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12 myths of vegetarianism

The myths of vegetarianism

Vegetarianism and veganism are neither natural nor healthy diets, argues Dr. Stephen Byrnes. And it is not primarily meat-eating which is responsible for the spread of cancers and heart disease.
Published in The Ecologist Volume 29 Number 4, July 1999.

Vegetarianism and veganism, despite claims made by adherents, are neither healthy nor natural diets. Indeed, only in the 20th century, with the advent of vitamin pills and supplements, has it been possible to follow a strictly vegan diet without dying of malnutrition. Contrary to popular myth, a diet with a very low fat and cholesterol content is extremely dangerous, and meat and dairy products are not the main cause of heart disease and cancer - which are practically unknown in traditional meat-eating societies.

Along with the saturated fat and cholesterol scares of recent decades has come the notion that vegetarianism - and its more extreme form, veganism - are the healthiest dietary options. It seems as if every health expert and government agency is urging people to eat fewer animal products, and consume more vegetables, grains, fruits and legumes. Along with these exhortations have come a flurry of assertions and studies supposedly proving that consuming animal products is associated with sickness and death. Campaigners also claim that widespread adoption of a vegetarian or vegan diet would improve the global environment and reduce famine and hunger.

Yet many of these claims cannot be substantiated, and some are simply false and dangerous. As a practitioner who has dealt with several former vegans, I know full well the dangerous effects of a diet devoid of animal products. I hope that this article will debunk some of the common myths associated with vegetarianism and veganism, and highlight the dangers of animal product-free diets.

Myth 1: Meat consumption contributes to famine and depletes the Earth's natural resources

It is often argued that cows and sheep require pasturage that could be better used to grow grain for starving millions in poor countries. Additionally, claims are made that raising livestock requires more water than raising plant foods. But both arguments are illogical and simplistic.

The pasturage argument ignores the fact that a large portion of the Earth's dryland is unsuited to cultivation. The open range, and desert and mountainous areas yield their fruits to grazing animals, not to arable crops. Unfortunately, the bulk of commercial livestock is not range-fed, but stall-fed. Stall-fed animals do not ingest grasses and shrubs (like they should), but are fed an unnatural array of grains and soybeans - which could be eaten by humans. The argument here, then, is not that eating meat depletes the Earth's resources, but that commercial farming methods do. Such methods also subject livestock to deplorable living conditions where infections, antibiotics, steroids and synthetic hormones are common. These all lead to an unhealthy animal and, by extension, an unhealthy food product.

Myth 2: Vitamin B12 can be obtained from plant sources

Of all the myths, this is perhaps the most dangerous. Vegans who do not supplement their diet with vitamin B 12 will eventually get pernicious anaemia, a fatal condition, as well as nervous and digestive system damage. Claims are made that B12 is present in certain algae, tempeh (a fermented soy product) and Brewer's yeast. All of them are false. Like the niacin in corn, the B12 present in algae is not available to the body. Tempeh, though a healthy food, does not contain B 12. Further, the ingestion of too much soy increases the body's need for B12. Brewer's yeast does not contain B12 naturally; it is always fortified from an outside source.

The only reliable and absorbable sources of vitamin B12 are animal products. Though present in lesser amounts, milk products do contain B 12. Vegans, therefore, should consider adding dairy products to their diets. If dairy cannot be tolerated, eggs, preferably from free-range hens, are a virtual necessity. That vitamin B 12 can only be obtained from animal products is one of the strongest arguments against veganism being a 'normal' way of human eating. Today, vegans can avoid pernicious anaemia by taking supplemental vitamins. If those same people had lived just a hundred years ago, when vitamin supplements were unavailable, they would have died. In my own medical practice, I recently saved two vegans from death from anaemia (iron and B12) by convincing them to eat generous amounts of dairy products.

Myth 3: The body's need for vitamin A can be met by plant foods. Vitamin D can be obtained by exposure to sunlight

Vitamin A is principally - and usable, full-complex vitamin D entirely - found in animal products. Plants do contain beta-carotene, a substance that the body can convert into vitamin A, and the impression given by some vegetarian sources is that beta-carotene is as good as vitamin A. This is not true. First, the conversion from carotene to vitamin A can only take place in the presence of bile salts. This means that fat must be eaten with the carotenes. Additionally, infants, people with hypothyroidism, gall bladder problems, diabetes, or infants either cannot make the conversion or do so very poorly. Lastly, the body's conversion from carotene to vitamin A is not very efficient: it takes 4-6 units of carotene to make one unit of vitamin A. What this means is that the sweet potato (containing about 25,000 units of beta-carotene) you just ate will only convert into about 4,000 units of vitamin A (assuming you ate it with fat and do not have a thyroid or gall bladder problem).

Relying on plant sources for vitamin A is not a wise idea. This is why good old fashioned butter is a virtual must in any diet. Butter from pasture-fed cows is rich in vitamin A and will provide the intestines with the fatty material needed to convert vegetable carotenes into active vitamin A. Relying on sunlight for vitamin D is equally unwise. Even in tropical areas, where people are exposed to a great deal of sunlight, native diets are rich in vitamin D from animal foods. Vitamins A and D are all-important in our diets, as they help the body to use proteins and minerals.

Myth 4: Meat eaters have higher rates of heart and kidney disease, cancer, obesity, and osteoporosis than vegetarians

Such stupendous claims are hard to reconcile with historical and anthropological facts. All of the diseases mentioned are primarily twentieth century occurrences, yet people have been eating meat and animal fat for thousands of years. Furthermore, several native peoples around the world (including the Innu and the Maasai) have traditional diets very rich in animal products, but do not suffer from the above-mentioned maladies.

Several studies have supposedly shown that meat consumption is the cause of heart disease, cancer and bone loss, but such studies, honestly evaluated, show no such thing. For example, studies supposedly proving that meat consumption among the Innu caused high rates of osteoporosis failed to note other dietary factors that contribute to bone loss - refined sugar consumption, alcoholism and a junk food diet, for example. More careful and unbiased researchers who examined Innu, who followed their traditional diet and avoided the alcohol, sugar, and ice cream of their 'modernised' relatives, showed no incidence of bone loss.

It is usually claimed, too, that vegetarians and vegans have lower cancer rates than meat eaters, but a 1994 study of California Seventh Day Adventists (who are largely vegetarian) showed that, while they did have lower rates of some cancers (e.g. breast), they had significantly higher rates of several others (brain, skin, uterine, cervical and ovarian).

Myth 5: Saturated fats cause heart disease and cancer, and low-fat, low-cholesterol diets are healthier

As noted above, diets of native peoples the world over are rich in saturated fats, and heart disease and cancer are primarily modern diseases. Saturated fat consumption, therefore, cannot logically cause these diseases. As with the poorly-done studies of the Innu, modern day researchers fail to take into account other dietary factors of people who have heart disease and cancer. As a result, the harmful effects of refined sugar and vegetable oil consumption get mixed up with animal fat consumption.

A recent study of thousands of Swedish women showed no correlation between saturated fat consumption and increased risk of breast cancer. The study did show, however, a strong link between vegetable oil intake and higher breast cancer rates. The famous 'Framingham Heart Study' carried out in Massachusetts, USA, is often cited as proof that dietary cholesterol and saturated fat intake cause heart disease and ill health. Involving about 6,000 people, the study compared two groups over several years at five-year intervals. One group consumed little cholesterol and saturated fat, while the other consumed high amounts. Yet Dr. William Castelli, the study's director, is quoted in the Archives of Internal Medicine (July 1992) as saying,

"In Framingham, Massachusetts, the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person's serum cholesterol... we found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories, weighed the least and were the most physically active."
It is true that the study showed that those who weighed more and had higher serum cholesterol levels were more at risk for heart disease; but weight gain and cholesterol levels had an inverse correlation with dietary fat and cholesterol intake.

In a similar vein, the US Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial compared the mortality rates and eating habits of 12,000+ men. Those who ate less saturated fat and cholesterol showed a slightly reduced rate of coronary heart disease (CHD), but had an overall mortality rate much higher than the other men in the study. The few studies that indicate a correlation between saturated fat reduction and a lower CRD rate also clearly document a sizeable increase in deaths from cancer, suicide, violence and brain haemorrhage.

Conversely, there are many health benefits to saturated fats, depending on the fat in question. Coconut oil, for example, is rich in lauric acid, a potent anti-fungal and anti-microbial substance. Coconut also contains appreciable amounts of caprylic acid, also an effective anti-fungal. In general, saturated fats provide a good energy source for the vital organs, protect arteries against damage by the atherogenic lipoprotein (a), are rich in fat-soluble vitamins, help raise RDL levels in the blood, and make possible the utilisation of essential fatty acids.

Myth 6: Vegetarians live longer and have more energy and endurance than meat eaters

Surprising as it may seem, some prior studies have shown that the annual all-cause death rate of vegetarian men was slightly higher than that of non-vegetarian men (93 per cent vs. 89 per cent) and that the same was true of women (86 per cent vs. 54 per cent). Dr Russell Smith, author of an authoritative study on heart disease, showed that as animal product consumption increased among some study groups, death rates decreased. Such results were not obtained among vegetarian subjects.

It is usually claimed that predominantly meat-eating peoples are short-lived, but the Aborigines of Australia (who traditionally eat a diet rich in animal products) are known for their longevity. Similarly, the Russians of the Caucasus mountains live to great ages on a diet of fatty pork and whole milk products. The Hunzas, also known for their robust health and longevity, eat substantial portions of goat milk, which has a higher saturated fat content than cow's milk. In contrast, the largely vegetarian inhabitants of southern India have the shortest life spans in the world.

Dr. Weston Price travelled around the world in the 1920s and 30s investigating native diets. Without exception, he found a strong correlation between diets rich in animal fats and athletic ability. Special foods for Swiss athletes, for example, included bowls of fresh, raw cream. In Africa, Dr. Price discovered that groups whose diets were rich in fatty fish and organ meats like liver, consistently carried off the prizes in athletic contests, and that meat-eating tribes always dominated peoples whose diets were largely vegetarian.

Myth 7: The 'Caveman' diet was low fat and/or vegetarian

Our Neolithic ancestors were hunter-gatherers, and two schools of thought have developed as to what their diet was like. One argues for a high fat- and animal-based diet supplemented with seasonal fruits, berries, nuts, root vegetables and wild grasses. The other argues that primitive peoples consumed small amounts of lean meats and large amounts of plant foods.

Once again, such notions of a 'low-fat diet' are hard to reconcile with what we know of modern day hunter-gatherer societies. Present-day African tribes readily consume the fatty portions of animals, especially organs such as brains, liver and tongue. The Aborigines, another hunter-gatherer society, also have a diet rich in saturated animal fats.

Stefansson reported that the Innuit and North American Indian tribes would worry when their cache of caribou was too lean: they knew sickness would follow if they did not consume enough fat. Canadian Indians would deliberately hunt older male caribou and elk, for these animals carried a 50lb slab of back fat on them which Indians would eat with relish. Native Americans would also refrain from hunting bison in the spring (when the animals' fat stores were low due to scarce food supply during the winter), preferring to hunt, kill, and consume them in the autumn, when they were fattened up.

On his journeys, Dr. Price never once found a totally vegan culture. Anthropological data support this: across the globe, almost all societies show a preference for animal foods and fats. Price also found that those peoples who, out of necessity, consumed more grains and legumes had higher rates of dental decay than those who consumed more animal products. Archaeological evidence supports this finding: skulls of prehistoric peoples who were largely vegetarian have teeth containing caries and abscesses (and show evidence of tuberculosis).

Myth 8: Saturated fat consumption has increased in the 'developed' world in the 20th century, with a corresponding increase in heart disease and cancer

Statistics do not bear such fancies out. In the US, for example, butter consumption has plummeted from 18lbs per person a year in 1900 to about 5lbs per person a year today. Additionally, North Americans, urged on by government health agencies, have reduced their intakes of eggs, cream, lard and meats. A survey of cookbooks published in the last century shows that people ate plenty of eggs and saturated fats. For example, in the Baptist Ladies Cook Book (Illinois, USA; 1895), virtually every recipe calls for butter, cream, or lard. Recipes for creamed vegetables are numerous as well. A scan of the Searchlight Recipe Book (Capper Publications; 1931) has similar recipes: creamed liver, creamed cucumbers, hearts braised in buttermilk. British Jews, as shown by the Jewish Housewives Cookbook (London; 1846), had diets rich in cream, butter, eggs, and lamb and beef tallows. One recipe for German waffles calls for an entire pound of butter. A recipe for Oyster Pie from the Baptist cookbook calls for a quart of cream and a dozen eggs.

It does not appear, then, that saturated fat consumption has gone up in this century. What has gone up is consumption of margarine, lifeless, packaged 'foods,' processed vegetable oils, pasteurised / homogenised milk and refined sugar. These are more likely culprits in our modern epidemics of cancer and coronary heart disease.

Myth 9: Soya products are adequate substitutes for meat and dairy products

The billion-dollar soy industry has profited immensely from the anti-cholesterol, anti-meat gospel of current nutritional thought. Whereas not so long ago soy was an Asian phenomenon, now soy products proliferate in the US and European markets. While the traditionally fermented products of miso, shoyu, tempeh, and natto are definitely healthy in measured amounts, the bevy of hyper-processed soy 'foods' are not. Non-fermented soybeans are extremely high in phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that binds to minerals in the digestive tract and carries them out of the body. Vegetarians are known for their high rates of iron and zinc deficiencies. Soybeans are also rich in trypsin inhibitors, which hinder protein digestion. Textured vegetable protein (TVP), soya 'milk', and soya protein powders, popular vegetarian meat and milk substitutes, are fragmented foods made by treating soybeans with high heat and alkaline washes to extract the bean's fat content or to neutralise their potent enzyme inhibitors. These practices completely denature the bean's protein content, rendering it very hard to digest. And MSG, a neurotoxin, is routinely added to TVP to make it taste like the various foods it imitates.

On a purely nutritional level, soybeans, like all legumes, are deficient in cysteine and methionine, vital sulphur-containing amino acids. Soybeans are also lacking in tryptophan, another essential amino acid. Furthermore, soybeans contain no vitamins A or D, required by the body to assimilate and utilise the bean's proteins. It is probably for this reason that Asian cultures that do consume soybeans usually combine them with fish or fish broths (abundant in fat-soluble vitamins), or other fatty foods.

Myth 10: The human body is not designed for meat consumption

Some vegetarian groups claim that since humans possess grinding teeth like herbivorous animals and longer intestines than carnivorous animals, this proves the human body is better suited for vegetarianism. This argument fails to note several human physiological features that clearly indicate a design for animal product consumption. First and foremost is our stomach's production of hydrochloric acid, something not found in herbivores. Furthermore, the human pancreas manufactures a full range of digestive enzymes to handle a wide variety of foods, both animal and vegetable. While humans may have longer intestines than animal carnivores, they are not as long as herbivores; nor do we possess multiple stomachs like many herbivores, nor do we chew cud. Our physiology definitely indicates a mixed feeder, or an omnivore, much the same as our relatives, the mountain gorilla and chimpanzee (who have been observed eating small animals and, in some cases, other primates).

Myth 11: Animal products contain harmful toxins

A recent vegetarian newsletter claimed the following:

"Most people don't realise that meat products are loaded with poisons and toxins! Meat, fish and eggs all decompose and putrefy extremely rapidly. As soon as an animal is killed, self-destruct enzymes are released, causing the formation of denatured substances called ptyloamines, which cause cancer."
This article then went on to mention Mad Cow Disease, parasites, salmonella, hormones, nitrates and pesticides as toxins in animal products.
If meat, fish and eggs do indeed generate cancerous 'ptyloamines,' it is strange that people have not been dying in droves from cancer for the past million years. Such nonsensical claims cannot be supported by historical fact. Hormones, nitrates and pesticides are present in commercially-raised animal products (as well as commercially-raised fruits, grains, and vegetables) and are definitely things to be concerned about. However, one can avoid these chemicals by taking care to consume free-range, organic meats, eggs, and dairy products.

Parasites are easily avoided by taking normal precautions in food preparations. Pickling or fermenting meats, as is customary in traditional societies, always protects against parasites. In his travels, Dr. Price always found healthy, disease- and parasite -free peoples eating raw meat and dairy products as part of their diets. Similarly, Dr. Francis Pottenger, in his experiments with cats, demonstrated that the healthiest, happiest cats were the ones on the all-raw food diet. The cats eating cooked meats and pasteurised milk sickened and died and had numerous parasites. And salmonella, it is worth pointing out, can be transmitted by plant products as well as animal.

BSE, or 'Mad Cow Disease' is probably not caused by cows eating animal parts with their food, a practice which imitates nature, as cows eating fresh grass consume insect larvae and eggs. British organic farmer Mark Purdey has argued convincingly that cows that get BSE are the ones which have had a particular organophosphate insecticide applied to their backs (see notes to Myth 1), or who have grazed on soils lacking in magnesium, but containing high levels of aluminium.

Myth 12: Eating meat or animal products is less 'spiritual' than eating only plant foods

It is often claimed that people who eat meat or animal products are somehow less spiritually evolved than those who do not. Though this is not a nutritional or academic issue, people who do include animal products in their diet are often made to feel inferior in some way. This issue, therefore, is worth addressing.

Several world religions, and their founders, placed no restrictions on animal consumption: the Jews eat lamb at their most holy festival, Passover; Muslims celebrate Ramadan with lamb before entering into their fast; Jesus Christ, like other Jews, partook of meat at the Last Supper (according to the canonical gospels), etc.

Some forms of Buddhism do place strictures on meat consumption but dairy products are almost always allowed. Similar tenets are found in Hinduism. As part of the annual Samhain celebration, Celtic pagans would slaughter the weaker animals of the herds and cure their meat for the oncoming winter.

Nevertheless, it is often claimed that, since eating meat or eggs involves the taking of a life, animal food consumption is almost tantamount to murder. Leaving aside the religious philosophies that often permeate this issue, what appears to be in dispute is an understanding of the life force and how it works. Modern peoples (vegetarian and non) have lost touch with what it takes to survive in our world - something native peoples never lose sight of. We do not hunt or clean our meats, we purchase steaks and chops at the supermarket. We do not toil in rice paddies, we buy bags of brown rice, and so forth.

When Native Americans killed a game animal for food, they would routinely offer a prayer of thanks to the animal's spirit for giving its life so that they could live. In our world, life feeds off of life. Destruction is always balanced with generation. This is a good thing: unchecked, the life force becomes cancerous. If animal food consumption is viewed in this manner, it is not murder, but sacrifice. Modern peoples would do well to remember this.

Vegetarianism and veganism are neither natural nor health diets, argues Dr. Stephen Byrnes. And it is not primarily meat-eating which is responsible for the spread of cancers and heart disease. Published The Ecologist Volume 29 Number 4, July 1999. Stephen Byrnes ND PhD is a naturopathic doctor, clinical nutritionist, and author of Overcoming AIDS with Natural Medicine (Centaur Books, USA. 1997) The author would like to thank Sally Fallon for her gracious assistance with this article.
Myth 1: Fallon, Sally, & Enig, Mary, & Connolly, Patricia. Nourishing Traditions (ProMotion Publishing; 1995); Purdy, Mark. "The vegan wasteland," Journal of the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, winter 1995.
Myth 2: Specker, BL, et al., Am J Clin Nutr 1988, 47:89-92; Berg, H van den, et al., Lancet. 1988, 1:242-3.
Myth 3: Weston Price, DDS. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (Keats Publishing; 1943 ; Sally Fallon "vitamin A vagary," Jnl of PPNF. Summer 1995; Jennings, I.W. Vitamins in Endocrine Metabolism (Charles Thomas; 1970).
Myth 4: Price, op. cit.; Spencer, Herta and Kramer, Lois. "Factors Contributing to Osteoporosis," Jnl of Nutr 1986, 116:316-319; "Further Studies of the Effect of a High Protein Diet as Meat on Calcium Metabolism," Am Jnl Clin Nutr June 1983:924-929; Smith, Russell. Diet, Blood, Cholesterol and Coronary Heart Disease.' A Critical Review of the Literature (Vector Enterprises; 1991); "7th Day Adventists & Cancer," Am Jnl Clin Nutr 1994; 59:1136S -1142S
Myth 5: Cleave, TL. The Saccharine Disease (Keats Publishing; 1975); Fallon, Sally and Enig, Mary. "Diet and Heart Disease: Not what You Think," Consumers Research. July1996; Fed Proc, July1978, 37:2215; Lancet, 3/92. v.339; Lancet 1994,344:1195; Igram, Cass. Eat Right to Live Longer (Literary visions Press; 1993); Jnl of American Med Assoc, 9/24/82; 248(12):1465; Hubert, H, et al., Circulation, 1983 67:968; Food Chem News, 10/3/94; Wolk, A., et al, Archives of Internal Medicine, 158:41, 1998; Enig, Mary. "Trans-Fats and Saturated Fats: Not the Same," Jnl of PPNF, winter 1998.
Myth 6: "Death Rates of Vegetarians," Am Jnl Epidemiol, 1973, 97:372; Smith, op. cit.; Stefansson, V, The Fat of the Land. (McMillan Co; New York), 1956; Enig & Fallon, "Australian Aborigines," Jnl of PPNF Summer 1998; Pitskhelauri. GZ. The Long Living of Soviet Georgia. (Human Sciences Press; NY), 1982; "Carb Loading for Athletes? Not Such a Good Idea," Jnl of PPNF Fall 1996; Price, op. cit.
Myth 7: Abrams, H. Leon, Jr. "The Preference for Animal Protein and Fat," in Food and Evolution (Temple University Press; Philadelphia), 1987; Fallon, Sally and Enig, Mary. "The Cave Man Diet." Jnl of PPNF Summer 1997; Steffanson, op. cit.; Abrams. Jnl of Appl Nutr 1980,32:2:70-71.
Myth 8: USDA- HNI; Baptist Ladies Cook Book (Monmouth, 111.1895); The Boston Cooking School Cook Book (Boston; 1896); The Searchlight Recipe Book (Capper Publications; Illinois), 1930.
Myth 9: Tiney, EH. "Proximate Composition and Mineral and Phytate Contents of Legumes Grown in Sudan," Jnl of Food Comp and Analy; v.2, 1989,67-78; Leviton, Richard. Tofu, Jimpeb, Miso and Other Soy Foods (Keats Publishing; 1982); Grant, TG. Progress in Food and Nutrition Science, 1989, 13:317-348; Fitzpatrick, Mike. "Soy Isoflavones: Panacea or Poison?" Jnl of PPNF Fall 1998; Fullon, Sally and Enig, Mary."Soy products for Dairy Products? Not So Fast," Health Freedom News, September 1995: Anderson, Robert, and Wolf, Walter. "Compositional changes in trypsin inhibitors, phytic acid, saponins, and isoflavones related to soybean processing," Jnl of Nutr March 1995.518S-588S.
Myth 10: "Why Not Meat? Part Two" Down to Earth News (Hawaii). Dec / Jan 1998, pp.1-4; Ballantine, Ralph. Transition to Vegetarianism (Himalayan Institute Press; PA.), 1994.
Myth 11: "Why Not Meat? Part 3. Down to Earth News, (Hawaii), Feb/March 1999. pp. 1-3; Pottenger, Francis. Pottenger's Cats (Price Pottenger Nutrition Foundation; CA.),1997 reprint; Purdy, op. cit.