My Take On Vegetarianism – Part One
A couple weeks back I unthinkingly posted the following smart-ass comment to my Facebook status update.
“If we’re not supposed to eat animals, then why are they made of food?”
I’d seen it written somewhere, thought it was funny, certainly agreed with it, and so I whacked it up there. 19 comments and a little friendly debate later and I was reminded of just what a controversial topic this is. And I should have known – I was vegetarian for a couple years in my late teens, and happy to jump on board with anything even remotely resembling a debate on the topic. Looking back, I can’t even remember why I chose to eat that way. I think I thought it would help me lose weight, or maybe it was as simple as wanting to rebel; make a stand on something and that was what I chose. I remember my Dad constantly asking me where the protein was in my meals; trying to get me to eat some. Needless to say, no-one needs to remind me to get some meat (or any protein) in my belly these days 🙂 and I’m rather proud of how determinedly my daughter has taken to meat eating. Offer her some broccoli and she throws it at my laptop, but any kind of protein is demanded in no uncertain terms, and heaven forbid we try to take it away before she’s done. That’s her sucking on a piece of organic beef.
So here’s the thing. I frequently have readers email me or comment regarding vegetarianism – either asking for ways to adapt my teachings to suit that lifestyle, or arguing as to why I shouldn’t eat or advocate the eating of meat. And whilst I don’t really care to enter into a full-blown debate (plenty of other people have done that more effectively than I could) I’d like to take a few moments to share my take with you, and explain why I personally don’t believe vegetarianism can be as healthy as a carnivorous diet.
You should know I’m not going to be listing loads of studies or references and I’m not going to get into a science vs science debate – this post is based on my opinion and beliefs, not on my (non-existent) rock-solid memory of umpteen peer-reviewed studies. We all know that you can find studies to support just about anything if you know where to look. I will, however, provide you a few references that I’ve found critical to my knowledge on the topic.
Anyway, enough blathering on! Following are my reasons for being a carnivore to the nth degree.
- Essential carbohydrate
- Complete proteins
- Healthy civilisations
- Factor farmed and processed meat
- Cholesterol, saturated fat, and general health concerns
- Meat-eating and the planet
Point 1: Essential Carbohydrate
Here’s what I know – there are essential proteins and essential fats, but there are no essential carbs. I wrote about this a few weeks ago. You can live without them (not that you should or would necessarily choose to), but the same can’t be said for proteins and fats. To me this just comes back to logic. Proteins and fats naturally occur together in nature in plant forms, but far more readily in animal form, and – in most parts of the world at least – are readily available year round. Plants foods, on the other hand, are often seasonal and have evolved through man-made processes in many instances (agriculture began only 10,000 years ago, which is the blink of an eye in terms of our physiology and ability to adapt to new foods). I can’t ignore this message.
Point 2: Complete Proteins
In the words of Coach Poliquin “protein is broken down into organic compounds called amino acids. There are 13 amino acids that are considered essential, in that they cannot be produced from other substances including other amino acids, and 12 that are considered nonessential. A protein is considered complete when it has the appropriate quantities of amino acids for optimal absorption. Meat and fish are considered complete proteins; foods such as beans or rice are considered incomplete proteins because they are lacking in certain amino acids. As such, vegetarians need to pay special attention to combining their food groups so that their amino acid profiles complement each other – a good food combo, for example, is rice combined with either beans or chickpeas. Incidentally, the legendary Bill Pearl was a bodybuilder who was able to succeed as a vegetarian.”
The point I want to make here is that I do recognise it’s possible to be healthy as a vegetarian, and quite certainly many vegetarians are far healthier than meat-eaters (although the opposite is also true). But in my mind, there shouldn’t be so much careful science and choice required for healthy eating. Why go to the extra effort to food combine (and still run short of usable iron and B12, just to name a few important nutrients), when nature has already provided a complete food? Again, it just doesn’t make sense to me.
Point 3: Healthy Civilisations
According to Dr Jonny Bowden it’s almost impossible to point to a society or a culture that has thrived and prospered without eating any animal products at all. He says “the only group I can think of that does it successfully is Tibetan monks, and they don’t reproduce”. I know there are many societies that have thrived on a very small amount of animal protein, but according to my research that is in large part because animal protein wasn’t available to them. Therefore, those people groups adapted to a plant-dominant diet. I believe the question each of us have to ask ourselves, is what has our heritage and genetic make-up been? And the reality is that for the majority of us in the Western world, we come from a long-line of meat-eaters. The human genome can only evolve around 0.2% every 10,000 years. This means that when we start radically changing the foods we eat our body can’t adapt, struggles to digest properly, and often rewards us with less-than-ideal health and recurrent dysfunctions such as food intolerance, lethargy, joint aches and pains, and so on. It’s true that clever food combining and supplementation can overcome this but again (religious or cultural reasons aside), why go to the trouble? It reminds me of the other argument I frequently have, that of cardio and low-cal versus weights and high protein/fat for fat loss. Yes, you can get lean eating really low-cal and doing loads and loads of cardio, but if you can also do it eating however much ‘real’ food you like and doing just 40 minutes of proper lifting, why would you purposely choose such a tough path?
Point 4: Processed or Factory Farmed Meat
A common argument against meat eating is the appalling treatment of factory farmed animals. I completely agree with this point and absolutely do not advocate the consumption of conventional meat or dairy. Not just for this reason, but also because organic grass-fed meat is so much healthier for you. The moral and ethical reasons against eating factory-farmed proteins are obvious, and a further consideration is that supporting this practice robs true organic farmers of the support they so desperately need. Something you may not realise though – just because a meat is labeled organic does not mean it is certified organic, nor that the animals were treated humanely. For this reason it’s worth shopping at farmers markets where you can meat and question farmers – even visit the farm, or at least questioning your butcher as to the method in which the animal was raised and fed.
Point 5: Cholesterol, Saturated Fat, Kidney Dysfunction and so on?
In his book Living the Low-Carb Life Dr Jonny B teaches (in some great detail) some incredible truths about meat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and your health. The kidney issue, for example, which many people are concerned about, is based on the fact that a person with existing kidney dysfunction should avoid a high-protein diet. There is no evidence to indicate that high-protein causes kidney problems. Consider this analogy – if you break your ankle, you should probably avoid aerobics classes as they will make it worse, but does it therefore stand to reason that aerobics classes will cause you to break your ankle?
Cholesterol? Any medical textbook can teach you that dietary cholesterol has almost zero impact on blood cholesterol, and that your body can and will use carbohydrate to make cholesterol if you don’t eat any (so vital is good cholesterol to heart health and cell integrity). Furthermore, a diet high in sugars and low in protein will lead to the excessive release of the fat-storing hormone insulin, and constantly high insulin causes an increase in bad cholesterol!
Saturated fat? I am absolutely of the opinion that saturated fat is not only ok, but vital to ideal health. Many of the original studies ‘proving’ it’s evilness were based on foods containing both trans and saturated fats. We’ve since figured out who the real offender is, and anyone who eats clean saturated fat on a regular basis can attest to how good they feel and how surprisingly helpful it is to a quest for reduced body fat and improved blood work. If you’d like to learn more about this, the above-mentioned book is an excellent reference point, and an extremely enjoyable, even humorous read.
Point 6: Meat-Eating and the Planet
No, I don’t. In the book The Vegetarian Myth, Lierre Keith talks about how entire States of the US (as just one example) have been obliterated to make way for grain farming, with certain species of animals becoming extinct as a result. Lierre goes into detail on the devastating effects this has on the environment and cycles of life, and also paints a fascinating and impressive picture of what the world would actually look like if no-one ate meat. Rather than me trying to summarise the whole book for you, here’s a copy of a review from Amazon –
Part memoir, nutritional primer, and political manifesto, this controversial examination exposes the destructive history of agriculture—causing the devastation of prairies and forests, driving countless species extinct, altering the climate, and destroying the topsoil—and asserts that, in order to save the planet, food must come from within living communities. In order for this to happen, the argument champions eating locally and sustainably and encourages those with the resources to grow their own food. Further examining the question of what to eat from the perspective of both human and environmental health, the account goes beyond health choices and discusses potential moral issues from eating—or not eating—animals. Through the deeply personal narrative of someone who practiced veganism for 20 years, this unique exploration also discusses alternatives to industrial farming, reveals the risks of a vegan diet, and explains why animals belong on ecologically sound farms.
“Everyone who eats should read this book. Everyone who eats vegetarian should memorize it . . . This is the single most important book I’ve ever read on diet, agriculture, and ecology.”
Thanks for reading such a long post!
In part two of this series I’ll be discussing my take on healthy vegetarianism and how to better understand plant protein combining as well as your amino acid and fat requirements. I’d love to hear from you in the comments – your thoughts and opinions of course, but also any questions you’d like me to address in part two.
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