Saturday, January 2, 2010

Vegetarian Myth

If you are a vegetarian, or thinking about becoming one, please read this book.

The author, Lierre Keith, was a vegetarian for 20 years. For most of those years, she adopted a vegan diet for the familiar moral, political, and health-related reasons that most people consider going off meat, milk, and eggs:

  • She abhorred the idea of killing animals to eat them;
  • She was outraged by the cruelty to animals our food system perpetrates;
  • She believed that a vegan diet was protective of life and our ecosystem;
  • She thought food sourced from animals contributed to the diseases of civilization.

The thing is: she still cares about all these things. She wrote the book because she believes now that some of her reasons for being vegetarian were based not in facts, but in her fantasies. (And some of these reasons, she readily acknowledges are based in facts: our food system is heart-wrenchingly cruel.)

The book is partly a tale about how her vegan diet harmed her physical and mental health. It’s mostly a thoroughly-documented and sobering reexamination of the reasons for going vegan. The Vegetarian Myth dissects these moral, political and health reasons chapter by chapter.

She explains, for instance, that eating a bowl of organic cornflakes with organic soy milk does not avoid the wholesale killing of animal life. Eating anything involves killing, and killing a lot more than just the plants you’re munching. To eat is to kill. If you’re eating a product of our agricultural system, well.... look.

Look at any field growing corn, soy, wheat or any vineyard or any orchard. Do you see animals frolicking happily under and over those acres? Ground squirrels? Gophers? Snakes? Mice? Birds? Bugs, even? Not many. How come? Agriculture entails the killing of just about every animal that once called those acres home. Your bowl full of cornflakes has lots of ghost-animal eyes looking up at you. Plant-based foods produced by agriculture are not the innocent food we’d like them to be; they are very good, though, at hiding the killing they entail.

As a vegetarian myself, I found the chapter on the health effects of this diet the hardest to read. Arrgh! I’ve eaten so much soy! I wish I had thought harder about ingesting something that finds its way into paint, ink, and putty.

Lierre tells her story better than I can.

Get a piece of paper, write down on it:

Get a copy of Lierre Keith's book, The Vegetarian Myth.

Check it out of the library, borrow it from a friend, or buy it from your local bookseller.

Still not sure? Maybe you don't think she cares enough about life? She cares, you'll see. She cares.

Here, let Lierre speak for herself (and please forgive her if she sounds overly passionate; it's important stuff she's talking about, and it's not easy to talk about things like this):

You can read another review from Stanford University Be Well program of the book HERE.

And Mark (in the comments section) alerted me to a skeptical and critical review of this book. Thank you, Mark. You can read that review HERE. (This business of eating is important and complex.No easy answers, folks!)


Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Hi Dan. Very interesting. I'm sure much, if not all of that is true. However, you might want to read "The China Study" as a counterbalance. According to the author Campbell, it is the "casien" found in animal proteins that creates the internal environment in which cancer gets a foothold and flourishes.

My daughter has become vegan after a nasty encounter with cancer last year and I want to do everything to support her efforts to avoid a recurrence. We have done a tremendous amount of reading on the issue and I will be interested to reach this book too. It just seems that as new information comes out, there are always naysayers that can command a lot of attention by taking an opposing view. It can become a challenge to sift through all the vested interests, contrarians, etc.

My husband and I are new vegetarians (although we were never big animal protein eaters) and we do not like soy products and do not eat them. It is possible to be vegetarian and avoid them. I do believe you need to investigate all the products you ingest and I am not surprised to hear about some negative info coming out about soy. Soy is an amazingly versatile plant and because parts of it could be used in non-ingestible products does not mean it is all bad. Anyway, I will have to read the book to understand the point. Thank you for this recommendation!

Jenny Stevning said...

Very interesting! I followed a vegan diet for about 9 months. For the last three of those, I couldn't figure out why I was so fatigued and crying ALL the time. I thought I was going crazy!! My brain needed fuel...B vitamins. I was becoming anemic. Sure, I had lost over 30 pounds but I was a freakin' lunatic. Once I added selective meats and extra vitamins I started healing. I am very curious about this book. Thank you for the information, Dan!

The Pollinatrix said...

There's a discussion in Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about some of these issues. It was very enlightening for me.

I won't go into my long and complex journey to discover the best way to eat for me, but I do believe that there is no one-size-fits-all diet, and that eating with mindfulness and gratitude is the most important thing.

Sarah Lulu said...

G'day Dan.

Isn't that great about your son in Togo! I just looked up where that is too.

I'm not vegetarian but I did do soy instead of dairy for a decade or the 80's.

A dear dear friend that was vegan for 20 years suddenly ordered a steak when we were out last year ...I did ask him if he was feeling alright! *smile* ...He said yes and still eats some meat.

love to you.

Sarah Lulu said...

Actually when I googled Togo for images ...I came upon this blog about being in the Peace Corps there and I thought you might find it interesting..

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Bonnie, I haven't read The China Study. I did read your post on it. I have read shelves full of books about vegetarian diets, starting with Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet, through Laurel's kitchen, Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cuisine, Robbin's book, Diet for a New America, and on and on. I read Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. All good books.

Balance. It's about balance.

I've come to feel that a **balanced**, moderate approach is well advised, and to read outside your comfort zone to see what people with whom you might disagree are thinking.

And, most important, pay close attention to your own body-wisdom. We should be listening first of all to our bodies.

Dan Gurney said...

Jenny, based on what you say, I think you'd like Lierre's book. Your experience sounds quite parallel to hers. Only you had the sense to make a change before you did real damage to your health.

Dan Gurney said...

Hey Pollinatrix: Yes, you get it. Mindfulness and gratitude. And paying more and more attention to becoming a localvore.

Dan Gurney said...

Sarah Lulu, thanks for the link to the Togo blog. Very interesting.

Jennifer said...

Dan, I want to say how much respect I have for you to challenge your own choice and to read a book that that might dispute it. I have heard some pretty disturbing things recently about soy myself. How has this book impacted you personally?

Alden Smith said...

Dan, good for you for challenging your own philosophies and attitudes, that takes a huge amount of maturity and tolerance. I sometimes wonder if our attitude about killing animals is tied up with human hubris - an idea that somehow we are not a part of the whole interconnected system - we are animals after all - large numbers of animals eat meat! Also I wonder if the cry to not kill animals is also another Utopian idea, another byproduct of Western intellectualism that thinks that the cosmos can be reshaped to our own attitudes, philosophies and whims. The Buddist concern about eating animals is of course that one is eating sentient beings and I can understand that. It is indeed a complex and interesting issue.

Ribbon said...

thank you for posting this.

i'm curious and will endeavour to have a read.

best wishes

Mark said...

There's a review of this book on the following URL:

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Jennifer,

The most important change I've made is to cut way back on soy. I was led to believe that soy was a health food by Dr Andrew Weil; I'm going to be more cautious. There's a lot I don't know about soy.

Another change. I bought some oysters from Tomales Bay, not far from here. I shucked them and ate them. This was not easy for me to do, but I guess I needed to do it. Oysters don't scream much louder than carrots when you eat them. I'd never tasted them before. I'd also not since I was 11 actually harvested my own animal based food. At least there's some integrity in that. Now, probably, the world will show me some reasons not to eat shellfish. This is how the world is for me.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi Alden,

Yes, deliberatly shucking and eating oysters, I guess, is an undiluted violation of the precept against not killing.

I've noticed it's very difficult to avoid breaking ANY of the precepts, ultimately.

Plants, for example, are the noblest of beings. They ARE sentient. (Most of them are vegans!) We eat them (or their babies) with relish, enthusiasm, and abandon. Except for breatharians!

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Ribbon,

Like Alden said, it's a complex issue. And interesting. Lierre offers a view. It's her view. And one I wanted to take in. Lest anyone imagine I think Lierre has all the answers, well, no, I don't think that. It's a view, different from mine, and interesting.

There aren't any easy answers about this. I try to remember to "Think Locally and Act Neighborly" as my licence plate frame states.

Kindness, Compassion, Joy, Equanimity. These are what I consistently aim for. (But, hey, I'm not perfect: they're goals, not achievements for me.)

Dan Gurney said...


Thank YOU for this review. Mindful Heart readers, do link there for a skeptical and critical look at Lierre's work.

You're not the Marc in my group, right?

Jennifer said...

I am just now in a position to really get to know you and your blog, but Dan you are honestly with the few post I have read and the comments you FULL of compassion and centered. I appreciate this very much. I LOVE the license plate quote. This is almost verbatim a motto I personally live by. "Think locally and act neighborly." I want to remember this and share it with friends here in my community. It reminds me of my "As We Forgive" project about the Rwanda Reconciliation after the genocide.

I have done some fishing and my husband is a fisherman. My father-in-law catches, harvests and clamors up almost all of his personal seafood as well as many of our seafaring treats. I am considering all of this in a new way based on this post and your personal experiences.

Thank you.

Ginny Messina said...

Dan, I appreciate your effort to look at all sides of these moral and scientific issues. But I think it’s important to build arguments and counter-arguments on actual empirical data, not on pseudo-science—which is what this book is. The science supporting the safety of vegetarian and vegan diets is pretty solid and is acknowledged by even the most conservative organizations including the American Dietetic Association and the USDA. I'm a dietitian and a public health nutritionist and a vegan. When people take the time to learn--from reliable sources--about how to plan healthful vegan diets, there are no health risks associated with this way of eating.

It’s true that all agriculture—including production of plant foods—displaces other life. But eating plants directly is far more efficient than eating animals and results in much less land use and fewer animals displaced. The vast majority of grains that we produce are fed to meat/dairy/egg producing animals--and most of the calories and protein in those grains are wasted. They go toward energy production and body parts that we don't eat. When the author talks about the fact that 90% of agriculture goes toward grain production, she fails to mention that it is grain for animal feed—not humans—that is being produced. She is either uninformed or intentionally misleading. Eating meat increases grain production; it doesn't decrease it.

It’s also true that other animals kill for food. Some of them are obligate carnivores; they have no choice because they need meat to survive. Others are driven by instinct and survival to take advantage of any calories available since they don’t produce their own food.

Humans are different because we can survive on all kinds of different diets, we produce food, and we have choices in the matter. Why would we choose to kill when we don’t need to do so? Or to breed animals and then keep them in the most inhumane conditions possible just so that we can have all the meat, eggs and milk we want. Production of animal food is cruel beyond all imagination. And yes, that includes production of organic products and even so-called “humane” products.

Each and every hour of every day, 27,000 animals die horrendous deaths just because humans will go any length to convince themselves that is is okay to eat meat. For some real perspective on what that means, I would highly recommend the new book by psychologist Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. And for some insight about what you are supporting when you eat even "humanely-produced" meat, I would recommend Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

There is no excuse for not adopting a vegan diet. It is safe for everyone at every stage of the lifecycle. It conserves resources, reduces global warming, and prevents cruelty to animals. Please don’t buy into the myths perpetrated by a handful of people who want to eat meat and will go to any lengths to pretend that it’s okay to do so.

Dan Gurney said...


Thank you for your thoughtful comments and for the recommended reading. I will look into both of the books you've recommended, by Joy (great name!) and Foer. My inquiry will continue.

Dan Gurney said...

Jennifer, Thank you. If you've enjoyed my blog, I am happy.


Mark said...

Hi Dan,

I'm glad you found the review helpful. (I'm in the UK).

Thanks, Mark.

Marc said...

Hi Dan, Well I finished reading the book this past weekend, and then came here to your blog, hoping for some convincing rebuttals! Alas and alack, it seems Ms. Keith's key points stand up, although I am dubious about some of her nutrition claims. Her discussion about how saturated fat and cholesterol are actually good for you and the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are bad run so counter to everything I've ever heard, I can't simply swallow it whole (no pun intended!) without a little reflection and skepticism. But her data/research seemed very strong.

The negative review that Mark (not my alter ego!) linked to is specious, I think. The writer of the review accuses Keith of ignoring the fact that 95% of meat comes from tortured animals raised in CAFOs. That's not true; Keith acknowledged this sad fact throughout her book, and she did NOT say that eating CAFO-fed meat was a good health choice. She contends that grains are an unnatural diet for animals (as well as humans), and that the only animals that are healthy to eat are those that have been allowed to graze naturally, not those poor tortured forcefed creatures that constitute our commercial meat. Having ingested an unnatural diet, they become an unnatural food; this was one of her salient points (not to mention the cruelty dimension of CAFOs, which she was very clear on).

Nor did she indicate that all we have to do to save the planet is change our diet. She did not supply any easy answers. In fact, according to Keith, there are none. And personal choices alone--even the most noble ones--will be pathetically insufficient to stave off eco apocalypse. She isn't clear about what typ of action is actually necessary, but it has to do with the dismantling of titanic (connotation intended) entrenched systems of food distribution and power, which may not even be possible, and certainly cannot be possible without massive disruption to the existing order and enormous pain.

The most frightening, and apparently irrefutable, point of the book (for me) is that agriculture is rapidly depleting our topsoil, with grain monocrops being the primary culprit. The only solace I have found here is what Ginny wrote about, that 90% of grains grown are for feeding the animals that are being raised for meat. If that is true, then perhaps human consumption of grain, in and of itself and nutritional implications aside, is not so hugely destructive to the topsoil, or at least not so RAPIDLY destructive.

As for the various nutritional information in the book, it gives me much cause for concern, but I also have to listen to the wisdom of my own body, which has been mostly vegetarian for 20 years, and as far as I can tell I am not brain damaged (I did okay at a chess tournament this past weekend) and certainly not weak or sickly.

So much to say about this amazing book. For now I'll just finish by saying--thanks for the recommendation, Dan! I feel enriched as well as challenged and troubled. Denial is so much more stressful than grief.

Dan Gurney said...

Marc, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree with you. For me, the hardest part of the book is to realize how far from sustainable our current human over population is. We ain't a gonna solar-panel/vegan/Prius/bicycle our way out of this fix, folks.

I've come to greater and greater appreciation for and identification with non-human life forms, particularly plant and fungal forms. Civilization, based upon agriculture, as Keith points out, is inherently anti-life.

It's a tough book to read. But, as you say, grief is way more workable than denial. Just gotta make sure our grief meter doesn't stay pegged too long on MAX. That's why I hope to keep this blog a little refuge (for most of the time).