The Vegetarian Myth – The Rise of Irrationalism and the Dangers of Primal and Paleo Diets

Health

Summary. A movement toward Paleolithic living has recently reached critical mass. Many books on paleo and primal diets are now flooding the market. One such book is The Vegetarian Myth by the Lierre Keith. Others include:

Paleo/Primal Diets. Paleo diets or primal diets are typically high in meat and advocate the consumption of foods similar to what would have been eaten 2.6 million years ago. The rationale is that humans have not evolved, but instead, “our physiology is fundamentally the same as that of people from the Paleolithic Era…” — approximately 2.6 million years ago. [Primal Body, Page 5] The claim is made that we are genetically 99% identical to our ancestors, so we should eat like them. Yet, paleo-advocates fail to acknowledge that just being genetically similar to our ancestors, or other primates, doesn’t mean we should eat their diet.

The Vegetarian Myth. Lierre Keith’s book provides a useful template and expresses the general principles and teachings brought forth in other similar books. In summary, Lierre Kieth argues that the human body is designed to eat the foods that we were eating 4 million years ago. She cites archeological evidence that shows humans were tall, strong, and had all their teeth for 4 million years up until the time of agriculture — and this is proof that vegetables are killing us (or at least a diet without enough meat). Further down this page is an interview with Lierre Keith who discusses her beliefs about vegetarianism as presented in her book The Vegetarian Myth. Rather than being pro-paleo, after 20 years as living as a vegan, Keith is waging an anti-vegetarianism crusade (as her book title implies). What Keith seems to overlook is that the advent of agriculture did not just impact our access to vegetables (those are easy to hunt), but it dramatically increased our access to meat. So, it’s more likely that we began eating more meat due to agriculture, and this has caused our modern-day illnesses. Because vegetarians compose a small part of western society, our illnesses are more likely due to eating meat than vegetarianism. Furthermore, wellness or illness are not simply determined from diet. There are many other factors that contribute to improved health (e.g. proper sleep, hydration, exercise, and reduced stress).

Dangers of Primal and Paleo Diets. There are some shortcomings of the romanticized primal and paleo diets. It’s difficult to know exactly what people ate 2 to 4 million years ago. We can assume that whatever they ate, it probably wasn’t prepared or cooked in a way agreeable to our tastes. It would have been fairly rudimentary. Don’t expect to see any Paleo or Primal cooking shows on late night TV anytime soon. It’s also difficult to get comprehensive and meaningful medical records of a sufficiently large population of people to make any conclusions. If we find one cave person frozen in ice who is several million years old, it’s tempting to start making some broad sweeping generalizations about all humans at that time. However, that’s simply not a scientific way to arrive at conclusions. What we know about human health today, based on scientific facts, is the following:

  • According to the Mayo Clinic, “a well-planned vegetarian diet can meet the needs of people of all ages, including children, teenagers, and pregnant or breast-feeding women.”
  • According to the American Heart Association, “Most vegetarian diets are low in or devoid of animal products. They’re also usually lower than nonvegetarian diets in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer. “
  • According to a statement by GNC, “Vegetarians and vegans are among the healthiest people in the world.”

Historic Record. While paleo / primal living advocates conjure up an image of humans being hunters, reliable sources indicate, “The earliest humans probably lived primarily on scavenging, not actual hunting. Early humans in the Lower Paleolithic lived in mixed habitats which allowed them to collect seafood, eggs, nuts, and fruits besides scavenging.” [source] Present-day scientific and medical data points to vegetarianism as a healthier way to live and this is supported by historic records. For example, an ancient document relates an exchange that took place around 600 BC between four vegetarians and a meat eater who had detained them.

Vegetarians: “Please let us eat a vegan diet.”

Meat Eater: “I am afraid… Why should [people] see you looking worse than the other young men your age?”

Vegetarians: “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat [meat], and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.”

At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate [meat]. So the guard took away [the meat] and gave them vegetables instead.

These four young men [gained] knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning.

There is a scientific explanation for what transpired above. Because heavy foods require more of the body’s energy (and blood) to digest, by eating lighter foods and drinking plenty of water, these vegetarians were able to keep their brains functioning optimally. Presumably, the vegetables were less likely to be carriers of various diseases and toxins common in meats then (and now).

Historic Life Expectancy Rates. Those promoting Paleo / Primal diets are quick to point out the problems with modern-day western diet and medicine. Yet, life expectancy rates are higher now than ever before in history. So, the evolution and refinement of our food, diet, and lifestyle doesn’t seem to be harming us too much. Perhaps history teaches us that getting away from a Paleo diet has allowed people to live up to 4 times longer.

Diet and Ethics. There are many reasons for becoming a vegetarian. Health benefits are just one reason. Some people choose vegetarianism out of concern for the exploitation of animals and animal suffering. Such people choose ethics rather than personal health as the bottom line for their food choices. For these vegetarians, even if it were proven that their diet would result in living 5 years less, they would remain vegetarian. Even among meat eaters, if they were told that eating kittens would provide nutritional benefits allowing them to live a healthy long life, many would simply forgo kitten consumption.

Diet and Exploitation. As we increasingly recognize and feel our global connectedness, people are making choices based on compassion rather than their economic cost.

  • As an advocate for women’s rights, Lierre Keith campaigns against the pornography industry, citing that women are typically demeaned and exploited by that industry.
    • The porn consumer would argue that they gain benefit, pleasure, and perhaps longevity and health through the consumption of porn. The porn consumer might express that they aren’t concerned about the welfare or possible exploitation of those involved in the creation of porn — their personal gain and benefit exceeds their concern.
  • Human rights activists campaign against companies and factories that engage in labor practices that exploit workers.
    • Like the consumer of porn, the person who buys products manufactured by exploited workers would argue that they gain value, savings, and ultimately free time through the economic exploitation of someone else’s time/labor. Their gain means more to them than concern for others.
  • Vegetarians and animal welfare advocates express concern about the suffering and exploitation of animals for human consumption.
    • The meat eater would argue that what they believe they are gaining in health benefits from meat is more important than any concern about animals being killed.

So, in all three examples above, people sometimes choose pleasure or personal gain even when their choice may result in someone else’s suffering. War is perhaps the greatest expression of this truth, and results in indiscriminate suffering and destruction on many levels, usually for personal gain (e.g. oil, security, land, resources, labor, etc.) So, it’s the same thinking process and values system that leads one to consume porn, exploit workers, eat meat, and wage war. In general, it’s selfishness and short sighted.

Holistic Compassion. What sometimes happens is that people become compartmentalized and insular with regard to their compassion. A person might be concerned about the exploitation of women, yet simultaneously exploit vulnerable and innocent animals by killing them and eating them. The contradiction and hypocrisy isn’t visible to the person who has become insulated by the self fabricated cocoon of self righteous indignation toward the suffering of a certain group (e.g. women, workers, or animals). Compassion that isn’t holistic is often contradictory and hypocritical — or at least it’s incomplete compassion. What’s needed to change the world is holistic compassion.

Video. The video below is an interview with Lierre Keith who discusses her beliefs about vegetarianism as presented in her book The Vegetarian Myth. This video is a helpful tool in identifying your own irrational thinking as well as that of others. Note: Lierre Keith seems to be a sincere and passionate person. The commentary below is not meant to be an attack of her, but simply a response to and commentary upon the teachings that she and millions of other profess.

Commentary. Below are quotes from the interview and responses to those statements.

  • Claim. [0:00-0:13, 2:19-2:33] For millions of years, humans have been, “… tall, and strong, and they keep all their teeth and their bones are disease free until you hit agriculture, and then suddenly everybody shrinks six inches and they loose their teeth and their bones are riddled with disease.”
    • Response. One form of irrational thinking is to assume a cause and effect where there is none. Advocates of Paleolithic living claim that agriculture has resulted in a decline of health among humans. However, they tend to overemphasize the role of agriculture – since health and wellness involves a holistic array of many factors, not just diet. Of course, the onset of agriculture did not usher in vegetarianism. So, any decline in human health was probably due to something other than vegetarianism. The opposite is more likely. Hunting and gathering produced a small amount of meat, but raising animals for meat consumption has allowed us to eat more meat than any other time in history. So, in fact, the onset of agriculture has resulted in an increase of meat eating and that has caused us to shrink, and caused our teeth to fall out, and caused or bones to be riddled with disease. Today we have people who predominantly eat meat, yet they get sick just like anyone else. Some of the illnesses we see today are a result of people living longer.
  • Claim. [1:43-1:51] “There’s a human template that needs certain nutritional elements and they are not provided by a vegetarian diet.”
    • Response. This is simply a fable that is easily disproven by scientific and medical facts. Were this true, then billions of people in primarily vegetarian countries would all be malnourished.
      • According to the Mayo Clinic, “a well-planned vegetarian diet can meet the needs of people of all ages, including children, teenagers, and pregnant or breast-feeding women.”
      • According to the American Heart Association, “Most vegetarian diets are low in or devoid of animal products. They’re also usually lower than nonvegetarian diets in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer. “
  • Claim. [1:52-2:02] “You can go back 4 million years to the very beginning of the human race and there is no question that we were hunters. This is what we ate for literally 4 million years, and it’s the reason we have really big brains.”
    • Response. This is another good example of assigning a causal relationship where none exists (e.g. hunting = big brains).  First of all, the size of a brain doesn’t determine the level of intelligence. Women’s brains are generally smaller than men’s brains, yet women’s brains are more dense and computationally greater.
      • “…studies suggest larger animals may need bigger brains simply because there is more to control — for example they need to move bigger muscles and therefore need more and bigger nerves to move them…” [source]
  • Claim. [2:02-2:20] We have the largest brain of any primate and the smallest digestive tract. Which is to say, ‘How are you going to feed that brain?’ Our brains use 25% of our energy needs, and you’re not going to get that out of plants. It’s quite clear that we must have been eating meat to get brains that are this large.”
    • Response. The assumption that we have large brains and so we must have been meat eaters is another good example of assigning a causal relationship where none exists. Other animals with big brains are vegetarians, and some animals with small brains are meat eaters. The other question is that of how one measures the brain. Is it only based on the size of the brain, or is the measurement and comparison based on size of brain with respect to the size of the body.
  • Claim. [3:08-3:42] “saving the planet, and all these political concerns about oppression… It all comes together when you learn about veganism because you can stop oppressing animals and you can stop polluting the earth and you can feed hungry people. It makes a total picture. You get this complete plan, if you just eat this way. … except none of it is true, and that’s the problem.”
    • Response. Other than the assertion that the benefits of veganism are false, no facts are presented that could be refuted.
      • “Vegans are frequently misunderstood as fringe eaters with an unnatural passion for animal rights. While many vegans do feel passionately about animals, its time for others to see that a vegan diet and lifestyle go way beyond animal rights. Following a healthy, balanced vegan diet ensures a host of health benefits as well as prevention of some of the major diseases striking people in North America. Read these blogs to find out about the health benefits or going vegan or just provide better information to your patients.” ~ 57 Health Benefits of Going Vegan
  • Claim. [4:29-4:36] “There’s a whole generation of us now who have been through this. We tried it. It didn’t work. Our health collapsed, and we had to try something new.”
    • Response. One of the mistakes people often make when embracing a new way of thinking or living is that our old was didn’t work for us and so it can’t work for anyone else. In our zeal, we can sometimes believe that the way we think and live is the way that everyone else must think and live. This seems to be the mistake made by meat eaters who try to push their way of life on others.
  • Claim. [4:49-5:02] “The problem with protein that comes from plant sources is that its wrapped in cellulose. We have no way to digest cellulose. We’ve got that one stomach. So, we can’t eat grass.”
    • Response. Anyone who claims we can’t eat grass has probably been smoking it. Not only can we eat grass, the benefits of consuming grasses such as wheatgrass are well documented. The benefits are so obvious that even carnivorous cats will instinctively eat grass for the many benefits.
  • Claim. [5:15-5:29] “There are fat soluble nutrients you cannot get from plants. Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin K2, Vitamin E. You cannot get these from plants. They don’t exist in plant foods. They are essential. You will die without them.”
    • Response. That’s a persuasive argument for eating animal products. However, it doesn’t explain why or how billions of vegetarians have lived long lives for many generations in countries such as India, where meat eating is not common. It also doesn’t explain why vegetarian athletes and vegan athletes perform so well. For example, Dave Scott is a six-time winner of the Iron Man Triathlon competition. He holds the world record for the most victories ever. If meat eating produces superior results, then why do vegetarians and vegans commonly out perform meat eaters? Why don’t they die?
  • Claim. [26:52-]26:58 “A nuclear disaster is better for the planet than civilization.”
    • Response. This is an example of misplaced aggression and blame. The claim being made is that civilization does more harm to the planet than a nuclear disaster, and the evidence of this is that at the Chernobyl location, there are animals living together in harmony, but no people, except women. So, presumably, according to this logic what we need is a world devoid of men, and then there won’t be any problems. There’s a lot wrong with that line of thinking, but for starters, the overconsumption, war, crime, and destruction caused by today’s civilization is really just a problem of over population. A smaller civilization based on sustainable principles and better ethics would not create the same problems we have today.

Conclusion. For the remainder of the interview, Lierre Keith seems fairly coherent and rational, which is a demonstration of how people can have one area of their life be based on irrational and unscientific beliefs while other areas of their life are founded on rational and scientifically based facts. It’s fairly evident that Keith believes her 20 years of vegetarianism caused her to develop a degenerative spinal disease, and so her book and campaign against vegetarianism seems to be partly retaliation and misdirected projection of anger toward vegetarianism.

Lierre Keith’s campaign and crusade takes conclusions and choices from a personal experience and projects that to all those around her. Rather than saying, “This is the path I’m choosing,” she speaks in broad-reaching proclamations, denouncing her old way of life and declaring that her new way of life is the way everyone should live. This is common among people who go from one religion to another. They denounce the old religion and point out all its flaws, and then portray the new religion as the only truth. It’s most pronounced in cult-like sectarian insular groups of adherents to religious, philosophical, intellectual, or social-based practices and beliefs.

Commentary. Below is a commentary from Greg Johnson about thoughts on meat eating and vegetarianism.

“My grandmother was a two-pack-a-day smoker. She drank alcohol and she was overweight. She regularly ate meat and foods high in cholesterol and animal fat. She lived a full life, and lived into her 90s. Yet, I don’t think one anecdotal story should be the basis for people’s life choices.

Those who eat meat, and think they are making a better choice for their health and the planet will likely be let down. It’s like someone becoming a Christian with the voodoo-like belief that Jesus will ward off all of life’s problems. Either belief is based on irrational thinking.

No religion is going to be perfect and cure all of life’s ills. Similarly, no diet is going to be an elixir that saves you from all health problems. In fact, wellness and health is much broader than just a matter of what we eat.

I’m saddened when I see people peddling philosophies, religions, practices, or lifestyles with a promise of it being a cure-all. So many people are hurting, and want to believe, and they are sucked in by such sincere presentations, only to be disappointed, and ultimately lose faith, loose hope, and become jaded.

We need to think, speak, and live holistically. We need to respect and understand ‘the other’ while holding to our own identity and beliefs. In seeking to understand ‘the other’ we’ll see ourself in them, and realize how much we all have in common.” ~ Greg Johnson

Alternative Possibilities. Below are a few possible reasons why Lierre Keith is on her crusade against vegetarianism.

  • Cult Psychology. Certainly not all vegans or vegetarians have a cult-like identity to the movement. However, some people, regardless of what group they join, develop an unhealthy obsessive cult-like adherence and commitment to the cause. This happens in other areas of society such as politics or multi-level marketing. When someone is an obsessive passionate vegan, and then switches to become an obsessive passionate meat eater, it’s fairly clear that the person has the kind of personality that results in them wanting to belong to some group or cause. When most people change their diet, they don’t feel compelled to write a book discrediting their previous diet.
  • Hoax. One possibility is that the Lierre Keith campaign against vegetarianism is a hoax in the Steven Colbert tradition, to make meat eaters seem stupid.
  • Human Annihilation. Keith stated clearly her sentiments about civilization causing harm to the planet when she said a nuclear disaster would be better for the planet than civilization. Her crusade to get humans to eat meat may, possibly, be a high level strategy that ironically allows animals to kill off all the people through our consumption of them. Given the health problems associated with ingesting large quantities of meat and animal byproducts, it’s possible Keith is attempting to crash the system by promoting meat eating.
  • Troll. It’s possible that she’s an anarchist “troll” without any particular agenda other than agitation and creating dissidence.
  • Mind Control. She may be the target of a mind control experiment, who has somehow been brainwashed to channel the words programmed by her controllers. This possibility is less plausible.
  • Retaliation. In the interview above, Keith shares that she became a vegan at a time in her life when she was very impressionable (16 years old). Presumably one or more people influenced her decision to become vegan. She further shares that eating vegan (she believes) caused her to develop a degenerative disease. So, it’s likely that she has some resentment and bitterness toward the people who (she believes) injured her health, or at least some ill feelings toward the movement.
  • Sensationalism. It may be that she’s drawn to the sensationalism of being a 20-year vegan and animal rights advocate who is now promoting meat consumption.
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About Gregory Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer in Iowa City and also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. He also manages IowaCityWebDesignArtist.com and many other topic specific websites.

View all posts by Gregory Johnson
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