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The Myths of Vegetarianism Vegetarianism and veganism, despite claims made by adherents, are neither healthy nor nat­ural diets. Indeed, only in the twentieth century, with the advent of vitamin pills and supple­ments, has it been possible to follow a strictly vegan diet without dying of malnutrition. Contrary to popular myth, a diet with a very low fat and cholesterol content is extremely dan­gerous, and meat and dairy products are not the main cause of heart disease and cancer -which are practically unknown in traditional meat-eating societies. By Dr Stephen Byrnes.

Along with the saturated fat and cholesterol scares of recent decades has come the notion that vegetarianism - and its more extreme form, veganism - are the healthiest dietary options. It seems as i f every health expert and government agency is urging people to eat fewer animal products, and consume more vegetables, grains, fruits and legumes. Along with these exhortations have come a flurry of assertions and studies supposedly proving that consuming animal products is associated with sickness and death. Campaigners also claim that widespread adoption of a vegetarian or vegan diet would improve the global environment and reduce famine and hunger.

Yet many of these claims cannot be substantiated, and some are simply false and dangerous. As a practitioner who has dealt with several former vegans, I know full well the dangerous effects of a diet devoid of animal products. I hope that this article wil l debunk some of the common myths associated with vegetarianism and veganism, and highlight the dangers of animal product-free diets.

MYTH 1 : Mea t consumptio n contribute s t o famin e an d deplete s th e Earth' s natura l resource s It is often argued that cows and sheep require pasturage that could be better used to grow grain for starving millions in poor countries. Additionally, claims are made that raising livestock requires more water than raising plant foods. But both arguments are illogical and simplistic.

The pasturage argument ignores the fact that a large portion of the Earth's dryland is unsuited to cultivation. The open range, and desert and mountainous areas, yield their fruits to grazing animals, not to arable crops. Unfortunately, the bulk of commercial livestock is not range-fed, but stall-fed. Stall-fed animals do not ingest grasses and shrubs (like they should), but are fed an unnatural array of grains and soybeans - which could be eaten by to humans. The argument here, then, is not that eating meat depletes the Earth's resources, but that commercial farming methods do. Such methods also subject livestock to deplorable living conditions where infections, antibiotics, steroids and synthetic hormones are common. These all lead to an unhealthy animal and, by extension, an unhealthy food product.

MYTH 2 : Vitami n B1 2 ca n b e obtaine d fro m plan t source s Of all the myths, this is perhaps the most dangerous. Vegans who do not supplement their diet with vitamin B12 wil l eventually get pernicious anaemia, a fatal condition, as well as nervous and digestive system damage. Claims are made that B12 is present in certain algae, tempeh (a fermented soy product) and Brewer's

yeast. Al l of them are false. Like the niacin in corn, the B12 present in algae is not available to the body. Tempeh, though a healthy food, does not contain B12. Further, the ingestion of too much soy increases the body's need for B12. Brewer's yeast does not contain B12 naturally; i t is always fortified from an outside source.

Vegans who do not supplement their diet with vitamin B12 will eventually get pernicious anaemia, a fatal condition, as well as nervous and digestive system damage

The only reliable and absorbable sources of vitamin B12 are animal products. Though present in lesser amounts, milk products do contain B12. Vegans, therefore, should consider adding dairy products to their diets. I f dairy cannot be tolerated, eggs, preferably from free-range hens, are a virtual necessity.

That vitamin B12 can only be obtained from animal products is one of the strongest arguments against veganism being a 'normal' way of human eating. Today, vegans can avoid pernicious anemia by taking supplemental vitamins. I f those same people had lived just a hundred years ago, when vitamin supplements were unavailable, they would have died. In my own medical practice, I recently saved two vegans from death from anemia (iron and B12) by convincing them to eat generous amounts of dairy products.

MYTH 3 : Th e body' s nee d fo r vitami n A ca n b e me t b y plan t foods . Vitami n D ca n b e obtaine d b y exposur e t o sunligh t Vitamin A is principally - and usable, full-complex vitamin D entirely - found in animal products. Plants do contain betacarotene, a substance that the body can convert into vitamin A, and the impression given by some vegetarian sources is that betacarotene is as good as vitamin A. This is not true. First, the conversion from carotene to vitamin A can only take place in the presence of bile salts. This means that fat must be eaten with the carotenes. Additionally, infants, people with hypothyroidism, gall bladder problems, diabetes, or infants either cannot make the conversion or do so very poorly. Lastly, the body's conversion from carotene to vitamin A is not very efficient: i t takes 4-6 units of carotene to make one unit of vitamin A. What this means is that the sweet potato (containing about 25,000 units of beta-carotene) you just ate wil l only convert into about 4,000 units of vitamin A (assuming you ate it with fat and do not have a thyroid or gall bladder problem).

Relying on plant sources for vitamin A is not a wise idea. This


The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 4, July 1999 TH E MYTH S O F VEGETARIANIS M

is why good old fashioned butter is a virtual must in any diet. Butter from pasture-fed cows is rich in vitamin A and wil l provide the intestines with the fatty material needed to convert vegetable carotenes into active vitamin A. Relying on sunlight for vitamin D is equally unwise. Even in tropical areas, where people are exposed to a great deal of sunlight, native diets are rich in vitamin D from animal foods. Vitamins A and D are all-important in our diets, as they help the body to use proteins and minerals.

MYTH 4 : Mea t eater s hav e highe r rate s o f hear t an d kidne y disease , cancer , obesity , an d osteoporosi s tha n vegetarian s Such stupendous claims are hard to reconcile with historical and anthropological facts. Al l of the diseases mentioned are primarily twentieth century occurrences, yet people have been eating meat and animal fat for thousands of years. Furthermore, several native peoples around the world (including the Innu and the Maasai) have traditional diets very rich in animal products, but do not suffer from the above-mentioned maladies.

Several studies have supposedly shown that meat consumption is the cause of heart disease, cancer and bone loss, but such studies, honestly evaluated, show no such thing. For example, studies supposedly proving that meat consumption among the Innu caused high rates of osteoporosis failed to note other dietary factors that contribute to bone loss - refined sugar consumption, alcoholism and a junk food diet, for example. More careful and unbiased researchers who examined Innu who followed their traditional diet and avoided the alcohol, sugar, and ice cream of their 'modernised' relatives, showed no incidence of bone loss.

It is usually claimed, too, that vegetarians and vegans have lower cancer rates than meat eaters, but a 1994 study of California Seventh Day Adventists (who are largely vegetarian) showed that, while they did have lower rates of some cancers (e.g. breast), they had significantly higher rates of several others (brain, skin,uterine, cervical and ovarian).

MYTH 5 : Saturate d fat s caus e hear t diseas e an d cancer , an d low-fat , low-cholestero l diet s ar e healthie r As noted above, diets of native peoples the world over are rich in saturated fats, and heart disease and cancer are primarily modern diseases. Saturated fat consumption, therefore, cannot logically cause these diseases. As with the poorly-done studies of the Innu,

Meat eating is both natural and healthy.

modern day researchers fail to take into account other dietary factors of people who have heart disease and cancer. As a result, the harmful effects of refined sugar and vegetable oil consumption get mixed up with animal fat consumption.

A recent study of thousands of Swedish women showed no correlation between saturated fat consumption and increased risk of breast cancer. The study did show, however, a strong link between vegetable oil intake and higher breast cancer rates. The famous 'Framingham Heart Study' carried out in Massachusetts, USA, is often cited as proof that dietary cholesterol and saturated fat intake cause heart disease and il l health. Involving about 6,000 people, the study compared two groups over several years at five-year intervals. One group consumed little cholesterol and saturated fat, while the other consumed high amounts. Yet Dr. William Castelli, the study's director, is quoted in the Archives of Internal Medicine (July 1992) as saying,

"In Framingham, Massachusetts, the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person's serum cholesterol... we found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories, weighed the least and were the most physically active." [emphasis added]

It is true that the study showed that those who weighed more and had higher serum cholesterol levels were more at risk for heart disease; but weight gain and cholesterol levels had an inverse correlation with dietary fat and cholesterol intake.

In a similar vein, the US Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial compared the mortality rates and eating habits of 12,000+ men. Those who ate less saturated fat and cholesterol showed a slightly reduced rate of coronary heart disease (CHD), but had an overall mortality rate much higher than the other men in the study. The few studies that indicate a correlation between saturated fat reduction and a lower CHD rate also clearly document a sizeable increase in deaths from cancer, suicide, violence and brain haemorrhage.

Conversely, there are many health benefits to saturated fats, depending on the fat in question. Coconut oil , for example, is rich in lauric acid, a potent anti-fungal and anti-microbial substance. Coconut also contains appreciable amounts of caprylic acid, also an effective anti-fungal. In general, saturated fats provide a good energy source for the vital organs, protect arteries against damage by the atherogenic lipoprotein (a), are rich in fat-soluble vitamins, help raise HDL levels in the blood, and make possible the utilisation of essential fatty acids.

MYTH 6 : Vegetarian s liv e longe r an d hav e mor e energ y an d enduranc e tha n mea t eater s Surprising as it may seem, some prior studies have shown that the annual allcause death rate of vegetarian men was slightly higher than that of non-vegetarian men (93 per cent vs. 89 per cent) and that the same was true of women (86 per cent vs. 54 per cent). Dr Russell Smith, author of an authoritative study on heart disease, showed that as animal product consumption increased among some study groups, death rates decreased. Such results were not obtained among vegetarian subjects.

It is usually claimed that predominantly meat-eating peoples are short-lived, but the Aborigines of Australia (who traditionally eat a diet rich in animal products) are known for their longevity. Similarly, the Russians of the Caucasus mountains live to great ages on a diet of fatty pork and whole milk products. The Hunzas, also

The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 4, July 1999