I am acutely aware of the myriad of diet possibilities and the reasons that people might choose them. I know that some people are allergic to gluten and some people can’t tolerate lactose. And I completely understand that some people just don’t like meat in the same way that I just don’t like mushy cooked peas. Not too long ago I finished reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and that really got me thinking about the issues surrounding a vegetarian diet.
Once upon a time in my mid-twenties I became a vegetarian. It lasted for just about a year and ended when my doctor informed me that my body was not absorbing plant-based iron like it should. While every other nutrient in my body tested at an optimum level, iron was crucially low. She insisted that I make beef a regular part of my diet, starting immediately. For my body to function, spinach salads and barley wouldn’t cut it. I had chosen to not eat meat for health reasons, and seeing as I’ve always enjoyed a good steak I was more than ready to capitulate.
There are many vegetarians and vegans in my life. They range from those who refuse to eat mammals to people who won’t eat anything cooked in a frying pan that ever touched an animal-based protein. Regardless of how strictly these people limit their diets, their reasoning for doing so falls into one of three camps. Some of those people believe that eating meat is less healthy, a large number of those people believe eating meat supports animal cruelty, and a smaller group consider vegetarianism to be more environmentally sustainable. The more I’ve contemplated this issue, the closer I’ve come to exclaiming “Hogwash!” on all three arguments. As far as I’m concerned the only good reason to follow a vegetarian diet is that you simply do not like meat, and not as a concept, but as a taste or texture.
On the health standpoint, my experience above is one very good argument for keeping meat in the diet. Iron comes in two forms – heme iron (found in animal sources) and non-heme iron (found in plants). The first is easily absorbed by the human intestine, while the latter requires other chemicals such as ascorbic acid to aid in it’s absorption by the body. Human beings, like dogs, cats, sharks, foxes and monkeys evolved to thrive on a diet that includes animal protein. Just look at our teeth – there’s a reason that they’re structured differently than the teeth of herbivores.
And what about E.Coli? On a recent CBC call-in show I heard a woman proclaim that she didn’t need to be worried because she doesn’t eat meat. Well, guess what? E.Coli can actually live in the soil, and it’s quite possible to get it from vegetable sources such as lettuce, potatoes and spinach.
The belief that a vegetarian diet is a healthy one is absurd. I know plenty of vegetarians who regularly scarf down french fries, nachos, and onion rings. A healthy diet involves balance and smart cooking methods, not excluding an entire food group.
It’s true that many people eat far too much meat, I won’t argue with anyone on that point, but that doesn’t mean we should cut it out completely.
Now, the animal cruelty issue. Anyone who knows me knows that I LOVE animals. But how can that be if I’m willing to eat them?
The more I’ve become involved in food awareness and food production, the more thought I’ve given to this question. The first time we took chickens to be slaughtered, I couldn’t even get out of the car to see where they were going. Troy had to do all the work. In the process of bringing chickens into the facility he was corrected by the owner for the way in which he was carrying them. Right up to the end she showed concern for the way the birds were handled. I’ve since realized the importance of being fully involved in every aspect of the meat-eating equation and the more I know, the more I appreciate the significance of the choices that I’m making.
Every living thing dies, that’s a fact. I believe that what’s important is the quality of life and the quality of death, not what happens to the body once the life is over. It is true that most meat in our society is raised in a fairly horrific manner. Feedlot beef and factory chickens are born into misery and live that way until they end up on a conveyor belt. I refuse to support those methods of production. But consider animals who are raised differently. Grass-fed beef and pastured chickens are raised with room to move and greens to eat. They can do the things that chickens and cows naturally do but with protection from predators that would likely kill them in an agonizing manner. In some models these critters are raised without any need for wormers or antibiotics, they are healthy from beginning to end, and they have no concept of the fact that they will, some day, end up on a plate. Furthermore, these animals would not even exist were they not being raised to be eaten. What’s worse, to have a short but happy life or to have no life at all?
Awareness is key to preventing animal cruelty in the meat industry. As long as we are conscientious about finding out how our meat is raised and produced there is no reason that eating meat can’t contribute to a happy and healthy life for animals.
The last objection is, perhaps, the most dubious. The environmental impact of the cattle industry is not an uncommon story. Apparently, raising meat has to damage the environment. But again, it comes down to HOW we’re raising the meat. Grass is a completely renewable resource. If we graze beef for the entire time they’re alive, the damage to the environment can be minimal. Feedlots raise beef on a diet of corn and other items that are not naturally part of a bovine menu. Fertilizing the corn while it grows is a substantial part of the environmental impact of beef production. Corn, however, plays a role in a LOT of foods that we eat, and products that we use – many products that a vegetarian diet doesn’t restrict such as plastics, condiments, toothpaste, chewing gum, and disposable diapers. Of course, if you consider yourself an environmentalist I’m sure your shopping list NEVER contains the latter.
Then we have to consider the impact of trucking fresh fruits and vegetables, tofu, nuts and other vegetarian-friendly products halfway around the globe. If you happen to live in a climate where these things can be produced year round, perhaps you can be an environmentally-friendly vegetarian (assuming you take the time to find out HOW your vegetables are produced.) But if you live in a climate like ours, the only way you’ll be producing substantial quantities of fruits or veggies in the winter is by burning copious amounts of fossil fuels. Sure, there are solar and wind alternatives, but how many producers have switched over?
If a meatless way of life truly makes you feel happier and healthier, then go for it. If that’s the best choice for you I have no qualms with your decision. However, to those vegetarians who laud their dietary choices over others as proof that they live a more responsible lifestyle, I beg you to stop fooling yourself. Choose to eat things that are produced nearby from people who can prove their commitment to sustainability. If you do that it won’t matter whether you’re eating lettuce, lamb or lumpfish – you’ll be eating in a way that supports the health of your body, your community and your planet. Isn’t that what really counts?