Vegetarian diets have their share of critics. Some criticisms are fair and some are not. One must bear in mind that there are better and worse vegetarian diets. Yes, there are failed vegans out there, which is to say there are those who developed health problems resulting from their chosen approach to veganism, but both proportionally and absolutely, there are far more failed omnivores, and their failures result in enormous collateral damage, whether for the environment, the animals, or the balance sheets of both businesses and governments. Vegans aren't wasting water or causing deforestation and they aren't driving the out-of-control healthcare spending that is crippling our economy. Most arguments against vegetarian diets concern possibilities for deficiencies in this or that nutrient. Such criticisms can have merit. Some nutritional deficiencies are definitely more likely for the vegan than the omnivore. For all their overlooked damaging effects, animal foods do have beneficial nutrients that are not easily removed by processing. Plant foods, on the other hand, can easily be turned into junk food. A vegan lacking adequate education in nutrition will probably consume a diet that is deficient in some nutrients. But with a little knowledge, a vegan can get what he or she needs. It's very easy to be a healthy vegan these days.
I've already made a couple videos looking at some of the minor concerns that have been raised with vegetarian diets which I find interesting. I'll only address a couple more in this video.
The first of these is the finding from the ongoing EPIC-Oxford project that while the vegetarians they surveyed had lower overall rates of cancer, they developed colorectal cancer at a somewhat greater rate. The authors of this paper expressed surprised at this result and couldn't account for it. They contributed an interesting qualifier when they wrote that the meat eaters in the population they surveyed didn't eat very much meat and their fruit and vegetable consumption was not much less than that of the vegetarians. This finding seems to contradict other research since red meat eating has been repeatedly linked to colorectal cancer. However, other research lends credibility to their observation.
For example, this study investigated fresh red meat, processed red meat, and vegetarian diets for their relationships to certain compounds that cause damage to DNA and would be expected to promote colorectal cancer. These researchers used a randomized crossover design to see what the effects of each diet intervention would be after two weeks. Both of the meaty diets caused undesirable changes, especially the one with processed meats, but the vegetarian diet period also fared poorly. Their vegetarian approach resulted in more DNA strand breaks than either of the meat-based diets.
This finding surprised these researchers as well, and they, too, could offer no explanation. They related their findings to the study from EPIC-Oxford that I just showed you.
Because this study was run like a clinical trial, they tried to keep other factors constant in all the diets. As a result of their efforts to minimize their variables, they didn't test an especially good plant-based diet. All the diets had about the same amount of saturated fat, for example. If you are a vegetarian who is consuming 33 grams of saturated fat per day, you are not much of a vegetarian in the nutritional sense. They also consumed 30 grams of fiber, which isn't awful but it certainly isn't good, either. Combine this with their misguided decision to limit the consumption of naturally occurring nitrates from vegetables and you don't have the makings of a very good vegetarian diet. There is no other information that appears in these basic tables about the vegetarian diet composition so I don't think we should see this study as the last word on this subject...
Especially when there is another study out there that apparently contradicts it. I hope we see more studies looking at this issue because I don't think we have adequate information between these two studies.
By the way, if you are wondering about nitrates in vegetables and why those researchers probably shouldn't have restricted them, Michael Greger has made videos on this topic which you should check out.
We are still left with that epidemiology showing increased colorectal cancer among vegetarians. I was puzzling over this a while back and I asked a vegan athlete friend of mine what his thoughts were. Within minutes he produced a better explanation for this than any other I've seen.
Any time you see a study finding a problem with vegetarian diets, search for a link between that problem and the most common vegetarian nutrient deficiencies. While these few slides may not definitively explain this finding about colorectal cancer, they do suggest where the answer lies. My friend first looked for a link between B12 deficiency and DNA mutagenicity. Sure enough, there is reason to suspect this played a role. Among young people in Australia, supplementation with B12 was found to reduce DNA damage.
Two of the same researchers involved in that study also found that a moderate deficiency of B12 among older men was associated with DNA damage as well. Vegans and vegetarians who don't supplement B12 often make the rest of us look bad in the scientific literature.
Vegetarians are also frequently low on vitamin D so my friend looked for an explanation there.
It turns out that there may be a link to colorectal cancer this way as well. Every diet is a compromise. Whole food, plant-based diets offer the best compromise for us today, in my opinion. But vegetarians and vegans who don't educate themselves about their nutritional needs don't take full advantage of the benefits of these diets.
This very valuable recent study investigated the impact of a vegan diet on serum B12 by selecting 20 omnivores and switching them to a vegan diet for five years. Some of them supplemented B12, some did not. The vegans who supplemented B12 maintained their serum B12 concentrations, but those who didn't supplement experienced a significant decrease. I hope every vegan becomes aware of this study and applies its lesson. Vegans must supplement B12 and they should supplement vitamin D if they don't get adequate sun exposure. If you won't do this for yourself, then do it so you won't make every other vegan look bad.
Here is the second somewhat interesting study out there that has become an occasional source of criticism for vegetarian diets. This is a bit more complicated so bear with me. A study from 2002 measured advanced glycation end products among 155 randomly selected individuals in Bratislava, Slovakia. The participants were categorized as either "alternative" which meant vegetarian, or "traditional" which meant omnivorous. The vegetarians were found to have higher levels of glycated proteins. AGEs, as they are called, are associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Vegetarian diets are not associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Nevertheless, this study has been pounced upon by the likes of Michael Eades, who says that vegetarians AGE faster. Get it? He speculates that vegetarians have higher blood sugar than low carbers because of this study. Watch my videos with the titles An Evolved Fuel System and How to Become Insulin Resistant to see why this is so unlikely.
Here you see his analysis. He says the vegetarians consumed more fructose, which he apparently thinks gave them chronically high blood sugar. He anticipated comments from "surly vegetarians" who disagree with him. To him, eating fruits and vegetables mean extra fructose and high blood sugar. Let's take a moment to remind ourselves that this guy is actually a doctor.
I wonder how Dr. Eades would explain why this study found that vegetarians have lower fasting glucose than semi-vegetarians and omnivores. Look at this chart closely and you'll see the vegetarians were doing just fine across a range of measures.
He would also have to explain this finding. "Omnivores had significantly higher fasting blood glucose than that of vegetarians." When a low carber's hypothesis fails to predict what happens in reality, will he have the integrity to admit he was wrong?
The same researchers involved in that AGEs study published an earlier paper which made a similar observation. Maybe these AGEs are a concern for vegetarians.
That earlier study was addressed by this blogger, who deserves a mention here for adding some good thoughts on this topic.
It's from his blog that I found this study, showing that fructose may have a unique potential to increase glycation.
As you can see, the vegetarians in the study Eades likes were consuming a whole lot more honey than the omnivores, and they consumed more fruit, too. Perhaps fructose consumption is the key factor. The concern I have with that conjecture is that there is no mention of how these authors defined "fruit." We've seen in a past video how "fruit" sometimes can mean "fruit juice."
That blogger found that in the earlier paper there were quite variable amounts of juice being consumed. I think we'd need to know the details of the diets in question to sort these issues out.
If you look closely at the study Eades likes, you'll see that their vegetarians were consuming dairy and eggs. This is the reason I don't buy the commonly drawn conclusion from these studies that it was their vegetarians' lack of taurine that caused this. Eggs are a major source of taurine. I should mention that there is no information in this study about saturated fat consumption.
Animal experiments indicate that a high-fat diet promotes the formation of these AGEs.
And it seems that egg consumption promotes the development of diabetes. Eggs could be a part of the explanation here along with fructose.
Another author had similar thoughts about vegetarians and AGEs. Until similar observations are made by other researchers who provide a better description of the dietary patterns of the vegetarians they study, I simply think it is premature to try to draw any conclusions about vegetarian diets and advanced glycation end-products.
However, we can back up and at least see whether Dr. Eades was at least on the right track. He said the vegetarians in that study consumed more fructose due to their fruits and vegetables, and this is why they had higher blood sugar.
Let's look more closely at the first study that made this finding about vegetarians and AGEs and see if he's right. Look closely at the characteristics of the participants. Even though the average age was lowest for the omnivores, with age rising with increased adherence to vegetarianism, body mass index went down along with the degree of vegetarianism. The more plants and the less animal foods were consumed, the less fat the participants were. Also, you will note here that the vegans had the lowest blood sugar. Eades seems to be way off, but that's nothing new.
Look at the foods consumed by each group and try to make sense of this. The omnivores did consume the least fruits and vegetables. However, they ate the most carbs. They also drank more fruit juice than two of the more vegetarian groups. That seems to damage Dr. Eades' argument. Notice that last line. The omnivores consumed the least honey. The vegans consumed a lot of honey (and by the way, honey isn't really vegan). Honey has a lot of fructose. Maybe honey was the issue.
But notice that the vegans were lower in measured AGEs than the other two vegetarian groups. Vegans ate more fruit and they liked honey so they were indulging in fructose, yet they had lower AGE concentrations. It doesn't appear these results lead to any obvious conclusion, regardless of what Eades wrote. It's easier to give a simple explanation when you ignore data, isn't it Dr. Eades?
The researchers drew distinctions between the vegetarian groups for this reason. They said differences in AGE levels did not reach significance for the vegans.
The authors also made this interesting remark. The vegetarians consumed three to six times more technologically processed grain products than the omnivores. I think this may be important. Grain products are too often overly heated and overly milled. This might have made the difference here.
Something else that should not be overlooked is a later study by the same researchers, which was published in 2006 and therefore was quite available to Dr. Eades when he wrote his lazily researched article in 2008. This one compared omnivores with lacto-ovo vegetarians. On this occasion the differences in their levels of AGEs was insignificant. Moreover, the vegetarians had better insulin sensitivity. An intelligent person will not make too much of a study that looked at less useful biomarkers in a very small group of people. Without evidence that plant-based diets contribute to any of the health problems associated with elevated AGEs and without similar findings from research conducted outside of Slovakia, we need to avoid hasty generalizations if we don't want to come across as ignorant low-carb hacks.
At this point, the evidence mostly points in the direction of lower rates of diabetes and heart disease among vegetarians, and those are the issues that drive most of the concern about AGEs. Let's not forget which measures of health are the most important.
I'll close out this video by talking through a rather odd article on the Web which is critical of vegetarian diets. It is called "Why I Am Not a Vegetarian" by Dr. William Jarvis. I have gone back and forth about whether I should include it in one of my videos because it hardly deserves a response. It's just so poorly done.
However, it keeps getting recycled by the confused and gullible, including Paleo author Dr. Arthur De Vany. Dr. De Vany says this article is essentially his argument against vegetarianism, expressed more effectively than he could express it. Therefore, this article should give us an indication of De Vany's critical thinking skills. He should be embarrassed that he has associated himself with this tripe.
This is William Jarvis. He is the author of this anti-veg article. He has criticized medical quackery in many publications, and while I haven't read that other material, I imagine I would probably agree with most of it.
However, with this article, he is due for some debunking of his own. This article was written in 1997 and it appears on the website of a group called the American Council on Science and Health. Simply going by their name, that sounds like a respectable group, doesn't it?
The ACSH has received a lot of criticism over the years for its funding sources and for the positions it has taken. Consumer Reports wrote that their positions are typically in defense of corporate interests. They have argued on behalf of Monsanto, which they once referred to as their largest funder. They have taken positions defending lawn chemicals, artificial sweeteners, and bovine growth hormone. Their founder, whose name is Elizabeth Whelan, has called her organization, "the great defender of petro-chemical companies."
Here she is on MSNBC telling us that the presence of an endocrine-disrupting herbicide in sources of drinking water is nothing to be concerned about...
Despite the fact that exposure to this herbicide at levels below the official threshold for safety is associated with increased menstrual cycle irregularity, among other perturbations of the female reproductive system.
The group no longer discloses its funders. You can see here that Whelan dismisses repeated findings of a link between red meat consumption and cancer.
PR Watch has written about their defense of the meat industry. They tell us how an ACSH staffer's booklet about vegetarianism has been used as a reference by a representative of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
With all that as background, it's time for us to learn about Dr. Jarvis's supposedly science-based reasons for not being a vegetarian. See if you like his logic here. He says, "The term 'vegetarian' is misleading, for it is not a name for people who favor vegetable consumption, but a code word for those who "disfavor or protest the consumption of animal foods. The neologism 'anticarnivorist' better characterizes the majority of those who call themselves vegetarians." Does all that make sense to you? He is saying that the true distinguishing feature of people who don't eat meat is that they are opposed to animal foods, not that they eat foods from plants. He wants you to think of them as activists, when in fact, most vegetarians are not activists at all. His new word is an affront to clear communication. Vegetarians are people who don't eat meat. This is not a complicated idea. It's a description of an eating behavior and that is all. His misbegotten word "anticarnivorist" is malformed and unviable and is a far more misleading term than is "vegetarian". Fifteen years later it hasn't caught on for good reason. A vegetarian may be against the eating of meat, but that doesn't mean he or she is an enemy of meat eaters. Sometimes a vegetarian will even marry one. Just because Jarvis feels vegetarians are opposed to meat eaters doesn't make it so. Beside that, humans aren't normally classified as carnivores and I know lots of vegetarians who have and love cats, so I don't know how vegetarians could be said to be against carnivores. Jarvis is showing us straight away that his thoughts get a bit jumbled on this topic.
He then tells us there is a separate category of vegetarians that he calls "pragmatic vegetarians." These are vegetarians who eat the way they do for objective health-related reasons. I am guessing he didn't call them "pragmatic anticarnivorists" because that would expose the idiocy of his neologism.
He says his problem is with what he calls "ideologic vegetarians". Now we are getting closer to understanding his attitude. He is not really arguing against vegetarianism or vegetarians. He is criticizing a stereotype of a certain type of vegetarian. Does he understand this distinction? Apparently not. He believes these vegetarians make a pretense of being scientific. They are prepared for debates, he says, but they are not interested in scientific understanding, which I suppose makes them unlike him in his mind. Let's see how he measures up to this standard.
Jarvis was a professor of public health at Loma Linda University so it makes sense that he has a particular interest in Seventh-day Adventists. He was a Seventh-day Adventist and he was a vegetarian, too. He's bringing some personal baggage to this topic. He tells us he found the soy milk he tried back then to be repulsive. Soy milk is much better today. He tells us about an objectionable stew containing raw peanuts offered to him by hippies in the woods that he ate once upon a time, giving him heartburn. Why this man of science didn't know better than to eat raw peanuts, he does not say.
He then lays out what he calls five vegetarian postulates as conjured by someone named Darla Erhardt. It seems when you decide to not eat meat you are also endorsing these postulates by default. I'll bet most of you vegetarians didn't know that. Jarvis tells us what they are so he can knock them down one by one with his scientific acumen. First, all forms of life are sacred. Next, it is clear God didn't design humans to eat meat. Number three is that slaughter is repugnant. Number four says that the production of animal food is inefficient and not environmentally sound. Lastly, animal flesh is unhealthful. Dr. Jarvis then proceeds to offer rebuttals to all these.
The first postulate was that all life is sacred and all creatures must live out their natural lives. He says this belief leads to absurdities like allowing mosquitos to spread malaria and vipers to run loose in your house. Is this not ridiculous? This is slippery slope on steriods. This couldn't be more obviously fallacious. Really, is there even a single person who has argued for these things? He then says that the natural world is hierarchical and based on dominance. In nature animals die as well, and in ways that are not nice. Again, remember this is supposed to be an argument based on science. I hear these two arguments a lot. They are both pretty poor. Yes, the world has predator-prey relationships, but they are naturally in balance. Predators often starve. Humans are not predators in this sense. You won't see predators in the wild setting up industrialized breeding and slaughtering operations. Humans are above the natural world, for better and for worse. Humans are also able to be highly moral creatures. Jarvis's might-makes-right argument denies this fact. In other contexts, we might think it immoral for the strong to dominate the weak, yet the domination and exploitation of animals is to be respected and defended as somehow virtuous. I think this thinking is obviously self-serving and vain. When you hear someone argue this way, you may find that he or she holds a sense of entitlement to the lives of animals derived from religious beliefs, and Jarvis has religious beliefs forming his views just under the surface, as you will see. The argument that animals die anyway in the wild so we may as well kill them reveals its absurdity when you apply this logic to people. If I said humans often die before they get old from cancer and it is for this reason we should just euthanize everyone at the age of 40, you would probably think that I am a crazy person. Why is that? We value human life by both its quality and quantity, and we don't value anything about death as much. We all die of something anyway so we may as well enjoy life as long as we can. If he is interested in pursuing his focus on the prevention of the pain of death to its logical conclusion he should then propose that all sentient life on Earth should be humanely eliminated so no more creatures will have to suffer their natural deaths. What better way to end suffering than to end all life? Or is he not being forthright? Doesn't he really just want to eat meat, the interests of animals be damned? When someone argues this way, they are really saying that they don't value the lives of animals and they don't think they deserve whatever joys they might have the chance to experience during their lives. Such people are entitled to their self-centered feelings. But they shouldn't pretend they want animals bred and slaughtered and fed to their bellies out of concern for their welfare. This argument is simply dishonest. He then says that humans are designed to be omnivores, and with this I wouldn't quarrel except to say that we are not designed. Humans have historically been omnivores. Vegetarians are interested in perhaps doing a bit better than the ignorant humans of the past. Read his whole essay and you'll notice that Jarvis relies upon the example of the Eskimos here, which demonstrates his ignorance regarding human evolutionary history.
Next, he tries to counter the environmental argument for vegetarianism. He says animals pull their weight when it comes to land use and food production efficiency. When someone makes this argument, he is putting forth a model of animal food production that works in his or her head in the hopes that you won't think about the model of animal food production that is actually operational in the real world.
In the real world, it is clear that it is inefficient to feed animals first in order to feed ourselves later. If you are watching this video, this is almost certainly the grossly inefficient way that nearly everyone around you is supplied with animal-sourced foods.
He says many nomadic populations survive on land unsuitable for agriculture. I wonder if Jarvis has a sense of the number of people actually living like this. Clearly, he does not live this way. Increasingly, the historically nomadic populations do not, either. If he really thought a nomadic existence was so appealing he should have walked the walk. When someone says this, you should translate this argument thusly: "If you want to find a situation in which meat eating might be called efficient, you are going to have to look as far afield as pastoralist nomads and Eskimos." Very often, the way some people become comfortable with eating animals is by romanticizing bygone times and vanishing cultures. It's hard for me to know how to argue against that since it isn't rooted in anything rational. They just like this thought. He then moves on to that postulate about the nutritional problems with meat. He tries to neutralize that one through a false analogy. He says plants naturally have toxicants.
Paleo dieters will wonder why he eats legumes and grains, then. Don't they have toxicants? Apparently, even Jarvis doesn't buy this argument.
You can watch my Phytophobia videos for my answer to this. Plants don't naturally harbor E. coli or salmonella so he is not comparing like to like. This scientist should have offered scientific research showing that animal foods promote health better than plant foods if he really wanted to detract from vegetarianism, but he didn't do that because there isn't much that can be said to support that claim. He then says that cultures that more eat animal foods live the longest. This is the old poverty ploy of the cholesterol confusionists. Please see my video number 20 for more on this dishonest and distasteful claim. Now get yourself ready for the next argument of his. This is crazy. Look at the last line here. He says that herbivores develop disease despite the fact that they don't eat meat. If you didn't think he could top his mosquitos and vipers arguments for sheer stupidity, I'll bet you are pretty impressed right now. It's true, Dr. Jarvis. Veganism does not make humans or animals immortal. And your point was? Remember, Arthur De Vany thinks this is a well-reasoned essay.
Jarvis then recounts examples of people failing in their diets due to their extreme beliefs. Here he tells us that a child was not fed properly and died. The obvious problem here is that he is relating to us a particular case and there definitely was more than one vegetarian family out there when this happened and they didn't make the news, so this must have been an unusual case.
He brings up several more of these unusual examples. Some boys were underfed by someone. A woman didn't seek medical attention during pregnancy. Children suffered scurvy and rickets. Scurvy? Does he know what that is? Now vegetarianism means not eating fruit to him? Then he tells us about a breatharian. Yes, a breatharian. Read through this and you will see that he can't separate the concept of vegetarianism from the miscellaneous kooky people who call themselves vegetarian.
Next, this scientist decides to argue based on his reading of the Bible. Vegetarianism is called a "devil-inspired idea." [** This was not Jarvis's argument. I misused this quote. See my Errata.] Look, no offense to anyone watching this, but this is a religious belief. There is no way for me to deal with it using reason. Enough said.
He goes on. He accuses vegetarians who advocate for their ideals of practicing "mind control." For him, to have a different point of view and speak out for it is to practice mind control. Think about this. Most people speak up for what they believe in and they don't usually feel a need to equally represent opposing views. When was the last time you heard any advocate, like for example an abortion protester, fully present both sides of the argument on their issue? What sense would that make? He then objects to children being shown the slaughter of animals. He thinks this is mind control, too. I thought he disagreed with that postulate just a moment ago that said that slaughter is repugnant. If slaughter isn't repugnant, how could this be mind control?
He then likens slaughter to childbirth. I have no words for this.
After all this hogwash, he once again presents himself as a defender of science. In my opinion, science needs defending from people like this guy, who brings ignorance and prejudice into the realm of science. Finally, he says he can support "pragmatic vegetarianism." He just doesn't want anyone out there openly saying it's the right thing to do. Dr. Jarvis, you're living in the wrong country if you can't handle people advocating for their beliefs.
So there’s my take on Dr. Jarvis’s article. Do you think he made a strong case against vegetarianism? Do you think he used an approach that is likely to be effective with scientifically literate readers? Imagine something for me. Imagine that Dr. Jarvis was a student in a rhetoric class and he was given an assignment to write a persuasive article opposing vegetarianism for an imaginary audience of doctors and scientists. This was the essay he submitted. Do you think his professor would have found this to be an effective essay for that skeptical audience? Do you think such an audience would agree that vegetarianism is a “devil-inspired idea”? [** This was a mistake. Again, see the Errata page.]
I would think anyone with a decent education would find his essay deserving of mockery. Instead, this article is reproduced in full on the Quackwatch website. I wonder how many of their other skeptical articles reference the Holy Spirit. There is something about vegetarianism that will turn even self-styled skeptics into intellectual primitives. Christopher Hitchens proposed that we “picture all experts as if they were mammals.” It’s good to remember that even well-trained minds may be the mere slaves of base and selfish motives.
This article is an extreme example of the incoherent and illogical arguments vegans and vegetarians often encounter. My videos are here to help those who are open-minded see that there really are good rational reasons to adopt a vegetarian diet. Some exposure to the dishonest and emotionally charged arguments used to oppose vegetarianism should give an intelligent person a sense of who feels secure in their convictions and who feels on the defensive. Ultimately, the fervor with which someone like Jarvis attacks vegetarianism doesn't arise out of his sincere concern for missing nutrients. More often, opposition to vegetarianism surfaces when one feels that it threatens ideas at the core of his identity. It's good that Jarvis has made the ideas that animate him so clear. I'll make my beliefs clear as well. I will close this project with one final video about what I feel are some of the big ideas of vegetarianism.