Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
25 Nov

The Vegetarian Myth

Wow.

It isn’t often that I write book reviews (have I ever? – serious question), but it isn’t often that a truly important book like Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth pops up on my radar just begging for one.

You may remember it from a brief mention I gave back in September, or maybe from Dr. Eades’ endorsement of it. You may have even already read the book yourself. If you haven’t, read it. And if you have? Read it again or get one for a friend.

That goes double for vegans, vegetarians, or anyone on the cusp of adopting that lifestyle. If you fit the bill, especially if you’re considering veganism/vegetarianism for moral reasons, drop what you’re doing and run to the nearest bookstore to buy this book. It’s incredibly well-written, and the author has a real knack for engaging prose, but that’s not the main reason for my endorsement. The real draw is the dual (not dueling) narratives: the transformation of a physically broken moral vegetarian into a healthier moral meat eater; and the destructive force of industrial agriculture. The “Myth” in question is the widely-held notion that vegetarianism is the best thing for our health and for our planet. On the contrary, Keith asserts that a global shift toward vegetarianism would be the absolute worst move possible. It’s vitally important. It’s definitive. It’s somewhat depressing, and it’s brutally honest. It also might be the book that changes your life.

Lierre Keith is a former vegan/vegetarian who bowed out after twenty long years of poor health and paralyzing moral paradoxes. Her original goal was to explore the question, “Life or death?” as it pertained to food. She, like most vegetarians, assumed she had a choice between the two, that it was an either/or thing. Eating tofu and beans was life, while a burger represented death. Life didn’t have to involve death – that was the weak way out, and the honorable (and difficult, and therefore meaningful) way to live was by avoiding animal products of all kinds. No blood on your hands or on your plate meant a clean moral slate.

Or so she thought. See, Keith began as a moral vegetarian. She never espoused the idea that meat was inherently unhealthy or physically damaging; she was simply a young kid who “cried for Iron Eyes Cody, longed… for an unmolested continent of rivers and marshes, birds and fish.” We’ve all heard of kids who “turn vegetarian” when they find out their chicken nuggets once walked, clucked, and pecked. Well, Keith was that five year old who bemoaned the “asphalt inferno of suburban sprawl” as a harbinger of “the destruction of [her] planet.” Hers was a deep-seated commitment to the preservation of all living things, not just the cute and fuzzy ones.

That expansive scope meant she looked at the big picture, and suffered for it. She never got to enjoy that oh-so-common smug vegetarian elitism, because she was too aware. Seeds were living things, too. They may not have had faces or doting mothers, but they were alive, and that meant they could die. Killing slugs in her garden was impossible, and deciding whether to supplement the soil with actual bone meal was excruciating. Unlike most of her peers, she knew that avoiding direct animal products didn’t mean her hands were clean. They might not be dripping red, but living organisms died to make that head of lettuce possible. Fields were tilled and billions of microorganisms were destroyed, not to mention the mice, rabbits, and other wild animals whose environments are leveled to make way for industrial farming. And so whichever direction she went – home gardening, local produce, or grocery store goods – Keith was contributing directly and indirectly to death.

What’s a moral vegetarian to do?

She briefly entertains studying with a mystic breatharian, hoping to (tongue-in-cheekily) learn to subsist purely on oxygen. She spends hours picking slugs from her garden and goes to relocate them. Nothing works. She keeps coming back to death.

“Let me live without harm to others. Let my life be possible without death.” Keith realizes this vegetarian plea (which “borders on a prayer”) is impossible to fulfill. She can’t live and eat without something dying, and that’s the whole point of it all. Death is necessary and natural. Circle of life, you know? Without death of some sort, life would get a whole lot worse.

Keith ultimately sets her sights on one of our favorite human “advancements” at the Apple: agriculture! Readers of MDA already know how agriculture altered our trajectory forever, but maybe not in such vivid detail. We focus on the lowered life expectancy, reduced bone density, compromised dental health, and the stooped, shrunken skeletons of our Neolithic ancestors, but Keith shows how grain agriculture actually destroys the land it touches. The Fertile Crescent, ground zero for grain development, used to be, well, fertile. It was verdant, lush, and teeming with life – including nomadic hunter gatherers. Paradise, you might even say. Animals grazed on perennial grasses, pooped out nutrients, and gradually those nutrients would work themselves back into the soil. It was a beautiful, natural life cycle that worked great for millennia. But once grains were grown and the land was irrigated, everything changed. Perennial renewable grasses became annual grains. Animals no longer grazed and replenished the soil. The top soil was robbed of nutrients and faded away. Irrigation meant crucial annual floods were disrupted or even halted. A massive monkey wrench was thrown into the system, and rather than coexisting as a complementary aspect of nature, man thus commenced the conflict with the natural world that rages to this very day.

And that’s the crux of her argument – that modern industrial agriculture is wanton destruction. Grain-based, vegetarian agriculture is even worse, because it attempts to eliminate a crucial player in the normal life cycle of the planet. Animals, which provide manure, calcium, and other nutrients for the soil, have to be part of the equation. Whenever a culture turns to a grain-based agricultural system, these same problems arise. Annual grain crops killed the American prairie and, for the vegans out there, they kill the millions of animals, bugs, and birds that rely on specific ecosystems to survive. The vegan’s soy burger has nary an animal part, but the machines that worked the soybean fields were greased with the blood of a thousand organisms. The vegetarian’s wheat crops feed millions, but robs the land of nutrients and destroys the top soil necessary for life.

Primal readers won’t be surprised by what they read. They may be horrified at the extent of the environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture, but they won’t be surprised (given agriculture’s poor track record with our health). Keith lays out an effective case against grains (and for a Primal-ish, low-carb, high-fat diet, believe it or not) on nutritive, moral, and economical grounds that’s tough to refute. The nutritional information will come as second nature, but the sources are sound and the references are powerful.

There’s more, far more, but I’d rather not spoil the entire thing. Just read it and rest assured that it’s worth your time. The book is a must-read, and a great ally for anyone interested in promoting a healthy, sustainable, omnivorous future. Read this book and distribute it to your vegan friends.

Primal approved!

Check out excerpts on Google Books, read the first chapter here, or purchase the book here or here.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Hi Mark! Really enjoying and taking in all of your posts and primal write-ups. I have three questions that I hope will be useful to all of your readers (as well as me!)

    Question 1: Would eating eggs as opposed to meat be JUST as healthy as eating meat, if enough is eaten (being a lacto-ovo vegetarian myself)? I eat boatloads of eggs every day with plenty of saturated fat, cholesterol, and protein–yum! Or is meat of higher quality.

    Question 2: Also, have there been long periods of evolution where primitive people lived on primarily egg-based with plants diet, for a very healthy life, equivalent to that of meat-eating populations?

    Question 3: And finally, what do you think of the argument that eating animals is better for the environment as htey give nutrients back to the earth–considering that they are not not dying on the land itself, but are being fed to us, and then we poop out those nutrients into the water system instead of the land? Any thoughts?

    Thanks Mark for all of your help before and the advice that you provide!

    Ben

    Ben wrote on September 29th, 2012
  2. Keith’s book is magnificent and life-changing. Regarding your son who is 16 and vegetarian and feels great– watch out! That was me, and now I am 30 and I have pretty serious health problems that were, without a doubt, caused by my 12 years as a vegetarian. I am recovering, but THANK GOODNESS I caught these issues before I had even more serious problems. Even if he feels great in the short term, he could be doing long-term damage. Read the book, and suggest it for him too! At least then he would be making better informed decisions.

    Ruthie wrote on December 27th, 2012
  3. Yikes, I missed the boat on this discussion for the better part of 3 months, but screw it… I’ll just add my two cents.

    The ecological arguments on both sides border on silly. The debate is not about whether vegetarian or omnivorous diets are “more sustainable” (whatever that means). Neither is sustainable so long as human population continues to grow exponentially.

    So far, I’ve said nothing revolutionary. In fact, what I said is usually a cop-out heard from people who don’t really want to partake in the discussion, so let me also submit the following: contraception is the key.

    If you want to save the world, you need to be fighting for active contraception (none of that abstinence-only bullshit that doesn’t work).

    As anybody who has ever studied ecology will tell you, in the absence of external intervention, an ecosystem’s population will approach carrying capacity asymptotically. This means that there will always be a a proportion of the population that will be malnourished. Contraception directly addresses this issue, so long as birthrates don’t exceed roughly 2.1 children per couple. The .1 children is there to account for baseline death rates, but it’s an out-of-my-ass guesstimate — the point remains the same.

    If you want sustainable agriculture, you should be in favor of birth control.
    If you want to save Africa, stop sending food and money (which will only increase carrying capacity, if that) and start sending condoms.
    If you want to save the rain forest or your local neck of the woods, you should fight tooth-and-nail for birth control.

    And lastly, you should consider a highly controversial viewpoint that I espouse: Having more than two children is selfish, irresponsible and immoral.

    Louis wrote on February 23rd, 2013
    • I agree – including the last line. I don’t believe that every person with more than two children *is* (necessarily) selfish, irresponsible or immoral, as most people are ignorant about overpopulation and many are encouraged to have children or keep ones they can’t support for religious reasons. But I do think that if you’re educated about it, you have a responsibility not to worsen the situation.

      Pretty much no optimally nutritious diet for every one of 7 billion people is sustainable. I believe that the healthiest diet and the one with the least impact is a hunter-gatherer diet, but I don’t think the earth can support 7 billion hunter-gatherers. Birth control (condoms, etc.) + free abortion (in a culture that accepts it as sometimes necessary and doesn’t punish or stigmatise those who choose it) are totally necessary, as well as education.

      Ashlee wrote on May 8th, 2014
  4. It seems to me as if she’s suggesting that if vegetarians can’t combat ALL of industry (i.e., agricultural, as well), then we might as well not bother even combatting the meat industry, and I disagree. I can only speak for myself, but my veganism is certainly not an exclamation of support for the agricultural industry in lieu of the meat industry, nor is it an expression of any desire for a grain-based agricultural system (in fact, I don’t eat a lot of grain). I am not suffering from “smug elitism,” and am quite aware that the fruits and vegetables I buy still support unethical and unsustainable practices. And I’m not going to accept all the blame for this: most non-vegetarians are doing the same thing. Once I have the time and money, I will also seek produce only from farms that are treating their land as well as possible. For now, however, I am recognizing that my veganism will not conquer all the problems in the world, but will at least send a small message to the meat and dairy industries.

    Meagan wrote on June 13th, 2013
  5. The best rebuttals of both the China Study and Forks Over Knives is at http://rawfoodsos.com. The author there is another Vegan who has realized that this is a bad diet for health and the planet.

    Steve wrote on August 31st, 2013
  6. the best choice for the environment is for all humans to eat bugs and worms !!

    Mihai wrote on September 18th, 2013
  7. The notion that being a vegetarian is bad for the world is a very narrow minded stupid argument. The author implies that all vegetarians eat a lot of wheat (which is false) or eat a lot of soy (which is false) and that planting fields with wheat is bad for the world.

    IF the latter is true, then eating meat is the worst thing to do as 1 poind of meat requires nearly 10 pounds of food for the animal which mostly consists of grains, the very thing the advocates to be evil. That argument alone makes hers completely invalid. How ignorant can you be to say that eating wheat causes wheatfields which destroy the worlds when eating meat does the exact same thing -and- produces animal waste (too much for the land to handle!) and kills the animal as well.

    Eating meat has long been proven to be way more demaning on the world than a plant diet. And a plant diet is not the same as only eating wheat. Furthermore the author seems to project her own poor unhealthy life on the act of being a vegetarian, her ‘researched’ is based on -1- subject that probably executed the act poorly. I would love to meet with her and have her explain these holes in her book that is being praised like some sort of ‘new truth’ while it is nothing more than here own opinion.

    mark wrote on January 15th, 2014
    • Animals shouldn’t be eating grains, so you can completely forget that part. There is land unsuited to growing crops that is suited to grazing. That is how things were traditionally done, and it makes complete sense. Can’t grow veggies there or digest the grass yourself? Eat the animals and get the nutrients from them. This can be done sustainably, has the least environmental impact and provides the most/best quality nutrients for the least effort. There is absolutely no proof that eating meat is more ‘demaning’ (sic) on the world than a plant diet. The problems are industrial agriculture and farming practices and the population size.

      Ashlee wrote on May 8th, 2014
  8. Interesting thread and comments. From a primal perspective, in theory the ideal is to be eating what our bodies evolved to eat, and of course this is all still up for debate as it’s difficult to figure out exactly what that was. There are some good sources that pose a reasonable argument that our evolution has been mostly vegetarian and that we ate meat only occasionally. The lack of carnivorous features like well developed canines, and our colons similarity to our chimpanzee ancestors/cousins for example. For a very long part of our evolution – some 12 million years as primates prior to branching off into the “homo” family of more upright primates in the last 2 million years or so.
    For 12 million years the only flesh we would have eaten would have been insects, eggs, the occasional birds and other quite small prey.
    Certainly steak would not have been on the menu until the last ten thousand years.
    The healthiest I’ve ever been in my life was when I was a vegetarian and the more I read, the more I feel that a primal lifestyle that leans more towards the vegetarian makes more sense evolutionarily so I am gradually cutting back my meat intake to find a level that works for me.

    Ken wrote on February 20th, 2014
  9. I am curious what vegans here think of the documentary “Food Chains” highlighting the terrible abuse of migrant workers who pick our vegetables. I am grain intolerant yet still trying to go vegan but my body does not respond well to just plants so I do include small amounts of animal protein but when I heard of this documentary, I suddenly reaized the abuse of migrant workers is not limited to factory farming. I can sympathize with not hurting animals and saving our environment. Unfortunately, the science I read supports whatever agenda is out there. Everyone seems to be an expert and what I felt sad about is the fact that so many vegans out there make fun of those of us who are truly grain (gluten) intolerant but are not celiacs because it supports their way of life. Grains are awful for some people. That said, there are so many alternatives for us who want to persue a vegan diet, but I have not yet found a way to feel good and eat plant based. And I am very, very food culture minded.

    Again, what is the opinion of any vegan about the abuse of migrant workers in, for instance, tomato fields. Are any of you planning to seek out fast food or supermarket chains that support fair trade and fair wages for these farm hands who work tirelessy to feed their families and in the mean time allow us to grab all our veggies for a healthy diet?

    Save animals and the land and yet these farm hands are suffering needlessly with abuse and exposure to pesticides, too. That is the other issue I never see addressed. The human factor in all of this.

    I haven’t seen any one vegan address this issue on so many websites. I suppose I could keep looking, but I don’t have all the time in the world.

    Indee wrote on November 3rd, 2014
    • Just a quick response – trying not to be late for yoga – I’m an ethical vegan only doing the best I can to ensure the least amount of both human and animal suffering – the answer to the migrant work problem and the insects killed with grains problem is to grow your own food, purchase from CSOs and farmers markets, and avoid grains. I tried hard to grow my own food the past two seasons, and I am not much of a farmer, so I supplemented with a biweekly produce box from a local CSO – I try to purchase fair trade when available. I’m far from perfect – very far – but all I can say is I just try my best given the situation of living on a 3rd floor urban dwelling surrounded by cement. My current challenge is getting off grains – the substitutes do not agree well with me – but eating only produce leaves me hungry. I’m not much of a cook either – that’s why the raw vegan thing worked pretty well for me for a while – until I gave up marathon running and started going through menopause – and started working late hours too often – sitting in a chair all day is not healthy – need to get to yoga now, but suffice it to say that most vegans DO care about migrant workers and insects. Many are not interested in the Paleo blog sites so won’t comment here – I listen to everything tho – Ayurvedic, Paleo, SIBO, SCD, and just do my best with the information available. Mark of this blog has warned me years ago of all the deficiencies I will suffer from, and if I ever get tested (want to test but need funds), I will let you know if it comes to pass, but I’m prepared and appreciate the warnings. So far, I feel fine, but I may well have a lot of issues brewing – all tbd.

      Sue Rushford wrote on November 16th, 2014
  10. So let me get this straight, to have a more sustainable food production practices, we should grow edible plants, then feed them to animals, then eat the animals?

    That is ridiculous. Assuming that we continue with industrialized agriculture/meat production, the most efficient food production method (I know, I know, its bad…), It would be much more efficient to cut out the middle man, or so to say, grow crops edible to humans, and eat those crops. What’s that about energy passed through trophic levels…..?

    Though a vegetarian myself, I struggle to find problems with some efficient and sustainable meat sources, like fishing, but any time you raise an animal to eat, you end up feeding it many more calories than it will eventually pass on when consumed.

    Gorham wrote on March 6th, 2015

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