by Niall Doherty

The first article I ever published on this blog, almost four years ago now, was about my journey to veganism. I quit eating meat on January 1st, 2009, and six months later gave up eating animal products altogether. I remained vegan for 2.5 years, and went back to eating meat at the beginning of 2013 after a four-year hiatus.

Many people have asked why I’ve returned to meat-eating, and below is my attempt at an explanation. I’ll tell you right up front however that I haven’t come to any firm conclusions. If I’ve learned anything these past few years, it’s that diet is a complex issue and there’s a shit-load I still don’t understand. I encourage people to experiment and think for themselves before committing to any particular philosophy of eating.

I’ll work my way through the three main arguments that at one time had me committed to a plant-based diet:

  1. Plant-based diets are better for the environment
  2. Plant-based diets are better for mental and physical human health
  3. Meat is murder / killing animals is wrong

I essentially have serious doubts about all these arguments now, as explained below, which is why I’m no longer vegan.

1. Plant-based diets are better for the environment

This may still be true, but it’s not as clear cut as I once thought. Pro-vegan people will often invoke Vulcan logic, as I once did myself:

“Why feed your food when you can just live off the feed itself?”

That is, why waste time, effort and environmental resources feeding a cow when you can just eat the cow food yourself? Instead of growing grain to give to the cow, you give the grain directly to humans. This cuts down on land and water usage, as it takes much less of both to grow food for a human (or even several humans) than it does to grow food for an animal destined to have its flesh served on a plate.

Add to the mix all the forests that have to be cleared to grow grain for the food animals, all the waterways that have to be messed with to provide irrigation to grow those crops, and all that nasty pollution produced by factory farms, and it makes environmental sense for humans to eat a plant-based diet, right?

Well, not so fast. The above assumes that cows (or chickens, or pigs, or whatever) are supposed to be eating grain and living in factory farms. Of course, from an evolutionary standpoint, they’re not. Cows should be outside eating grass, not cooped up eating corn or soy or bits of other cows. Same goes for other animals.

In a pre-agricultural world, cows would roam around eating grass, shitting all over the place. Their waste would serve as fertilizer to help the grass grow back. A simple, cyclical system, and very environmentally friendly.

To further emphasize this point, let’s say you have a choice for dinner: You can have the beef burger or the soy burger. Which is better for the environment? If that beef comes from a local grass-fed cow, then the answer should be obvious. That cow ate something of low nutritional value to humans (grass), and turned it into something of very high nutritional value (beef), with no waste going to waste. Very efficient.

What about the soy burger? That likely came from a big soy plantation very far away from you. And for that soy plantation to exist, natural habitats had to be destroyed. You can be pretty sure that trees were felled and rivers were drained so that soy could grow, and then no small amount of fossil fuel was burned to transport part of the harvest to your local soy burger joint.

Now if you’re choosing between a factory-farmed beef burger and a soy burger, then yes, the latter option is probably better for the environment. But that doesn’t mean it’s actually good for the environment.

2. Plant-based diets are better for mental and physical human health

This was the proposition that initially got me curious about plant-based diets. As I wrote back in 2009, several months after I became vegetarian…

Mentally, I definitely felt sharper and I became more productive at work. I’ve considered the fact that those results might have been more of a placebo effect than anything else, but the diet change had been the catalyst nonetheless. I was getting the results I had hoped for, and I didn’t really care about the exact science behind them.

I’m now more convinced that those positives were indeed a placebo effect. Upon switching back to an omnivorous diet in January, I failed to notice any drop off in mental performance.

As for the physical, this is a tougher call. I’ve gotten into the best shape of my life this year, though that likely has more to do with developing better exercise habits than any dietary change.

Obviously, people can thrive on plant-based diets. It’s not difficult to find examples of vegan bodybuilders and triathletes. You’ll also hear testimonials from life-long vegans, still going strong well into old age. At the same time, you’ll hear many others attest that they tried plant-based diets only to end up with various health problems or annoyances. The pro-vegan response to such accounts is usually along the lines of, “They weren’t doing it right!”, a response I find extremely patronizing.

It all leads me to wonder: Could it be that there is no one “right” diet for everyone? Could it be that some people can thrive on a plant-based diet while others can only reach optimum health eating omnivorously?

I tend to believe this to be the case, much like how some people can thrive on five hours sleep a night while others (like me) require eight. You can find studies and/or experts, often of the well-intentioned variety, “proving” the superiority of almost any diet out there, but you never really know for sure which is best for you without some experimentation.

Prime example: This well-articulated article from a respected website telling you “how green smoothies can devastate your health.” You could choose to believe that assertion and never again consume a green smoothie, or you could try consuming a green smoothie several times a week for the next month and see how your body feels. For my money, the latter would be a much smarter approach.

I also want to mention something here that has long troubled me about the pro-vegan movement. I remember volunteering at VegFest in New Orleans three years ago and being amazed at how much junk food there was on offer. You could treat yourself to vegan donuts, vegan beer, vegan chocolate, vegan cakes, even vegan gummy bears. All that highly-processed junk food on offer far outweighed the real, unprocessed, nutritious stuff.

Likewise, this 70-minute speech by Gary Yourofsky on the merits of veganism is extremely thought-provoking, but it amazes me that he advocates eating highly-processed fake meat products. That’s not real food, and eating lots of such will likely lead to more health problems than eating meat ever will.

Eating a vegan diet does not make you healthy by default. You can consume nothing but noodles, dark chocolate and diet coke and call yourself a vegan, but you’ll also need to call yourself an ambulance before too long.

3. Meat is murder / killing animals is wrong

This is where it gets really confusing. Vegans will often say that their position boils down to the simple fact that meat is murder, that killing animals is wrong. I’ve come to believe that it’s a little more complicated than that.

For one thing, I’m pretty sure all dietary choices contribute to the killing of animals at some point. Grow vegetables in your garden and you’ll have to contend with slugs and numerous other animals looking for a free meal. Buy vegetables at the market and you’re essentially outsourcing the unpleasant task of dealing with those pests to another human. I’m also not sure how effective purely plant-based fertilizers are compared to those containing bone meal, blood meal and other animal products. After all, in a perfectly natural system, animals die and their bodies decompose back into the earth, thus becoming fuel for plants and completing the circle of life1.

Furthermore, to return to the soy burger example I used earlier, consider all the animals displaced and even killed when trees are felled and rivers drained to make way for a soy (or corn, or whatever) plantation. You don’t see many buffalo roaming the American plains these days, do you? And it’s not as simple as buffalo being hunted to near extinction. Thanks to large-scale agriculture, they were left deprived of their natural habitat.

And now consider all the birds and mice and other animals that call soy or corn fields home. What happens to them when the crop is harvested?

Of course, just because it’s difficult to avoid killing animals doesn’t mean that we humans are entitled to kill them. I still haven’t addressed the moral issue here. I first wanted to point out that vegans can’t take too much of a moral high ground, since their food choices also quite often necessitate the death of animals.

I find myself on shaky ground when it does come to the moral issue. I have few convictions here, mostly just developing thoughts and open questions.

I have in mind to find a farm that will let me slaughter an animal for myself. I’ve never killed an animal by my own hand, and I believe I should be at least willing to do so if I’m going to continue eating them. I’m hoping that such an experience will help me arrive at a more conscious and mature decision.

I see a disturbing disconnect when people are happy to eat flesh only if they refuse to think about where it came from. As such, I have much more respect for the hunter who looks an animal in the eye before killing and eating it, than I do for someone buying a shrink-wrapped steak from the freezer without a second thought. (By the way, I’m often that second person, and never proud of it.)

One thing I keep coming back to is that nature itself is a meat-eater. The eagle rips apart the rabbit. The wolf savages the deer. Nature doesn’t give a shit about Bambi’s mom. That’s not to say that factory farms are all fine and dandy, because obviously they’re an abomination. But in my eyes it’s not necessarily the killing that makes them so. It’s the disrespect. Animals are treated as units, unworthy of real food, clean air and open space. Let an animal live its life in a setting like Polyface Farms in Virginia however, and it’s a different story.

A final point here: Much like vegans aren’t doing themselves any favors by promoting junk food, they’re not going to win many converts by trying to stop animals from killing each other. I’m referring to those vegans who advocate feeding their cats and dogs plant-based diets, or who would like to put a big fence between carnivores and herbivores, so every being can live without fear of its life being threatened. This is just dumb. Predators depend on prey for the survival of their species. Deer, for example, will overpopulate and overgraze if their numbers are not kept in check by a predator, resulting in the extinction of the species. Death is part of life, and I don’t just mean the pleasant, loved-ones-gathered-by-your-bedside type of death. We need to keep in mind that in the wild, most animals meet a violent end.

My ideal

I know I haven’t provided many answers above. I didn’t intend to. As a rule, I’m wary of anyone who claims to know the one right way to do anything, and so I try not to be one of those people myself. Mostly I just wanted to get you thinking deeper about these issues.

That said, I do believe that certain approaches to diet, while perhaps not perfect, at least hold more promise than others, and are more applicable to the masses. For example:

  1. Eat what’s local and in season (the most difficult for me to adhere to).
  2. Eat mostly unprocessed foods.
  3. Eat lots of plants.
  4. Avoid most grains.

The latter may come as a surprise to you. For the past four months or so I’ve been following the Paleo diet, which is essentially a diet akin to what our pre-agricultural ancestors would have eaten. Think hunter-gatherer, lots of meat and veggies. The theory behind Paleo is that the human body evolved over hundreds of thousands of years on the hunter-gatherer diet, and then agriculture came along just a few thousand years ago and began force-feeding us all kinds of foods that our bodies aren’t accustomed to (wheat, pasta, rice, cow milk, etc.).

I’m a big-time Darwinian so eating Paleo makes lots of sense to me, and I’ve been feeling pretty good on it. It would be even better if I could get all my meat and veggies from a Polyface-type farm, one that actually treats animals with respect and builds topsoil rather than destroying it.

Before you comment

I expect this post will piss some people off. I welcome disagreements in the comments, but please keep them civil. Think about the last time someone changed your mind by calling you an idiot or otherwise being rude. Probably never.

What do you think?

Show 1 footnote

  1. The “food chain” concept if flawed. Humans are the most dominant species on the planet but we all become worm food in the end. It’s more accurate to think of a “food circle.”