Monday, April 26, 2010

The Case Against Dogmatic Veganism: A Short Reading List

I do not condemn vegans. As far as I'm concerned, people can eat what they want, and what they believe works for them.

But if someone tells me that they are vegan and I'm a bad person because I am not, I will ask them to consider some of the following:
  • The Ethics of Eating Meat, by Charles Eisenstein [UPDATED: outdated link fixed]

    Charles Eisenstein, author of The Yoga of Eating: Transcending Diets and Dogma to Nourish the Natural Self, explains why he eats meat in a short and beautiful essay.

  • The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith

    With lyrical and heartfelt prose, the author, who was vegan for 20 years, methodically deconstructs the notion of vegan virtue. Eisenstein's essay probably influenced her book, directly or indirectly. (I don't have the book handy to check the bibliography.) See my review of The Vegetarian Myth here, in which I explore her arguments. Some book excerpts on her website here.

  • Eating Animals, by Jonathan Saffron Foer

    A nuanced and flowing exploration of some of the ethical issues around eating meat, and how some people navigate them.

  • Twenty Two Reasons Not to Go Vegetarian, by Sally Fallon Morell

    Sally Fallon Morell is eloquent and prepared, as usual. Among other things, she points out the impossibility of living in industrial society without benefiting from the slaughter of animals. For instance:
    Not only the steak on your plate, but a myriad of other products come from slaughtered cows, including components used in the manufacture of cosmetics, plastics, waxes (in crayons and candles), soaps, cleansers, shampoos, modern building materials and hydraulic brake fluid for airplanes. The membrane that vibrates to make a telephone work is made from beef gelatin. Epinephrine, a widely used drug for asthma and allergic reactions, is made from beef adrenal glands.
    She includes an excerpt from a letter that Rich Latimer of Falmouth, Massachusetts, had in the January 7, 2008 New Yorker, reminding us of the animal slaughter involved in growing plant foods (even organic ones):
    Countless millions of wee furry beasties, mice, moles and voles, as well as ground-nesting birds, are killed outright or die off from habitat destruction annually, when vast acreages are tilled by huge, mindless machines to grow “ethical” grains and vegetables. More are killed during the growing season by rodenticide grain baits, including zinc phosphide. Small mammals and birds are killed by machinery again at harvest time, and even more are killed by pest-control practices in granaries and processing plants before vegetables get to market. There’s no such thing as a guilt-free lunch.


Anonymous said...

I could point you to short and beautiful essays against eating meat, but that would be beside the point. I eat a mostly vegan (and mostly raw) diet, but I agree with you that vegans can't lay claim to any moral high ground. The "what is good food" question is a complicated one, and becoming vegan is not the easy answer to it.

But let's not argue on moral or even environmental grounds, let's talk health, which is what Sally Fallon mostly does anyway.

Nourishing Traditions is a convincing read, but Fallon is not a very good advertisement for the diet she advocates. Not only is she overweight, she lacks the "glow" that so many long term vegans have. What do you say to people for whom this all comes down to vanity? I know that I for one would rather look like Brigitte Mars ( than Sally Fallon any day.

Best, Elizabeth

Alex Lewin said...

You raise two issues: health, and conformance to beauty standards.

Standards of beauty and body type vary, depending on culture and era. Although I haven't met her, Brigitte Mars looks to be closer to the modern Hollywood standard than Sally Fallon. Fallon may be closer to standards in more places and times throughout history than Mars. Since Fallon's diet is more "traditional", this is not necessarily surprising. "Thin" is a recent fashion, and is really only a fashion in modern, affluent, post-industrial cultures, such as ours.

As far as health goes, again, I don't think looking at photographs really tells us much. But if I were to place bets on which of the two has higher bone density, for instance, or which will have greater mental acuity for longer, I would bet on Fallon.

Tabatha said...

"But if I were to place bets on which of the two has higher bone density, for instance, or which will have greater mental acuity for longer, I would bet on Fallon."

Indeed, I couldn't agree with you more. How many star athletes, "perfectly fit" fathers & mothers, people in the picture of good health have suddenly dropped dead. Heart attack usually. You can tell nothing from a photograph about long term health. Good looks are only one single sign of health, what's inside is way more important. How healthy is the brain? The digestive system? The nervous system? The all-important immune system?

Great reference books! Thanks for posting!

Mountain Home Quilts said...

I love the article by Latimer. Vegetarians (some, not all) don't want to hurt animals ( kill them for food;) yet to create the food they eat- animals are killed. Quite ironic.

Kristan The Warrior said...

I agree with you Alex --- 100%....

I would rather forgo the hollywood ideal, myself and be considered "overweight" and "lacking a glow" as long as I feel great, live with integrity, and know that I am at my best health.

GREAT reads --- great post. I stumbled upon this from a facebook link...good work!

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, let's not get side-tracked by appearances. (BTW, have you seen more recent photos of Sally Fallon and Brigitte Mars? If not, I urge you to do a google image search of each name.) It's the merits of each argument that concern me.

Kimberly Hartke said...

Hi Alex, I really like this post. I was at one time a vegetarian, now I follow the WAPF dietary guidelines. A vegetarian in-law thinks that what I do is unethical. That is so unfair, considering that eating grass fed meat means I sponsor cows to live a humane life.

How ethical is it to look down on people who don't shun meat? Vegetarians, in their zeal for animals would rid the world of them. Who is going to tend cows for a living that they can't sell the meat or the milk?

Get real food vegans, you have been misled. The self righteousness is inhumane to your fellow man.

Elizabeth Jarrard said...

I am vegan, but I know that it is what works best for me. I don't preach my veganism, unless someone wants to know more about why I eat a plant based diet. Do I think you can be healthy if there is meat and dairy in your diet? yes, it is possible. There are good arguments for both sides, and I think it is important that we all find out what works for our bodies, and not try to force our system of nutrition onto others.

Alex Lewin said...

As Lierre Keith points out in her book, vegans, vegetarians, and ethical carnivores have a lot in common. We all deplore factory farming, with its unconscionable treatment of animals and its destructive effect on our health and on the environment.

The problems with factory farms are being discussed more and more in the mainstream. In fact, there was just a short article in Time magazine on the subject:,8599,1983981,00.html

I'm hoping that lots of people read it, and that Time gets lots of positive feedback for running it.

Anonymous said...

Appearance may not be the sole measure of health, but it's an important indicator, and I don't believe overweight is healthy, no matter what diet one is following. That said, your point about changing standards of beauty is a valid one.

Personally, I feel so good on a high raw and vegan diet, I'm not even tempted to add animal products. But I am very concerned about the ethical and environmental impacts of my food choices (when I choose imported avocados over local cheese for example), so I'm always looking to minimize them.

I'm very happy that factory farms are being discussed in the mainstream media, and I'm grateful for the attention to the issue by conscientious omnivores like Michael Pollan (and Sally Fallon).

I have another question for you (since you're such an intrepid researcher) ... do you think it's possible to meet growing demand for animal products from pastured animals? Can we really phase out CAFOs and confinement dairies without simultaneously reducing demand? Should all 7 billion of us be eating fish?

You're in a conundrum because if you believe animal products are essential components of the human diet, you have to make those things affordable for everyone - while producing them in ethical and environmentally responsible ways. Even if the land can be found, it's an expensive proposition. On the other hand, if those foods are not necessary, the price can be determined by the market (as it is now ... so that a grass fed burger costs $18).


Alex Lewin said...

Lierre Keith actually addresses this question directly in her book. I think you'd like her writing, Elizabeth, even if you don't agree with her about a lot of things.

It's clear to me like the earth cannot sustainably carry 7 billion people--whether or not they are eating animal products. The way we produce almost all of our food right now involves heroic consumption of oil, water, and topsoil, and it simply will not continue to work. And we are flushing all of our minerals down the toilet, literally, and out to sea, rather than returning them to the land, the way humans did until pretty recently.

How many people can the earth support?

Imagine people feeding themselves on a regional basis, limiting themselves to available regionally available or produceable resources (including water, but maybe not including certain one-time technological "capital expenses"). Places that are suitable for human food production will have more people. Places that are not suitable for human food production, for whatever reason, will have fewer people. Interestingly, many of the places we think of as highly suitable for human food production are in fact not--many of them require huge amounts of irrigation in order to be fruitful.

This thought experiment should yield a conservative sustainable number.

What will the path from here to there look like?

Good question. It might not be pretty.

DevonH said...

I'd have to argue with Anonymous - vegans have a "glow" of good health? I know many, many vegans and vegetarians who have lackluster, dull complexions, who are constantly sick. In fact, I don't know a single one that I'd consider to be healthy, to be honest (their scary thinness aside).

If you yourself have a "vegan glow" then I'd consider yourself lucky for now...

Anonymous said...

I'd have to argue with the first Anonymous above - "vegan glow" seriously????? I know SO many vegans and vegetarians that have dull, lackluster complexions. In fact, I couldn't name a single one of the bunch that I'd say is healthy (their scary thinness aside).

If you have a "vegan glow" I'd consider yourself lucky...for now...

Craig Hickman said...

Words are powerful. I'd like to know what "overweight" actually means to the person who uses it.

Over what weight? Who decides the over (and under), the onlooker, the one looked upon, or someone else?

Lindsay said...

I would like to mention the ideal look that has been expressed could simply be genetics. I don't get acne and am overweight. My skin is beautiful and my hair is shiny and silky. I have ingrown hairs in places on my body I don't want to mention and cellulite to boot. A friend of mine has clear skin, is the perfect weight for her height, eats the worse diet ever, smokes, drinks and has a healthy glow. Not one stretch mark with twins either. Genetics people, genetics.

Anonymous said...

Didn't read every comment here but has anyone mentioned dental health, bone grafts and the vegan diet?
Pastured animals raised with ethics produce nutrient dense food that is so good for us. Raw milk is a medicine and the 'real' milk!

r. prasad said...

This book's author showed how many different indigenous diets were healthy and complete. Some were quite meat heavy while others were mostly veg. (more details are in the book--many of the diets had a fermented food component plus it was non-processed, etc)
( Authors@google: Daphne Miller )

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alex, lovely post. Incidentally, the link to the Charles Eisenstein essay on eating meat is bad. Can you check that and repost it? I'd love to read the essay.

I loved The Vegetarian Myth, what a powerful work. Some vegans have seized on a stat here or there that are off as proof her whole thesis is wrong (something about how much of Indiana is forested, who cares?), but she lays out the issues, the real issues, so beautifully. Everyone should be free to choose their preferred diet, true, but what are the environmental, societal and personal health implications of our individual choices? If you really look closely, then growing your own food or buying it locally from ethical, careful farmers is far superior on so many levels. And that definitely includes eating pastured meats and eggs. A totally plant-based diet is extremely inefficient: it requires more energy (in the form of human or animal labor -- which costs calories and other costs -- or expensive chemical inputs -- usually petroleum-based -- than the output in calories and nutrition. Animals take plant foods, many of them indigestible to us, and turn them into highly nutrient-dense milk, meat and eggs. Vegetables provide variety and some nutrients but the most important nutrients -- high-quality complete protein, good fats and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, K and E, plus minerals -- are found most abundantly in animal foods.

What we *don't* need is to torture animals for their entire lives before we slaughter them for food. We owe it to them (and to us) to give them good lives and good deaths.

Alex Lewin said...

jeanmarietodd, thank you for your comment! I agree with everything you say.

One of the radical ideas that has stuck with me from The Vegetarian Myth is the idea that growing grain on a large scale is unsustainable. Hadn't occurred to me before.

I fixed the Charles Eisenstein link. The article has moved to here:

Jill said...

Corrected link for "22 Reasons":

Regarding looks and diet, I myself have met more sickly looking vegetarians/vegans than "glowing" ones, but that's not to say the diet may not work for some people. Maybe it does. But I don't think it works for everyone, maybe not for most. In the Weston A. Price Foundation over the years, I've met many "recovering vegetarians" and have seen them both "before" and "after"--for those people, clearly a nutrient-dense diet was better for them (Chris Masterjohn of Cholesterol and Health blog is an excellent example).

Remember that Sally Fallon and many others came to nutrient-dense diets late in life. She herself says her bone structure is not what it should be, but that's a preconception/childhood nutrition thing she can no longer do anything about.

Regarding weight, putting on some extra weight in mid/later life is protective, especially for women around/post menopause. The extra fat provides some estrogen that they are no longer getting from the ovaries.

Alex Lewin said...

All: There's a new book coming out on the subject of eating meat. The author describes it here:

Alex Lewin said...

All: If you like, check out my mini-review of "Meat: A Benign Extravagance":

It is very relevant to the (not-so) current discussion.