A paleo friend suggested I read “The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability” for an alternative perspective to the vegan/vegetarian diet. The book was written by someone who was vegan for 20 years, but decided to start eating animal products again for a variety of reasons.
Our friend was genuinely concerned about our health, and it never hurts to hear other perspectives, but I must admit my skepticism prior to checking it out. After watching several documentaries and reading several books from reputable, qualified sources, I felt pretty confident in my decision to go vegan and eat a Whole-Food Plant-Based (WFPB) diet.
With that said, I did try to read the book with an open mind, while fact-checking the claims and citations. However, as I suspected, the author’s perspective is more unsubstantiated opinion based on her interpretation of personal experience, rather than factual information based on legitimate, unbiased science.
I would need to write an entire book to refute all of the misleading, misrepresented and misunderstood claims and the citations she used to support them, so I’ll just address the first chapter, which is a pretty thorough preview of the rest of the book.
Here’s the first chapter of The Vegetarian Myth debunked…
Degenerative Disc Disease Caused by Vegan Diet: False
The author attributes her Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) to being vegan for 20 years. In fact, the unbiased evidence suggests just the opposite.
After eating meat for 44 years, I was diagnosed with severe DDD and congenital spinal stenosis, which required two major spinal surgeries. This makes me more familiar than most with this condition. Here’s a picture of my back after 44 years of a meat-heavy diet.
After speaking to my doctor and doing considerable research, I found that this condition is most often caused by injury, aging and/or bad genes. In my case, the congenital spinal stenosis was either due to bad genes or environmental factors. DDD isn’t actually a disease. It “refers to a condition in which pain is caused from a disc that loses integrity.”
Contrary to the author’s unfounded belief, a diet high in antioxidants (mostly found in fruits, vegetables and spices) and low in inflammatory agents (mostly found in meat, dairy, eggs and processed foods) can actually help treat the condition. “We’ve known for 14 years that a single meal of meat, dairy, and eggs triggers an inflammatory reaction inside the body within hours of consumption.” [source]
More recent evidence suggests DDD may be caused by a lack of blood flow to the areas surrounding the discs. Lack of blood flow can be caused by inflammation or cardiovascular blockages. Considering I had high cholesterol for at least 15 years eating a meat-heavy diet, there’s a good chance my non-vegan diet significantly contributed to my DDD. Now that I’ve been eating the WFPB diet for over two years and recently cut out oil, my cholesterol is under 200 without drugs for the first time since I found out it was high.
That means a vegan diet may benefit the condition, not harm it, and certainly not cause it. The author’s attribution of her DDD to her vegan diet is anecdotal with ample, unbiased science to dismiss it.A vegan diet may benefit Degenerative Disc Disease, not harm it, and certainly not cause it. #vegan Click To Tweet
Humans Can’t Eat Grass So That Makes Us Meat Eaters: False
This one is hard to refute with a straight face because it’s so absurd. True, we can’t digest grass like cows and horses. We also can’t digest tree bark or other plants made predominantly of cellulose.
However, our digestive system is optimized to digest over 7,000 other plants while we eat only about 35 different types of animals. Lacking a four-chamber stomach doesn’t, by default, make us meat eaters. It simply means we can’t eat certain types of plants.
The term “herbivore” refers to an animal that survives primarily on a plant-based diet. It’s not specific about the type of plants. Some herbivores eat grass, others eat bark, others eat 7,000 different types of plants.
For me, the smoking gun that humans are biological herbivores, not carnivores or even omnivores, is that only herbivores develop heart disease.
“Atherosclerosis affects only herbivores. Dogs, cats, tigers, and lions can be saturated with fat and cholesterol, and atherosclerotic plaques do not develop (1, 2). The only way to produce atherosclerosis in a carnivore is to take out the thyroid gland; then, for some reason, saturated fat and cholesterol have the same effect as in herbivores.” [source]
Our bodies are not designed to eat meat. That’s a provable, biological fact.Some herbivores eat grass, others eat bark, others eat 7,000 different types of plants. #vegan Click To Tweet
Our inability to eat grass does not make us meat eaters. This is a logical fallacy.
The Human Digestive System is the Same as a Lion’s: False
The author states, “Lions and hyenas and humans don’t have a ruminant’s digestive system. Literally from our teeth to our rectums, we are designed for meat.”
This statement is false for a number of reasons. Here’s a short list of how our digestive systems are different from true carnivores and omnivores: [source]
- Jaw Structure – Carnivores have a much wider mouth opening than humans allowing them to seize prey and bite through thick skin and muscle with enormous force.
- Teeth – Carnivores have razor sharp, serrated molars for slicing through flesh. Humans have flat molars for grinding plants.
- Saliva – Human saliva contains carbohydrate-digesting enzymes which begin breaking down food molecules while the food is still in the mouth. Carnivores lack these enzymes and typically swallow their food in large chunks.
- Throat – Carnivores have large throats, allowing them to swallow large chunks of food without choking.
- Stomach – Carnivores have a large stomach with high acidity. The high acidity kills bacteria an organisms like salmonella and listeria, which make humans sick. Humans have a much smaller stomach with less acidity than carnivores, and process food quickly into the small intestine where bacteria gets processed into the bloodstream and can kill us.
- Small Intestine – Carnivores have short small intestines, roughly 3 to 5 times their body length. Human small intestines are roughly 10 times body length. A shorter intestine allows carnivores to process the putrefying meat out of their systems quickly.
- Large Intestine – Carnivores also have a short and narrow large intestine whose only purpose is to absorb salt and water. The large intestine in humans is very long and wider than the small intestine. It also absorbs important vitamins, electrolytes and water, as well as helps with the digestion of fibrous plant materials.
- Cholesterol – Carnivores have a very efficient system for processing the cholesterol they consume from meat. Cholesterol doesn’t form plaque in their arteries like it does in humans.
Unlike humans, true omnivores like bears and raccoons have retained most of the carnivorous traits listed here, and have not developed herbivorous traits characteristic of humans.
The biggest difference between carnivores, omnivores and humans is how we process cholesterol. You can feed a lion or a bear 4 pounds of butter a day for the rest of their lives and they will never form plaque in their arteries. Humans only need to consume small amounts of cholesterol to form plaque in our arteries.
In reality, our digestive systems are most similar to apes and chimpanzees who eat a mostly vegan diet. Apes sometimes eat termites and chimpanzees sometimes eat insects and smaller monkeys, but overall they eat predominantly plants. They certainly don’t eat animal products at every meal. So if the author wants to compare us to other animals, the animals should be those with similar digestive systems, not radically different systems.
It’s also important to note that heart disease is the leading cause of death in western societies that consume large amounts of animal products (meat, dairy and eggs). And we’ve known for over a hundred years that one of the leading causes of heart disease is consuming too much cholesterol (only found in meat, dairy and eggs). The recent studies funded by the egg industry that suggest cholesterol is not the cause of arterial plaque had seriously flawed methodologies.
From a purely biological perspective, the human digestive system is designed to eat plants, not animals. The fact that early hominids figured out how to eat meat is most likely a sign of environmental or cultural adaptation and the need for short-term survival, not long-term survival or biological evolution.
Monocrops of Annual Grains to Feed Humans are Destroying the Environment: False
In fact, “The 7 billion livestock animals in the United States consume five times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population.” [source]
That means for every acre of grain that’s grown for human consumption, 5 acres are grown for animal feed. If we stopped eating animal products, we would reduce the need for monocrops considerably while making polyculture on the large scale more viable and feasible.For every acre of grain that's grown for human consumption, 5 acres are grown for animal feed. #vegan Click To Tweet
Again, the author draws false conclusions from available evidence to justify her dietary choices.
Vegans Want to Build a Fence Down the Middle of the Serengeti: False
The author shares an experience she had on a vegan forum where a small group of misguided and uneducated vegans proposed building a wall down the middle of the Serengeti to prevent the carnivores from eating the herbivores.
It’s important to note that this exchange can’t be verified, and those involved may not have been serious. This may have been sarcasm that escaped the author.
Although some vegans do believe we should protect all life at any cost, the true vegan philosophy is to “do the least amount of harm.” If we prevent carnivores from eating in their natural habitat, that goes against the true vegan values. It’s doing more harm than good. It would cause the carnivores to starve by depriving them of their food source. And by removing the natural predators from the environment, the herbivore population would explode, leading to disease and starvation.
The real issue here is that rational vegans believe humans were never meant to be part of the carnivorous food cycle. Our ancestors took us out of our place in the middle of the food chain and put us on top of it, which has thrown the whole system out of balance.Returning to our rightful place in the food chain will restore a little balance to our ecosystem. Click To Tweet
I don’t think many vegans would advocate going back to our old spot in the food chain and allow carnivores to eat a few of us on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean we need to continue eating animals on a daily basis, either. By returning to our rightful place in the food chain, we’ll be restoring at least a little balance to our ecosystem.
A Vegan Diet Is Not Sufficient Nutrition for the Human Body: False
The author writes, “A Vegetarian diet – especially a low-fat version, and most especially a vegan one – is not sufficient nutrition for long-term maintenance and repair of the human body.”
She supports this claim with anecdotal evidence from her own health issues, which she has misattributed to her past vegan diet. In fact, decades of science support a whole-foods plant-based diet (WFPB), which is another name for a healthy vegan diet.
In countries that consume a high animal, low unrefined plant diet, the rates of heart disease and cancer increase predictably and consistently. Regions of the world that have yet to adopt the western diet of affluence don’t experience the same levels of these preventable diseases. [source]
If you consume the junk food vegan diet of highly processed foods with lots of added sugars, you won’t get enough nutrition to maintain your body. But if you eat a healthy, balanced, WFPB vegan diet, you’ll not only get enough nutrients, your body will thrive and your chance of dying early from a number of diseases including heart disease and cancer goes down dramatically.
Veganism Causes Depression Due to a Lack of Tryptophan: False
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that we must get from the food we eat; our bodies can’t produce it. It’s linked to the production of serotonin in the brain, and many people believe that low serotonin levels may lead to depression. However, “This is a myth because countless scientific studies have specifically examined this theory and have come back universally rejecting it.” [source] Low serotonin levels have not been proven to cause depression.
Furthermore, the author states, “there are no good plant sources of tryptophan.” This is patently untrue. Here is a short list of just some plants that contain tryptophan: spirulina, soybeans (tofu), sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, oats, chickpeas, wheat flower, chocolate, rice, quinoa, potatoes, tamarind and banana. [source]
While egg whites sit atop this list and meat does contain it, by no means can you say there are “no good plant sources of tryptophan.” This statement is completely false.The cause of depression in some vegans is the mental issues they bring to their diet. #vegan Click To Tweet
Finally, some research suggests that it’s not a vegan or vegetarian diet that causes depression. According to a German study, “The researchers concluded that being vegetarian did not cause people to be depressed. Rather depressed people—for whatever reason—were more likely to choose a vegetarian diet.” [source]
In other words, the cause of depression in some vegetarians and vegans isn’t the food they eat, it’s the mental issues they bring to their diet. It’s not surprising that some compassionate people develop mental health issues while living in a largely uncompassionate society.
The Vegetarian Myth Debunked Conclusion
I honestly feel sorry for the author. She most likely didn’t eat a healthy vegan diet and suffered the consequences with diminished health. However, I don’t accept that all of her physical ailments were caused by her vegan diet. Instead, they were more likely due to her heredity, environmental conditions, upbringing, depression and addictive personality.
As one Amazon reviewer wrote, “Keith is just oh so sure of it all. Utter certainty of her earlier food-religion. Utter certainty of her new food-religion. From one fanatical spiritual obsession with food to another.”
I’m sure the author believes she’s doing the right thing, but she is actually doing more harm than good. She believes she’s helping “save lives” when in reality, she’s helping people justify their poor dietary choices by ignoring decades of legitimate science and assisting them in a slow death by food.
She feels like she’s had an epiphany and discovered what she calls “adult knowledge,” but her condescension is just a cover allowing her to blame something other than herself for her poor food choices and the mental issues that afflict her. Rather than writing a book on this topic, she would be better served by working with a qualified psychotherapist.
You can continue to believe these comfortable lies told by the author and the animal ag industry while knowing full well the uncomfortable truths that make them necessary, but that doesn’t change reality.
Your choice to eat an animal-based diet is destroying your long-term health, it’s destroying the environment, it’s destroying the health of the people who work in and live near farms and meat processing plants, and it’s destroying the lives of thousands of innocent animals throughout the course of your life.
Make the healthy, environmentally friendly and compassionate choice. Go vegan and eat a healthy, WFPB diet.