April 1, 1997
William T. Jarvis, Ph.D. is a famous exvegetarian who wrote: "Because of the influence of my Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) environment, I practiced vegetarianism for many years. My wife and I even tried to give up consuming all animal products, but this didn't work."
Why I Am Not A Vegetarian
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Vegetarianism has taken on a "political correctness" comparable to the respectability it had in the last century, when many social and scientific progressives advocated it. Today, crusaders extol meatless eating not only as healthful but also as a solution to world hunger and as a safeguard of "Mother Earth." The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) aggressively attacks the use of animal foods and has proposed its own food-groups model, which excludes all animal products.
I disclaimed vegetarianism after many years of observance. Although the arguments in favor of it appear compelling, I have learned to be suspicious, and to search for hidden agendas, when I evaluate claims of the benefits of vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is riddled with delusional thinking from which even scientists and medical professionals are not immune.
Don't get me wrong: I know that meatless diets can be healthful, even desirable, for some people. For example: (a) Men with an iron-loading gene are better off without red meat, because it contains heme iron, which is highly absorbable and can increase their risk of heart disease. (b) Because vegetarian diets are likely to contain less saturated fat than nonvegetarian diets, they may be preferable for persons with familial hypercholesterolemia. (c) Vegetables contain phytochemicals that appear protective against colorectal cancer. (d) Homocysteinemia (elevated plasma homocysteine) approximately doubles the risk of coronary artery disease. Several congenital and nutritional disorders, including deficiencies of vitamins B6 and B12 and folic acid, can cause this condition. Since folic acid occurs mostly in vegetables, low intakes of the vitamin are less likely among vegetarians than among nonvegetarians. (e) Some people find that being a vegetarian helps to control their weight. Vegetarianism tends to facilitate weight control because it is a form of food restriction; and in our overfed society, food restriction is a plus unless it entails a deficit of some essential nutrient.
However, one need not eliminate meat from one's diet for any of the foregoing reasons. Apparently, it is ample consumption of fruits and vegetables, not the exclusion of meat, that makes vegetarianism healthful.
Dog Day Afternoon?
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. I call myself a "vegetable enthusiast," because I strongly encourage eating lots of vegetables, including legumes, whole grains, and fruits. I believe that these foods are desirable not only because of their high nutrient density and low caloric density, but also because of aesthetic and gustatory factors. Being a vegetable enthusiast doesn't entail rejecting the use of meat or animal products.
Most people who categorize vegetarians identify at least five different kinds, based on which types of animal food they consume: Semivegetarians consume dairy products, eggs, fish, and chicken; pesco-vegetarians consume dairy products, eggs, and fish; lacto-ovo-vegetarians, dairy products and eggs; ovo-vegetarians, eggs; and vegans, no animal foods. From a behavioral standpoint, I categorize vegetarians as either pragmatic or ideologic. A pragmatic vegetarian is one whose dietary behavior stems from objective health considerations (e.g., hypercholesterolemia or obesity). Pragmatic vegetarians are rational, rather than emotional, in their approach to making lifestyle decisions. In contrast, vegetarianism is a "matter of principle" for ideologic vegetarians; its appropriateness is a given.
One can spot ideologic vegetarians by their exaggerations of the benefits of vegetarianism, their lack of skepticism, and their failure to recognize (or their glossing over of) the potential risks even of extreme vegetarian diets. Ideologic vegetarians make a pretense of being scientific, but they approach the subject of vegetarianism more like lawyers than scientists. Promoters of vegetarianism gather data selectively and gear their arguments toward discrediting information that is contrary to their dogma. This approach to defending a position is suitable for a debate, but it cannot engender scientific understanding.
Because of the influence of my Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) environment, I practiced vegetarianism for many years. My wife and I even tried to give up consuming all animal products, but this didn't work. We sometimes muse aloud about the morning we put soymilk on our breakfast cereal. We ended up eating the cereal with a fork because we found the mixture repulsive. We had another unforgettable experience when we ate with a group of vegetarian hippies in the Oregon woods. We were there at their request to advise them on vegetarian eating. They had already prepared the worst-looking vegetarian stew I have ever seen or tasted. It consisted of raw peanuts and a variety of half-cooked vegetables. After eating it, I had heartburn for hours. Digestive distress is legendary among SDAs.
Reasons for adopting vegetarianism can be very personal. Some years ago I shared a podium for several days with a vegetarian. It became clear from our informal conversations that he was not religious; so I asked him why he had opted for vegetarianism. He told me a touching story about having been a lonely boy whose closest companion was his pet dog. He said that, peering into the dog's eyes one day, he had come to see the animal as a fellow being. Soon he had applied this view to all animals, and since he could not bear the thought of eating his dog, he could no longer eat other animals.