Some people are allergic to natural chemicals found in meat. Some vegetarians are morally opposed to the maltreatment of animals: some avoid meat products as an offensive against the meat industry. Some vegetarians merely want to look good socially whilst others are looking for a good diet. There are millions of vegetarians in the UK, roughly 5% of the population. Some vegetarians are deluded and have accepted pro-vegetarian ideas that are plain wrong and misguided. Also many faddish and populist 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. After reviewing extensive studies, I conclude that a balanced diet for the best health, is a balanced one containing all food groups including meat and especially fish.
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.”
Pesco / Pollo Vegetarians are also potentially healthy, as they will sometimes eat meat, but minimally.
Vegans are ultra-strict vegetarians, who risk their health and especially their long-term health, in their commitment to avoid any animal products. This includes an avoidance of all dairy products, clothes derived from animal skins (leather) and fur. There is little help for vegans; their nutritional intake cannot be made normal, and they will suffer mental and physical degradation over time.
Carnivores are species that (normally) eat meat, such as cats, dogs, humans, wolves, birds of prey, and the majority of other higher animals, and abstaining from doing so causes ill health.
Herbivores are species that do not eat meat and survive on vegetables.
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-history2. It arose 'in Hindu and Buddhist countries, such as India, since at least the 2nd millennium BC due to cultural and religious practices such as Ahimsa (Non-violence)'2.Pythagorus, 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 BCE
“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.”
'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.”
“No doctor denies that it is possible to obtain a balanced diet without meat, but the fact is that it is difficult to do this, and totally unnecessary. Among the amino-acids which are essential to health, about ten must be supplied by the food we eat. It is extremely hard to obtain all ten from a plant diet, and if even one is missing, there are nutritional deficiencies. On the other hand, amino-acids are the products of protein digestion, and the addition of meat to the diet is a simple method of getting all the needed ones. It is true that in some ailments, such as gout, meat in the diet must be limited. On the other hand, in other ailments diets rich in protein are necessary to restore health.”
Vitamin A (retinol) is found in animal liver (in abundance), cheese, eggs, oily fish (such as mackerel), milk, fortified margarine and yoghurt5. 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"6, 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".
“No plant foods can be relied on as a safe source of vitamin B12.”
The Vegetarian Society7
“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 Byrnes8
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 sources7,8,9. 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"7.
“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)10,9
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"7.
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.
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)13
“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.”
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.
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 group15.
To grow meat synthetically, without involving animals at all, will remove all moral and animal-rights issues with meat consumption. It also removes all medical complaints associated with meat, and dispenses with impurities introduced during animal farming as meat can be grown in sterile, controlled conditions. Read this section from "The Food Chain" by Vexen Crabtree (2007)
“Meat in vats, grown in culture from a chemical source derived from animal genetics, will result in meat being grown more like plants than livestock. "A NASA-funded team led by Morris Benjaminson, at Touro College in New York City, took the first steps toward what may culminate in 'Lab meat' on your dinner menu. The aim of the project is to enable astronauts on long voyages to grow their own meat", but, the scope is clearly much greater than just space missions, and The Economist newspaper hails it as a future industry. Animal farming as an industry is in distress in the modern world, and is criticized for its heavy use of water and inhumane nature. [...]
The popular press have never reported on the potential benefits of this type of natural-synthetic meat. Here they are:
No livestock needs to be kept in captivity, so, no animals suffering or slaughter.
The meat can be kept sterile and completely free from diseases and contamination, "avoiding Salmonella, E. coli, Capylobacter and other nasties".
Nutrients can easily be added to the meat (i.e., more iron, more vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, etc) and the meats bad contents (fat, etc) can be closely controlled.
It allows a complete range of meats to be offered as "you could even take a cell from an endangered animal, and, without threatening its extinction, make meat from it".
Vegetarians who abstain from meat because of their revulsion of the treatment of animals, could eat synthetically grown meat.
Food production can be predictably matched to demand, and, it will help alleviate malnourishment in overpopulated areas.
“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. We compare scriptures below and look at some of the gory and shocking rituals that God directly asks people to do in the Jewish Scriptures / Old Testament. As modern governments continue to legislate against cruelty to animals, we will find that it is the world's mainstream religions' adherents who retreat to shady basements and hidden locations to perform secret rituals to kill animals, rather than Satanists or Pagans.”
Listen to medical advice and eat meat in moderation as part of a normal balanced diet. Continue to eat fish. Ignore media scares and "wives' tales" about food, and avoid fad diets.
Buy meat from ethical producers in order to influence the meat industry to embrace practices endorsed by animal-welfare principles. This has more effect than simply not buying meat.
Support and embrace new food production technologies (such as synthetically grown meat, and GM food) as these can massively increase efficiency and nutrition, as well as reducing the likelihood of anti-bacterial pesticides and other chemicals from entering the food chain.