by Joanie Blaxter, founder of Follow Your Gut
“I’d rather eat the family dog!”
That was the response of a vegetarian activist to my explanation that I had returned to meat-eating for health reasons.
Her comment really got me thinking… although perhaps not in exactly the way she would have preferred.
After all, how DO we decide what's ok or not ok to eat?
John Baxter in his book The Perfect Meal devotes an entire chapter to the 1870 Prussian siege of Paris. For five months no food went in or out of the city. To this day imagery celebrating the Parisians’ success over their near-destruction includes a horse head with the inscription “I have been besieged in Paris, and have fed it.”
Yes, for the first time ever, Parisians learned to eat horse. And cat, dog, rat, donkey, mule. Eventually, the Paris zoo, no longer able to afford to feed its captives, began selling off the animals and Parisians also dined on kangaroo, camel, antelope, elephant and wolf.
But what I found really fascinating is Baxter's assertion that Parisians learned to see the introduction of new forms of flesh, in particular horse meat, as a liberating and strengthening aspect of democracy.
The changed diet forced on Parisians by the siege played a small but decisive role in the political ferment. Once it became acceptable to eat horse, plentiful in a culture where horses hauled almost every load and provided the main means of transport, a rich source of protein was suddenly available to the poor. This brought greater energy and stamina, better health, and the spirit of revolution.
So why DON’T we eat horse flesh, rather than sending them to the slaughterhouse? Why DO we eat pig, just as intelligent as canines, but never consume dog? Why are cats only beloved pets but never on the dinner plate?
We don’t eat animals we’ve accepted as part of our family.
This process is known in the pet industry as “the humanization of pets.” (source: Having Your Dog and Eating It Too)
It's easy to understand how early humans could have adopted dogs, cats and horses. Dogs make great protectors, cats keep down the rodent population, horses pull our burdens. Being useful naturally leads to being regarded affectionately until at this point in our mutual evolutionary paths, our pets' primary function for us is to provide a sense of emotional connection.
And it works both ways. For example, I’ve no doubt that even if I dropped dead of a heart attack in front of my two cats tomorrow, obligate carnivores that they are, nevertheless, they would refrain from taking a nibble, not even a little taste! 😉 We’re family.
You. Don’t. Eat. Family.
However, unlike that vegetarian so disgusted with what she considers to be my moral backsliding, my cats don't exhibit even a flicker of guilt when they “play with” (or torture from my perspective) that mouse for ages before crunching into its head with great gusto and yum-yum mew-y sounds. According to my girls, mice, birds, rats and gophers are DEFINITELY NOT part of their family!
So how exactly do we humans determine which animals get to be classified as “family” and which don't? And what happens when there's disagreement amongst humans about which animal is allowed in the “humanized” club and which isn't?
I believe that the confusion and disagreement we experience answering those questions fundamentally arises from the fact that…
Modern culture is unnaturally divorced from all aspects of food production and processing.
In the industrialized world, the interaction most of us now have with any kind of animal is exclusively as a pet and family member and never as something to be eaten.
Thus arises the idea from that vegetarian animal activist so disgusted with me that all meat is really the family pet disguised.
Nevertheless, while awareness about animal rights has been increasing over the last two decades, that has NOT translated into more people refusing to eat meat.
Between 1994 and 2009, the percent of meat-eaters in the United States varied between 97% and 99%. (A research team from Yale University puts the number of “strict” vegetarians at less than 0.1%.) (source: Why Are There So Few Vegetarians?)
And not only has the number of vegetarians and vegans remained relatively flat, but also according to a 2002 Times/CNN poll of 10,000 Americans, when asked about their diet, about two thirds of those who say they are vegetarian, also eat meat.
Yup, 2 out of 3 vegetarians are, um… fibbing.
In 2013, two celebrity vegan health coach/chef/authors shocked their fans by revealing they had abandoned veganism: Alex Jamiesen (Morgan Spurlock’s vegan chef girlfriend in Super Size Me) and Kristen Suzanne (author of 15 books of raw vegan recipes).
By their own admission, these two health coaches were both eating animal foods for months, quite possibly for more than a year, before they publicly admitted to the contradiction between the dietary recommendations they were making to their clients versus what they actually put into their own mouths.
They’re not alone in fudging about this issue, just perhaps more visible.
For example, in another survey, this one consisting of 13,000+ Americans, the USDA found that 66% of “vegetarians” when given a surprise call a week after their initial telephone survey, admitted to eating flesh within the previous 24 hours.
Once again, the percentages between the two, separate surveys interviewing a total of +23,000 people are consistent.
About two thirds of the people claiming to be vegetarian were actually lying. Furthermore, the amount of meat the rest of us eat is actually increasing.
In 1975, the average American ate 178 pounds of red meat and poultry; by 2007, the number had jumped to 222 pounds. (source: Why Are There So Few Vegetarians?)
It would seem that while it may be fashionable to think of oneself as eliminating meat, not many have what it takes to actually give it up permanently. For those who do stick to a 100% vegetarian diet, it's largely a temporary gig. Another survey found that 3 out of 4 eventually returned to being omnivores (average length of time as vegetarian: 9 years). The most commonly cited reason for eating meat again?
As one “ex” put it “I will take a dead cow over anemia any time.” (source: Why Do Most Vegetarians Go Back to Eating Meat?)
For more information on the most common deficits of a vegetarian diet, see Chris Kresser's Why You Should Think Twice About Vegetarian and Vegan Diets.
The moral issue gets even more confusing when dealing with animals in the “cross-over species” category.
In this society, unlike cattle and pigs (food) or dogs, cats and horses (pets), some animals are regarded as either a pet or as food, like rabbits and, a relatively new cultural movement, chickens.
With the advent of families introducing layers so they can eat more nutritious eggs, these backyard birds are often treated more as family pets than simply a source of food.
Consequently we're seeing a new, nationwide trend of egg enthusiasts dumping chickens by the thousands into shelters when they discover that their pets live for years beyond their egg-laying years.
Why don’t the owners simply give their older hens a quick, painless death, thereby saving the old girls from a potentially miserable life in a cage in a shelter while also gaining dinner for the family?
Apparently these owners can't quite cross that mental line and bring themselves to kill a family pet.
So, back to the original question: Are vegetarians moral heroes?
Having been one myself for 29 years, vegetarians remain some of the most sensitive, high-minded and thoughtful people I've ever met. Furthermore, I will be forever grateful to the animal activism movement for revealing to me the horrors of the treatment of animals in the industrial farm model.
Nevertheless, if it was agreed that eating animals makes the difference between being able to conceive or not, being able to successfully give birth and breastfeed, or determined the size of a child's brain, would anyone hesitate to feed meat to their children and pregnant or nursing mothers?
From a moral perspective, for most people, the health of their children bats last.
So the question of whether or not vegetarians are moral heroes really hangs on whether or not you believe consuming animal food is critical to the safety and happiness of our children and the thriving of humankind in general.
Lucky for us Dr. Weston Price's research clearly answers this question for us.
He and his wife traveled the globe eight decades ago locating supremely healthy tribes and recording their answers to the questions “What are your most sacred foods? What do you eat to support the conception, pregnancy, delivery, nursing and health of your children?”
Their response: a hunter-gatherer diet, consisting of approximately two-thirds animal food and one-third properly prepared (meaning fermented, sprouted, repeatedly rinsed, etc.) plant foods.
And of the animal food consumed, a majority of those calories come from animal fat while a high percentage of the meat consists of internal organs.
A further complication for modern day humans is that our world has become dramatically more toxic since Price's anthropological research was completed in the 1930's. When 137 toxins can now be found in babies' umbilical cords at birth, it's safe to assume that there are no longer any tribes left on the planet who can provide examples of supreme health. Dr. Price's legacy will forever be the right research at the right time.
So… what's your guess? How would Dr. Price's extraordinarily mentally and physically healthy tribes have answered the question of whether or not vegetarians are moral heroes? (Hint: None of those supremely healthy tribes were vegan or even, vegetarian.)
And what about you, what do you think? Is it immoral to eat meat? Or only certain kinds of meat? And if so, why? Where do you draw the line?
This is Kelly again, adding one little thing regarding the title: Are Vegetarians Moral Heroes?
Here's what I always reply to anyone who says they won't eat meat because of how animals are treated at conventional farms: “I wouldn't eat meat either if that was my only choice!” (As a matter of fact, when I'm not eating at home, I usually, but not always, choose meatless meals at restaurants unless the meat is pasture-raised.)
Thankfully, though, that's NOT our only choice! If you don't have a good local source for safe, healthy, humanely raised meat, this is where I shop for meat online.
This was a guest post by my sweet friend, Joanie Blaxter, who is now a regular writer around here! She’s been the Ventura County, California chapter leader of the Weston A. Price Foundation since 2010, and you can contact Joanie here for health consultations. Also, find all her past posts here.
Disclaimer: neither Joanie nor I are health professionals, use what you read here as part of your own research and then consult with a natural doc or health professional you trust to find what is best and right for YOU. Read my entire disclaimer here, and also note that there may be affiliate links in this post.
I think the vast majority of vegetarians do so because of animal cruelty. if instead people all chose to eat meat raised in the natural manner many issues would be alleviated. God told us we could eat anything with a cloven hoof that chews its cud, the fishes of the seas, and what birds. look at your teeth. they are meant for meat. too many people are easily misguided by the real issue and how to solve it.
Joanie Rocks says
Yes, it’s a deeply challenging question, isn’t it Leah? I have only the greatest respect for the high level of sensitivity and ethics that vegetarians bring to this issue, even if, by experience, I have now come to different conclusion than the perspective I had when I ate vegetarian.
Excellent, excellent post. Thanks, Joanie and Kelly!
Thanks Jeanmarie! It was all Joanie. 🙂
Joanie Rocks says
Beautiful Susan! Thank you for that comment.
Susan, OCC says
I was a vegetarian for ten years, because I could not stand the idea of the cruelty and pollution of feed lots and industrial farms. Then I married a hunter and helping him butcher what we were going to eat, I started eating meat again. I came to the realization that in order to sustain my life, I had to take life in one form or the other, whether it was a deer or a carrot. In either case, I need to have respect and gratitude for the life I take. This is consistent with my Orthodox Christian belief that we are to be stewards of the earth.
I love watching that tv show Bizarre Foods. Andrew Zimmern travels all over the world and eats with the locals with gusto. It expands your mind. My kids have been influenced by the show. My daughter caught a cricket and ate it because she wanted to know what it was like. They aren’t squeamish about the Exo bars I have purchased.
The only real vegetarians I know are from India. Usually the women adhere to it more than the men (based on the people I know and stories they tell me). I wish Dr. Price could have traveled to India. I very much want to know what he would have found and what he would have written.
There are many deep religious traditions with meat eaters. In Europe, Christians fasted at times, though I think Lent started as a practical way to get through late winter. Buddhists are known for being vegetarian but the monasteries in the mountains do eat meat to survive as they have a short growing season. They are very intentional or mindful about the slaughter.
Joanie Rocks says
I believe Dr. Price chose not to travel to India specifically because he was looking for supremely healthy tribes and the lacto-vegetarians of south India have always been known for their poor health: short stature, high rates of diabetes, cavities, etc. At least that’s my guess.
Also, you’re right about the Tibetan Buddhists although even the Dalai Lama is not vegetarian. He tried and a doctor years ago ordered him to eat meat to restore his health. What I’ve read is that out of his commitment to nonviolence, he limits his meat eating to every other day.
It’s all very interesting isn’t it?