The Human Truth Foundation

Dangers and Purposes of Vegetarian Diets
Beliefs, Causes, Economics and Health

By Vexen Crabtree 2006

#animal_rights #animal_welfare #diet #food #health #vegetarianism

Vegetarian diets have health advantages over carnivorous diets. Plant-based diets use much less water than carnivorous ones, to the extent that agricultural and water management scientists are urging governments to encourage people to switch1. Some vegetarians are morally opposed to the maltreatment of animals: some avoid meat products as an offensive against the meat industry. But there are problems with vegetarians, too. Some merely want to look good socially; some have accepted pro-vegetarian ideas that are plain wrong and misguided, and, some faddish vegetarian diets are harmful and dangerous. This page examines what is dangerous and what is not, the psychology behind vegetarianism and some of the arguments for and against vegetarianism.

1. Arguments for Vegetarianism2

#food #sustainability #USA #veganism #vegetarianism #water

There are several strong arguments that a vegetarian diet is better choice than a carnivorous one.

  1. It is morally better to avoid killing animals. Humankind slaughters billions of animals annually, often after raising them in torturously inhumane conditions. The moral argument for vegetarianism is that it is better to reduce the suffering we directly cause as a species, even in cases where the animals in question aren't widely believed to feel as much as we do.

  2. Vegetarian diets use much less global freshwater than carnivorous ones.

    Meat-based diets use much more water than plant-based ones, which is causing an increasing strain on global freshwater supplies3,4,5 which are already stressed6,7. Already, "up to 90% of all managed water is used to grow food"3 (some say 92%5) and within the next 20 years the human population is going to increase by a further 2 billion3,8: finding enough freshwater is going to be "one of the greatest challenges facing governments"3,9. Pollution from poo-intensive animals such as cows and chicken have a noticeable effect on river and water pollution in the surrounding area10.

    Western diets in particular have too much meat, using 5,000 litres of water a day per person compared with vegetarians elsewhere, who use 1000-2000 litres, according to Dr David Molden of the International Water Management Institute (2004)3. Some meats are worse than others; red meat is particularly problematic. The best foods for calories, in terms of water use, are starchy roots, cereals and sugar crops (butter is next if you don't want to count sugar as a sensible food choice) - the worst are beef, sheep & goat meat, and nuts. The best foods for protein are oil crops, pulses, and cereals; despite common opinion, beef is a very poor source of protein from a water-usage point of view.

    Milk has a similar profile; diary milk uses around double the amount of water than alternatives such as rice milk, oat milk and almond milk, and, soya milk uses 12 times less water4. Dr Dana Hunnes, at UCLA Sustainability, says that overall "a plant-based diet can reduce [global] water consumption [in food production] by up to 50 percent"4.

    "Vegetarian (Plant-Based) Diets Use Much Less Freshwater than Carnivorous Diets"
    Vexen Crabtree

  3. Vegetarianism allows a better use of land. Millions of acres of rainforest have been cleared for the purposes of creating pastures for animal grazing. While it is true that soya production also has the same effect, most soya goes towards animal feed, doubling the size of land required than if we used the soya directly. Animal livestock eats up 40% of the planet's cereal grain and uses 70% of its arable land11. In terms of weight, using grain for animal feed produces thirty times less food than it would if it went straight into the human food chain. Vegetarian diets reduce the incentive to clear forests.12

  4. Meat production is much worse for the environment aside from the problem of land-clearance and water consumption, especially red meat and grain-fed meat12. Animal livestock produces up to a quarter of the greenhouse gasses produced by human activity. In the USA, cattle alone dump 64 million tons of sewage into the country's infrastructure per year11.

  5. High rates of meat consumption are unhealthy. Red meat in particular is associated with health conditions. Some countries have such a culture of meat consumption that bringing the population towards a balanced diet is exceedingly difficult; for example, Britons "Britons consume much more meat and much fewer fruits and vegetables than dietary advice recommends, and this is thought to have led to increased levels of obesity and other diet-related illnesses"12.

2. Types of Vegetarian

Common Vegetarians, the modal type, avoid eating meat and any body parts of animals and products produced from animal parts. The average vegetarian will eat products that come from animals but did not kill them; eggs, dairy products such as cheese and milk, honey, etc. Technically these are called ovo-lacto vegetarians. It is the form of vegetarianism that allows the closest thing to a healthy normal diet, but it still lacks some vital nutrients that must be carefully made up for.

I'm not a vegetarian because I love animals. I'm a vegetarian because I hate plants.

A. Whitney Brown in
Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations13

Pescetarians are vegetarians who also eat fish.

Vegans avoid all animal produce, including diary. This extends to goods such as clothes (fur) and any other material that could otherwise contain animal produce. It can be difficult to keep a vegan diet healthy, but in the past two decades huge improvements in nutrition research and consumption patterns has meant that veganism is no longer associated with ill health.

In biology:

3. The History of Vegetarianism

#buddhism #egypt #hinduism #india #UK

Vegetarianism has existed as a distinct form of diet for many thousands of years. Some ancient Indians and Egyptians abstained from eating meat (and lots of other things), and as such the beginnings of vegetarianism are lost in pre-history14. It arose 'in Hindu and Buddhist countries, such as India, since at least the 2nd millennium due to cultural and religious practices such as Ahimsa (Non-violence)'14. Pythagoras, the mystic, religious leader and mathematician, was the most famous proponent and within the Roman Empire, vegetarianism was known as 'the pythagorean diet'.

6th Century

The precise beginnings of the vegetarian ethic are lost in the priestly cults of Ancient Egypt, but through the Orphic movement vegetarianism became one of the influences upon Pythagoras, who gave his name to the diet. After his death a clear thread can be traced from antiquity to present times.

"Vegetarianism: A History" by Colin Spencer (1993)15

'The Pythagorean Diet' was a result of an ascetic mysticism, like the diets of many people in ancient history, which maybe also included an abstention from eating some types of beans, too. It was not until the twentieth century that the word 'vegetarian' became an institution amongst vegetarians:

In 1847, attendees at the meeting of the first Vegetarian Society in Ramsgate, England, agreed that a "vegetarian" (from the Latin uegetus "lively", and suggestive of the English word "vegetable") was a person who refuses to consume flesh of any kind.

Wikipedia entry on Vegetarianism14

1960s-1970s: The Blossoming of Western Vegetarianism (UK). Those decades saw the rise of a mass awareness of the ethical problems of meat consumption16, and this realisation was so strong that Colin Wilson can say outright that "members of the counter-culture were either vegetarian or macrobiotic"16. He doesn't say "most of" - he says all of them were. Whilst this seems an inherently debatable statement, the point is that some thought it was conceivably true. This push gradually infiltrated mainstream culture: In 1968 there were a mere 16 vegetarian restaurants across the whole of London, and only 18 more across the rest of the UK. 20 years later, in 1988, there were over 750 listed in one reference16; that mustn't have included low-key places and communal kitchens that were popular in the counter-culture so the total number must have been higher. One survey in 2018, possibly biased towards a more well-off demographic, found that almost one third of the UK were non-meat-eaters, including two million vegans17.

4. Dietary Issues and Vegetarianism

4.1. Vitamin A is Not Found in Plants

Vitamin A (retinol) is found in animal liver (in abundance), cheese, eggs, oily fish (such as mackerel), milk, fortified margarine and yoghurt18. It only comes from animal sources. There is a chemical similar to vitamin A, called beta-carotene - "a substance that the body can convert into vitamin A"19, says Dr Byrnes, who also notes that this conversion only takes place efficiently when animal fats are present. Otherwise the amount converted into vitamin A is very small. We can't convert all our beta-carotene into vitamin A though, because beta-carotene is itself an important part of our diet. Some people cannot do it at all. "Infants and people with hypothyroidism, gall bladder problems or diabetes (altogether, a significant portion of the population) either cannot make the conversion, or do so very poorly".

4.2. Vitamin B12 is Not Found in Plants

No plant foods can be relied on as a safe source of vitamin B12.

The Vegetarian Society20

Vegans who do not supplement their diet with vitamin B12 will eventually get anemia (a fatal condition) as well as severe nervous and digestive system damage. [...] Deficiencies in vegan children, often [have] dire consequences.

Dr Stephen Byrnes21

Vitamin B12 is required in our bodies for the manufacture of red blood cells, maintaining the nervous system and DNA production during cell division (i.e., growth). Symptoms of malnutrition include tiredness, breathlessness, nerve damage and irreversible neurological damage, a poor immune response and anaemia. Our body uses B12 rather efficiently, so, lack of it in the diet can take up to 20 years to become apparent in symptoms.

There is no plant source of vitamin B12 - it all comes from animal food sources20,21,22. The Vegetarian Society report that "the only reliable unfortified sources of vitamin B12 are meat, dairy products and eggs. There has been considerable research into possible plant food sources of B12. Fermented soya products, seaweeds and algae have all been proposed as possible sources of B12. However, analysis of fermented soya products, including tempeh, miso, shoyu and tamari, found no significant B12"20.

There have been reports of vegans developing vitamin B12 deficiency because they have eaten plant foods (including algae such as spirulina and seaweed, and fermented soya products such as tofu) believing them to contain vitamin B12.

"Panic Nation: Unpicking the Myths We're Told About Food and Health"
Feldman & Marks (2005)23,22

The Vegetarian Society explains: "Spirulina, an algae available as a dietary supplement in tablet form, and nori, a seaweed, have both appeared to contain significant amounts of B12 after analysis. However, it is thought that this is due to the presence of compounds structurally similar to B12, known as B12 analogues. These cannot be utilised to satisfy dietary needs [... and] may in fact increase the risk of B12 deficiency disease, as the B12 analogues can compete with B12 and inhibit metabolism"20.

Some vegan groups in developing countries have been noticed for their lack of B12-deficiency symptoms but in a few famous cases, they were found to actually have B12 in their diet via animal and human manure that they were using as fertilizer. In more hygienic conditions, this source of B12 disappears. But aside from that, vegans must augment their plant diets with vitamin B12 in order to avoid malnutrition.

4.3. Vitamin D Deficiency in Vegetarians24

We evolved to produce vitamin D when we lived on the equator, so there was no shortage of production. Nowadays most Human Beings cannot obtain enough exposure to produce their own vitamin D, so it has become an essential part of our diet.25

Rickets is a childhood deficiency of vitamin D, which is called osteomalacia in adults. It causes bone weakness (causing fractures), bone pains and can cause muscle weakness and joint inflammation.

It is widely thought that sunlight on our skin provides us with a mechanism to produce vitamin D but this is largely untrue; you have to be outdoors every day at the right time, in order to achieve this, and in northern climates the required wavelengths of light are simply absent for four months at winter. Most vitamin D is, and always will be, sourced from our diets. In particular, vitamin D comes from animal fat and fish. Some plants contain a form of vitamin D denoted D2 (ergocalciferol) but this is not utilized very well in animals.

Rickets and/or low vitamin D levels has been well-documented in many vegetarians and vegans, since animal fats are either lacking or deficient in vegetarian diets (as well as those of the general Western public who routinely try to cut their animal fat intake), since sunlight is only a source of vitamin D at certain times and at certain latitudes, and since current dietary recommendations for vitamin D are too low, this emphasizes the need to have reliable and abundant sources of this nutrient in our daily diets. Good sources include cod liver oil, lard from pigs that were exposed to sunlight, shrimp, wild salmon, sardines, butter, full-fat dairy products, and eggs from properly fed chickens.

Dr Stephen Byrnes (2000)26

4.4. Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency, which causes tiredness, is the world's most common nutritional problem. In the UK around 20% of women are anaemic. Iron is the least plentiful nutrient in the typical British diet. It can come from plant sources (inorganic iron) or from animal tissues (haem iron). Haem iron is absorbed around five times more efficiently than inorganic iron - this is why eating red meat is recommended for preventing anaemia. Lead researcher Dr Andrew McKie said: "Currently pregnant women suffering from anaemia are given supplements of inorganic iron, but these are poorly absorbed and poorly tolerated.

BBC News (2005)27

It is dangerous for women to remain on a vegetarian diet during pregnancy. Not only is substitute iron less efficient, but some people cannot tolerate it at all. If a woman's baby is intolerant to inorganic iron, a vegetarian diet can be fatal for the baby and harm the mother more than normal as her iron requirements are much higher and only iron obtained typically from red meats is adequate and efficient for her.

5. Alternatives to Vegetarianism

5.1. Consumer Activism and Economics: Ethical Purchasing24


Many people are abhorred by some of the modern and inhumane methods by which animals are farmed and the conditions that they're subject to. It is honourable to wish to reduce the suffering of animals. It is good to insist that animals are farmed in ethical and compassionate ways. It is better to support humane animal farming by buying meat produced by humane methods, rather than avoiding meat altogether. The massive meat industry is not affected by non-consumption protests. But if market forces dictate that ethical production methods sell better, the meat industry does listen. If you are morally concerned about the welfare of animals, as you should be, it is better to buy meat farmed ethically than it is to shun meat altogether, because that makes the entire market swing towards ethical methods and has a bigger impact than resorting to (self-harming) vegetarian protest.

The Economist magazine's special report (2006) explained that buying meat from those conforming to ethical standards is more effective at changing the industry than simply abstaining from meat altogether - "consumption, rather than non-consumption" is "far more likely to produce results" according to Ian Bretman of Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO) International, the Fairtrade umbrella group28.

5.2. Synthetically Grown (In-Vitro) Meat

#environmentalism #food #veganism #vegetarianism

Synthetic meat, also known as in-vitro meat, is grown in laboratories and vats rather than being the flesh of slaughtered animals29. It has been frequently predicted to be "nearly ready", but research continues and it is clearly at least another ten years away30. When ready, it has "astounding potential to save animals"31.

Without the diseases, contaminations and antibiotics of animal agriculture, it has potential to be healthier29 and more predictable quality than slaughtered meat, avoiding those periodic disease outbreaks that lead to mass culling and supply chain disruptions31. The benefits to animal welfare are epic: no livestock needs to be kept in captivity, it requires no slaughter and no animal transportation, and could stop the hunting of endangered animals for their meat29,11. It is much better for the environment, using 98% less land than animal agriculture and 82-92% less water, up to 60% less energy for equivalents to pork, sheep and beef and producing 80-90% lower greenhouse gas emissions11,31.

But potential isn't matching reality. Synthetic meats are still having to use particularly cruel animal extractions in order to provide growth media; the market is likely to remain experimental and niche for a long time and may never be accepted by vegans31 nor by committed carnivores. It is being comprehensively overtaken by high-quality protein-rich plant-based foods with denser textures. Encouraging plant-based foods seems a winner, whereas synthetic meat is turning out to be too slow to develop, and once done, will remain too expensive to become influential enough to help with reducing unsustainable animal agriculture and animal suffering.

For more, see:

6. Ritual Animal Slaughter in World Religions

#animal_rights #animal_welfare #christianity #islam #judaism #sikhism

World religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism all embody a traditional and sometimes bizarre set of animal sacrifice rituals in their holy texts. These practices, despite being borderline barbaric and not in keeping with modern ideas of animal welfare, are still in use today by religious communities all over the world, including in the most modern countries. Although it might seem reasonable in the West to allow butchers to sell halal food, at the core of this familiar label is weird ritualistic behaviour that belongs in the dark ages. The ideals of pluralism have blinded us to the stark reality that some religious practices are simply unacceptable. Animal rights campaigners have joined forces with moral activists to try and curb religious ritual slaughter of animals. The general public associate blood rituals involving animals with Satanism, not realizing that they were all invented, and are still practiced, by mainstream religions - and that Satanism does not involve animal sacrifice. Sikhs will specifically not eat meat slaughtered in accordance with Jewish or Muslim practices due to the unnecessarily cruel methods used32.

For more, see: