The Science and Pseudoscience of Vegetarian Culture

Originally published here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/health-and-nutrition-quackery/science-and-pseudoscience-vegetarian-culture

Hi! I’m Ada and I’m a vegetarian.

Forgive me if I sound like I’m confessing to being an alcoholic or naturopath, but with all the misinformation, pseudoscience and nonsense that plague the vegetarian and vegan worlds, being a vegetarian scientist can sometimes feel like being a walking oxymoron.

In my experience there are 3 main reasons one becomes a vegetarian (not including a distaste or allergy for meat, in which case their vegetarianism is less of a choice and more of a mandate):

  1. Environmentalism
  2. Animal welfare
  3. Health effects

Meat has a tremendous environmental impact. Dr. Joe has previously written about this but, to give you a hint, it takes roughly 54 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of beef protein, while it takes only 2 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie worth of soy protein. Combine animals’ vast land, water and food needs, their methane expulsion (37% of all human-released methane), and the issue of what to do with their corpses once used up, and it becomes pretty clear that cutting down on, or eliminating meat is good for Mother Earth.

While meat’s impact on this successively-less-green Earth is important to me, animal welfare is certainly my driving force for going vegetarian. This makes me what is referred to as an ethical vegetarian: some of us are opposed to killing animals under any circumstances, others are opposed only to the brutal conditions that modern animals face in factory farms. Either way, most of us agree that animals deserve some protections. Scientists widely agree that animals not only possess consciousnessbut feel pain, form complex bonds, and feel ‘human’ emotions like guilt, desire, remorse and fear. Animals exhibiting extreme distress when viewing their fellow animals being killed at a slaughterhouse is a poignant example of the suffering that factory farming can cause. Under current Canadian regulations, cows can be transported in trucks for 52 hours without food, water or space to lie down, and there are no regulations (outside of normal provincial animal cruelty laws) on how farm animals may be kept.

Once you start imaging cows, chickens and sheep as thinking, feeling beings, letting them live out their lives in battery cages becomes a lot less palatable. There are more ethical ways to get meat if you’re not willing to give it up altogether. Meat from free-range animals slaughtered in humane ways, fed good food and allowed to live into adulthood exists, but its heightened price tag makes it unpopular with the average consumer. Lab-grown meat is in development and may eventually be the answer we need but, for now, I’ll continue my five-year veggie streak.

It is really the last of the reasons, though, that opens the door to pseudoscience. Meat does carry some definite health cons: it’s often high in fat, its overconsumption can lead to gout, and its improper handling can lead to food poisoning. Some compounds found in meat have been implicated in heart disease, and processed meats are often high in salt which can raise blood pressure. I could go on, but the point people seem to miss when talking about meat and health is “everything in moderation”. Almost every meat-related health concern goes away if you simply limit your intake. Yet the nonsense about how meat is killing us is abundant.

According to the internet, meat causes everything from cancer to diabetes, is the sole reason you’re depressed or overweight, and is probably responsible for the malfunctioning testes in your life too.

I guess once you start questioning the sustainability and ethics of your meat-based foods, it’s natural to examine the effects on yourself and the world that your other foods might have. In that sense, vegans and vegetarians commonly advocate for fair trade foods, to ensure that their cup of coffee isn’t at the expense of an Ethiopian farmer’s welfare, a worthy endeavour. But they also often preach the benefits of organic and non-GMO foods, because non-organic and GMO foods are, if you believe many veggie bloggers, killing us and the world at large.

Despite the rigorous testing that GM foods must undergo and the building evidence that they are safe for both humans and the environment, vegan and vegetarian resources seem set on regurgitating the same myths about GMOs. This spreading of false information has created movements like the Non GMO Project, which has gotten so large that I can barely avoid it when buying my tofu or soy milk. I often find myself browsing blogs for a vegetarian dinner recipe, only to find unsubstantiated claims about how GMO foods are toxic for humans. Look, I wanted a spaghetti recipe with lemon, not nonsense.

It’s not that I’m not vegetarian for my health. Contrary to the preachings of what I like to call ‘bacon culture’, vegetarian and vegan diets are perfectly healthy for the average individual. Fruits and veggies have many health benefits, and the meat removed from a diet has to be replaced with something. It doesn’t escape my notice that a vegetarian diet is usually lower in calories and fat than one containing meat. But meat isn’t killing me anymore than is GM corn or non-organic soy.

Not all vegetarians are pseudoscience-believing, kale-munching, naturopath-visiting schmucks. I get my vaccines, eat GMOs, drink Diet Coke and eat too many French fries… I just don’t eat meat.

Hi! I’m Ada, and I’m a science-based vegetarian, but also an academic.

P.S. For some no-nonsense veggie- (and budget-) friendly blogs, check out these:

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