A Dietary Value Change Required

Part of our transition towards a saner, sustainable society involves a shift in our human values. The Zeitgeist Movement recognizes this -- that, in addition to an upheaval in our economic infrastructure, our values must change accordingly in conjunction. Neither can happen without the other. I think a shift in our dietary habits and values is an absolutely necessary part of this overall value shift to a saner, more humane society.

I think there is insurmountable evidence that leads to the conclusion that humanity must move towards a more plant-based, whole foods, vegan diet. (I hesitate to simply use the “vegan” label, as it doesn’t describe enough of what it means to “eat healthily”. More on that in the “2. Health / Nutrition” section.) I have broken down my reasoning for this conclusion into three categories below, in order of importance with respect to species sustainability and optimized human health. While I cannot go into as much depth as needed for such an enormously vast topic, I have tried to condense the main points into as digestible a format and length as possible.

I know this is a highly contentious subject for many people and is sure to provoke heated objections from those who hold an emotional identification to meat-eating. My hope is to simply communicate this vital information for all to consider and stimulate reasonable discussion based on the data. Remember, our values today are borne out of an outdated social structure that is damaging on innumerable levels. Our dietary preferences and habits are no exception to this rule.

(Feel free to e-mail me at mattb(at)zeitgeistvancouver(dot)com if you want to discuss any of the material I address. I will attempt to get back to all reasonable e-mails.)

1. Ecology / Sustainability

All over the world, from rainforests in Central and South America to pine forests in China, huge amounts of land and entire ecosystems are being destroyed due to human beings’ demand for meat consumption. Food and agricultural institutions around the world estimate that between 14.5 and 51 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the livestock sector of industrialized agriculture. [1][2] This has been estimated to be more than all the cars and trucks throughout the world generate cumulatively. The livestock sector is additionally contributing severely to land degradation. In fact, between 30 and 45 percent of the Earth’s land is devoted to raising livestock. [3][4] 80 percent of the agricultural land in the US is devoted to the livestock sector, just to be able to fuel the burgeoning demand for meat. [5]

It takes roughly 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, 660 gallons to produce a pound of chicken, nearly 900 gallons to produce a pound of cheese, and over 2000 gallons to produce a pound of butter. Compare these figures to various plant-based foods: 180 gallons of water to produce one pound of whole wheat flour, 250 gallons for brown rice, 28 gallons for tomatoes, 64 gallons for broccoli, 48 gallons for oranges, and so forth. [6] Furthermore, it takes roughly 7 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef. [7] It takes 11 times the amount of fossil fuels to produce 1 pound of animal food as it does to produce 1 pound of plant food. [8] And US livestock consume a whopping 7 times more grain than does the US human population. [9]

You can clearly see how much more cataclysmically taxing it is on the environment to produce animal foods, and what you are contributing to when you choose to consume animal products.

Modern agriculture for plant foods is also destructive

There is no question about it - the livestock sector of modern agriculture is not the only thing that is destructive. Due to current farming practices, we have successfully destroyed much of the arable land available to us. As advocates of The Zeitgeist Movement are well aware of, there are countless ways of shifting our food cultivation methods to be more ecologically friendly and thus sustainable. Vertical farming [10] through methods of hydroponics and aquaponics is one significant example.

However, let’s not be naive about which sector of modern agriculture is most ecologically destructive and unsustainable. The Food and Agricultural Organization asserts that “the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” [11]

Low-carb movement

Even if this dietary approach was proven to be the optimal one (which I’ll address in the subsequent argument, i.e. reason 2), it fails miserably on the ecological level. If the world’s population were to adopt a low carbohydrate, high [animal] protein and/or fat diet, the planet simply could not sustain us. Dr. Loren Cordain, in his book “The Paleo Diet” (which has seen popularity recently as a variation on a “low-carb” diet, though some versions of the “paleo diet” have higher carbohydrate contents) admits that, “Without them (complex carbohydrates like potatoes, rice, and corn), the world could probably support one-tenth or less of our present population…”. [12]

What about converting all factory farming to organic, grass-fed, free-range, etc. production of meat?

While pasture grazing is of course a much superior method for meat production, in terms of health, ethics and on certain ecological fronts, there are still many problems with it -- especially considering the current demand for global meat consumption. While claims exist that grazing can restore desertified lands, limit soil erosion (though these claims are not generally supported by evidence, [13] and alleviate the need for pesticides; while grass-feeding cows, for example, is a healthier (and more natural) approach to raising livestock and ultimately producing meat; it is still extremely resource intensive and ultimately unsustainable, especially given current consumption demand. It still requires enormous amounts of water and land to produce such meat products compared to plant products. In fact, a recent study found that grass-fed systems (for beef production) require 40% more energy, 81% more land, 95% more feedstuffs, and four times the water to produce the same quantity of beef! Additionally, 70% more greenhouse gas emissions would be emitted, with an overall 68% higher carbon footprint. [14] Some studies indicate an additional methane production of over 300% for pasture-raised beef versus factory farmed. [15] When you review the numbers, it becomes obvious that this is not a viable alternative. The only sustainable alternative is to drastically lower our animal food consumption or eliminate it altogether.

Summary

In a world where the daily population increase is more than 200,000, this unsustainable demand for meat will only increase if shifts in diet are not made. Ultimately, we will be forced to change one way or another -- whether voluntarily or not -- due to ecological limitations and ramifications. The environmental crises we face today are huge and multifactorial, but there is no doubt the demand for animal products is a major attribute. We can make a sweeping change today if all we do is adjust our diets to one that is more in line with the future we wish to see -- one that is most consistent with a sustainable society.

2. Health / Nutrition

It should be noted that when considering the subject of nutrition, one must take a holistic perspective rather than a reductionist one. [16] Nutrition is a more holistic science, whereas something like pharmacology is a more reductionist one. In a subject as complex as nutrition, where it can be difficult to determine causality due to confounding variables (not to mention distorting monetary influences), it is easy enough to find a study that corroborates a myriad of different dietary approaches. Understanding this, we must take as comprehensive a view as possible when attempting to answer the question, “What is healthy?” No one should ever be swayed by one study, or especially by mass media articles that often misrepresent or exaggerate the newest published study or health book written by someone with credentials. A wider view is needed.

As mentioned, I hesitate to simply use the “vegetarian” or “vegan” labels to describe what a healthy diet should be oriented towards, as it doesn’t give enough information on what to eat. Many vegans eat nearly as bad as the Standard American Diet (SAD), with the many processed, refined, oily, sugary and salty foods on the market that are labeled “vegetarian” or “vegan”. While such labels are more reasonable to use to defend reasons 1 and 3, a more detailed descriptor is needed for an optimal dietary approach. I use the label, “a whole foods, plant-based, vegan diet”, while also highlighting several other issues like “calorie density”, “macronutrient balance”, and “satiety”, all of which are interlinked.

In this section, I want to focus on how humans can get everything they need nutritionally from a diet without animal products, and can do so better. Contrary to much very bad information out there, by following a simple whole foods, plant-based diet without animal products, you can easily get enough of every macro and micronutrient you need -- including the often touted protein, calcium and omega-3 that are supposedly deficient in vegan diets.

Almost every food and health authority in the world is parallel on the position that the over-consumption of animal products (due to their high fat--especially saturated fat--content, amongst many other reasons) is one of the primary causes -- if not the primary cause -- of the sickness and disease epidemics in the Western world, including but not limited to coronary heart disease (CHD) (more on this to follow). [17-31]

They do not go as far as to recommend cutting all such animal products out, but it is very clear that we do not need them in order to eat healthily, and that they tend to inhibit a healthy diet more times than not. As will be demonstrated, animal products have nothing in them that you require that you cannot get in a superior format and in more appropriate ratios from plant sources (with the exception of vitamin B12 - more on this to follow).

If we accept the protein recommendations from governmental agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture (which is a very generous grant, given that protein recommendations are unnecessarily high [32]), we find that we typically need to obtain about 10-15% of our daily calories from protein. [33] This is even the case for strength-training athletes, who need more calories but a similar dietary protein composition. [34][35] If one reviews various plant-based foods and their percentages of calories from protein, one will find that it is almost impossible to assemble such foods in one’s diet in a way that would bring about a protein deficiency. For example, starchy vegetables, such as peas, corn, squash and potatoes, have calorie-from-protein contents of 25%, 14%, 8-9%, and 11%, respectively. Vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, red peppers and tomatoes, have calorie from protein contents of 52%, 27%, 13% and 20%, respectively. [36] Most beans sit around 22-28%, and grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, and whole wheat flour are comprised of 9%, 15%, 14%, and 13%, respectively. The only way you are likely to have a protein deficiency is if you are also in a caloric deficiency (i.e. you’re food deprived). And contrary to some bad information out there, all of these plant foods contain all the amino acids that humans require. [37]

Due to thorough marketing and advertising, industry has drilled it into us that dairy products are the best way to obtain dietary calcium to maintain strong bones, such that many of us think that one will become deficient without it. Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) is the most powerful of the “bone-building” hormones in milk. These IGF-1’s have also been shown to be one of the most powerful promoters of cancer. [38][39] A meta-analysis in 2006 found that dairy products provided no real bone-strengthening benefits. [40] Additionally, cow’s milk and dairy products in general (along with all animal protein) are very acidic, so your body must work harder to neutralize your body’s PH. This leaches calcium from the bones and can lead to osteoporosis. In fact, the countries who consume the most animal protein have the highest rates of osteoporosis. [41][42][43] This doesn’t prove causation of course, but the high correlation is worth noting. The truth is there are many superior, plant-based ways to derive one’s calcium, without even trying. Excellent plant sources of calcium include dark leafy greens, other green vegetables, some soy products (tofu, tempeh, etc.), and beans. [44]

Omega-3 fatty acids are one of two essential [polyunsaturated] fats necessary for humans (the other being omega-6). While most people think the consumption of fish are necessary to obtain omega-3’s, the truth is by including a variety of plant-based foods, meeting this requirement is very easy. One tablespoon of either ground up flax seeds or chia seeds will single-handedly meet this requirement as well. Maintaining a low omega-6:omega-3 ratio (4:1 or lower, ideally 1:1) is also important in preventing health problems including heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. [45] The SAD is closer to about 15:1 - 16.7:1. [46] The foods that throw this ratio off include most fish, most nuts and seeds, soy products, and almost all oils (which are highly processed); while most all fruit and vegetables have omega-6:omega-3 ratios of exactly what the human body requires -- yet another reason to shift towards a more whole foods, unprocessed, plant-based diet. [47] And contrary to nutrition mythology, the body can sufficiently convert omega-3’s from plant sources into the usable form the body needs, especially if one eats a vegan diet. [48]

Lesser known objections to eliminating animal foods from one’s diet include concerns over vitamin A and vitamin K2. Because the body requires vitamin A in the form of retinol, our bodies must convert the beta-carotene (another form of vitamin A) into retinol. Some claim that this conversion process is inefficient, leaving the body deficient of the correct form of vitamin A. This is simply untrue. With a conversion factor of 3.6 μg β-carotene per 1 IU vitamin A, a plant-based diet can easily obtain more than the requirements. [49][50] As for vitamin K2, this is a form of vitamin K that is only found in bacteria and animal foods. However, our bodies can synthesize it, [51] and are able to convert K1 (found in plants) to K2. [52][53]

The beauty of the whole foods, plant-based dietary approach is that one really does not have to micromanage the details of one’s nutritional intake. If one eats a wide enough variety of starches (grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables), vegetables (especially dark leafy greens) and fruits, a nutritionally sufficient intake will be almost guaranteed.

The two exceptions to this are vitamin D (which is not a vitamin, but a hormone), the “sunshine” vitamin, and vitamin B12, which is derived from bacteria and doesn’t originate in animals. Vitamin D is best obtained from exposure to sunlight, but if one lives in an area or a lifestyle without consistent sun exposure, one can find an array of fortified foods (such as nut milks) with this necessary vitamin. Recent evidence also suggests that recommended daily levels of vitamin D are unnecessarily high, so obtaining your body’s requirements may not be as difficult as previously thought. [54] Also, vitamin D2 (from bacteria) has been demonstrated to be as effective as vitamin D3 (from animal sources) in meeting the body’s needs. [55] As for vitamin B12, this vitamin is not synthesized by either plants or animals, and is only present in animal foods who obtain it by eating food and soil contaminated with these microorganisms. While B12 could be considered the one blemish on an otherwise wholesome diet that contains everything you need, it is not because the plant-based diet is lacking, but is likely that we have developed overly sanitized conditions in our modern society, with our incessant washing, cleansing, antiseptics and antibiotics. B12, which is most abundantly found is certain shellfish and organ meats, is also available in fortified form in foods such as nut milks and nutritional yeast.

Summary

I’ve outlined what tend to be the nutrients that are most often singled out as objections to a plant-based diet. If space were to allow, I could elaborate on these and other nutrient requirements. The point is that we can easily obtain everything we need from a whole foods, plant-based, vegan diet without having to consume animal protein, and that such animal products, as well as processed and refined foods, will only inhibit our ability to achieve a truly healthy diet.

Some common objections to the “nutrition” argument

“We’ve evolved to eat meat.”

True to an extent. However, strong genetic evidence suggests that it is starch, as opposed to meat, that is what has been mainly responsible for the survival success of humans throughout our evolution. [56][57] And let’s make sure we steer clear of a naturalistic fallacy [58] in trying to justify how we ought to behave based on how we historically have.

“There are many studies that fail to show a link between saturated fat and coronary heart disease (CHD).”

An often cited study by the pro-meat side of the debate is a meta-analysis (an analysis of the analyses) in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) that finds no significant correlation between saturated fat and CHD. [59] Without getting into too extensive a response to this, there were many issues with the meta-analysis and the studies that were meta-analyzed. [60] For example, without getting too technical, various statistical assumptions were made that led to results that were contrary to what has been found overwhelmingly elsewhere in the scientific literature, such as the effect of replacing polyunsaturated fat with saturated fat, which has generally resulted in lower risk of CHD. [61-63] Another potential flaw was that the studies this meta-analysis reviewed examined diets whose so-called “low” saturated fat content was in the 10-15% range (some higher), which would not confer the benefits of a diet truly low in saturated fat (generally recommended as 7% or lower) and dietary fat altogether. [64-71]

And far more important than a link simply to CHD is a link to all-cause mortality, for which even more evidence exists. For example, The Expert Report reviewed half a million studies to determine the studies relevant in understanding cancer prevention, subsequently identifying 7,000 relevant studies in the scientific literature. These studies were reviewed by an expert panel who judged the accumulated evidence to come up with a top 10 lifestyle recommendations list to prevent cancer. They included, but were not limited to, reducing red meat consumption and limiting energy dense foods (i.e. fats) [72] (1 gram of protein and 1 gram of carbohydrate each consist of 4 calories, while 1 gram of fat consists of 9 calories, so it is easiest to over-consume fat calories due to their high calorie density.).

Another example is the pretty uniform finding in the scientific literature about the connection of increased saturated fat intake to Alzheimer’s disease. [73-78]

To be fair, there are undoubtedly other social factors that contribute to the many mortalities that diet has been linked to cause, particularly stress. [79][80] It is difficult to place appropriate weightings on which factor is more important, but it is safe and fairly uncontroversial to say both diet and stress are big contributors.

“Many doctors (like Dr. Atkins) have had success with the low-carb / high animal protein & fat dietary approaches.”

There is no doubt one can lose weight on such a dietary scheme, which often involves inducing a state of ketosis [81] in the body. While a thin body of evidence suggests that ketogenic diets can have some potential benefits for healthier people, [82][83] a more comprehensive review of the literature reveals considerable evidence (including several thorough meta-analyses) of harm in being on a low carbohydrate diet that is high in animal fats, such as endothelial problems (the ability for your arteries to dilate). [84-87] Of course, no study is perfect, which is why we must take as holistic and comprehensive an approach as possible when reviewing the literature to determine what comprises a healthy diet.

An alternate theory for why we become fat posits that excess consumed carbohydrates readily turn to fat. The published research on this phenomenon, known as de novo lipogenesis, has consistently and clearly shown that this is incorrect, as the human body simply does not work this way. [88-92] Instead, excess carbohydrates (particularly starches) are burned off as body heat through physical movements throughout the day. [93-95] In fact, added dietary sugar consumption in the United States has been on the decline since it peaked in 1999, while obesity has continued to shoot up in this time period. [96]

“Vegetarianism / veganism isn’t for everybody. People’s bodies have different needs.”

The latter part of this statement is certainly true, as we are all different shapes and sizes, have different athletic lifestyles, etc. A short, slim, sedentary person is going to have different nutritional and caloric requirements to a tall, more muscly, active person - no doubt. But the former part is simply unfounded, since you can obtain everything you need nutritionally without needing to consume animal products. This is essentially a get-out-of-jail-free statement for those who think their bodies need animal protein.

“I tried vegetarianism / veganism and failed. And many others who have tried have given it up as well. This failure rate proves there’s something wrong with this approach.”

Or it proves that you didn’t do it right, as many do not. There are indeed many testimonials and anecdotal cases of people not having success with this dietary approach, as there are with many other lifestyle choices. And since “vegan” doesn’t necessarily equate to “healthy”, it shows that simply eliminating animal products is not enough to “eat healthily”. Statistically, many vegetarians appear to revert to eating meat for a myriad of reasons (though, from reviewing the cited reasons, this may say more about the social condition that eschews healthy eating and reinforces an addiction to animal products) [97]; however, veganism has never before in history been more popular in the United States. [98]

3. Ethics / Morality

While this is not my favourite issue to get into for numerous reasons (one being that I think reasons 1 and 2 are more important; and another being that “ethics” or “morality” is often thought of as a relativistic concept that has no basis in objective inquiry), it is certainly worth discussing.

If morality means anything relevant, it has to do with the well-being of conscious creatures, and likewise the inquiry into what will enhance or diminish this well-being (or health). This is a question the scientific method can be used to address. Sam Harris, neuroscientist and bestselling author, addresses this contention very acutely in his book The Moral Landscape. [99] A very simple analogy can be made to crystallize this point. We rely on empirical data about the physical world to prescribe the best possible approaches for human health; not too many people would dispute the fact that there are “better” and “worse” ways to treat, for example, a cardiovascular event. Just as the approach to treating human health is (or should be, absent monetary pressures) geared towards an evidence-based, scientific approach, so too can “morality” be understood in terms of empirical information.

So, on the other hand, even though I have listed the “ethics” argument as the third one here, it can be used as a foundational argument to pave the way for the “ecological” and “health” reasons. If our goal as a species is to reduce suffering and maximize well-being (as described above), then pursuing a whole foods, plant-based, vegan dietary approach is optimal for these first two reasons, as well as other “ethical” considerations. If we do not share this goal, there is no point even having this discussion (nor is there any point in bettering the world on any level).

A more compassionate, humane and sane society, like that of a Resource-Based Economy, requires a fundamental value shift -- from one based on the self-centred values of wealth, power, materialism and vanity, to one derived from an understanding of and an alignment to the natural laws of our habitat. Since it is by no means necessary to consume animal products, not to mention a health detriment, and it is environmentally destructive to consume animal products, especially through current methods of food production, the only reason left to make dominion of animals is that of enjoyment (i.e. our culturally produced subjective wants). I think this position is morally indefensible and reprehensible.

While the abolition of factory farms in favour of a return to a healthier, natural way of raising livestock would of course be an improvement, we are still needlessly destroying life for no other reason other than culturally-imposed enjoyment (or misinformation that we need animal foods to be healthy).

Some common objections to the “morality” argument

“Plants have feelings too! So you’re arbitrarily deciding which forms of life you want to kill for food and which you want to save.”

This is simply ridiculous. Plants have no nervous system, no brain or consciousness that we know of. They cannot feel pain in any relevantly comparable way to sentient beings. Even if they could, it takes 11 pounds of plant food to produce 1 pound of animal food. [100] If our goal is pain minimization, the path of least harm is extremely obvious.

“Life feeds on life. It occurs in the animal kingdom, so it’s okay for us humans to do it too.”

Many animals are herbivores and many are omnivores who thrive on a greater proportion of plant or animal foods depending on availability. Our closest primate relatives consume plant-based foods as a great majority of their diets. [101-106] In any case, the claim is a non-sequitur. If it is more advantageous to our society on health, ecological and ethical levels to eat predominantly plant-based, then that is the optimal path.

“If you’re against killing animals for meat, you should be against killing insects and microbial life.”

Yes to the former and no to the latter. Insects are still sentient beings and whenever possible, the morally optimal path would be to avoid having to take away lives -- the exception of course being when acting in self-defense or self-preservation. And the latter, again, does not deal with sentient, conscious beings, so the comparison is moot.

“More animals are killed in fields when vegetables / grains are plowed.”

Recently some haphazardly researched internet news articles have been published with the contention that more smaller creatures are killed in the production of wheat and other grains than in the actual production of meat. [107] This particular article misrepresents and omits many facts. More academic analyses have examined this contention much more thoroughly. [108]

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Regardless of whether you agree or not with my conclusions, and despite me not being able to have covered everything I wanted for the sake of brevity, I hope I have provided some food for thought for you. I hope that you are able to detach yourself enough emotionally from the practice of eating meat in order to consider the evidence with a reasonable degree of objectivity. Again, I am well aware that I will provoke some emotionally-charged responses with this article, but such are necessary to inspire change.

Thank you for reading.

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[9] Ibid
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[45] “The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12442909
[46] Ibid
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[48] “Omega-3: ALA intakes enough for EPA/DPA levels for non-fish eaters?” http://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/Research/Omega-3-ALA-intakes-enough-...
[49] “An error in the US Department of Agriculture nutrient database results in vitamin A values that are 6 times too high”. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/87/4/1067.1.full
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Thu, 11/07/2013 - 8:57pm | Hey Matt. I'm Basko, from (Score: 1)
Sat, 11/30/2013 - 11:27pm | I'm vegan. The sustainability (Score: 1)
Sat, 11/30/2013 - 11:42pm | Ops, forgot... It seems that (Score: 1)
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 9:07pm | I appreciate the time and (Score: 1)
Fri, 12/13/2013 - 7:48pm | darinpeterson: where did you (Score: 1)
Fri, 01/17/2014 - 12:05pm | You did a really good job (Score: 1)