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Book Review: The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith

I've recognized something: I have a dreadful tendency to pick books specifically to bolster whatever opinions I already have.  I'm certain I'm not alone in this, and I really do strive to challenge myself by reading if not drastically-opposed views, at least something that hits things from a different angle.  But I'm generally more inclined to find easy agreement with something that confirms my current thinking.

I feel so much better now that I've confessed that.

Not that many years ago, I was basically ready to give up on meat.  Well, except for ribs. I always said I could be a vegan as long as I could still have ribs.  And bacon.  But I never quite flipped this switch, despite reading two books that sold the vegan or at least vegetarian diet.

But now that I'm back into the meat-eating fold, and veering toward Paleo/Primal, I've been doing a bit of reading on the subject.  Along those lines, I watched a video online a few weeks ago, completely unrelated to diet in any way (like a movie trailer or something) and saw a "related" video titled "The Vegetarian Myth."  Watched.  Then got the book.

The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, by Lierre Keith, is challenging, well-written, and basically devastating.  The titular myth is that the vegetarian/vegan diet and lifestyle is the best answer for making humans healthy, preventing suffering, and saving the planet.  Lierre Keith argues that it fails on all three counts.  In fact, she points out that a vegetable and grain based diet is actually bad for humans, does nothing to prevent animal suffering, and has terrible environmental consequences.

Of course, she isn't arguing that factory farming and CAFOs (Concentrated/Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are a good thing.  But she rightly points out that the same annual monocrops that factory farming is based on are the foods vegetarians flock to: grains.  Keith points out that agriculture is the single most destructive force we humans have come up with, and I have to say I find her arguments compelling.  She also makes a few other arguments I'm not completely with her on, like the destructiveness of patriarchal monotheism (though it has its faults).

Much of the argument about vegetarianism being unhealthy for humans runs quite counter to what you generally hear from nutritionists and even the food industry.  Which should actually be a clue that it's not too far off.  Having just read Why We Get Fat, I now understand the argument against consuming grains, and I won't repeat any of it here.  But reading Keith's description of her steadily deteriorating health while following a vegan lifestyle makes me regret that I ever flirted with the idea of eating an animal-free diet.  Especially given how much healthier I've become since eliminating most grains and leaving the skin on chicken.

For me, the real eye-openers were the sections about agriculture's effects on the environment and Keith's arguments about how eating a responsible diet including animal products is better for animals.  I'll write a few words about that latter argument first.

The argument basically says that if you're eating a plant-based (grain and bean heavy) diet and telling yourself you're eliminating suffering and death, you're kidding yourself.  Because agriculture takes a vibrant ecology, filled with all kinds of flora and fauna, and replaces it with a monocrop.  All that death is on your plate.  The natural cycle of life is that some animals eat plants, other animals eat those animals, and (gasp!) the plants eat everything that's left behind.  Manure, carcasses, etc.  So even plants eat animals.  And if you don't use natural fertilizer (manure) for your monocrop, you use industrial fertilizer, created with copious amounts of fossil fuel.  And watering your monocrop destroys wetlands and river habitats.  All that death is on your plate.

And this doesn't even bring up the harmful human effects of U.S. Agriculture, the surplus of which causes starvation in other countries.  That's right, starvation.  U.S. Grain is sold below market price in other countries, driving local farmers out of business and into hunger.  To say nothing of the fact that that grain isn't good for humans to eat anyway.  (For all the bad press red meat gets, high consumption of grains is strongly correlated with increased heart disease.  Yeah.)

I remember making black-bean burgers and thinking I was doing something good for myself, for the planet, and for animals.  But now I'm done with fake meat.  (For that matter, I'm way over fake "Paleo" bread.  Blech.)  Now I source meat either from farmers I've actually met, or from a reputable market that pulls from local and sustainable sources.  Yes, I pay a premium for it.  But it's better for me, better for my family, and better for the planet than cracking open a can of beans, mixing them with spices and gluten, and pretending to eat meat.  And a grass-fed beef burger is so much tastier!

Now, I'm certain that there are any number of vegetarian sites out there that thoroughly debunk everything in this book (and then other sites that debunk the debunking).  But that's the internet for you: an answer to everything.  I don't tend to suffer from information overload paralysis in cases like this.  In the case of my current eating/exercise, the results are all I need.  I work out incredibly hard, and yet my joints feel better than they have for several years.  Including the years in which I ate like a bird and gained weight.  And I prepare that locally-sourced meat myself, spending some of the best time of my day putting good food on the table for my family.

I'll leave you with a quote from the book, and please check below for the video I referenced and a link to a lengthy podcast interview with the author.  BTW, highly recommended.

No one told me.  No one told me that life is only possible through death, that our bodies are a gift from the world, and that our final gift is to feed each other.  No one told me that soil was the beginning place, made of a million tiny creatures who turned this bare rock into a cradle.  No one told me about my real parents; I learned about photosynthesis in seventh grade, but no on told me it was a lullaby.

And no one told me that civilization was a war, that agriculture was the end of the world.  I was told that eating those foods, those annual monocrops, would save the world.  So I ate.  I was always hungry, but I believed that righteousness and justice would have to be nourishment. I made it be true.  Body and brain wore down, day by day.  To the very last hour of my vegan life, I made it be true.


Link to Lierre Keith on ForeverFit.TV.

Next up, it's the long-awaited and very uneven The Trouble With Physics, everything you wanted to know about String Theory but were fortunate to avoid.  I also picked up Heir to the Empire for the Star Wars Day NOOK Daily Find.  Takes me back a few years.

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  1. I’ve lived through fifty years and have seen many diet fads come and go. Too many have an “all or nothing” approach. In the last few years my husband and I have changed our eating habits to more natural foods, avoiding the processed stuff. It doesn’t eliminate all harmful chemicals, but we are healthier and leaner than we’ve been in a long time. Nice thing is that this is not a deprivation diet. We LOVE the food (fruits, vegetables, meat, home-made bread) we are eating.

    • We often miss stuff like cookies, but since we’re having a relatively easy time losing weight with very little deprivation (occasionally we go for gluten-free treats), we’re sticking close to a Paleo/Primal diet. It’s basically just whole foods: A nice meat preparation with two vegetable sides.

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