GMOs, pesticides and slaughterhouse waste! This is contributing to the ill health of both vegetarian and omnivores!

If we demand to take these five substances out of the food system automatically, all food becomes natural. We don’t have to fight for it as organic; we don’t have to label. We don’t have to do anything.

Please lets focus on maintaing our choice to select whatever diet we deem as healthy. Lets work together on fighting the giant agri-business corporations that are working hard to remove our choices by controlling the food supply. Lets NOT fight one another because we are all in this together.
Reply to Scott
written by Tim Boyd, Jan 25 2010
Your own reasoning works against you as much as it does us. If no amount of facts confirm our view, then no amount of facts confirm your view either.
Great article, Low-rated comment [Show]

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Last Updated on Friday, 05 June 2009 23:02