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The Vegetarian Myth – Lierre Keith

This could well be the most controversial blog post yet – where do each of us draw the line on eating and/or wearing animals and/or their products. Or, as Lierre Keith suggests, should we be drawing a circle and not a line?

This is a review of  The Vegetarian Myth and the Amazon reviews confirm that it is the marmite of the book world – people love it or hate it. (Hopefully not about to be banned in Denmark however!) I have to confess that I loved it because it raised some huge issues – you don’t get much bigger than how can we feed the human species and neither ‘side’ has an answer to this one – we have way too many people already on this planet for any sustainable option and things are continuing to get worse.

This review is intended to provide a useful and convenient summary – reading the book for your self is still highly recommended. I will quote Keith verbatim where possible – her writing style is quite beautiful and should be read first hand.

Gary Taubes has his critics on the internet, but they pale into insignificance compared to those queuing up to attack Lierre Keith. In Chapter 1 she says: “I got hate mail before I’d barely started this book. And no, thank you, I don’t need any more.” There are many similar ‘cute’ comments and humour throughout the book, which I really enjoyed.

I also enjoyed the feminist passages in the writing, for which Keith has also been attacked. It took me back to my days at Cambridge when I saw an article written by the Student Union president referring to ‘she’ and ‘her’ all the way through. Why does this only apply to women, I wondered? And then, of course – silly me – this article does apply to both genders, but then so does every article talking about ‘he’ and ‘him’ and yet nothing ‘jars’ when we read that. Keith uses the female third personal singular a couple of times – just to keep you on your toes. She also gets (appropriately in my view) angry with those who think it has been OK to trash the planet during their infinitesimally small time as guests here – for their own greed and personal gain. They tend to be male (CEOs, world leaders, lawyers etc) and they are certainly ‘macho’. Go girl!

Attacking the vegetarian

In Chapter 1, Keith notes exactly why her book has attracted the anger and outrage that it has. “’Vegetarian’ isn’t just what you eat or even what you believe, it’s who you are… I’m not just questioning a philosophy or a set of dietary habits. I’m threatening a vegetarian’s sense of self.”

Keith herself was vegan for 20 years and describes the health complaints that she has been left with, as a result of her dietary choice: from degenerative spine disease (irreversible) to depression and anxiety (much improved since ceasing to be vegan). She still suffers nausea and serious digestive problems and pain, which make it difficult for her to eat in the evening (if she plans on sleeping that night). Keith explains the chosen route was an obvious one made by her and friends when young: “All the friends of my youth were radical, righteous, intense. Vegetarianism was the obvious path, with veganism the high road alongside it.”

She pleads in the opening chapter: “You don’t have to try this for yourself. You’re allowed to learn from my mistakes… I’m asking you to stay the course, read this book, please. Especially if you have children or want to. I’m not too proud to beg.”

Keith ends this introduction with the humble statement: “Ultimately I would rather be helpful than right.” I was very little way into the book before I realised she is both.

The three arguments for (and against) vegetarianism

(Please note – the terms vegan/vegetarian can be used virtually interchangeably throughout the book – Keith applies the same arguments to both views. One just draws the line in the sand in a different place).

The book is perfectly structured. There are three arguments that vegetarians make as to why we should all be vegetarian and Keith structures the book in three parts to reflect this:

1) The moral argument – we should not kill;

2) The political argument – we can only feed the world if everyone is vegetarian;

3) The nutritional argument – it is healthier to be vegetarian.

The only thing that I won’t be able to answer, while writing this review, is how I would have responded reading it, had I still been vegetarian at the time. It would be wonderful if any vegetarians could try this and share their views. I know that there would have been a time when I would have been as angry as many vegetarian and vegan readers of the book have been. I don’t know, however, how I could have countered Keith’s arguments.

I do know that I never believed that there was a nutritional argument for being vegetarian. I have known enough about nutrition, for long enough, to know that liver, meat and fish are incomparably nutritious. This is why I never considered becoming vegan. I could not think how I could get vitamin A, B12, D, iron, zinc etc in anywhere close to sufficient amounts without supplements and it never felt right to be taking nutrients in a tablet when food could provide them.

I became vegetarian for the moral argument. I subsequently strengthened my belief by adopting the political argument. The essence of my belief was that I could be healthy enough without eating animals and animals would be better for this decision. I knew that I could not be optimally healthy, but felt that I was making a moral sacrifice in an age when humans were in a position to ‘do the right thing’.

Keith knocks down all three beliefs as follows:

The moral argument

I am covering the arguments in the order that Keith does and I could not believe how quickly Keith changed my views in this first part of the book. Even though the Barry Groves and Sally Fallon Morell presentations at the Weston A Price Foundation conference in March 2010 had ended my 15 year period of being vegetarian, I still believed that there was a clear line in the sand on ‘killing for food’ and that vegetarians were on the right side of the line. Oh boy!

In a nutshell the moral vegetarian argument is “we should not kill”. Keith’s response is:

a) There is absolutely nothing, nothing at all, that even a vegan can eat that something has not died for (several living things in fact);

b) Man is not at the top of a food chain – that is an arrogant view that only ‘man’ could hold. All humans are part of the circle of life. Our bodies end up as food for the soil, just as every other animal that dies (ideally on the prairie) leaves their nutrients and minerals to go back into the soil for new life.

a) When Keith expanded upon the first point, I was kicking myself within seconds. How could I have been so naive? Keith shared her original vegan view: “I wanted to believe that my life – my physical existence – was possible without killing, without death. It’s not.”

Before long, the examples came thick and fast and became irrefutable. How many slugs are killed for a lettuce? How many millions of species in a tablespoon of top soil are trashed every second by Cargill? How many rabbits and mice are killed in cultivated fields by industrial size farming equipment? How many fish die, so that rivers can be diverted to irrigate the vegan’s grains? How many wolves and bison have been killed because we turned their homeland into farmland – for grains and plant food? Keith answers the last one: “There were somewhere between 60 and 100 million bison in the United States in 1491. Now there are 350,000 bison and only 12 to 15,000 of those are pure bison that were not cross bred with domestic cattle. The land held between 425,000 and a million wolves; only 10,000 now remain.” “The North American prairie has been reduced to 2% of its original size and the topsoil, once twelve feet deep, can now only be measured in inches.”

b) Point (b) is so integrally linked to (a) – one of the reasons that no life is possible without death is that the soil upon which life depends relies upon death to return nutrients to the land. Keith explains her first hand experience of trying (and failing) to grow her own food without anything needing to die… (Any vegan that argues that they can grow their own lettuce, with nothing having to die, has to read the whole of this moral section of the book. Keith tried it and then some! The full story is funny and powerful at the same time).

Organic Gardening magazine soon explained to Keith that the first commandment of organic growing was “feed the soil, not the plant.” She learned that Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium was the “triple Goddess of gardeners.” All three are minerals given back to the land when animals (including humans) die. (Calcium is also a limiting factor for soil – also found in the bones and remains of animals that die and so generously give back their nutrients to the land). We can get nitrogen from fossil fuels, or nitrogen can be given back to the land by the circle of life and death. We are not far from the time (peak oil and all that) when we have the stark choice – use fossil fuels for fertiliser for food or for running the power upon which modern life has come to depend. What do we do when the oil runs out? Manure and carcasses or fossil fuel for fertiliser? – that’s our choice.

As this part of the book unfolds, Keith hits you with one stark fact after another:

– “70% of all water from rivers and underground reserves is being spread onto irrigated land that grows one third of the world’s food,” writes Fred Pearce in When the rivers run dry.”

– “Of China’s 23,000 miles of large rivers, 80 percent don’t support fish anymore.” “Set aside the fossil fuel for the fertilizer and transportation. If you live in Vermont or California and eat vegan brown rice – this is what you’re eating: dead fish and dead birds from a dying river.”

– “We’re out of topsoil, out of water, out of species, and out of space in the atmosphere for the carbon we can’t seem to stop burning.”

You come to realise that the ultimate role that we (humans) can play in this universe is to continue to be a part of the universe when we die. Whatever happens to our soul, our body is food for worms, which are food for birds, which are food for cats, which are food for their predators and so on. Humans often look for significance – for a sense of purpose in life. Our purpose is as part of the whole circle of life. All of us have this part to play.

Keith continues, “The native prairie is now 99.8% gone. There is no place left for the buffalo to roam. There’s only corn, wheat and soy.” With all that land cultivated for vegetarian food, which was once home to free roaming animals, there is also no natural process by which the top soil can be rejuvenated. There is only so much that fossil fuel fertiliser can do to repair the damage being done by overworking our scarce land in the name of profit. No wonder (GM) Genetically Modified crops became a necessity – we have to modify crops when we have destroyed the earth to the point that it cannot yield ‘normal’ crops.

“’You can look a cow in the eye,’ reads an ad for soy burgers. What about a buffalo?” asks Keith. “Five percent of a species is needed to ensure enough diversity for long-term survival, and less than 1 percent of the buffalo are left.”

Keith concludes: “It is my conviction that growing annual grains is an activity that cannot be redeemed. It requires wholesale extermination of ecosystems – the land has to be cleared of all life.” We use 5.6 billion pounds (weight) of pesticides per year (a statistic I found elsewhere) – pesticides being designed to kill any living thing that also wants to feed on (our) growing food.

I realised in this part of the book that it comes down to black and white and shades of grey. To the vegan, the world is black and white – “meat is murder.” Keith describes this as “a simple ethical code… but it is the black-and-white thinking of a child.” This is a critical part of the book and one with which I resonated very strongly. I was far more black and white in my 20’s. Things were right and wrong. (Good days and bad days!) This is very child-like thinking. The simple world of a child is right and wrong. The more mature world of the adult has many shades of grey.

The shades of grey in this killing debate are inescapable – you may draw the line at eating cows, but not dogs; you may draw the line at eating chicken, but not red meat; you may draw the line at eating fish, but not meat; you may draw the line at eating eggs, but not the flesh of animals; you may draw the line by wearing leather shoes, but eating nothing from an animal; you may have a vegan diet and wardrobe – but bison, birds, fish, rabbits, mice and thousands of living creatures in top soil have died for your soya burger and lettuce.

It’s not that vegans are right and vegetarians are wrong, or vegetarians are right and omnivores are wrong, or omnivores are right and carnivores are wrong – it’s about where we each choose to draw our line. Better still, to return to the arrogant view that ‘man’ thinks he is at the top of a food chain, Keith concluded “I’m not going to draw a line. I’m going to draw a circle.” We are part of the circle of life, just as any other animal is. They and we need to live and die to give back to the land, so that birth and death can continue.

I remember non-veggies saying to me when I was veggie “If we didn’t eat the animals they wouldn’t be here” and I just couldn’t comprehend the point that they were making. Would that be such a bad thing? Surely the animals would be better off not living if they were just going to be killed for food? (‘Better to have loved/lived and lost, than never to have loved/lived at all’ kind of thing. That’s a massive philosophical argument in itself – we’re all going to die – is it worth being here at all?!) Couldn’t we keep animals and not kill them? I just didn’t think of the practicalities that no farmer keeps ruminants (that’s the collective term for grass grazing animals – cows, sheep, goats etc) as pets. Animals are kept for food and they always have been within communities throughout history. Each settlement would safeguard the delicate balance between the ‘goose and the golden egg’ – to protect any givers of eggs/milk and the time when it comes to eat the giver of these vital foods. I don’t want a world without sheep & lambs, or cows & calves, in the fields. I want natural manure from these grazing animals nourishing the land naturally. I don’t want oil used to mow the grass, which ruminants could have eaten and then more oil used in fertiliser instead of manure. Animals are a vital part of the circle of life, not a line that modern, arrogant, man thinks he can draw on the land. This brings us nicely on to…

The political argument

The political vegetarian argument is that we can only feed the world if everyone is vegetarian. Keith quotes Jim Motavalli, who, in turn quotes the British group Vegfam: “a 10-acre farm can support 60 people growing soybeans, 24 people growing wheat, 10 people growing corn or only 2 producing cattle.” The maths behind this is not provided and Keith can’t work out where it could come from, but she notes that any such statistics will always find against cattle because they start from the premise that the cattle is fed grain. Hence, of course land would produce more grain to be eaten as grain than if that grain were fed to cattle and the cattle output were subsequently calculated. What Keith (and every real food person) argues is – we should not be feeding grain to cattle. Not ever. Not in any circumstances. The maths then falls over.

Keith opens the political argument section with a detailed description of the digestive system of a ruminant. The term ruminant means a cud-chewing animal, characterised by having four stomach compartments – the first being called a rumen. Keith describes how a cow, for example, is entirely reliant upon a magical internal ecosystem comprising bacteria, fungi and multiples of microbial cultures. The cow is feeding on the bacteria and the microbes are living within (feeding upon) the cow – it is the way of life for/in a ruminant. Grains turn the normally neutral rumen (first stomach) acidic, which makes the cow sick and bloated (not dissimilar to the effect that grains have on many humans!) Hence we should not be feeding ruminants grains. Ruminants, by definition, need to chew on cud – grass.

Joel Salatin (one of the role models of the local sustainable model) then does the maths for his 10-acre farm in Virginia. He produces 3,000 eggs, 1,000 chickens, 80 hens, 2,000lbs of beef, 2,500lbs of pork, 100 turkeys, 50 rabbits and a few inches of topsoil. No fossil fuels needed whatsoever. The chickens get a bit of supplemental grain (they can ‘stomach it’, literally) and everything else eats grass. Keith compares the calories and nutrition from this organic farm vs. the malnutrition, pellagra and fatal disease that the soy, wheat, corn community would end up with. It is incomparable in favour of eating the sustainable (animal) way.

The arguments against the political vegetarian are numerous:

a) Agriculture (turning the little arable land that the world has into grain and soy fields) is destroying the planet. It ‘murders’ the top soil and is completely unsustainable, in that nothing is being done to reverse the damage. Instead – food manufacturers are looking to create GM ‘frankenfoods’, which can still grow when all life and health has been removed from the land. As Keith says: “Who cares if more food can be produced by farming when farming is destroying the world?”

b) Manure and animals living and dying on land is the natural way to fertilise – to replenish the top soil so vital to life. To replace animals in the food chain with soy and grain is to destroy the entire circle of life. This is also completely unsustainable. There is a finite amount of fossil fuel in the world to use for fertilisers. There can be a sufficient amount of manure from the right number of animals occupying the right land space.

As Keith challenges: “Political vegetarians need to answer this question – what is going to feed your food? Fossil fuel or manure?”

c) It is nonsense to say that we are feeding grain to cattle, which could be used to feed humans. We are feeding grain to cattle, which they cannot digest, because grain is so cheap and so subsidised, that grain manufacturers have to dump it somewhere. Grain to America is the butter mountain of Europe. If grain production were not so lucrative and well subsidised, there is no way that cattle would be fed grain – they might be left to eat the grass that they are supposed to eat. I say ‘might’ because grain also causes cattle to fatten quickly (as it does humans) and this makes the cattle heavier, quicker and thus makes the animals more lucrative in the process. Win win for Cargill. Lose lose for the ruminants and the earth, which they have not been allowed to renourish.

d) When we factor in all the water and oil and fossil fuels used to ‘feed’ the land in the way that animals would do naturally, the price of grain is the planet itself. Richard Manning is quoted as saying “A typical farm in 1940 produced two calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy used. By 1974 that ratio was 1.1. As of now, it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of fuel for a human – somewhere between four and ten calories of fossil fuel for a calorie of food.” When fertilisers, pesticides, machinery, harvesting, transportation and so on are taken into account, an acre of corn requires about 50 gallons of oil.

e) What limited land there is in the world suitable for agriculture, America has more than its share. Encouraging the world to eat grains and soy (the USA food pyramid, the USDA dietary guidelines) makes the world dependent on America for its food – the ultimate dependence. Western countries support the giant food producers with subsidies totalling $360 billion. This substantially reduces world prices. As Oxfam has observed: “Exporters can offer US surpluses for sale at prices around half the cost of production – destroying local agriculture”. US aid is anything but – it is destroying local farmers and communities – making the world dependent on America to eat.

As Keith says “This is why there are no international aid agencies that suggest vegetarianism as a solution to world hunger: it isn’t one.”

Gary Taubes once joked “My wife says I blame everything on carbohydrates.”

In my view, the most serious thing that we need to blame on carbohydrates is that we have exploded the world population to completely unsustainable levels as a direct result of carbohydrates. When communities were based around sustainable, local, lands and foods, the population of the world could only ever be a number that could be sustained.

Agriculture and grains have enabled an unsustainable explosion in the number of people that we could feed, but this has never been done in a sustainable way. I thought I was a lone voice in thinking this until I read the following in The Vegetarian Myth:

“Breaking our dependence on the sun and nature’s fertility meant an explosion in grain production and a concomitant expansion in the human population. There are now over 6 billion humans. Understand: billions of us are only here because of fossil fuel, because we figured out how to transform stored energy into edible energy. As the natural gas and oil get more expensive, and then prohibitively expensive, there will be no way to keep that grain coming. And then? It doesn’t sound like a party I want to attend.”

The world population is due to reach 9 billion by 2050, about the time that the oceans are forecast to be empty of fish and long past peak oil. Keith estimates that we already have multiples too many people in the world – at least 10 times too many, maybe 100!

The stark reality is that this is an argument that neither the omnivores nor the vegetarians can win. There is no sustainable way to feed the current population – let alone the level that is forecast within the next 40 years. Grain, soy and agriculture are completely unsustainable, for any population level, as they destroy the planet without replenishing it in any way. Meat, fish and eggs are equally unsustainable, for the current population level, as there is not enough grazing land in the world for enough animals to feed us all and we have polluted and raped the oceans of their bounty. Had we not destroyed pastures for grain, the world population would have grown naturally and sustainably to sustainable levels.

Toward the end of this part of the book is a blunt message – forget peak oil. “Peak soil was ten thousand years ago, on the day before agriculture began.”

We then move to…

The nutritional argument

Even though I never bought this argument, I’ll cover it for completeness and because it is a very interesting part of the book and because many people do use this as a reason for being vegetarian. Unfortunately, dieticians and many charities (World Cancer Research Fund, British Heart Foundation, Diabetes UK) seem to be on hand to encourage this position. The nutritional arguments are as follows:

a) Humans evolved to eat plants and not animals;

b) Animal foods contain cholesterol and this will kill us;

c) Animal foods contain fat and this will kill us;

d) Vegetarian and vegan foods are healthy;

e) Animal foods contain fat and this will make us fat.

Keith devotes over 100 pages to this, Part 3, of the book and the attention that she devotes to each argument is impressive. As an example, I address the ‘what did we evolve to eat’ debate in Chapter 12 of The Obesity Epidemic, but Keith goes into it in far more detail. She goes through three roles of teeth, four actions of the jaw, four digestive processes, nine activities of the stomach, two of the gall bladder and every detail on gut flora, the colon and even the length of the small intestine to compare humans, dogs and sheep. She quotes Dr.s Michael and Mary Eades to provide the conclusion: “In anthropological scientific circles, there’s absolutely no debate about it – every respected authority will confirm that we were hunters. Our meat eating heritage is an inescapable fact.” I concluded the same from anthropological research.

I also looked, as Keith did, at the possibly of getting sufficient vegetarian food for the 3.5 million years since ‘man’ first walked upright. Notwithstanding the 30,000 years of ice age endured 40,000-10,000 years ago, when no vegetation would have been available, there is simply no evidence that our planet could have yielded sufficient vegetables and fruit for man to have consumed sufficient calories to survive. Grains were not available until the emergence of agriculture. Half the vegetables possibly available to our ancestors would not have been edible without cooking and fire was not discovered until somewhere between 1.5 and 0.5 million years ago. Let alone the seasonality of vegetation and the likelihood that nothing would have been available in certain parts of the world and for many months anywhere else.

That’s as far as I went. Keith also goes into the enzymes in plants and the toxins that they emit – in an effort not to be consumed and to survive – as any living thing tries to survive. She then picks up the argument – OK – should we have become vegetarian when grains did appear – notwithstanding the fact that we never had them before? She presents a compelling argument that we have simply not evolved to eat grains (this is the mainstream Paleo view) and that they are seriously harmful to human health. Lines such as these are punched out on successive pages:

– “Grains are essentially sugar with enough opioids to make them addictive.”

– “The diseases that insulin affects directly are the cause of the vast majority of death and disability in the US today. Heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes are all caused by the insulin surges that grain and sugar demand.”

– “You can call it complex carbohydrates if you want, but it’s sugar.”

– “According to the USDA, we should be eating a diet that is 60% carbohydrate. Your body will turn that carbohydrate into almost two cups of glucose and each and every molecule has to be reckoned with.”

– Quoting the Eades again: “The actual amount of carbohydrates required by humans for health is zero.”

– And my favourite: “you’ve (vegetarians) damaged your digestion, from too many blood sugar highs and lows, and too much adrenaline. It can be fixed, but you’re going to have to eat real protein and fat and not sugars. You need to leave adrenaline for emergencies only; can we agree that breakfast shouldn’t be one?”!

b) The cholesterol argument has been covered more extensively by Kendrick and Ravnskov (and me in The Obesity Epidemic). Keith mentions a couple of the key points, and nails it beautifully with the following one liner: “One of the main functions of the liver is to make cholesterol, not because your liver wants you dead, but because life isn’t possible without cholesterol.”

c) The book provides another really nice summary on the position on fat. I go into this in more detail than I’ve seen it elsewhere with my original analysis of the Seven Countries Study and an assassination of the Truswell article, which is a summary of all the evidence relied upon by government authorities telling us that fat is a killer. (I also point out that when our governments talk about fat, they are in fact talking about refined carbohydrates, but that’s another story).

Keith’s summary is very clever. She explains that fat consumption declined almost 25% in the past 15 years (the book was published in 2009) and, at the same time, type 2 diabetes has increased by a factor of more than ten; cardiovascular disease recorded at time of hospital discharge has increased 25%, the incidence of stroke is rising and cancer “continues its relentless and increasing toll.”

Keith also covers the fat soluble vitamins, essential fats and other nutrients in real fat vs. the unnatural levels of omega-6 to 3 ratio, as a result of our obsession with cheap vegetable oils. “You tell me what to blame: the saturated fats we’ve always eaten – for four million years – or the industrially manufactured oils that until recently were used in paint.” Quite so!

d) Sugary cereals, soy (as it is called in the USA – it’s called soya in the UK) and vegetable oil spreads/margarines are promoted as healthy by the food industry. Of course they are – they are phenomenally lucrative. Kellogg’s alone is a $13billion company. They are new products, only introduced to the food chain in little more than the past 100 years in the case of cereals and in nearer 20 years in the case of modern soy and vegetable oil products. Keith states: “The food industry has developed over 100,000 new processed foods since 1990.” That is staggering and surely ‘foods’ should be in inverted commas!

These ‘foods’ rely as much on knocking real food, as they do on promoting themselves as healthy. Vilify eggs and promote sugary cereal as the alternative. Attack butter and hydrogenated margarine can come to the rescue. Lie about hormones in cow’s milk and everyone will turn to soya in their Starbucks. It is horrific to think that big business can get away with it. As Keith says “Try to comprehend the scale of this: food companies spend $33billion a year in advertising.”

Keith dedicates a few pages to a horrifying review of the health concerns surrounding soy(a). Quoting Dr Kaayla Daniel (one of the speakers at the March 2011 Weston Price Conference), author of The whole soy story: the dark side of America’s favourite health food the allegations unfold. Soy(a) is delivering hormone doses not dissimilar to the contraceptive pill (in snack size portions of soy – let alone the levels eaten by vegans). Soy(a) is implicated in serious thyroid disturbance (think thyroid, think weight). “Those who ate tofu at least twice a week had accelerated brain aging, diminished cognitive ability, and were more than twice as likely to be clinically diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.” “In fact, the more tofu eaten, the more cognitive impairment and/or brain atrophy.”

We had a vegan in our online club who said something about ‘you only ever get animal illnesses’ – bird flu and mad cow disease? Keith’s humour appears again when she closes the section on soy(a) with: “According to a vegetarian bumper sticker ‘There’s no such thing as mad tofu disease.’ You might want to rethink that”!

Food manufacturers must love vegans – virtually all vegan calories must come from food manufacturers. There’s very little that the vegan can get from the local farmer. That alone is reason enough for me to not want to be vegan!

e) The final argument was very interesting – especially people interested in weight loss. One of the arguments for avoiding animal foods is that fat contains (approximately) 9 calories per gram and carbs approximately 4. Hence many dieters become vegetarian as a convenient way of avoiding higher calorie foods. (The fact that these foods are zero carb doesn’t matter to calorie counters). Keith notes that “Somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the girls and women seeking treatment for anorexia and bulimia are vegetarian.” Keith says “The overlap in my life is a perfect 100. Everyone I’ve known with an eating disorder has been a vegetarian and that includes two anorexic men who were both vegans.”

There is an interesting ‘chicken & egg’ argument – the dieter likely chooses to avoid animal foods to avoid calories but, also, vegetarian diets are typically low in tryptophan, which is the precursor of serotonin. Hence vegetarian diets can also cause depression, anxiety and eating disorders. “Veganism, I quip, is one part cult, one part eating disorder. I hear those words and I wish they weren’t true because of what they mean about me.” That’s what Keith said. I could have said the same.

Note on all 3 arguments

We need to make it clear that real foodies abhor factory farming every bit as much as vegans and vegetarians. We want it abolished. It is heinous – unhealthy for the animal and the human. It fails all three arguments. There is no moral argument for keeping animals in factory farms – their role is to graze freely on grass and to feed the soil with their manure and digestion. There is no political argument for factory farms – feeding grain to ruminants, who cannot digest it, is a terrible use of the world’s resources and is inevitably less efficient than feeding grain to humans (notwithstanding the harm that this could also do). There is no nutritional benefit in eating an animal that has never seen grass, let alone grazed freely on it. Much of the arguments made by vegans and vegetarians use the extreme examples of factory farming to make their case. We hate that too. Where we differ is on the value – morally, politically and nutritionally – of animals living freely and providing food for others in the circle of life, as they always have done.

The summary

The summary chapter in the book is a tour de force. Exquisitely written, it builds on a theme “what do I have for breakfast?” and all the things that we should think about to answer this question. We may not want to face the facts, but Keith sees this as no excuse to stay in denial. If delivered as a speech, you could see that no one in the audience would be sat down at the end. I have never seen such rousing prose.

The questions to be asked of vegetarians become these:

1) Moral – what do you think that you eat for which nothing has died? (I can understand that you may draw your line at not eating animals, but animals died for your food nonetheless. Please stop telling children “meat is murder” when bison, wolves, buffalo and rabbits died for your grains, as did the soil alongside).

2) Political – how can the agriculture that has destroyed, and continues to destroy, the planet be a sustainable way to feed the world? Without ruminants performing biological functions of soil, plants soon die as the soil structure is destroyed. Are you OK that your food is made from oil, not soil? What will feed your food when the fossil fuel runs out? (Let us work together to abolish the factory farming that we both abhor, and let us work together on the only sustainable way to feed the world – dramatically curtailing the world’s population).

3) Nutritional – (particularly for vegans) pick any non-animal food and let me pick any animal food and let’s compare vitamins and minerals. Where do you get retinol? B12? D? K2? Iron? and zinc? – to name just the most obvious nutrients provided by animal foods (some of those, exclusively so). What do you think we have eaten since time began? What did we eat during the 30,000 years of ice age? If there is any nutritional argument for being vegan, why would supplements be life critical? (not least, B12).

I sincerely hope that no one is vegetarian for nutritional reasons alone i.e. that the animal arguments are of no matter to them – they simply think that it is best to avoid real meat and fish and maybe eggs and dairy. If anyone is, they should be the easiest to return to healthy eating. If people choose not to eat animals, because of animals, then the question becomes – are you prepared for your health to suffer, as a result. Because it is less healthy to eat soya and grains than it is to eat meat and fish. Remember – in all of this – factory farmed meat and eggs don’t count. We are not talking about processed meat. That’s as bad as any processed food. We are talking about “Ermentrude”, grazing in the fields.

Keith pulls no punches in this final section: “You can’t have it both ways, vegetarians. If you want to save this world, including its animals, you can’t keep destroying it. And your food destroys it.”

Keith presents three questions to help answer the question – what should we have for breakfast?:

i) Does this food build or destroy topsoil?

ii) Does it use only ambient sun and rainfall, or does it require fossil soil, fossil fuel, fossil water, and drained wetlands, damaged rivers?

iii) Could you walk to where it grows, or does it come to you on a path slick with petroleum?

She gets stronger: “Despite the deepest longest of your hearts, vegetarians you are wrong. To save this world, we must know it, and then take our place inside it. As long as I believed the annual grains of a plant-based diet would save the world, I couldn’t see that they were destroying it. This exact moment – reading those words – will take courage. I know you’ve got it. Are you willing to use it?”

“What separates me from vegetarians isn’t ethics, or commitment. It’s information.” Lierre Keith.

And with that line, and with this book, we can no longer be in denial.

37 thoughts on “The Vegetarian Myth – Lierre Keith

  • Doubt this will end up being read or responded to, given the age of the page, but here goes – I personally believe that living in balance with the natural world around us is indeed the best way to go, but how is this practicable for the majority of the world’s population currently living in urban settings? Is everyone supposed to just bugger off to the countryside and buy enough land and/or find a community that can allow them to be completely self-sufficient, when property taxes exists and they must somehow continue to feed the economic machine? There was an interesting point in here about the current world human population being too large to support any real solution; does this mean a bunch of us just need to die off before things can get better? Even if I had the money to purchase only sustainably sourced animal based food (which I and most people do not), would there be enough of it to feed us all, or are we to buy from the corporate bodies selling what we can only trust is brought to us sustainably and continue to support the consumer-capitalist structure? What is an actual, practical, practicable solution for the individual here?

    • Hi J
      Old is still good!
      We need more research in this area as many people are optimistic that we can feed the world in a healthy way while giving back to the land at the same time. The current system is appalling. The ‘developed’ world largely overfed and under nourished with fake food and the ‘undeveloped’ world starving in horrific numbers. There must be a better way.
      The Sustainable Food Trust looked this summer at how to feed Britain. This is good ( and should be replicated in other countries.
      Best wishes – Zoe

  • I was thinking about reading the book but I am sick of the sexist hate of feminism. Thanks for warning us about it.

  • A lot of the arguments presented are circular. We should be doing food forests not farms, and eating animals we can gather from them, only absolutely enough to sustain health, not more. If humans are going to be eating some type of animal it should be wood termites which have high amounts of B12 and are the perfect animal food for primates I say that as a vegan, it’s what I would eat if I lived off the land. I have no problem killing bugs, no empathy for them. They are the easiest way to get animal protein.

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  • A very good article. Unfortunately some disinformation has penetrated the lines:

    – “The diseases that insulin affects directly are the cause of the vast majority of death and disability in the US today. Heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes are all caused by the insulin surges that grain and sugar demand.”
    – “You can call it complex carbohydrates if you want, but it’s sugar.”

    All blue zones are eating a complex carbohydrates based diet (some up to 70% of the intake) with little meat and still are long living and healthy. So we can rule out “blame it on the carbohydrates” part. Living on carbohydrates is clearly not a health hazard.

  • There is a world-healing movement afoot led by Allan Savory. He has found that ruminants can be used to restore grasslands in areas turning into desserts. Watch his TED talk:

    Savory’s method could increase the world’s sustainable population level substantially — if they eat meat.

    My Story:

  • I’m sure you’re far too busy in the real world than to follow the most ludicrous show there is – Youtube online vegan drama, but it might not surprise you to know, that someone I’ve seen you reference before in the comments section here, Freelee (the banana girl (?), proponent of 51 bananas a day etc) recently split with her boyfriend Durianrider (some sort of online vegan deity) in an extremely acrimonious tit for tat public display, and the entire online vegan scene seems to have imploded with half the channels/groups/people/subscribers/insecure teenagers falling on one side of the split and the other on the other side.

    I don’t report this to be tabloid, but as a comment on how a community that is intrinsically built on insecurity and pseudo-altruism, has ultimately self-imploded under the weight of its own ego. I find that fascinating, and is consistent with what you so often find (and what you have reported above) that with vegans and vegetarians, it was born out of an image disorder, which of course is born out of a densely pained ego.

    • Hi Oliver – this bananas girl came up in our club forum recently – many thanks for the news update!

      I can’t imagine one can get much done in a day in between eating 51 bananas! Maybe the boyfriend felt neglected ;-)

      Best wishes – Zoe

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  • ‘And with that line, and with this book, we can no longer be in denial.’ I wish it were that simple but denial will still remain as long as we have the kind of “evolved” brain such as we have currently.

    I am also glad that someone else says that veganism and vegetarianism is an eating disorder. I’ve long thought that.

  • Does anyone else here think that the big phamra companies could make vegan/vegetarianism so common that more people suffer from mood disorders thus being able to use it as an excuse to put more people on drugs? Anyone?

  • *sigh* if only we had evolved a conscious mind that could actually understand what our bodies are telling us. We wouldn’t have debates like such and have people “wondering” why they are so depressed and moody. We would just simply know what to do about it or as this topic states whether to be vegan or not!

    But ever notice how violently vegans and some vegetarians are about saving animals even if it means endangering their lives in the process or after (letting animals lose from testing labs as one example)? Serotonin deficiency, cholesterol deficiency, just to name a few.

    What I’ve noticed is being vegan or vegetarian is largely a learned trait. Guilt, fear mongering, activists and other sources instill fear and grief into those who eat flesh based products. A lot of people who grew up in tribes or communities who were not made to feel guilty about eating animal products didn’t have as many people eating exclusively plant based material. It’s GUILT and a brain that can convince itself it’s feeling good when it’s not, can rationalize feelings and instincts that causes these issues that is the culprit for all of our diet and mood based conflicts.

    To me the fact that we have to learn what is good for us and what is morally correct is a very bad sign. The fact that we can refuse to look into or accept clear evidence if not proof that what we are doing is harmful is most definitely a very bad sign.

  • Lierre Keith does raise some interesting points as you have noted in your blog. I have read some of what she has written and have listened to some of her interviews.
    I’m not sure it’s correct to blame vegans & vegetarians for the 99.8% loss of US native prairie. Certainly modern agriculture is mostly to blame – but a significant proportion of the grain grown in the US is fed to animals and meat eating humans – a lot less to vegetarians. Keith’s solution of cattle roaming grasslands would be great but as she admits it can’t support the world’s population.

    It seems she has contracted some severe illnesses which she attributes to her ‘mostly’ vegan / veg diet . As with any diet you can eat healthily or unhealthily and a study group of 1 is a rather small sample! The Seventh Day Adventist study does provide some interesting health comparisons across a range of diet types.

    Lots more refs to her writings online – which make interesting reading!

  • Hi…
    One thing that few people know….
    Soy, as you know, was/is an Asian food.. They only eat it FERMENTED.. They know that it needs to be prepped as other legumes (soaked for 24 hrs ) and then the soy is made into a fermented product… This removes the inbuilt defense( phytates ??? )which our bodies were not meant to digest, and which adds another stress on our system…

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  • I read the book, the vegetarian myth, , very disappointing. So sad that the extremists have taken over the debate, with vegangelicals on one side and the paleovangelicals on the other, to where the flexitarians and the people who have some pastured eggs, organic goat milk , coconut milk, coconut oil, whole grains, vegetables, berries, nuts, fruit,,are shoved down to where we can’t get a word in, , treated like we do not exist, do not count. What is killing people is soda, sugar, white flour products, koolaid Snapple, potato chips,,. Her you are only adult if you agree with her,, telling us we are not allowed to buy what we need, telling farmers they can’t sell to us even though they want to, and we want them to bring greenwashed as direct democracy should fool nobody. She mentions infanticide of kids who are thrthree yeyears old but does not condemn it, which sickens me. And the story of feeling so wonderfully alive right after eating a can of meat/tuna, before it had even a moment to digest defies logic. No meat ever did me like she described it doing her. I am not vegan or even total vegetarian. I am not a fat phobe. I eat nuts, coconut oil, coconut milk, eggs, unsweetenedbbaking chocolate, . I avoid sugar, white flour products, soda, juice, candy, potato chips, . I go days or weeks without meat and feel fine. Of course a sugary, white flour products, fat phobe diet makes people sick whether they are vegans or vegetarians, or meat eaters. Read, sugar shock, , read, predictive health, , read, silence kills, , watch the video, food fight! Read, Alzheimer’s disease what if there was a cure, , , but I amso sick of how the vegans and paleos have hhijacked the food health debate. It is time for the flexitarians and ovo vegetarian people who have some organic goat milk to step forward and bring sanity to the table.

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  • I have been a vegetarian since birth – I’m 42 years old – and have the blood pressure of a teenager according to my GP; I don’t get ‘flu, I don’t have cholesterol issues and am in all respects healthy by the grace of God. Since becoming vegan and consuming raw organic vegetable juices, I feel even better. Nothing could convince me to change my diet because the proof for me is my health – which, since eliminating wheat, dairy and sugar – has got even better… And yeah, I eat non-GMO tofu.

    Everyone is entitled to eat exactly what they wish. You want to eat meat? Go ahead, It’s your choice. Each to his or her own… I would never dream of forcing my lifestyle on another. But by the same token, I expect to be respected and left in peace.

  • I love how veggitarians and vegans just treat the arguments in our favour as bullshit (which by the way is what is used to grow your vegtables and comes from cows) however they think we are ignorant and stupid for not believing arguments in favour of them. Theses fights are stupid there are healthy and unhealthy vegans and veggitarians just like there are healthy and unhealthy people who eat meat that’s the fact neither diet is perfect and neither diet is gonna save the world so everyone just live the life they were given and stop trying to recruit people to be like you

  • Sorry…not buying any of these old rehashed arguments against an animal product free lifestyle. I challenge Ms Keith and any of her supporters to go and kill an animal (and make it a large one to really get the full impact)and then tell me how great meat is. It is only because someone else does the dirty work for her and you that you can be a cheerleader for consuming animal bodies. A la the old abattoirs and glasswalls saying… no school fieldtrips to see how your meet is ‘made’…I wonder why.
    No vegan is stupid enough to think that there is no death in producing our food. What we try to do is limit the amount of death, suffering and ddestruction we are responsible for causing.
    This book smacks of agenda to me…

    • Yeah i thought so too..’this book smacks agenda’..who is this Lierre really..sounds like liaar, just saying. Who is she anyway? Is she bought & paid for?

  • “Truly man is the king of beasts, for his brutality exceeds them. We live by the death of others. We are burial places! I have since an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men will look upon the murder of animals as they look upon the murder of man.”

    – Leonardo Da Vinci

    “Animals are my friends…and I don’t eat my friends.”

    – George Bernard Shaw

    “I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other.”

    – Henry David Thoreau

    “To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. I should be unwilling to take the life of a lamb for the sake of the human body.”

    – Mohandas Ghandi

    “If man is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”

    – Immanuel Kant

    “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

    – Albert Einstein

  • I quote this paragraph;

    Food manufacturers must love vegans – virtually all vegan calories must come from food manufacturers. There’s very little that the vegan can get from the local farmer. That alone is reason enough for me to not want to be vegan!

    As Rove McManus would say – What the?

    What a load of rubbish. Absolutely ridiculous.

    There is no reason any sentient beings, even SNAILS, need to die at all unless by natural causes or their carnivorous. There is enough land and water on this earth to grow enough grain, fruit and vegetables to feed every human being AND animal for an entire lifetime (yeah, without killing slugs that feed on lettuce!)

    If every human only ate and drank what they needed to, without the waste, this world wouldn’t be in the state it is at this current moment.

    You seriously need a reality check.

  • The vegetarian myth misses key and I do mean key information under almost any heading and is a horrendous example of cherry picking – the “link between eating disorders and vegetarianism being to worst example. There is a world apart from someone who is very, very poorly and needing an excuse to hide thier illness declaring themselves to be veggie/vegan (in order to restrict food in front of others) and your average veggie Joe. Strangly enough researchers wouldn’t dare cherry pick a link between “taking up a sport” and anorexia, or “eating on the run” and anorexia – both of these “links” could be said to true as suffers of almost always report both behaviours!

    Most of the worlds grain mountain feeds food animals – I used to know the UN figures, and it’s a myth that vegetarains are always on high grain diets and must rely on processed foods and their manufactors. Look up Ani Phyo and her vegetarain lifestyle which she promotes to others, stressing that veggies can get all they need at thier local famers market and she eats a low grain diet too.

    Any food habit group (omni- veggie – vegan) can “destroy their digestive system” hospitals are not full of sick veggies and vegans, in fact the longest living population on the planet is not the Okinawan’s as most people think – is a vegan population of Seventh Day Adventist in the US – look up Dr. Stephen Walsh’s work, a reviewer who doesn’t cherry pick information to prove a personal point, he’s a very conservitive reviewer of nutritional information (a rare thing indeed) and you’d never, ever find him using wikipedia as a “source”. I believe he still speaks occationally in the UK I’m sure he’s be happy to answer any question you put to him.

    I agree with Selena – if people don’t like vegetarains fine, grow a spine on it, but cherry picking information to suit and adgenda and ommiting whole areas of study is just plain irrisponsible, it does the areas of health and environmental managment as well and ethical debate a complete diservice

  • Hi Victoria – anyone can pick fault and find errors in almost any blog, let alone a 300 page book. I also saw the review when I posted mine – it’s all centered around the “did we evolve to eat meat” argument and nothing in that debate detracts from the three main arguments that Keith presents – as summarized in my blog.

    I’ve been where you are now so I do sympathise and you are right to seek information as this is your decision to make. Good luck with it!
    Best wishes – Zoe

  • Hi Zoe, have been veggie for 11 years, but now starting to consider seriously my diet and doing lots of research to aid my decision making. I read your review of “The Vegetarian Myth” with interest, however its interesting to read other reviews of this book (in particular this one: and I’m a little shocked that this author uses Wikipedia amongst other websites as her sources. What’s your view on this?

  • *sigh* if you don’t want to be a vegetarian anymore than that’s fine by me. just don’t bother with all the ‘… and this is why it’s totally ok to eat meat’ stuff, it makes you come of as a smoker who cherry-picks any study showing that smoking isn’t really all that bad.

    just grow yourself a spine and admit you simply like eating meat, and aren’t doing it for your health or for the environment. if you did that i’d at least respect you for your honesty and self-awareness, now you’re just making excuses.

  • i am astonished at the facile comment

    “Food manufacturers must love vegans – virtually all vegan calories must come from food manufacturers. There’s very little that the vegan can get from the local farmer. That alone is reason enough for me to not want to be vegan!”

    i eat raw fruits and vegetables, most of them are grown on mine or neighbouring land, and virtually all are grown in the country i live in (spain) i tend not consume grains or animals as i enjoy excellent health without them .. 20 plus years of not needing a medic suits me

    no doubt i will read this book but not because of this review…

    • Sadly, mankind will not in the foreseeable future, overly care about the killing humans… thousands of years of war/murder/indifference etc will continue.. more a case of-it is someone else, does not impact me, out of sight/mind…

      Man has consumed meat for eons…man slaughtered their own meat on their own farms-and consumed it…The cycle of life.. birds/animals also consume meat/carrion..

      Some people do well on a non meat etc diet…. very few groups/bodies of people, have actually lived with generations of vegetarians… the few that did, had meat-protein intake in the grubs that lived on the produce..This has disappeared with the advent of global pesticide..

      I have met vegetarians who look OLD… One man I spoke to said, his daughter-vegetarian-was mistaken for his wife.. she looked 25 yrs older than she was.. He (father) was worried about her health.. She was not getting the nutrient needed for sustaining skin/hair/mental etc… I personally lost half of my hair before I switched back to a meat diet….I noticed a change starting 3 x months later.. I was sleeping better than I had been…

  • Thank you, Zoe – a great summary of a really interesting book.

  • Eating for Blood Type (a la Dr’s D’Amato) and GenoType could be an important addition to this conversation.

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