The Great Fallacies of Vegetarianism
Craig Fitzroy on why it isn't such a good idea to become a vegetarian.
Why do I have to eat greens,
Cabbage and spinach and beans?
I don't mind potatoes,
I'll even eat meat
But I'd much rather eat
Ice cream and sweets
They say greens are good for me,
Maybe they're right
But sometimes I think that
They do it for spite
And I've never seen them eating what they don't like
So why does it have to be me?'
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. Gone too will be the risk of developing Creuzfeld Jakob's Disease, provided you have not ingested too many sheep's brains in the last ten years. 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 Innuit 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 crap arguments for vegetarianism/veganism which, all too often, are stated in preference to those listed above. As a former vegetarian, I recall 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
Consider first the health question (the Argument from Supposition). 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. One of the most striking features of the late Linda McCartney's cookbook-cum-vegetarian bible Home Cooking ,  is the number of dishes that specify as ingredients various combinations of milk, eggs, butter, cheese and cream. Using only McCartney's recipes, it would be easy for the non-discriminating vegetarian to raise their cholesterol count to the level of cardiovascular kamikaze, whilst believing their diet to be healthier than average. (Many of McCartney's recipes are, in fact, excellent - especially when you get rid of those godawful fart-inducing vegeburgers and TVP chunks and replace them with a nice bit of black pudding or streaky bacon.) 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). These days almost half the population in Britain is trying to avoid meat, according to a survey by the Food Research Association in January 1990.'  [my emphasis]
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 folk 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. As a friend has observed:
'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 'left-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 second false belief is that meat eating is cruel (the Argument from Sentiment). 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 (not necessarily in that order) 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 (I will offer no defence here for the slow ritual killings prescribed by certain religious traditions, which can be cruel in the extreme). 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.
Geneticist, JBS Haldane described the merciless struggles for survival that occur in the natural world (in an essay that elegantly disposes of The Argument from Design, which is, of course, the cornerstone of Creationist thought):
'Now, the most conspicuous features of animal organization are those which are designed (if they 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 (literally) 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…
Vegetarians and vegans, along with the rest must draw the line somewhere when deciding which fellow-creatures are worthy of protection. Most of us would not eat another human being or a chimpanzee unless our own lives depended on it and the ape in question was already dead. (Even then some of us would probably hesitate before munching on Dame Barbara Cartland.) But at which point along the size/intelligence/cuddliness spectrum does the snuffing out of a precious life become the extermination of a bug?
There is a popular misconception that mankind no longer has natural predators; in fact there are thousands of microscopic creatures that will make their living at our expense if our immune systems permit them. Should we disable our cruel antibody mechanisms to protect the welfare and rights of the invaders? (There are, of course, viral invaders that will happily do the job for us.) Vegans read the small print on food packaging so as not to inadvertently consume microbes, but we must wonder how they feel about dealing effectively with bodily infestations of parasites or with killer diseases resulting from bacterial or viral infection. A doctor who was also a vegan would face a moral dilemma with every patient presenting.
Again, everybody, from the cannibal to the fructarian (who eats only fruit, as it does not involve the killing of plants), draws the line somewhere. But establishing criteria for drawing that line is usually an arbitrary or irrational decision. Many vegetarians claim they would never kill anything with a face . But take the canine ear-mite. Vegans and vegetarians keep dogs, of which the lucky ones might be given meat for their dinner. Yet vegan dogs suffer ear-mites and under the microscope, it is readily apparent that ear-mites, rather than being amorphous specks of protoplasm, have, in fact, faces with an impressive set of recognisable features. A vegan vetinarian would also flinch in horror when gazing into their cute little eyes. Any attempts to rescue these cankerous cousins for the earmite sanctuary would inevitably be thwarted once the question arose of how we should go about feeding them.
It may be nothing more than sizeism that pressure groups are formed for saving the whale but never the ear-mite. Dr. Lister, director general of the Wildlife Trust has complained that ' we get lots of sponsorship for otters and red squirrels, but none for the narrow-headed ant' . The smallpox virus, meanwhile, has been hounded to extinction (apart from a few test-tube samples) yet no animal rights protester has so much as drawn up a petition. But not even sizeism can explain our above-stated affection for squirrels, given people's loathing of rats. If you took one dead rat and one dead squirrel and shaved the pair of them, only an expert eye could tell them apart.Perhaps we feel an affinity with animals which most closely resemble ourselves. A creature's sentience, or rather, its apparent sentience deduced from its neurological complexity might also influence our calculations. Whatever. We have no reliable index for gauging the awareness or suffering of species other than our own so, ultimately, we base our attitudes towards animals on empathic or emotional responses. (This not to say that we shouldn't save the whale, of course, nor indeed the smallpox virus for future generations to enjoy.)
But I digress. It is not my intention to explain our irrational biases towards certain classes of animal, but to argue that the killing of animals for food does not alter their natural fate, which is to be killed for food. Whilst alive, the chances are the farm animal's quality of existence will be at least on a par with a life in the wild. We may feel that the rest of the animal kingdom would benefit were the human race to turn vegetarian tomorrow, but we must honestly doubt that they would be better off. Rather the contrary: humans may be nasty but Nature - red in tooth and claw , as Tennyson so memorably put it - is nastier, and no amount of empathy or sentiment will change that.
This is not to advocate the gratuitous ill-treatment of animals, and I would never use the above arguments to support, say, fox-hunting, badger-baiting, hare-coursing, factory farming, veal crates, the long-distance transportation of livestock, the boiling alive of lobsters, the force-feeding of maize to geese for the production of pate de foi gras, or even the public garrotting of General Augusto Pinochet. Issues surrounding vivisection, circuses, and lab experiments, meanwhile, involve different sets of arguments, for and against, which I have no intention of dealing with here.
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 (the Argument from Stupidity).
' Natural' (along with ' energy' and ' vibration' ) is among the most misused words in the language, especially as defined in the new age lexicon. I once owned a vegan cookbook entitled Nature's Foods , by Peter Deadman and Karen Betteridge, which takes food-freakery a way down the path towards obsession. Having eliminated animal products from their recipes and replaced them with the resistible delights of tamari, tahini, miso, mouli, millet and the ubiquitous soy bean, Deadman and Betteridge scour their larders 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 . (I say potato, you say potentially lethal, I say tomato, you say to hell with 'em.)
It is hard to argue with this kind of metaphorical madness, but the example perhaps illustrates what the rationalist is up against when dealing with pseudoscientific or superstitious thinking. Speaking of which, here is the new age cult leader offering his own Argument from Stupidity. (If I have quoted at some length, I trust that the reader will derive some amusement from this intriguing nutritional discussion.)
Clearly, if ' how you eat, so you become ', Guru Maharaj Ji subsists on a diet of fruitcake, nuts and crackers… But the guru's words typify with - let's face it - awe-inspiring ignorance the inexplicably persuasive thought patterns that guide many a claimant to culinary moral superiority. It works like this: say any old rubbish - if it is ancient wisdom then so much the better. If it is sufficiently plausible for the willing minds of your followers to take on board then that's good enough. At least, it would seem, the fructarian can stop worrying about those pips.
I have avoided the use of the word carnivore as not all meat eaters are carnivore - and we are not carnivores. We would be as hard-pressed to find optimal nutrition in meat alone as the vegan is from vegetables alone. All the best evidence points to us being omnivores . (Omnivore is possibly a misnomer, since we can't literally eat everything: gravel, cardboard and Chicken McNuggets proving especially taxing on the tastebuds and digestion.) We have the guts of an omnivore. And we have the teeth of an omnivore: incisors for nibbling, canines for ripping and molars for grinding - except, that is, for vegans whose possession of teeth is primarily for the (weeping, wailing and) gnashing thereof.
Rats are omnivores and we, like rats, are subject to a phenomenon known as sensory specific satiety , the name given to our tendency to quickly tire of any food that is eaten on its own. Le Magnen  found that simply by injecting rats' food with a variety of flavours, the rats would eat from two to three times as much of the same food as rats given (the same) food containing one flavour only. If our evolution teaches us anything about what an omnivore should eat it is only that we should consume a broad range of foodstuffs to prevent our diets becoming deficient in important vitamins, minerals or sources of protein.
All restrictive diets carry a risk of nutritional deficiency and, unless embarked upon for sound medical reasons, are best avoided. And all cults, meanwhile, carry a risk of terminal mind-rot and are best avoided, with or without sound medical opinion.
The Argument From Whatever Else You Can Come Up With
There is evidence from psychological research that, having arrived at a decision, we will frequently search for additional arguments to justify that decision; arguments which played no part in forming our opinion. Thus, should there be weaknesses in our main line of reasoning we will have something to fall back on. Here, Christine Smith in a popular veggie cookbook bundles a few such arguments together in a single paragraph. To avoid lengthy discussion of each, I have highlighted certain words and phrases like this and added brief comments [like this].
'Bringing children up as vegetarian is easy [provided you have ready access to a supply of kelp tablets, so vital for a healthy thyroid] and quite logical really when you think that many very young children have a dislike of meat in particular [But nothing like the loathing they feel towards broccoli, sprouts and cabbage]. When my children were babies I felt that giving them meat did not seem natural, [new variant Argument from Stupidity] partly because I did not eat it myself [irrelevant to whether meat is natural] but also because it seemed to be a very 'heavy' food, slow to pass through the digestive system of a very young child. I also felt [a lot of 'felts' here] that since meat is so high in protein [like breast milk] it is a rather unbalanced food to inflict on an immature digestive system [all food groups consumed on their own are unbalanced] - added to which, it is expensive [largely irrelevant socio-economic factor. Not being able to afford a lot of meat doesn't warrant its total exclusion. Besides, kippers are cheap and nutritious while the prices of organic vegetables, cashews, and packaged 'health products' can be astronomical].
As children (and adults) do not need to eat meat in order to be healthy there seems little point in giving it to them, particularly if they do not like it. [As children (and adults) also do not need to eat lentils, mung beans or courgettes in order to be healthy there seems little point in giving them to them, particularly given that they hate things beany and greeny]. 
Admittedly Ms Smith is a soft target, however bizarre her account of the childhood palette: a concerned food writer expressing personal reasons for not giving her children meat rather than trying to convert the world to vegetarianism. But popular cookbooks can influence - seriously influence - people's attitudes towards diet and nutrition. Besides which, the book in question is entitled Good Children's Food. The unstated implication is clear: that non-vegetarian foods are bad.
Eating meat is not in itself unhealthy, cruel or unnatural. Nor is it necessarily expensive, unbalanced or repulsive to children. If people want to give up eating animal products they should perhaps ensure they are doing so for good reason. They might also be thankful for the luxury of choice available to western consumers. There are third world societies who, through no choice of their own, must thrive on restricted diets, vegetarian or carnivorous. We could in fact learn a lot from rats and other fellow-omnivores. Rats may tire of one flavour but are not picky about their food. And like good animals everywhere we could do a lot worse than eat the food we born to eat when it is available. And yes, meat eaters should stop feeling guilty about their diet, while veggies - vegans especially - could stop being so bloody self-righteous. It isn't particularly clever not to do a thing, you know...
 Rosselson, L. Why does it have to be me? From the album Palaces of Gold.
 McCartney, L (1989) Home Cooking. London: Bloomsbury
 McConville, B. (1990) The Parents' Green Guide. London: Pandora
 Lewis-Carter, R. (1999) Personal communication.
 Haldane, JBS (1968) Science and Life: Essays of a Rationalist.. London: Pemberton Publishing/Barrie & Rockliff
 Guru Maharaj Ji (1975) The Sayings of Guru Maharaj Ji - Part IV Divine United Organization, Shri Sant Yogashram, Hans Marg, Mehrauli, New Delhi - 110030
 Le Magnen, J (1956) Hyperphagie provoquee chez le rat blanc par l'alteration du mechanisme de satiete peripherique. [it says here] Comptes Rendus de la Societe de Biologie , 1956, 147, 1753-1757.
 Smith, Christine (1988) Good Children's Food.
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Copyright 1999, Craig Fitzroy