What Happens to Your Body if You Start Eating Bugs
They could up your gains, for one.
Lawren Lu / Stocksy
The regular consumption of raw and cooked insects is the norm for two billion people with whom we share this little blue marble. In Thailand alone, 20,000 farmers raise more than 7,500 tons of crickets annually. While most of the bug-munching goes down in tropical, developing countries, we’d be wrong for leaping to the conclusion that this is due to desperate times calling for desperate measures.
In certain parts of Asia, Africa, and South America, insects are thought of as a delicacy. They’re also known to be much less expensive to raise than poultry and livestock, far less ruinous to the environment, and as I’m about to point out, just as nutritious as beef, pork, chicken, and fish—if not more so. Also, water is going to be an ever more precious resource over the coming decades, and raising 100 lbs of cricket protein requires just one two-thousandth of the water required to raise the same amount of protein from cattle.
So it's really no wonder that the United Nations is urging everyone to follow suit and develop a taste for 1,900 species of edible insects that are summarily enjoyed elsewhere. In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN published a report that detailed why bugs could be a nutritious and even delicious solution for a growing global population that needs to be fed. Drawing on the contents of that report, here are some of the things that could happen to you if you made arthropods a staple part of your diet.
You might stave off anemia
In August, I had an Airbnb guest flee my apartment after seeing a tiny single cockroach. He and his girlfriend were entirely unmoved by my explanation that this is New York and seeing an insect is neither out of the ordinary nor cause for undue alarm. I’m telling you this to demonstrate that cockroaches provoke feelings of revulsion that short out the rational mind, so getting people to eat these admittedly loathsome creatures isn’t going to be easy, even if you tell them that that a 100-gram serving of cockroaches has 24 micrograms of vitamin B12—almost 10 times the RDA
You should care about B12. Vegans often take B12 in supplement form because it’s hard to come by in non-animal products. The vitamin keeps the body's nerve and blood cells healthy and also helps make DNA, the genetic material in all cells. If you don’t get enough of this stuff, illnesses such as anemia, heart disease, and nerve-system damage become more likely. The vitamin is also essential for healthy skin, hair, and nails, as it aids in cell reproduction and constant renewal of the skin. B12 also helps the body make methionine from homocysteine, says Jonathan Valdez, the media spokesperson for New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Methionine has the responsibility of providing a chemical that creates DNA, RNA, hormones, proteins, and lipids," he says. “It is also responsible for hemoglobin and essential for protein and fat metabolism.”
More from Tonic:
If you couldn’t bear to eat a roach, you might want to check out termites or crickets (and for the squeamish but curious, cricket flour) as a B12 source. According to Crickstart—a company that manufactures bars, smoothies, crackers and snack mixes from crickets— these insects contain seven times the amount of B12 as salmon and over 50x than chicken by dry weight. A single 1.27 oz serving of Chapul cricket flour will get you 100 percent your recommended daily amount of B12. Companies like Exo Protein make also cricket bites and bars that can help with the transition and when you’re ready, they’ll happily sell you whole roasted crickets in five familiar flavors slightly more familiar than "earthy."
You could put on some muscle and have a little more energy
Mealworms, a.k.a. Tenebrio molitor, are the larval form of the mealworm beetle. Although they’ve traditionally been seen as a grain-eating pest by some cultures, others have happily made a habit of seasoning and roasting them. House flies are disgusting, bothersome shit-eaters, but on the other hand, they are highly nutritious. There are almost 20 g of protein in a 100 g serving—about a brimming cupful. Flies' levels of zinc, niacin, and magnesium are all off the charts, not only blowing away all the other insects studied—they also stood up to salmon, chicken, and beef that researchers compared them to. Niacin, a.k.a. vitamin B3, helps the body convert carbohydrates into glucose, which the body uses to produce energy.
Of all the major edible insects, mealworms contain the most protein: A 100 g serving (which would be about a cereal bowl-full) contains 24 g. To put that in perspective, mealworms actually beat wild Atlantic salmon for protein power. An equivalent serving contains just 19.84 g. A hundred grams of 90 percent lean ground beef, meanwhile, has only slightly more protein, with 26 g. Mealworms also boast higher levels of the amino acids isoleucine, leucine, valine, tyrosine, and alanine; are lower in fat; and come without all the methane that’s a major contributor to climate change.
By eating a diet rich in mealworms and derived products like mealworm protein powder, you could speed up your metabolism in two ways. First, you be setting yourself up to retain or even put on muscle mass. Valdez says that the recommendation for maintaining muscle is 25 to 30 g of protein at each meal, which you’d find in about 3.5 oz of mealworms (which would be a little over a cup full). Secondly, all that extra protein could stimulate the thermic effect of food, since the body burns more energy processing protein than it does carbohydrates or fats. You’ll also feel more full after all that Tenebrio molitor goodness: In 2012, researchers at the University of Lyon in France discovered that digested dietary proteins stimulate something called mu-opioid receptors, which can curb appetite.
And possibly lower your blood pressure
Back to the crickets—these guys pack a similar amount of potassium as beef. Eating all those potassium-rich crickets may help you fend off a range of cardiac problems, since one of the many things that potassium does is lower blood pressure. One study of people with high blood pressure found that consuming the mineral lowered systolic blood pressure—that’s the top number—by about eight points.
Potassium is also great for reducing bloating, which is caused by the sodium in the salty-tasting foods that we love. Valdez, who’s also a registered dietitian and founder of Genki Nutrition, a nutrition coaching service, explains that potassium counteracts sodium by easing the tension in the blood vessel walls, which results in lowering blood pressure. Also, potassium helps regulate sodium by excreting excess sodium through urine. “Both are tightly regulated and need a balance,’ he says. “One is not more important than the other.”
You could strengthen your bones
According to the USDA, adults should have 1,000 mg of calcium per day. That can be accomplished by eating one heaping handful of soldier fly larvae. A 100 g serving has 934 mg of it. Before you balk, larvae also boast more zinc and iron (both important for your bones) than any other insect you’d care to mention—and more than salmon, chicken, or lean beef too. A hundred grams of mopane caterpillars will provide 14 mg of zinc, which is just a little more than the 11 mg recommended daily amount for a man and 8 mg if you’re a woman. Valdez tells me that zinc also plays a role in immune function, wound healing, protein synthesis, DNA synthesis, cell division, and our sense of smell and taste.
And good for you if you acquire a taste for mopane caterpillars, because the same serving will get you near four times the recommended amount of iron. This might actually sound like too much, but is no cause for alarm; one study showed that you’d have to consume 10-20 mg of iron per kg of body weight to notice any adverse effects. Valdez explains that iron, via hemoglobin, is essential for transferring oxygen from the lungs into the body’s tissues and is also important for growth, development, normal cellular functioning, and synthesis of some hormones and connective tissue.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.