The Truth About Vegetarianism
I just finished reading Lierre Keith’s new book, Vegetarianism is Stupid, and I’m speechless. It’s passionate, brilliant, and amazingly well written—a must-read.
Well okay, that’s not the real title. It’s what I would have called it. But Keith is far more sympathetic to the dietary philosophy she is addressing, because she spent most of her life embracing it. The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability is, to me, a perfect followup to Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, which I waxed ecstatic about a couple years ago. Such a powerfully as well as sympathetically stated case against all the arguments underlying vegetarianism is long, long overdue.
Keith, a former, very committed vegan, takes the reader through her own long journey and ultimate disillusionments, considering carefully the full range of initially compelling reasons why idealistic people, especially young women, become seduced by the vegetarian lifestyle: the desire to not kill, the desire to be better to the planet, and the belief that eating only vegetables is the best thing for the human body. She beautifully chronicles her own acceptance of these arguments and how, in the end, all of them fell apart—along with her body, which was devastated by this lifestyle. Women who have drunk or are in danger of drinking the kool-aid of vegetarian thinking should be captured and forced to read this book.
The symbolism and psychology behind vegetarianism has always interested me. A huge force behind the modern vegetarian movement was feminism. Vegetarianism became popular when women became empowered. After the hippies died out, the major demographic duped into eating only vegetables was women. Don’t deny it: Most of the vegetarians you know are women.
The reason for this link between womanhood and vegetarian ideals is simple: In our society, as in most if not all societies around the world, vegetables (and by extension grains) are symbolically linked to femininity, and meat to masculinity. There’s the obvious male/hunting, female/gathering thing. It’s not a myth. Anthropology pretty much bears out this division of labor for most societies. Even in a modern, urban world, stereotypes of food gathering break along the same gender lines: Men hunt or ranch; women (and sort of “metro” men) garden and shop (when they aren’t doing yoga, which is the most ineffectual martial art after Tai Chi—but that’s another post).
It was no accident that the idea of putting lots of veggies on our plates came to dominate nutritional thinking exactly when women were struggling for equality, during the sixties and seventies. Vegetables were empowered along with women: The same way women took back the night, vegetables took over our plates. Suddenly, coincidentally or not so coincidentally, meat started to be viewed by nutritionists as unhealthy.
I grew up during this period, in a household dominated by the belief in vegetables. We weren’t vegetarian, and my mother was a little too old to be a “feminist” per se, but she gardened heavily and made my dad and I eat lots of really boring and tasteless vegetables–squash, tough fibrous beans, more squash, sweet potatoes, and so on—because they were good for us.
I’m not denying that some vegetables are good for you, and a healthy diet makes a place for them, and always has. But the symbolic nature of food sometimes trumps nutritional reality, and during the period I grew up—the period of female empowerment—the reputation of meat eroded right along with male self-esteem, and that wasn’t a good thing. The problem was, the basic rationale for vegetarianism had nothing to do with nutrition. It had to do with changing our symbolic constitution. Even today, vegetarians are not eating vegetables. They are eating symbols of all things moral and peaceful and wholesome and nonviolent and loving toward the planet.
Don’t underestimate the symbolic power of food. Among the other food insults I endured during the seventies was wheat bran. Every morning we had to stir a tablespoon or so of bran in water until it dissolved and drink it down. LOL. I just made a joke there, but you probably didn’t get it. Bran doesn’t dissolve. We had to stir vigorously to get the brown flakes suspended in the water, then chug it down fast before it could settle to the bottom. It always made a big lump in our throats. Sometimes I choked.
Bran tastes like sawdust, because that’s basically what it is. I suppose it cleansed our bowels, scouring them bright shiny healthy pink. I saw my colon in live action once, during a colonoscopy; it was like a big twisty cavern, and besides the amazing paleolithic artwork, its walls were indeed nice and clean and pink. But the main benefit of all that bran was symbolic: Bran was a way of getting trees into our bodies. Trees, those symbols of ecology and purity and all things good and wholesome and peaceful and feminine. Things to be hugged and not shot. Getting lots of fiber in your diet is really the ultimate form of tree hugging.
(Yeah, I know bran is not actually wood. But you know what I mean.)
The fact is, any nutritional argument for vegetarianism has been shown to be baseless. Research studies supposedly supporting it, such as The China Study, have been blown out of the water—the authors fudged their interpretations of the data and were card-carrying members of PETA. They were bad scientists because they were biased. If you don’t believe me, just do a bit of research. And I’ve already written about the physical and mental advantages of a Paleolithic diet (i.e., high-protein and fat, no grains), so I won’t repeat.
And lest you think that vegetarianism saves animal lives, guess again. Keith devotes a section of her book to how how cultivation of plants and grains kills animals, kills whole species, and kills ecosystems.
But the one argument for vegetarianism that always seemed persuasive to me was that meat eating is unsustainable and basically unfair. The argument is that you can yield more calories by cultivating vegetables, and better yet grains, from an acre of land than by pasturing livestock on it, and thus meat eating is ecologically irresponsible in a world full of hunger. It’s the whole Francis Moore Lappe Diet for a Small Planet idea, which progressives embraced during the seventies.
I always assumed Lappe was right, and so resigned myself to the possibility that the human dietary optimum might not be optimal for an overpopulated planet. Nutrition vs. ecology could, I figured, present us with a choice as insoluble as the fiber my mom made us drink. But the great thing about Keith’s book is that she shoots the nonsustainability argument out of the water too. This was the eye-opener for me. She makes a persuasive case that our diet of refined grains and factory farmed vegetables is as destructive and unsustainable in planetary terms as it is for our bodies, and that pasturing animals on grasses is the best remedy for both (an argument that dovetails well with that of Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Factory farming of grain is horribly destructive to the environment; just think of all the petroleum and chemicals it floods the environment with–creating for instance a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. I’m still not 100% convinced that pasturage and the whole food movement could sustain the world’s population, but Keith makes a strong case, and provides a much needed corrective to Lappe. I’d say this argument is the most important and unique contribution her book makes to current debates about diet.
There’s a reason that the walls of my perfectly healthy colon are covered with ancient paintings having hunting themes: hunters with bows and arrows chasing herds of bison and woolly mammoths, shamans dressed in the skins of animals, just like the fingerpainted images that come alive in the flickering torchlight in the caves at Lascaux, France. Humans evolved to eat animal protein and fat. Meat and fat are good for you. If you want to be healthy and happy and not beset by inflammatory bowel disease, vitamin deficiencies, acne, and tooth decay, you should eat meat and fat. And if you want to do a favor for the planet, you should stop eating grains. However much vegetarians want it to be true that their diet is making them pure and healthy, all it gives them is gas and bad skin, and in the long run makes them fat and diabetic (from all the grains, rice, and potatoes they eat instead of meat).
You know this—you just haven’t admitted or acknowledged it to yourself. Consider this post (and The Vegetarian Myth) an intervention. I’m not against feminism, obviously. But sorry, gals. A diet based solely on veggies and grains is bad for your bodies, and it’s bad for Mother Earth.