This is the holy trinity around which Lierre Keith’s new book The Vegetarian Myth revolves. I have to say, that I have read a dozen incredibly good books this year alone, but none of them matches the importance of this one. The Vegetarian Myth is not only a joy to read, but its message should be heard by anyone who eats.
Keith was a vegan for 20 years, driven by compassion and her drive for kindness and justice towards all living creatures. In the process, however, the vegan diet destroyed her health: Six weeks from becoming one, she had hypoglycemia. Three months into it and she stopped menstruating, was constantly exhausted and cold. Her “skin was so dry it flaked, and in the winter it itched so badly it kept [her] up at night.” In two years she developed a degenerative joint disease which eventually reached her spine, and later gastroparesis which lead to fourteen years of constant nausea. On top of the physical ailments there was also depression and anxiety, for which she puts most of the blame on the vegan diet.
You would think, that the book is about what the vegetarians eat, but I would say its main focus is on how to grow food that is rich in nutrients, sustainable and with compassion towards other living creatures. And, as Keith constructs piece by piece, that the vegetarian assumption that agriculture can feed the world is a misconception.
One of the carrying themes of The Vegetarian Myth is that agriculture is actually the most destructive thing humans have done to this planet. Entire ecosystems have been destroyed to obtain more land for annual monocrops (wheat, corn, soy…), and the real heart-wrenching issue is that growing annual monocrops cannot be done sustainably: it destroys topsoil, and without topsoil, rich in nutrients and bacteria, plants won’t grow and eventually the land will turn into a desert.
This is an acute problem, too. According to Keith the topsoil in North America is only inches deep, down from the twelve feet it used to be. And the only reason why agriculture is still possible to such extent is through the use of fossil fuel, turned into fertilizers. When we run out of oil, there will not only be an energy crisis, but a food crisis as well.
Keith also discusses the history of agriculture and the related politics. How this situation of factory farming has come to be, how it is controlled just by a couple huge companies, how it destroys societies in developing countries etc. All of which proves interesting reading about what happens behind the scenes of getting the food on your plate.
In fact, even the modern dietary guidelines such as the food pyramid – built to endorse low-fat diet and complex carbohydrates – are simply serving the business interests of large corporations producing cheap grain. According to Keith, hundreds of millions of public dollars were spent on five huge studies that tried to link dietary fat intake and coronary heart disease. All of them failed to prove causality. Did this stop the endorsement of low-fat, complex carbohydrate diet? No.
Phil Handler, the president of the National Academy of Scientists even asked Congress, “What right has the federal government to propose that the American people conduct a vast nutritional experiment, with themselves as subjects, on the strength of so very little evidence that it will do them any good?” Yet here we are. Low-fat craze has spread from The U.S. to the rest of the world and obesity related illnesses such as diabetes are on the rise.
Although the majority of the book is about sustainable and morally justified food production, as well as the nature of nature – how nutrients flow from plants to grazers to carnivores and back to the plants – it also contains a very good chapter about nutrition, explaining in detail what is wrong with the vegetarian diet and what kind of food humans have evolved to eat.
This chapter provides a great starting point if you just want to find out more about how different foods affect your body. The Vegetarian Myth was published in 2009 so it contains very recent information. This chapter is heavily based on more recent research about nutrition and on bestselling books such as Protein Power Lifeplan and Good Calories, Bad Calories. After reading just this one chapter you will know more about nutrition than 95% of people, and from there it’s easy to move into more specific books in case you want more information.
In my opinion the only drawback of The Vegetarian Myth is its last chapter about how to save the world. It is the weakest one in argumentation and heavily colored by feminist ideology. However, all the other chapters make reading this book more than worth your while.
I understand, that this book can and will cause strong resistance especially in vegetarians, but it could have been also written from any other point of view, without diminishing the importance its message; that agriculture is not sustainable and that something has to die for another creature to live. It is only natural, that Keith uses her own experiences as a vegan to carry the narrative forward.
I can’t recommend enough that you read this book. And to get a bit better idea of its contents, check the below clip from Keith’s book tour talk, and read the first few pages of the book.