The Vegan Myth

This article is inspired by 4 brilliant books I have read recently.

 

  • Cows Save The Planet by Judith Schwartz
  • Meat – A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie
  • Defending Beef by by Nicolette Hahn Niman
  • The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith

 

Before you read the article I want to say that I understand the choice to be vegan is a personal one, but I want to discuss the information here because I feel many vegans build their case against meat consumption by presenting misinformation. Whatever the choice people make, it should be an informed choice.

 

Meat eating has come to be equated with everything that’s bad in the world. The theory is that veganism will lead to greater health while simultaneously being less cruel to animals and less damaging to the earth. Do any of these claims stand up to scrutiny?

 

A Nutritional Argument: Is Veganism Healthier?

Humans are classic examples of omnivores in all relevant anatomical traits. That is not controversial – it represents the consensus view of every qualified biologist, physiologist, and anthropologist. Eating animals has been a fundamental part of our evolutionary history, and is what the human body needs to thrive. There is no basis in anatomy or physiology for the assumption that humans are pre-adapted to a vegan diet.

 

Vegans love to send you images like this one:

Vegans Teeth Argument

 

However, they fail to mention other species like gorillas, who are completely vegetarian, yet have massive canines.

Gorillas Canines

 

It’s actually most likely that cooking our food had one of the largest effects on the development of human dentition. Cooking food makes it easier to chew and digest, this has had an impact on the evolution of our teeth and digestive system.

 

No other animal cooks it’s food, therefore you cannot compare the teeth of these other animals to those of humans since humans have been cooking food, and therefore making it much easier to chew, for thousands of years.

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The much propagated but nonetheless erroneous notion that saturated fat and/or cholesterol consumption is associated with an increased risk of heart disease is finally being openly questioned – that argument against meat can no longer be credibly used.

 

I think it’s pretty telling that a study released in 2014 showed more than 80% of vegans and vegetarians go back to eating meat STUDY: 86% Of Vegetarians Go Back To Eating Meat. Certain nutrients can only be obtained by eating animals, or if they exist in a plant-based form they are usually poorly absorbed/converted by the body.

 

Omega 3

Let’s start with Omega 3. Yes – you can get omega 3 from plant foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds etc. BUT, what many vegans fail to understand is that it is in the form of Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA). The body needs to then convert this ALA to Eicosa-Pentaenoic Acid (EPA) & Docosa-Hexaenoic Acid (DHA).

  • EPA and DHA are almost exclusively found in animal products (algae is the exception) and the conversion of ALA from plants is generally inefficient. The body needs EPA & DHA to function optimally in every stage of life, beginning long before conception. DHA is absolutely critical for the development of a baby’s brain. The understanding of DHA’s role in infants’ cognitive and visual development led to the fortification of infant formula on a global basis.
  • Low brain-DHA levels have been linked to many neurodegenerative disorders. According to Dr Terry Wahls – to make healthy myelin, essential for proper brain function, you need vitamin B12, DHA and iodine.
    2011 Study: Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA): An Ancient Nutrient for the Modern Human Brain

 

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 can only be found in animal products. Yes – you can supplement, and many foods are fortified with B12. Still – vegans are often deficient in B12:

 

According to Chris Kresser “B12 deficiency turns out to be much more common than statistics indicate, and it can have really devastating consequences. B12 deficiency has been associated with or can actually cause premature aging or logical disorders that are similar in presentation to MS or even Parkinson’s, brain fog, memory problems, cognitive decline; stroke, heart disease, and other vascular problems, primarily due to elevated homocysteine levels—B12 is required to convert homocysteine back into methionine; developmental or learning disabilities in children; impaired immune function, autoimmune disease, and cancer; male and female infertility; and numerous other symptoms because B12 plays a very, very important role in the body. As you can see, when you don’t have enough B12, it can affect virtually every system and tissue in the body.”

 

If you use serum B12 as the only marker for B12 deficiency rather than some of the newer tests now available, the statistics suggest that only 7% of vegetarians are B12 deficient. Interestingly enough, they still show that 52% of vegans are deficient.

 

But in a more recent study, using the more sensitive markers that are capable of detecting B12 deficiency at an earlier stage, a whopping 83% of vegans were B12 deficient and 68% of vegetarians were B12 deficient.

 

So please don’t listen to anyone that says vegans don’t need to worry about B12!

 

Vitamin A in the form of Retinol

Vitamin A in the form of retinol is only found in animal products. The conversion from plant-based Vitamin A (beta-carotene) is often inefficient. Vitamin A is necessary for vision, bone health, reproductive health and immune health.

Beta Carotene to Retinol

  • The genes responsible for the conversion of beta-carotene to retinol are the BCO1 genes. BCO1 stands for Beta-Carotene Oxygenase 1. Two common SNPs of the BCO1 gene (R267S and A379V) have shown a decreased ability to metabolize beta-carotene into retinol. These BCO1 variations result in lower amounts of the enzyme BCMO1, and therefore reduced amounts of bioavailable vitamin A for carriers.
  • Do you know if you have these genetic variations? If you have these variant alleles you may have a 69% lower ability to convert beta-carotene into retinol. If you don’t know and you choose to eat a vegan diet and not to supplement with Vitamin A in the form of retinol, you are putting yourself at risk of retinol deficiency.

 

  • Vitamin K2 – only found in animal products or produced by K2-producing bacteria.
  • Vitamin D3 – only found in animal products.
  • Iodine – unless vegans eat a lot of sea vegetables they can become deficient in iodine. Even a mild deficiency of this nutrient in children can have lifelong effects on IQ and learning ability.
  • Choline – this essential nutrient is readily available in animal products but much harder to get from vegan foods.
  • Taurine – only found in animal products. The body can make it but children and pregnant or breastfeeding women can’t produce enough of it to satisfy their needs without a direct dietary source. Taurine is present at high concentrations in the fetal brain and is required for optimal brain development. Vegetarians have lower plasma-taurine levels than omnivores:
    2004 Study: Sub-optimal taurine status may promote platelet hyperaggregability in vegetarians.
  • Creatine – only found in animal products. Can be made by the body but the conversion process is inefficient.
  • Carnosine (alanine and histidine) – only from animal products.
  • Carnitine (lysine and methionine) – only from animal products.
  • Zinc and iron are also less bioavailable from plant sources:
    2015 Study: Vegetarian diets across the lifecycle: impact on zinc intake and status.

 

Veganism for Children?

In my opinion pregnant women should not experiment with veganism and children should not be vegan. Children need DHA for their growing brains; children need vitamins A, D and K for their growing bones. In this paper The Critical Role Played by Animal Source Foods in Human (Homo) Evolution the authors discuss why young children evolved needing a diet based on animal food sources, not plants.

 

“The routine, that is, daily, inclusion of Animal Source Foods in the diets of children seems mandatory as most wild plant foods would not be capable of supplying the protein and micronutrients children require for optimal development and growth, nor could the gut of the child likely provide enough space, in combination with the slow food turnover rate characteristic of the human species, to secure adequate nutrition from wild plant foods alone.

 

Wild plant foods, though somewhat higher in protein and some vitamins and minerals than their cultivated counterparts, are also high in fiber and other indigestible components and most would have to be consumed in very large quantity to meet the nutritional and energetic demands of a growing and active child.”

 

This principle still applies to children today – to meet their nutritional needs they would need to consume a very large quantity of plant foods, more than their digestive systems have the capacity for. Children need the dense nutrition that is found in foods such as egg yolks.

 

For more information on the vegan diet and health, read any of these articles by Authority Nutrition: Top 5 Reasons Why Vegan Diets Are a Terrible IdeaTop 11 Biggest Lies About Vegan Diets5 Brain Nutrients Found Only in Meat, Fish and Eggs (NOT Plants)5 Muscle Nutrients Found Only in Animal Foods.

 

When Dr Weston A. Price travelled the world in search of traditional people with superb health, he did not find a single vegan society.

 

The vegan diet is a Western middle-class luxury, complete with nutritional supplements. Before about 50 years ago there were no vitamin B12 supplements and so it was impossible to follow a 100% vegan diet. It is untried over multiple generations so we really have no idea whether its healthy and sustainable long term – the full repercussions of a 100% vegan diet are still unknown.

 

Search Google for the words “no longer vegan” and you will find story after story of people that became vegan and wrecked their health, and only healed by eating animal products again.

 

“Vegans will sometimes talk about B-12. And every so often you will hear one talk about DHA. But in my time as a vegan, I never heard anyone talk about vitamins A and D, how many people cannot convert ALA to EPA and DHA, how many people cannot convert beta-carotene to vitamin A, how fat soluble vitamins are not the same for the human body as vitamins in vegetables. I never heard vegans acknowledging bio-availability issues. I never heard them being honest about calcium deficiency, dental problems that have plagued countless ex-vegans, the widespread prevalence of multiple nutritional deficiencies in long-term vegans … and on and on and on …”

 

One of the best reads I came across is A Vegan No More – The Story of a Recovering Vegan but there are many others.

 

 

Would a Vegan World provide more Food?

We are destroying the resources of our planet, and have been ever since we started planting annual mono-crops and exploding in population. By 2050 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts 70 percent more food will be needed to sustain the world’s population.

 

We don’t have 70 percent more land to meet that demand. For the first time in human history we’re facing the predicament of exhausting our natural resources. If everyone were to become vegan, this would not help to solve the problem. 71% of the Earth is covered with ocean, and seafood provides 20% of animal protein, world wide, and up to 50% in some countries.

 

In a vegan world, the ocean simply stops being used as source of nutrition. Land gets wasted too. Only 10% of the Earth’s land surface is arable (used to grow for crops). 26% of the land surface is used as grazing land. Most of that grazing land CANNOT be converted to cropland, so if animals weren’t being raised on it, it would simply be lost to food production.  The total lost to food production: about 79% of the planet’s surface.

 

A Moral Argument: We Must Not Kill. Is it Ethical to Eat Meat?

There are several traditional cultures in the world such as the Masai, who depend entirely on animals, often more for milk and blood than meat. These people have a relationship with their land and animals that goes back hundreds of years. The animals sustain the people, and the people protect and sustain the animals. They live on land so marginal and climates so harsh that one could not survive by cultivation of crops. And these people waste nothing that their animals provide. A cut will often be made in the throat of a cow, for instance, and then sealed again with mud once a cup has been filled with blood. The mud allows the wound to heal, without the animal bleeding out, and the blood being passed around means that several people get to see another sunrise.

 

Masai

 

What would vegans have these people do? Starve? Re-locate? Cease having new offspring? Import grain and vegetables from elsewhere? Such cultures epitomize sustainability and a connection to nature that we are so badly lacking in the developed world, but I suppose a vegan would condemn them from a position of moral superiority while understanding nothing of their way of life. A vegan world would simply deny their existence.

 

We all agree that meat production has its problems with respect to land use. But production of milk and eggs can by highly sustainable and humane. There are many good reasons chickens are so popular in permaculture systems. A chicken can get a large part of its nutrition from arthropods, weeds, other green forage and perennial grains, none of which a human is well adapted to eat. We can protect the chicken from predation and give it a full natural life, being fully able to express its true chicken nature. In return we get eggs, which are one of the most complete food sources available, and particularly valuable to growing children. Why do vegans feel such food production is not sustainable or humane?

 

Likewise a cow or goat is a perfectly sustainable and humane source of food. Kept on a small scale the animal will receive full attention to its health and other needs and can live a long life, being productive with milk for many years. And raw milk is probably one of the most nutritionally complete foods available, nothing from the vegan diet can compare to it.

 

What about game? Here in the UK, with no natural predators, deer populations can get wildly out of control. Their population threatens their own health as well as agroforestry and other rural activities. Hunting these animals provides extremely healthy, nutritious meat in a completely sustainable manner. The animal’s death will be quick and humane, more than they could expect from their natural predators. From a vegan standpoint – what would the solution be? Sterilization? Re-introduce their natural predator? Why should a human not take that role?

 

A large part of the UK comprises uplands with thin soil – the Lake District, Northumbria, The Pennines, Brecons, vast swathes of Wales, Devon and Cornwall. These upland soils are only suited to low input, single-suckled beef and sheep production. These soils would never be suitable for cultivation. The environmental benefits of this type of farming are huge and can’t be overestimated.

 

In 2010 The National Trust commissioned research to understand the sustainability of different beef production methods on National Trust land.

 

Research at 10 National Trust farms showed that while the carbon footprint of grass-fed and conventional farms were comparable, the carbon sequestration contribution of well-managed grass pasture on the less intensive systems reduced net emissions by up to 94%, even resulting in a carbon “net gain” in upland areas. The farms that had recently converted to organic status showed even greater gains.

 

Their findings support the production of grass-fed beef on grasslands in the UK – they conclude “When the true benefits to ecosystem services and human health are included, extensive livestock production on grassland is reaffirmed as the best use of this resource to produce food for people.” Read more in their article Grass-Fed Beef is Best. 

 

Vegans do not want humans to eat meat. They say it’s unethical to eat animals. But everything in this world eats and is eaten, in a fascinating and complex cycle that can seem beautiful or horrible depending on your point of view. It is what it is. Plus, there is nothing in this world we can eat for which nothing has died. How many animals have been killed to create grain fields, how many rivers run dry, how much biodiversity lost? This argument, where vegans remove themselves from the circle of life and pretend their food choices don’t cause harm, whilst looking down upon meat eaters in a morally superior way, is wrong. Humans are part of the environment, and humans have always eaten animals.

 

Agriculture to produce wheat, rice and pulses requires clearing native vegetation. That act alone results in the deaths of thousands of animals per hectare. Almost all of the world’s arable land is already in use. If vegans want more people to be fed by plants, our arable land will need to be even more intensely farmed. This will require a net increase in the use of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and other threats to biodiversity and environmental health. Ploughing and harvesting also kill small animals in vast numbers. Replacing grass-fed meat with grain products leads to many more sentient animal deaths and significantly more environmental degradation.

 

To be truly moral in our eating habits involves more than just extending morality to a few animals such as cows, pigs and sheep. The rest of the world, all those billions of other lives, count too. A vegan’s hands are not clean. The death we can see and identify with, such as that of factory-farmed animals is the same death we cannot see but humans still ‘benefit’ from and is just as real.

 

An Environmental Argument: Is Veganism Better for the Environment?

The idea that veganism is an environmental solution only works if you base your sums on factory-farmed animals fed on grains. The truth is that agriculture, whether vegan or carnivorous, is fundamentally unsustainable in the way that it is currently practiced. No form of factory farming will save the planet, it will only lead to further environmental degradation.

 

The most sustainable system is not a vegan one. We need a return to decentralised agriculture. Cattle (and other grass-eating animals) do have an effect on the environment, but how they’re managed determines whether the impact is destructive or beneficial.

 

Soil health is the keystone of our environmental ecosystems. Every time someone shifts their diet to eating more mono-crops such as wheat and corn they contribute to destroying the ecosystems and the biodiversity within our soil. For more on this read Can Vegans Stomach the Unpalatable Truth about Quinoa?

 

Questions also remain about the viability of vegan agriculture. Our soils need nutrients, and what they need is either animal manure or chemical fertilisers made from fossil fuels. Are vegans OK with the fact that their food is made from oil, not soil? What will feed their food when fossil fuels run out? If they choose organic, they need to realise that many organic fertilisers contain manure, blood and bone meal from factory-farmed animals, and fish emulsion and fishmeal from commercial fisheries. Many animals have died to enable a vegan to fill their plate with plants.

 

According to Peter Ballerstedt “Grass-based agriculture is the only truly sustainable agriculture.” The pasture/livestock combination leads to greater biodiversity wherever it is allowed to occur, and to less biodiversity when the cattle are removed – just as nature operated before man embarked on the endeavor of large scale mono-crop agriculture.

 

Most places on earth are not suited for annual grain agriculture, but for a mix of plant and animal husbandry. Instead of relying on grains and beans grown overseas with pesticides and seriously unsustainable farming methods, perhaps turn your focus towards local and sustainably produced animal products.

 

Cows and grazing animals, allowed to eat their natural diet of grass, help to restore the health of the soil. According to Simon Fairlie “The most sustainable system requires livestock to be put on land unsuitable for plant crops and using animals like chickens and pigs to utilize food waste. Every agricultural ecosystem produces a certain amount of surplus, waste and otherwise hard-to-use biomass, which in many cases is best kept in the food chain by feeding to livestock. The meat or dairy produce which results from cycling biomass in this fashion is ‘free’ in the sense that it has little or no environmental impact beyond that which is produced by an ecosystem dedicated primarily to the production of vegetable food. Livestock have a role to play in nature just like plants and minerals, and therefore they have a role in a well-balanced permaculture system.” This kind of farming is sustainable in the UK.

 

But Don’t Cows Cause Climate Change?

The idea that animals such as cows might actually be good for not just the soil but for the grasses they feed on may seem a bit strange at first. But because grasses and grasslands have experienced millions of years of grazing animals they have not only learned to live with them but to thrive.

 

The main ecological question that haunts grass-fed beef involves climate change. Cows emit methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon. But by grazing, they also promote healthy, flourishing grasslands, which suck carbon from the atmosphere and store it in soil. In doing so, they convert a wild vegetation that people can’t digest into a highly nourishing foodstuff.

 

Holistic Planned Grazing

 

In ‘Cows Save the Planet’ Judith D. Schwartz discusses how improving the world’s grasslands using Holistic Planned Grazing methods could sequester enough carbon in the soil to bring atmospheric carbon dioxide back to pre-industrial levels. Schwartz explains how this works and why healthy grasslands, farms and pastures can serve as carbon sinks while feeding the seven million plus people on the planet. In The National Trust research mentioned above, they show that carbon sequestration in the soil through grass-based livestock farming is happening on National Trust land here in the UK.

 

Livestock are actually one of the keys to reversing climate change, despite what most people believe. Compared with other ways of producing food, the keeping of grazing livestock, when done appropriately, is one of the most environmentally benign. If you have time please, please watch this TED talk given by the inspirational Allan Savory who explains the beneficial role of livestock on the land far better than I ever could: How to Green the World’s Deserts and Reverse Climate Change . Our very own Prince Charles has publicly endorsed the work of Allan Savory, calling him “a forward-thinker in global sustainability”.

 

Conclusion

I’ve discussed the effects of veganism on human health (many nutrients that come only from animal foods are critical for optimal health), the moral argument (large numbers of animals die to grow plants for food too), and the impact on the environment (agriculture is destructive whether vegan or carnivorous). In the end, all we have left of the vegan argument is that eating meat is inherently ‘wrong’, which is much less a scientific or rational conclusion and something more akin to religion. I read on one vegan forum “I would rather DIE than eat animals. Period.” Sadly you can’t fight faith with facts!

 

So, if you are seeking optimal health and want to eat an omnivorous diet, but truly want to eat ethically what can you do? We all have to eat something so we can only do the best we can. I understand that not everyone can afford grass-fed meat. First and foremost, all the arguments made here obviously do not stand when we look at factory farming which is indeed cruel and environmentally destructive. If budget is tight you can focus on good quality eggs, dairy, cheaper cuts (mince, shin beef, shoulder of pork/lamb) and organ meats from grass-fed animals. I also believe that food needs to come from within communities. We need to move back to a system where food was produced locally to sustain the community. So here would be my tips:

 

  • I think the most important thing must be to avoid all factory-farmed meat and eggs from caged hens.
  • Avoid eating grains, particularly mono-crops like wheat, corn and soy.
  • Eat more locally produced foods and less imported foods. In the UK this means vegetables, fruit when it’s in season, dairy, eggs, wild fish and shellfish, grass-fed meat, free-range chicken and pork. Consider using British beef dripping, lard or duck fat (from a good grass-fed/free-range supplier) for cooking with rather than imported olive or coconut oil.
  • Avoid buying out of season produce shipped from another country, or too many imported products like nuts and coconuts.
  • Buy only free-range eggs, grass-fed meat, game and sustainably fished seafood. I do believe we need to decrease our meat consumption in the UK (which is definitely not the same thing as saying don’t eat meat!) Better quality meat is generally more expensive so you will naturally eat less of it.
  • Fill your plate with British vegetables (if at all possible buy organically grown from a farmer that focuses on soil health).
  • If it’s at all possible for you, consider growing your own vegetables and herbs, or keeping your own chickens.
  • Buy direct from a local farm or farmer’s market whenever you can.
  • Eat “nose to tail” – respect the animal that died to feed you by eating the whole animal. That means eating organ meats and using the bones for soups and stews (and makes the meat you buy go a lot further too).
  • Start thinking about eating insects! Yes, I know this is a step too far for most of us (myself included) but it’s something to bear in mind. One bug-based meal a month for everyone would eliminate 25% of our reliance on feedlot animals. The United Nations endorsed insects as a sustainable, nutritional food source in a paper released at the end of 2013. Not only do insects require less food to farm, you also don’t have to eat as much to survive, as they are an extremely good source of protein, vitamins and minerals. The bug repulsion phenomenon is really only a reality in the West and insects are already a part of the diets of two billion people. Many scientists believe that insects don’t feel pain. Surely vegans can’t be against this one? Billions of insects are killed every year by farming practices to grow every kind of food and the death is a complete waste. Killing them to provide a sustainable and highly nutritious food source for humans that causes less environmental damage than producing many other foods is surely something we can agree on being a good thing? So start getting your head around it! BBC Food: Eating Insects – would you cook with grubs? 

 

Further Reading