There are some pretty good arguments for becoming a vegetarian:
Firstly, you will escape the risk of food poisoning from eating inadequately cooked meat, though unless a vegan, you still risk contracting salmonella or listeria from eggs and dairy produce. You will also avoid second-hand growth hormones and antibiotics administered to livestock in their feed. All of these contamination factors, however, provide less an argument for vegetarianism than a case against bad practice in farming. Finding traces of pesticide on your carrot is not a good reason for renouncing vegetables.
Then, as a vegetarian, there will be less likelihood of your sponsoring business and farming practices that require or encourage cruelty to animals.
Thirdly, a global move towards vegetarianism, it has been argued, would permit a more efficient use of land for feeding the world's starving (though how the people would fare in a meat-free world is an interesting question).
And lastly, some people simply do not like meat; some even claim to be repulsed by the compelling aromas that waft from barbecues on warm summer's evenings. But it takes all sorts to make a world and fair enough, if you don't like it, don't eat it.
There are also a number of dumb arguments for vegetarianism or veganism which, all too often, are stated in preference to those listed above. As some former vegetarians have recalled, the discomfort of trying to employ some of these in discussions about diet, without being convinced of their validity. Principal among them are:
- (1) Vegetarianism is healthier
- (2) Meat eating is cruel
- (3) Human beings are not designed to eat meat.
Such beliefs are not held exclusively by vegetarians. Many meat eaters accept without question the truth of statements (1) and (2). Yet both assertions are false when offered without qualification, while statement (3) is just plain wrong. I will refer to arguments (1),(2) and (3), respectively, as the Argument from Supposition , the Argument from Sentiment and the Argument from Stupidity.
The Argument From Supposition
Consider first the health question. A vegetarian diet can be healthy or unhealthy. But, there is no evidence that a healthy vegetarian diet is more healthy than a healthy meat based diet. There are vegetarian cook books that tout a number of dishes that specify as ingredients various combinations of milk, eggs, butter, cheese and cream. Using only these recipes, it would be easy for the non-discriminating vegetarian to raise their cholesterol count, to the level of cardiovascular suicide, while still believing their diet to be healthier than average. Clearly there needs to be more gained from eliminating meat from your diet than a simple reduction in saturated fat content.
But is there? You and your children don't need to eat meat to stay healthy. In fact, vegetarians claim they are among the healthiest people around, and they can expect to live nine years longer than meat eaters (this is often because heart and circulatory diseases are rarer). The nine-year advantage is often repeated but invariably unsourced piece of anecdotal evidence for vegetarianism. But anyone who believes that by snubbing the Sunday roast, they will be adding a decade to their years on the planet is almost certainly indulging in a bit of wishful thinking.
Statistical surveys do occasionally suggest that vegetarians, on average, live marginally longer, healthier lives. But we should bear in mind that research has yet to isolate the presence or absence of meat in the diet as the only variable under investigation. There are always extraneous factors which can explain equally well any health differences found between vegetarians and meat eaters. For example, many vegetarians choose their diet for health reasons simply because statement (1) is accepted as common knowledge . But people willing to cut out meat for health reasons are likely to be making other lifestyle decisions for health reasons. Perhaps to smoke less, drink less or exercise more frequently. Alternately stated: people unwilling to make sacrifices for the good of their health will be more likely to eat meat than those who will make those sacrifices. Thus the healthy vegetarian diet becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.
A well-designed piece of research by using matched samples may, in theory, control for extraneous variables. But it would be virtually impossible, in the case of a large sample population studied over a lifetime, to determine whether differences found were genuine measurements of the meat/non-meat factor, or an effect of vegetarians opting for meals with higher nutritional value, irrespective of meat content. There is also a serious sampling problem inherent in these diet-based longevity comparisons. Not all vegetarians force vegetarian food on their children. Many feed them a meat-based diet until they are old enough to decide for themselves. Meat eaters do not tend to feed their offspring a solely vegetarian diet. The average age of death for vegetarians is, therefore, bound to be higher than that for meat eaters, because the meat eater figures will be artificially skewed by deceased children who would have grown up to become vegetarians, but who died before they were old enough to make the decision and were counted as dead meat-eaters.
Moreover, irrespective of parental diet, very few western vegetarians give up meat until their late teens or early adulthood. Some will make the switch later in life. For as long as the general trend in society is away from meat and towards vegetarianism, the average effect of people crossing the meat/non-meat barrier will be to reinforce this skew in the distribution, and create the illusion of a longer average life-span in vegetarians.
Vegetarianism may, of course, be healthier. But given that all vegetarian foods are also available to meat eaters, the inference would be that the eating of meat is, in itself, harmful. This is a dubious supposition given the evolutionary arguments I will come to, as well as meat's value as a primary source of the eight 'essential' amino acids, vital minerals and trace elements including iron, zinc and calcium. Either way, the meat-free way of life has yet to establish its case beyond reasonable doubt or with sufficient clarity to justify any sweeping health claims made on its behalf.
The Argument From Sentiment
The second false belief is that meat eating is cruel. Every time we buy, cook, carve and eat a dead animal we are commissioning the slaughter of the next live animal. This much is true. We should, however, consider the animal's fate in the wild. Fish, fowl, mammals and insects in their natural state do not die of old age or go peacefully in their sleep with the family around the bedside; they are generally killed and eaten by other fish, fowl, mammals or insects. We might assume that such deaths are, on average, more frightening and painful than the swift despatch they will experience in the slaughterhouse. For a wild animal, to be killed and eaten is natural; for a farm animal, to be slaughtered by humans might be a privilege.
As to the quality of life of farm animals, we might compare the relatively stress free existence of a dairy or beef herd in the field with, say, that of fellow-ruminants the wildebeest browsing the plains of the Serengeti. The former will be well-fed, watered and sheltered from harsh weather; they will also have access to vetinary treatment. The latter will live under constant threat of attack from predators and suffer the hardships of pestilence or drought. The natural death of a wildebeest is invariably savage.
Now, the most conspicuous features of animal organization are those which are designed for competition with other living creatures, and often for their destruction, All animals live by eating other animals or plants. They may kill them, as we kill rabbits and potatoes, or merely eat parts of them, as we eat parts of the apple tree and the flea drinks part of us. A few, such as the blowflies, beetles, and 'worms', actually mostly insect larvae, which eat our bodies if they get the chance, eat only dead food, apart from bacteria. And these exceptional pacifists are not the noblest of animals. The plants generally compete by pushing, rather than biting. Look at a plantain spreading its leaves over the grass of your lawn, or a tree cutting off the sun from the plants below it till they die. Though only a few higher plants, like the sundew and the mistletoe, actually eat other living things, they are all engaged in a merciless struggle for life.
Not all creatures kill other creatures, yet most end up as something else's dinner. Even the most fearsome of predators, the lion, can as a result of old age, illness or injury end up as easy meat for a pack of hyenas.
We might conclude that the only way to put an end, once and for all, to Nature's cruelty to animals as expressed in the behaviour of other animals, would be to kill the lot of them and have done with it. Such a mass cull, according to vegans, would be 'murder', yet for as long as there is life on earth, life will destroy other life. Why animals, who are apparently deprived of 'rights', have the right in the wild to survive at the expense of other creatures, when we do not, is a mystery. We are animals too.
The Argument From Stupidity
We are not born to eat meat! (Animal Liberation Front slogan)
So to the question of what are humans are meant to eat. Natural is among the most misused words in the language. Some cook books, having eliminated animal products from their recipes and replaced them with the soy bean, for further suspect foodstuffs, then solemnly inform the reader that both potatoes and tomatoes should be avoided, since they are of the same family as the deadly nightshade and the authors find the effects of eating these vegetables deadening. It is hard to argue with this kind of stupidity, but the example perhaps illustrates what the rationalist is up against when dealing with superstitious thinking.
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