Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Myths of Vegetarianism

by Stephen Byrnes, PhD, RNCP Originally published in the Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients, July 2000. Revised January 2002.

"Humans have always been meat-eaters. The fact that no human society is entirely vegetarian, and those that are almost entirely vegetarian suffer from debilitated conditions of health, seems unequivocally to prove that a plant diet must be supplemented with at least a minimum amount of animal protein to sustain health. Humans are meat-eaters and always have been. Humans are also vegetable eaters and always have been, but plant foods must be supplemented by an ample amount of animal protein to maintain optimal health."
HL Abrams. The relevance of Paleolithic diet in determining contemporary nutritional needs. J Appl Nutr, 1979, 1,2:43-59.

"An unflinching determination to take the whole evidence into account is the only method of preservation against the fluctuating extremes of fashionable opinion."—Alfred North Whitehead

Bill and Tanya sat before me in my office in a somber mood: they had just lost their first baby in the second month of pregnancy. Tanya was particularly upset. "Why did this happen to me? Why did I miscarry my baby?" The young couple had come to see me mostly because of Tanya's recurrent respiratory infections, but also wanted some advice as to how they could avoid the heartache of another failed pregnancy.

Upon questioning Tanya about her diet, I quickly saw the cause of her infections, as well as her miscarriage: she had virtually no fat in her diet and was also mostly a vegetarian. Because of the plentiful media rhetoric about the supposed dangers of animal product consumption, as opposed to the alleged health benefits of the vegetarian lifestyle, Tanya had deliberately removed such things as cream, butter, meats and fish from her diet. Although she liked liver, she avoided it due to worries over "toxins."

Tanya and Bill left with a bottle of vitamin A, other supplements and a dietary prescription that included plentiful amounts of animal fats and meat. Just before leaving my office, Tanya looked at me and said ruefully: "I just don't know what to believe sometimes. Everywhere I look there is all this low-fat, vegetarian stuff recommended. I followed it, and look what happened." I assured her that if she and her husband changed their diets and allowed sufficient time for her weakened uterus to heal, they would be happy parents in due time. In November 2000, Bill and Tanya happily gave birth to their first child, a girl.

The Evolution of a Myth

Along with the unjustified and unscientific saturated fat and cholesterol scares of the past several decades has come the notion that vegetarianism is a healthier dietary option for people. It seems as if every health expert and government health agency is urging people to eat fewer animal products and consume more vegetables, grains, fruits and legumes. Along with these exhortations have come assertions and studies supposedly proving that vegetarianism is healthier for people and that meat consumption is associated with sickness and death. Several authorities, however, have questioned these data, but their objections have been largely ignored.

As we shall see, many of the vegetarian claims cannot be substantiated and some are simply false and dangerous. There are benefits to vegetarian diets for certain health conditions, and some people function better on less fat and protein, but, as a practitioner who has dealt with several former vegetarians and vegans (total vegetarians), I know full well the dangerous effects of a diet devoid of healthful animal products. It is my hope that all readers will more carefully evaluate their position on vegetarianism after reading this paper.

Myth #1: Meat consumption contributes to famine and depletes the Earth's natural resources.

Myth #2: Vitamin B12 can be obtained from plant sources.

Myth #3: Our needs for vitamin D can be met by sunlight.

Myth #4: The body's needs for vitamin A can be entirely obtained from plant foods.

Myth #5: Meat-eating causes osteoporosis, kidney disease, heart disease, and cancer.

Myth #6: Saturated fats and dietary cholesterol cause heart disease, atherosclerosis, and/or cancer, and low-fat, low-cholesterol diets are healthier for people.

Myth #7: Vegetarians live longer and have more energy and endurance than meat-eaters.

Myth #8: The "cave man" diet was low-fat and/or vegetarian. Humans evolved as vegetarians.

Myth #9: Meat and saturated fat consumption have increased in the 20th century, with a corresponding increase in heart disease and cancer.

Myth #10: Soy products are adequate substitutes for meat and dairy products.

Myth #11: The human body is not designed for meat consumption.

Myth #12: Eating animal flesh causes violent, aggressive behavior in humans.

Myth #13: Animal products contain numerous, harmful toxins.

Myth #14: Eating meat or animal products is less "spiritual" than eating only plant foods.

Myth #15: Eating animal foods is inhumane.

See also:
The Importance of Saturated Fats for Biological Functions

Cholesterol and Heart Disease--A Phony Issue

The Benefits of High Cholesterol