Vegetarianism is something that has weighed on my mind for many years. My dad was vegetarian during my early years, and I have vivid memories of seeing our freezer stocked with boxes upon boxes of Boca Burger meatless “burger” patties. I had my fair share of them, and for a long time, convinced myself that they were actually tasty. (Turns out they’re not, I just really enjoy them as a vehicle by which to consume excessive barbeque sauce.) Over the years, I’ve been vegetarian for various seasons, vegan for others, and happily omnivorous the rest of the time. I have yet to “label” myself as a vegetarian (or a vegan) because I don’t like the idea of closing myself off to research that may, in fact, show that such a diet is not optimal. In other words, it’s a complicated issue. On the basis of taste, it’s simple – I prefer plants. I was never a big fan of meat as a kid, and was often grossed out by it, and I still get the willies when I have to touch a package of chicken at the grocery store. But aside from my personal palate preferences, there are two main reasons I find vegetarianism/veganism compelling:
The Paleo diet is a huge trend these days, and in many ways, it is the antithesis of a vegetarian/vegan diet. There is no denying that huge numbers of people have experienced great health improvements by eating according to the parameters of a Paleo diet. Additionally, there are certainly plenty of benefits to be had in eating a Paleo diet when compared to what most Westerners are currently eating. That being said, the scientific literature from the past 70 years has consistently shown strong negative correlations between dietary intake of meat (and animal foods) and overall health (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, all-cause mortality, and so on). In other words, vegetarians have consistently been shown to be healthier than meat-eaters. This does not, of course, mean that they are healthier because they eat a vegetarian diet – someone who is vegetarian is likely taking many other measures to benefit their health, including exercise, regular doctor visits, stress management, abstaining from smoking/excessive drinking, etc. The correlation remains convicting nonetheless. I won’t bore you with all the epidemiological studies I’ve scoured, but the bottom line seems to be that among the people and cultures with the best health, there is a trend toward a more plant-based diet (although there are no populations that I know of that exist fully and exclusively on plant foods). You can read The China Study by Dr. Colin Campbell for more information – it is a book that lays out the results of the China-Cornell-Oxford Project (a 20 year-long epidemiological study, on of the most thorough of the time), which is widely considered to be the most compelling argument for a plant-based diet. You could also watch Forks Over Knives, the documentary based on The China Study. I would, as always, suggest doing your own additional research and taking into account some of the equally-compelling criticisms of The China Study, such as that of Denise Minger. For all the weight of the research pointing to the health benefits of a plant-based diet, there are also some highly-convicting scientific reasons to include animal products in the diet. Vitamin B12 deficiency is nearly an epidemic among vegetarians/vegans (this is a big problem because B12 is absolutely crucial neurological health and cognitive function, among so many other things; see THIS article if you are interested in learning more), and the sufficiency of plant-based B12 supplements remains questionable at best. Iron, calcium, and fat-soluble vitamins also tend to be lacking in plant-based diets, and they are all vital for good health. There are many who claim that plants can provide ample amounts of these nutrients, which is true, but they leave out the fact that consuming such nutrients solely from plant sources frequently inhibits the body from properly absorbing the full amount of said nutrients. It’s actually quite fascinating, and if you’re interested in reading more, I’d suggest THIS article from Chris Kresser. There is also the issue of protein – although the exact amount of protein that each individual requires is still debated by doctors and nutritionists and scientists alike, my personal experience has shown me that I feel, look, and perform much better with plenty of protein in my diet. It’s entirely possible to eat a high protein diet without animal foods (not common or necessarily practical, but is you Google “vegan bodybuilders,” you’ll see that it is certainly possible), but with the dietary restrictions I have to make for my health (no dairy, no soy, and no legumes), I have a hard time even meeting the most conservative protein intake guidelines. So while I see many, many potential health benefits in a vegetarian or vegan diet, I have not yet figured out a way to make a fully plant-based diet work for me in the long-term. Ethics
Let me preface this with the fact that I find nothing unethical about humans eating animals or animal products. The ethical dilemma lies in how the animals are treated. I’ve done my research into the subject from sources on both sides, and it comes down to this: Most animals raised for food are subjected to treatment that is, in my estimation, genuinely inhumane. For a glimpse into what I’m talking about, read Johnathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals or watch Food Inc., or just do a quick Google search on “CAFOs” (Confined Animal Feeding Operations, where the majority of animals raised for food spend most of their days). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly an “animal lover” – I love dogs, but I don’t talk to animals in baby voices or get too upset when I see a dead bird on the sidewalk or something. Actually, I hate birds, so that sort of tells you something. I find human life and welfare (i.e. abortion, slavery, sex trafficking, child abuse, and so on) to be far more concerning than animal rights. But at the same time, I look at God’s command in Genesis 1:28 for mankind to “…fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on earth,” and I understand that humanity has been tasked with stewardship of creation. Stewardship entails not just using and maximizing the resources of the natural world, but judiciously caring for it. The outright cruelty that most agricultural animals are subjected to is not stewardship, it’s abuse, and it’s something I find impossible to reconcile with my conscience. I understand that there are some farms and ranches that raise their animals well, with care for their health during their life and respect for their comfort when the time comes for slaughter. These are places where cattle are allowed to graze on pastures rather than at a trough full of soy-based feed, and they are not pumped full of hormones and antibiotics daily. These are places where chickens are not bound in giant henhouses where they are quite literally packed wing-to-wing and sitting in their own filth and the carcasses of those unfortunate ones who have fallen ill or been trampled underfoot by the others. These are places where animal life is stewarded well, where animals are healthy and cared for, and where slaughtering the animals is something that is accomplished with in a human way that minimizes the animals’ pain and fear. These are also the places that require quite a bit more money to maintain, which results in products that carry a much higher price than conventionally-raised meat, milk, eggs, and the like. At the end of the day, those foods agree with my conscience (and often with my body) but not necessarily with my paycheck. I suppose that’s where things get tricky – if a significant percentage of the animal foods I consume is conventionally raised/grown/produced, will the benefits of those foods be outweighed by the negative effects conferred by conventional agriculture and farming practices? Additionally, how much benefit would I need to receive from those foods in order to make the trade-off something that sits well with my conscience? Questions like these make me realize that dietary choices can be incredibly intricate and profoundly personal. I’m still wrestling with these challenges, so I would love to hear what yall think about this.
Are you, or have you been, vegetarian/vegan? What about Paleo?
Do you prefer a plant-based diet or one that includes plenty of animal foods?
What do you think about the ethical implications of eating animal foods?
Have you read The China Study or any similar works? Do you think the research truly supports a fully plant-based diet?