For more than a year, I have been on a panel of advisers to Kraft Foods through their Cultivar program. I get an e-mail once a week suggesting a topic for discussion or asking a food-related question. I can state an opinion or respond to the comments posted by others. The activities are fun and and they elicit some interesting feedback. A few weeks ago, the administers posed the discussion topic: “What current or recent word or trend annoys you most?”

A member identified as Tanya O responded: “The food myths that bug me the most are: ‘All carbs are bad,’ and ‘It is difficult for vegetarians to get enough protein’ – gorillas are vegan and they don’t have a problem :)'”

I remembered reading a post by Dr. Barry Groves on his website, Second Opinions, that specifically mentioned gorillas, so I went back to refresh my memory before posting a reply to Tanya with a link to his article.

Dr. Groves says, “No mammal – not even the herbivores – has developed an enzyme that will digest vegetable fibre. This is why we tend to discount it when calculating our calorie intakes, however, while mammals have not developed an enzyme that will digest fibre, there are lots of micro-organisms and bacteria that can do the job for them. The herbivores employ billions of these bacteria….” He goes on to discuss the digestive systems of various mammals, including gorillas and humans.

Herbivores derive nutrients from fiber in two ways. Some, like cattle, sheep, and deer, are foregut digesters. They have multiple stomachs that serve as fermentation tanks where fiber is broken down by bacteria. The dead bacteria then provide short-chain fats that nourish the animal. I took this picture showing the digestive system of a bison in a museum in Montana this past summer. The four stomachs are numbered.

Animals like rabbits, pigs, horses, and gorillas are hindgut digesters. They absorb some nutrients through the stomach and small intestine in the same way carnivores do, but the fiber in their diet is fermented to produce short-chain fatty acids (saturated fats) in the cecum and the colon. These fats are then used as fuel.

All herbivores use one of these two methods to get energy from what appears to be energy-deficient food sources. Obviously, all of them are adapted and designed to live on a high-fat, low carbohydrate diet, with a moderate amount of protein. The illustration below, from Dr. Groves, shows the difference between the digestive tract of a carnivore and a hindgut-digester, such as a gorilla. The gorilla’s cecum, the long, spiral-shaped organ in the picture on the right, is analogous to the small human appendix. It is used to breed enormous quantities of bacteria that convert fiber into fat. The gorilla’s diet of leaves ultimately breaks down to provide 24.3% of calories from protein; 15.8 % from carbs, and 59.8% from fat.

Plant eaters have large bellies to accommodate these fermentation factories and they must spend most of their time eating in order to survive on such a diet. By contrast, lions, wolves, and humans have short guts and they have (or should have) slim waists. They can spend most of their time lying in the sun like cats, or making things, conquering the world, or playing around like humans. A dog is not a cow. A gorilla is not a human. No amount of conviction or compassion can change one into the other, but ultimately, all wild mammals, both herbivores and carnivores, get about 60- to 70% of their calories from saturated fat.

I encourage you to watch this video by Dr. Groves https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qn5zdWucv6I so you will be prepared with an answer should you encounter someone like Tanya or Alicia Siverstone, the actress-turned-activist, who says she became a vegan because she loved her dog. When asked what she feeds her dog, she said she gives him the “same healthful, vegan food” that she eats. Poor doggie. She should get a rabbit.

Pin It > https://www.pinterest.com/pin/224405993910248797/

Edited after publication to include video link from Dr. Groves.

(c) 2011, Judy Barnes Baker, Carb Wars; Sugar is the New Fat www.carbwars.blogspot.com

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Judy Barnes Baker

The working title for my first book was, “You’ll Never Know What You Are Missing.” It summed up my goal: to make eating for health synonymous with eating for pleasure. Once you discover the secret, you will find that the very best food for weight management, longevity, the treatment and prevention of disease, and over-all health and happiness is also the most sumptuous, satisfying, and indulgent way of eating the world has to offer. You are invited to the feast. Enjoy!
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Judy Barnes Baker
7 years ago

Thank you, L.Y.! I'm so honored to be in your folder! Thanks too for the heads up about the link. I'll fix it.

7 years ago

Excellent article Judy! I love your writing and I am bookmarking your stuff under a special folder I called "nutrition genius".

FYI, your link to the original work is broken because you have a comma after the words second-opinion but that should be a period.

Thank you!
L.Y. -Minnesota

Judy Barnes Baker
8 years ago

Anonymous: Some humans developed a mutation that allowed them to digest milk as adults. It happened first in the herding societies in the Middle East and spread to Europe as people migrated there. There are also people in some parts of Africa and in India that depend on dairy products for food, but many parts of the world never adapted to eating them. Dairy is usually listed as one of the most common allergens, probably because so many of us can't digest it.

8 years ago

If the enzyme that digests milk in humans disappears when we become adults, then what happens to the milk we consume as adults?

Judy Barnes Baker
8 years ago

Hi Anonymous. I agree that the production of conventionally raised meat is not good for the environment. But when 30 million buffalo grazed the plains, the eco-system was perfectly balanced and sustainable. When most of the world's forests and plains were converted to agriculture the balance of nature was destroyed and human health deteriorated.

When ruminant animals graze on wild plants, you don't need gasoline powered machines to plant and harvest soy and corn to feed them. Deserts are returned to natural grasslands when the grazers return. It's a win/win.

8 years ago

Also, that "vegan" dog is probably doing better than my poor cat. 🙂 I feed her the cheapest, most disgusting human-produced junky cat food around, but I don't know what else to do. It's no wonder domesticated "pet" animals get the same diseases we do–they eat the same human-produced food we do (in a different form). I think from a health standpoint, the problem isn't plant vs. meat but rather processed vs. unprocessed. However, from an environmental and ethical standpoint, human beings are destroying ourselves and the planet.

Wenona Rbe Bellmore
Reply to  Anonymous
6 years ago

There are companies/brands which produce raw, frozen, balanced food for cats. Because they’re raw, the cat’s poop actually stinks much less! Only one of the benefits lol, and not as important as the good health of your kitty. The brand I use is Primal. But even if you can’t afford or find it, the lowest quality wet food is better than the highest quality dry food. Try to feed grain free as well, cats have zero need for grains and the carbs that go with them. Here’s a site from a vet for more info – http://www.catinfo.org/

Judy Barnes Baker
10 years ago

Hi Arlene.

Most dairies now feed cows a lot of cottonseed to increase the amount of butter fat in the milk so they are getting fat in two ways. That's still not a good substitute for a natural diet of grass, however. Cotton is not a food crop, so they can use pesticides and chemicals on it that are not allowed on plants used for food. That's why I only buy organic cream.

Thanks for the comment.

10 years ago

What a great article. I must admit, I've wondered how cows can produce so much fat in their milk, eating just grass. Duh. Thank you!

Leo Tat
5 years ago

Hi Judy

With regards to the argument:

Gorilla are packed with muscle and they don’t eat meat and hence we don’t need to eat meat.

I simply see it as fallacious and a complete mistake to compare the diet of different species as an argument for how humans should eat.