Omnivore vs. Vegan

Are we supposed to consume animal products? Or is veganism our next big
evolutionary leap? Whether you believe beef is what’s for dinner or meat is murder,
the truth behind your lifestyle choice may define your health. Here, two experts
face off in this debate for the ages . . . which side will you choose?

By Patrick Dougherty

July 2007

Imagine a vegan is shipwrecked on a remote tropical island. Suddenly, the luxury of choosing foods that suit vegan beliefs is replaced with the necessity of finding any food that is available.

While seaweed, edible roots and the occasional coconut might offer temporary plant-based sustenance, a starving vegan would eventually also turn to fishing, hunting for wild boars, collecting eggs and scavenging for grubs. Holding aloft a wriggling, freshly speared fish, which ordinarily might trigger revulsion in a vegan, would now bring gratification for protein, healthy essential fatty acids, food energy and a full belly. In a natural world such as this pristine desert isle, a compelling argument supports the consumption of animal products: survival.

Back in the increasingly unnatural civilized world, however, the argument for eating animals weakens. A bountiful food supply has exaggerated our instinctual, survival-driven omnivorous urges to dangerous excess. Meeting the overwhelming demand for animal products are massive factory farming operations, driven to maximize profits by producing as much milk, eggs and meat as possible. The steps taken to achieve this end, including cheap animal feed, poor animal living conditions and use of antibiotics and growth hormones, yield animal products that are deficient in natural nutrition but abundant in disease-promoting saturated fats, omega-6 fatty acids, toxins and residual antibiotics and hormones. Particularly at risk are those carnivorous souls who forego the valuable phytonutrients found in antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables for a steady diet of meat, eggs and dairy products.

Even more distressing than just the personal health risks are the environmental risks animal product overconsumption presents to our planet. Giant factory farming operations are notorious for depleting significant resources and generating pollution, while commercial fishing practices are so destructive that some experts believe 90% of the ocean’s edible species may be gone by the year 2048. The modern world’s factory animal farming and gluttonous meat consumption is unsustainable, ethically questionable and unnatural.

Factory farming-driven overindulgence may be wrong—but what about the act of eating meat in itself? Native Americans’ hunting traditions offer an example of how eating meat can be pure and natural. The hunt required skill, exercise, physical strength and patience. The meat it yielded was more nutritive, coming from free-roaming, grass-fed wild animals. The hunters would treat these animals with respect; Choctaw tribe hunters would ritualistically utter before killing their prey, “Deer, I am sorry to hurt you. But the people are hungry.” In such a context, eating meat appears to be sustainable, healthy and even ethically justifiable.

Such age-old beliefs are now coming full circle, as evidenced by an increasing disdain for factory farming and rising demand for grass-fed and humanely raised livestock, and for more sustainable animal farming practices. Despite this shift, casual observations reveal that for many, the animal consumption debate is still up in the air. Consider the vegetarian wearing leather, the self-proclaimed animal lover gnawing on a chicken leg and the enthusiastic carnivore who could never muster the nerve to kill a cow.

Puzzling indeed is the stalemate of this intricate debate—so Energy Times has turned the omnivore versus vegan issue over to the experts.
In this corner, as our omnivore representative, we have Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, CCN, a board-certified clinical nutritionist, speaker, seminar leader and member of the Board of Directors of the Weston A. Price Foundation (www.westonaprice.org).

In the other corner, here’s passionate vegan Hope Ferdowsian, MD, MPH, an internist, preventive medicine and public health specialist, and director of the Washington Center for Clinical Research, a subsidiary of the not-for-profit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (www.pcrm.org).
Both doctors are educated, esteemed and experienced—yet both hold diametrically opposed viewpoints on the place of animal products in our diet. The debate rages on:

Dr. Daniel: Mother Nature designed human beings to thrive on omnivorous diets. Traditional cultures from around the world prove that we can best achieve optimum health and maximum longevity from a diet rich in animal fats and proteins, not just fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains.

Veganism—a strict form of vegetarianism which includes no animal products whatsoever—is a modern experiment, well-intentioned but misguided. Short-term, vegan diets can be cleansing and healing. Long-term, they often lead to serious deficiencies of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids, putting vegans at risk for malnutrition, digestive distress, thyroid disorders, immune system breakdown, allergies...even heart disease and cancer.

It is simply wrong to blame animal foods for the diseases of modern civilization as the 20th century saw a decline in the consumption of meat, dairy and butter consumption but a sharp increase in the consumption of sugar, corn syrup, white flour, liquid and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, artificial flavorings, preservatives and other known health hazards of processed, packaged and fast foods.

All health problems associated with animal products—as well as cruelty to animals and threats to the environment—are the result of factory farming and other commercial and non-sustainable farming practices.

Dr. Ferdowsian: A growing number of people suffer from overweight and related diseases, forcing us to look closely at the foods that we eat. Over one billion people worldwide are overweight, now matching the number of people who are underweight. Responding to the obesity epidemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that people consume low-fat, high-fiber, plant-based foods, while avoiding saturated, animal-based fats. Animal products are high in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, compared with plant foods, increasing the risk for diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

In contrast with the WHO recommendations, world meat production has increased over 10 times the population growth rate in the last three decades. As a physician, I see the opportunity for many of my patients to improve their health by making simple dietary changes. I often tell my patients about how research, including one study funded by the National Institutes of Health, has shown that a low-fat, vegan diet can reverse heart disease, improve diabetes and help with weight loss. In fact, the American Dietetic Association has established that appropriately planned vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and “provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” People who follow a vegan diet need to ensure that they obtain enough vitamin B12, either by eating foods fortified with B12 (including some plant milks, soy products and breakfast cereals) or by taking supplements.

If more people were to follow a vegan diet, we might also see tremendous improvements in the environment. Animal farming is responsible for nearly 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it is the leading cause of deforestation. As informed individuals, we can make thoughtful decisions about the foods that we eat that will influence our own lives, the lives of animals and the environment.

Dr. Daniel: The obesity epidemic is a recent phenomenon caused by excess consumption of the sugar, starchy carbohydrates and vegetable oils found in packaged, processed and fast foods. According to JAMA, the obesity rate jumped 8.6% from 1994 to 1999, years in which low-fat foods were heavily promoted as the tickets to good health. When we get the variety of fats we need—including healthy saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil—we feel satiated, making us far less likely to binge.

Contrary to popular belief, science does not support the idea that saturated fat and cholesterol contribute to diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Anatomy and physiology textbooks give many reasons why our bodies not only need fat, but saturated fat. Without the structure provided by saturated fat, cell membranes function poorly, resulting in nutritional deprivation, toxic waste buildup and disease promotion at the cellular level. Cholesterol too is essential—at least if we desire plenty of sex hormones and “feel good” neurotransmitters. Indeed, low total cholesterol levels (below 180) are linked to fatigue, cancer, autoimmune disorders, depression, anxiety and suicide. What’s more, cholesterol is a poor marker of heart disease risk. As famed heart surgeon Michael DeBakey MD put it, “There is no definite correlation between serum cholesterol levels and the nature and extent of atherosclerotic disease.”

Dr. Ferdowsian offers the American Dietetic Association’s position on veganism as proof that a plant-based diet is adequate. Advice from the ADA is hardly credible, given its longstanding opposition to health foods and supplements, and cheerleading for the processed food industry.
     I share Dr. Ferdowsian’s concerns about the effects of factory farming. However, the solution is not veganism, but environmentally friendly, mixed-use farms, on which organic farmers cultivate fruits, vegetables and grains while humanely raising animals for dairy, eggs and meat.

Dr. Ferdowsian: It is difficult to ignore the “epidemiological transition” in the global burden of disease, with the shift from infectious to chronic illnesses. In the last three decades, average energy intake in the United States has increased, including the percentage of caloric intake attributed to refined carbohydrates. However, absolute fat intake has also increased. One gram of fat contains more than twice as many calories as one gram of carbohydrate. Dietary patterns in Japan and China have followed similar trends, corresponding to increased obesity and heart disease rates.

According to the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, excess fat intake, particularly saturated fat, is associated with higher risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and certain cancers. Scientific studies have shown that meat intake is associated with breast and colon cancer, whereas dairy intake has been linked with prostate cancer.

Fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains have no cholesterol and are low in fat, high in fiber and rich in cancer-fighting chemicals. All animal products contain saturated fat and cholesterol and are devoid of fiber. There are no established minimum recommendations for cholesterol and saturated fat consumption. Unfortunately, mixed farming systems are not ideal. Animals such as cows produce greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, regardless of how they are raised. Like dogs and cats, animals used in farming are sentient beings and exhibit fear, distress, anticipation, grief and empathy. Animals used in food production cry out when they and their companions are separated or killed. The bottom line is that eating animal products is not necessary to human health and, for many, it poses a significant risk. Choosing to follow a vegan diet is a healthy and ethical choice that benefits humans, the environment and the animals.

Dr. Daniel: Dr. Ferdowsian’s claims are not borne out by the historical and anthropological evidence. In his 1945 book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Weston A. Price, DDS, documented the radiant good health and freedom from chronic disease enjoyed by people eating traditional, nutrient-dense, omnivorous diets free of sugar, white flour, pasteurized milk, partially hydrogenated fats and other modern food product ingredients. Dr. Price searched the world for a culture in which plant foods “without the use of animal products, were capable of providing all of the requirements of the body for growth and for maintenance of good health and a high state of physical efficiency.” Sadly, he reported “no group that was building and maintaining good bodies exclusively on plant foods” although several were “endeavoring to do so with marked evidence of failure.”

Modern lab tests confirm Dr. Price’s findings. Vegans routinely come up deficient in vitamins A, D, K, B2, B6 and B12; the sulfur-containing amino acids methionine, cysteine and taurine; DHA and EFA fatty acids; and calcium, zinc, carnitine and CoQ10. Although the human body is theoretically capable of converting beta carotene into vitamin A, and omega 3 fatty acids into DHA and EPA, few people are healthy enough to do. Sunlight might produce sufficient vitamin D—provided you are naked and live in the tropics.

Finally, Dr. Ferdowsian pleads that we become vegan for the sake of animals. This too defies common sense. Are we to let the world’s cows, sheep, goats, chicken, pigs and other livestock die off? Or must we support them all as pets? Sadly, neither would restore the balance of our planet’s ecosystem. The true threat to our environment is not animals—which have been covering the earth with manure and emissions for tens of thousands of years—but the globalization and industrialization of agriculture with its unconscionable factory farming practices, toxic use of pesticides, herbicides and commercial fertilizers, plundering of natural resources and bankrupting of small farmers and cottage industries.

Dr. Ferdowsian: There is plenty of evidence to support the view that a vegan diet is healthful and appropriate for human health. Population-based studies and clinical trials have repeatedly demonstrated that plant-based diets rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains decrease the risk for multiple medical problems, including overweight and obesity, diabetes, heart disease, gynecological disorders, kidney disease, and breast, prostate and colon cancer. In contrast, consuming animal products has been linked with cardiovascular disease, several forms of cancer, foodborne illnesses, autoimmune disorders, numerous gastrointestinal diseases and many other health problems.

Millions of people around the world follow a plant-based diet. People who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet consume higher levels of fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, and phytochemicals.

Some of the world’s top athletes, such as ultramarathon champion Scott Jurek and professional Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier, follow a vegan diet. Olympian Carl Lewis has attributed his best year of track competition to a vegan diet.

Eating animal products is culturally rather than anatomically or physiologically dictated. From an evolutionary perspective, we can look to our closest relatives—other primates—who are for the most part herbivores. Our teeth and digestive tracts also tell the story.

I share Dr. Daniel’s condemnation of factory farms. Unfortunately, domesticated animals used in farming exist primarily because of a demand established by humans who consume meat, dairy and eggs. As to the fate of farmed animals when we move to plant-based diets, it is a valid question but ancillary to the immediate health, environmental and moral arguments for choosing not to kill animals to eat them.

The progressive elimination of the demand for animal products would obviate current intensive breeding practices. As we move towards a society that subsists on a plant-based diet, we will gradually restore a more ecologically balanced environment.

Dr. Daniel: Humans are omnivores, equipped with a mixed feeder’s teeth and digestive system. Although vegetarian diets rich in raw dairy products from pastured cows and other animals have nourished many peoples around the world, no culture has ever voluntarily gone vegan.

The fact that vegans must supplement with B12 (or risk neurological damage) is itself strong evidence that this style of eating is unnatural. Indeed, few vegans maintain their health for long without an extensive supplement regimen. Science strongly supports the health benefits of vegetables, but the evidence for vegan diets is inconsistent and contradictory at best. Sadly, veganism won’t even help our planet. Only 11% of the land can be farmed, a percentage that cannot be increased without deforestation, irrigation, chemical fertilizers and other destructive ecological practices. Old-fashioned organic mixed-use farms are the key to personal and planetary health.

Dr. Ferdowsian: Many of us wonder what steps we can take to make a difference in the world. Choosing to follow a vegan diet is a simple way to improve the condition of the environment, human health and the lives of other animals. The consumption of animal products has been conclusively linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis and many other diseases. On the other hand, eating a plant-based diet can reverse heart disease and diabetes, prevent several forms of cancer and prolong cancer survival.

Eating animal products is one of the biggest threats to the environment. The use of animals in agriculture accelerates global warming, water and air pollution and soil erosion. Animal agriculture production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land use and 30% of the planet’s land surface area. One kilogram of beef requires 100,000 liters of water to produce, whereas a kilogram of soybean requires 2,000 liters of water.

If we all followed a vegetarian diet, we could produce enough food to feed the entire world. The choice to follow a vegan diet is informed by science and ethical obligations to ourselves, the environment, other animals and future generations. The great news is that we don’t have to compromise one for the other.

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