Let’s say I meet someone new at a party. I’ll be having a dandy ol’ time chatting with this person, and then it happens. They drop the V word. My gut lights on fire. A defensive version of me activates. I regress to a 5-year-old. All I want to do is tell this person why I’m right and they’re wrong.
One of two things happens:
- I tactfully evade and find someone else to talk to, or
- I talk to them. In attempt to cover up my real aggression, I get awkwardly passive-aggressive. I sense this and don’t like it, so I pretend I’m Joe Rogan having an educated debate about a serious issue. “These are important conversations and we need to have them to change the world,” I tell myself. But remember, I’m a 5-year-old. I’m not having a conversation. I’m defending myself. I’m trying to win. I’m not listening. I’m not trying to understand. The result? I walk away uncomfortable, unsettled, and no smarter or better than before.
The other morning, I tried something different. I skipped my entire morning routine to research veganism. The kicker? Instead of mocking it, I tried to understand it. Instead of Googling to reaffirm my confirmation bias, I searched for things like “benefits of veganism” and “why you should go vegan.” Instead of shutting my eyes, I looked.
What I saw
Getting to the place where I wanted to understand was challenging, to say the least. I spent the first phase of my research having imaginary debates with these vegan bloggers. It was hard to get out of my own way. It was especially hard to read things like this and not react:
“If humans even had a single omnivorous instinct, the animal rights movement wouldn’t even exist because we’d be too busy drooling over slaughterhouse footage to even care. Rather, when we see slaughter footage, we are repulsed by it. A true omnivore or carnivore would salivate or get hungry.”
“It’s survival: This is a complete lie, and anyone who uses this argument, deep down, knows it. Vegans are living proof that we do not eat animal products for survival purposes. People eat meat, cheese, milk, eggs, and fish because they enjoy the taste.”
“It doesn’t matter what our ancestors did anyway (given that we are living in the present and can make our own choices).”
But once I started to read some of the more thought-out, educated arguments, something shifted and then something clicked. I agree with most of them!
Where I agree with vegans
It’s absurd that the UK Humane Slaughter Association states that “Infant lambs, kids and piglets can be humanely killed by delivering a heavy blow to the head.” Or that slaughterhouse work is directly linked to PTSD, and a rise in crime rates, domestic violence, and abuse. Or that Tyson employees are required to kill 75,000-90,000 birds per night. Or that animals are often chopped up while they’re still alive. Or that factory-farmed turkeys, unlike their wild relatives, are so overweight and manipulated for meat consumption that they cannot fly, stand, or breed naturally. Or that some industries – like the dairy, egg, and fishing industries – are just as horrible (if not more horrible) than the meat industry. Or allow me to share a quote from Josh, an in-house electrician who worked at a slaughterhouse in Australia:
“The animals are visibly scared, dehydrated, and covered in feces when they arrive at the slaughterhouse packed into double-decker trucks. Animals who resist being moved down precarious ramps and slippery floors are zapped with high-voltage prods in their faces and stomachs. The process is stressful—the animals have never seen so many humans, been in this environment, or felt the pain of an electric prod.”
If you are brave, watch this video and formulate your own opinions.
- About 95% of the concerns presented are related to animal welfare and morality. I agree with nearly all of the arguments made in these arenas. This is encouraging because I think most meat-eaters would also agree with these concerns. This tells me that when it comes to beliefs, vegans and meat-eaters are not as far away from one another as I once thought.
- BUT, the major health concern that would arise in a world without meat is either blown over quickly with unreliable evidence (i.e. epidemiology) or completely disregarded altogether. This is important.
Veganism blind spot
If you are reading this and you are vegan and you think meat is necessary for some people, we are on the same page.
But some vegans do not think eating meat is necessary, at all, for anyone. Some think that in the western world, since we have high availability and diversity of vegetarian and vegan nutrients, there is no reason at all for anyone to eat meat, ever. This is a gap in knowledge.
Can or cannot is not necessarily evidence for should or should not.
For most of my life, I barely ate meat. I used to hate meat – the taste, the texture, the feeling in my stomach when I ate it, and really everything about it. I used to gag at the dinner table as I choked it down.
In January 2018, I gave up gluten, processed sugar, seed oils, and dairy. I was eating almost entirely plant-based (about 90-95%), and my diet was heavy in nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. I ate meat every once in awhile. You can read my health story here to see how well that worked out for me.
In January 2020, I reversed the ratio. I started a ketogenic/carnivore-ish diet that was about 90% animal products and 10% fruits and vegetables. No nuts, legumes, seeds, or grains. Still no dairy, processed foods, or sugars. My health concerns vanished within weeks.
I used to get debilitating, life-altering panic attacks weekly, and sometimes multiple times per week. I thought these were my cards for life and that I was stuck having to endure them forever.
I haven’t had ONE panic attack in 2020.
I don’t think anyone will ever fully grasp how remarkable that fact alone is.
There are lots of people out there like me. Sam Harris. Alex Jamieson (I had her on my podcast – episode #010 if you’re interested). Rob Greenfield. Sacred Cow documentary participants. Jordan Peterson. Mikhaila Peterson. Paul Saladino. Chris Kresser.
Some of these people used to be vegans. Some even tried really hard to maintain being vegan and got sick doing it. They accepted their poor and declining health because eating vegan was the only acceptable way of life for them at the time. Driven by their moral narrative, they were blind to the signs from their bodies.
Others weren’t vegan or trying to be vegan. They just didn’t realize how sick plants were making them.
These folks should be considered by the people who advocate for a meat-free world, and not just as a minority. I listed just a few folks above, but there are certainly more. These people, and others, have their own communities made up of millions of people who also reversed their health issues by eating mainly, if not entirely, meat. So in theory, those who demand that the world should cease all consumption of meat are not taking the health of millions of humans into account.
Assuming most vegans are also advocates for human welfare, once they accept the stories of these people into their reality, the argument for a meat-free world would be challenged and have to change.
With that being said…
The carnivore diet is a radical elimination diet. The success stories are anecdotes (powerful ones, but nonetheless, anecdotes), and I am not sure if it’s the elimination of plants or the introduction of animal products that creates success. Perhaps both. I am still working through this and will be researching and writing more on it. Either way, I switched my diet and reversed my symptoms. That’s real. Plants don’t seem to work well for me (even with reintroduction attempts), and meat does. Without meat and animal products, I would never have the health I do today. That’s also real.
When I was doing my research, I was curious about the studies and sources vegans use to support the claim that the world doesn’t need meat to be healthy.
I found this excerpt on a vegan blog:
There are millions of vegans from all paths of life that are perfectly healthy. In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the United States’ largest organisation of food and nutrition professionals, states the following:
“It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood and for athletes. Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage. Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity.”
This sounds great at first glance, but I followed the links. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics removed their position. See for yourself: “The APC became aware of inaccuracies and omissions in the position paper that could affect recommendations and conclusions within the paper. After further review, the APC decided it was appropriate to remove this paper for major revision.”
I include this as an example. Some things sound wonderful at first glance, but end up meaning absolutely nothing if you follow the paper trail. If you don’t follow the paper trail, you may be blindly led by false information.
Problems with epidemiology
On that same blog (and others), I found this:
The largest study ever done on vegan nutrient profiles states the following:
“In strict vegetarians, low dietary intakes of vitamin B12 and D, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids, in addition to iron and zinc, have often been of concern 25. In the present study, mean intakes of these nutrients were above minimum requirements 26 in strict vegetarians.”
Vegans often cite Loma Linda, blue zones, and this study in particular, so it’s worth talking about. For starters, it’s an epidemiology study. Almost all nutritional studies are epidemiology studies – including those covering Loma Linda and blue zones.
Epidemiology studies look at groups of people to draw inferences from their behavior about disease associations.
- Data collection – In epidemiology studies, the tool used to collect data is a questionnaire, and questionnaires rely solely on memory. Think about what you were eating 10 years ago, and you’ll quickly learn how reliable your memory is. Nutritional epidemiology relies solely on people reporting on their past behaviors. Edward Archer looked at the NHANES dietary data (one of the longest running nutrition studies – 39 years), found that self-reported calorie intake was either physiologically implausible or incompatible with life, and that the average person in the study reported a calorie intake that would not support an elderly, bed-ridden, frail woman. If this study is that far off, it’s not unreasonable to believe others are as well. In the Loma Linda study above, the data was collected by participants completing a 204-item validated semi-quantitative food frequency questionnaire.
- Healthy user bias – When someone engages in a behavior that is perceived as unhealthy, they are more likely to engage in other behaviors that are perceived as unhealthy. For example, people who eat more red meat are likely to smoke more, have a higher BMI, drink more alcohol, eat fewer fruits and vegetables, have less education, and be less physically active. It is impossible to isolate red meat as the causal factor for disease because observational studies do not control for the other factors. In the Loma Linda study above, the group studied were Seventh-Day Adventists, a group known to have healthy, well-rounded diets, encourage rest, drink adequate amounts of water, and abstain from consuming alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.
- Relative risks indistinguishable from chance – In fields outside of nutrition and epidemiology, scientists do not pay attention to anything less than a relative increase in risk of 100% (doubling). Marcia Angell, former editor of New England Journal of Medicine, stated that their organization would not accept a paper for publication if it didn’t have at least a 200% increase in risk. For perspective on this:
- Observational studies confirmed cigarette smoking causes a 1000-3000% increase risk in lung cancer for smokers.
- Observational studies show that eating grains contaminated with Aflatoxin (a microtoxin) increases risk for liver cancer by 600%.
- Observational studies (WHO report) suggest that processed meat is a carcinogen by citing an 18% increase in risk for people who consume processed meat. The 4.5/100 cancer cases in the population with the lowest intake of processed meat went up to 5.3/100 cancer cases in the population of people who ingested processed meat. Most scientists would say this is so low that it’s indistinguishable from chance, especially without the ability to control for other confounding lifestyle factors.
What does this tell us? Epidemiology is not causal, but results are sometimes painted as causal.
Let’s take the red meat causes cancer example from the WHO report.
- The study was epidemiological and utilized questionnaires for data collection.
- The increased risk in the meat group for cancer was very low (18%).
- The study did not control for other lifestyle factors.
What does this suggest?
- There could be a link between the lifestyle of the person in the meat group and cancer, but there is no clear link between red meat and cancer.
Studies like this strategically extract one variable (i.e. red meat), disregard other lifestyle factors (activity level, diet as a whole, smoking, alcohol use, etc.), and broadcast the chosen factor as causal (i.e. the red meat is what causes cancer), even though it is not clear that the one factor is what causes the increased risk for disease.
This is a problem. This information is false, but still spreads like wildfire. People grab onto it because they don’t know not to, and it can significantly alter societal perception and change culture radically.
People who can’t eat lots of plants
Here is another quote from a pro-vegan article:
“Even if it were conclusively proven that eating some amount of animal products provided some health benefits, it wouldn’t address the ethical concerns of choosing to harm/consume the most complex and sentient animals. In other words: if your argument for eating animal products is that you believe you need animal flesh, or animal products, for optimal health, and you also admit that there are ethical concerns with animal sourcing/consumption, this would mean that it would make sense to choose to consume the least complex forms of animal life to consume (e.g., shellfish). In other words, even if you believe you need animal flesh/products, that doesn’t mean those animals have to be the most complex animals like cows, pigs, chickens.”
For someone who cannot eat plants, it is not realistic to eat only shellfish or beings that are not sentient. You would never get the calories and nutrients you need to sustain life and thrive.
From another pro-vegan blog:
“It may well be true that there are health conditions where consuming meat or other animal products is a necessity, but we do not know of any….almost every non-vegan can make an effort to consume less meat and animal products than they do, which is an improvement.”
The do less harm approach does not work here. For someone who cannot eat a plant without health consequences, this is not realistic. Vegans continually miss the mark here.
There are nutrients that occur in animals foods that do not occur in plants, such as B12, vitamin K2, choline, carnosine, carnitine, anserine, taurine. There are no nutrients in plants that you can’t get from animal foods, and there are some nutrients that are hard to get enough of if only eating plant foods, such as riboflavin.
In the first 30 minutes of Paul Saladino on the Joe Rogan Experience, he dives deep into this stuff.
He talks about the defense chemicals (phytoalexins) plants release when eaten in order to dissuade predators from consuming them. These toxins can make humans really sick. He goes on to make an interesting argument against the consumption of plants, which is worth considering.
Some people get sick eating too many plants. Some people can’t eat plants at all without getting sick.
From a vegan perspective, shouldn’t morality also consider the health and wellbeing of not just animals, but fellow human beings?
Why do vegans miss the health thing?
Veganism is a social justice movement, which falls into the left side of the political spectrum. In principle, left-wing folks speak for the dispossessed. Since veganism is a moral concern, perhaps vegans feel that they are speaking for the dispossessed – abused animals, in this case – and that they are trying to protect them. They see animals from their own perspective, and not as food.
It’s not hard to get here. If someone:
- doesn’t understand that some people need animal products to thrive, and
- sees studies that claim every human can eat a vegan diet and thrive
…one can see why it would be hard to understand why anyone would want to kill an animal for meat.
But, if vegans understood that not everyone can thrive without animal products, maybe they would understand why some people need to eat animals.
And even further…
If vegans understood the amount of people that need animal products to recoup or maintain their health, they would not be arguing against meat. They would be arguing for better meat.
Not killing is more ethical than killing. I think most people would agree with that. But what if the thing that supports the highest ethic for one being, does not support the highest ethic for another? Should humans put their own health needs aside to support animal welfare? Would vegans support a meat-free society if they knew their neighbor was suffering because of it?
Vegans and meat-eaters can come together for a common goal
Like most things in life, the vegan<—>meat-eater spectrum is wide.
On one side of the spectrum, vegans radically advocate for a meat-free world and the complete eradication of animal killing.
On the other side, meat-eaters blindly consume animal products without any knowledge of the horrors of factory farming.
Both sides are triggering to most people. So I suggest this: conscious people (both vegans and meat-eaters who want to do better) join hands in the middle to abolish factory farming and determine the most ethical way to kill animals for food.
I think most meat-eaters and vegans agree that factory farming is wrong. Anti-factory farming is not an argument for veganism. It’s an argument for anti-factory farming. An argument against the production of animal products doesn’t necessarily correlate with an argument against the consumption of animal products.
We should work together on eradicating factory farming and developing sustainable and regenerative farming, permaculture, and agriculture solutions for the future.
Questions I still have
I will close this by posing some questions. I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea how to solve the complicated problem of factory farming, nor do I know how to restructure our global agriculture system. But having a discussion is a good place to start.
- Do vegans advocate for doing less harm, or for the complete eradication of killing animals? If the goal of veganism is to eradicate killing animals entirely, what do vegans think about hunting to control ecosystems? Or regenerative farming and permaculture practices that integrate animals naturally?
- Why do people buy cheaper, factory-farmed meat? Maybe it’s all they can afford. Maybe they don’t know (or don’t want to see) the correlation between what they are buying and the unethical treatment and slaughter. If you mandate higher quality meat as a legal requirement, cheap meat would no longer be available. Prices would go up everywhere (like to Whole Foods prices, for example), and there would be outrage.
- If factory farming was eradicated, could ethical animal agriculture and hunting supply the world with enough meat? Vegans could still choose not to eat meat, but more ethical options would be available for people who chose to eat meat. A vegan may say “killing an animal is never ethical,” but how does one solve the problem of the part of the population who needs meat to thrive? Is the animal prioritized over the human? How do you choose?
- Could all meat be grass-fed? How would that look in practice? Right now, land is used to grow plants and grain that are fed to animals. Vegans argue if we didn’t breed and feed animals for killing, we would use a lot less land. But what if, for example, all cows were grass-fed, and they ate off the land? Happier cows, less land used?
- Why is factory farming not illegal? If it was illegal, would it still exist on a black market? If it would still exist on a black market despite it being illegal, banning it may not be the best option. Instead of banning factory farming, what about putting regulations in place for selling meat? Example: Global Animal Partnership. What if this was a new system used at the federal level?
- Why don’t CEOs of grocery stores and food suppliers hold themselves to higher standards? They don’t want to. If they say “no” to lower quality factory-farmed (cheaper) meat, they would have to buy better (more expensive) meat. In result, they would have to raise their prices. If they raise their prices, they may lose business to the grocery store that hasn’t raised their standards and sells the cheaper meat down the street. Is a legal mandate to sell higher quality meat the only way to go? (i.e. Global Animal Partnership).