What is carnism?

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Image Source: 10,000 Hours/Getty Images
Image Source: 10,000 Hours/Getty Images

Related tags Meat Veganism Vegetarianism

Coined in 2001, social psychologist Melanie Joy’s theory of carnism suggests a philosophical basis behind the defence and justification of meat consumption. In a time where plant-based diets fight to replace those of meat, it is more relevant than ever.

Carnism posits that eating meat is “normal”, “natural” and “necessary” for human beings, according to social psychologist Melanie Joy theory, which she developed in her 2009 book, ‘ Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows’.

Later, the researcher Jared Piazza added the term “nice”, which developed the idea to include simple taste pleasures as well as more philosophical justifications.

Despite the rise of plant-based meat, some studies show that these justifications remain. But how much validity do they have?


According to the book 'Should we eat meat?: Evolution and consequences of modern carnivory' by Vaclav Smil, eating meat contributed to human evolution. Hunting for animals often led to collaboration, which can be set to be a precursor of modern, “civilised” humanity. 

Furthermore, many scientists believe that there’s a fundamental connection between our large brains (animal consumption requires a lot of energy, which in turn fuels are more complex brains) and small guts, and the frequent intake of animal proteins. 

Lastly, at the end of the day it’s clear that our digestive system has not evolved to purely digest plant-based ingredients, unlike those of herbivores.

However, newer research from paleontologist Andrew Barr suggests that the abundance of evidence that, early in our evolution, we were avid hunters rests on a sampling bias - we tend to look for evidence of homo erectus ​hunters rather than the reverse. 


However, vast swathes of the world get by on a mostly plant-based diet.

In India, the world’s most populous country, eating meat is far rarer than in Europe. In fact, around 20% of the population are strictly vegetarian, very often for religious reasons, according to a 2018 study published in Economic and Political Weekly​ titled ‘Provincialising’ Vegetarianism: Putting Indian Food Habits in Their Place’.

Ethiopia, according to the Vegan Society, also has very low meat consumption rates, despite having one of the world’s largest livestock populations. 

Due again to religious practices, this time fasting connected to membership of the Orthodox Church, they have adapted to a very vegetarian and vegan-friendly food culture. 

Eating meat is not essential to every culture, and therefore can only be considered “normal” in specific cultural contexts.


It is of course possible to survive and even be healthy on a diet without meat. But are there any nutrients that only meat contains? 

It’s complicated. Some essential animal-based vitamins, such as vitamin B12, are associated with meat but can also be found in other animal products, such as eggs. If you’re a vegan, there’s a growing market of supplements for these things. 

Another vitamin, carnosine, is only found in animal tissue, meaning vegans and even vegetarians find it difficult to get enough. This nutrient protects against degenerative processes and is a popular supplement against aging. Like B12, it is possible to take supplements (according to Market Watch, the L-Carnosine supplements market is expected to reach $48m by 2027).

In conclusion, it may have once been necessary to eat meat to get certain benefits (if not to simply stay alive) but eating meat is no longer necessary with the advent of supplements in the market.


This is, of course, up to the individual eating it. One of the aims of plant-based meat manufacturers is, of course, to provide these same  “nice” qualities to consumers without the consumption of meat being necessary.

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