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Lierre Keith: The Vegetarian Myth

Atkins? Vegan!

In this work Lierre Keith meticulously presents many interesting points concerning agriculture, sustainability, and preservation of resources and energy, which, as far as I can tell, are mostly accurate or at least plausible (as far as they are futurologic speculations). Unfortunately her arguments concerning vegetarianism, veganism, and medicine are far less objective.

Notes concerning Lierre Keith's book
The Vegetarian Myth - food, justice, and sustainability
Flashpoint Press, Crescent City, CA/PM Press, Oakland, CA

Critical notes

Her apparent motivation for writing this book and the mantra throughout is the negative effects of a vegetarian lifestyle - the detrimental effect of intensive agriculture, the health issues associated with malnutrition, and the high energy turnover necessary for mainstream agricultural production.

With respect to agriculture, she presents some interesting ideas, claiming that even extensive agriculture would hardly work in sufficiently extreme climates, where pigs or cattle roaming half wild might still find sufficient nourishment without much human assistance. Her point about intensive agriculture using oil for nitrogen fixation is entirely valid, although personally I am not happy with the alternative of using animal products like feces, blood, horn, or bone meal for fertilizer since it funds animal breeding and slaughtering. I am sure mulching (plant-based fertilization) is a viable concept, and for centuries crop rotation was used to get the most out of fields.

She also anthropomorphises "perennial grasses" throughout the book, stating that they have won the race to domesticate humans to look after their reproduction, which is an interesting point of view.

However, she then goes on to quote Stephen Harrod Buhner (p. 18, misspelled in the endnote, "The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicine to Life on Earth", White River Junction, 2002, p. 165) "No one knows how humic acid forms, but once formed it acts like a living substance", which with repsect to the formation of the multitude of similar substances included in the general term may be true but irrelevant, but is not quite consistent with the usual definitions of life. She then takes this statement to extend vegetarianism past frutarianism and microorganisms to ground soil, presumably hinting at prana and breatharianism - a path she thankfully does not follow any further.

What she does follow up, however, is the malnutrition problem she seems to think arises with even pre-stages of vegetarianism. In more than one place she portrays half-starving vegetarians, first and foremost herself in the lamentable 20 years of her veganism, who in her account feel incurably feeble and secretely crave animal fats and proteins. Now, while I only have 10 years of veganism on my back I can say with confidence that I never starved, do not share her back problems, and do not permanently feel hunger. I did take a few years to realize I had to take B12 supplements, something any website and organization will tell you beforehand, and I do miss cheese a bit - but I do not lack tasty foodstuffs, I consume inane amounts of olive oil while maintaining my weight and a level of cholesterol bordering on the low end of the normality scale, and studies regularly show that a plant-based lifestyle can indeed improve health as long as it does not mask an eating disorder (for a collection of many interesting studies see "Plant based nutrition and health", Stephen Walsh, 2003).

The book is full of small and large glitches, suggesting a lack in fact-checking and lectorate despite the richness in quotations and bibliography. For example, on p. 121 she compares humans to bacteria in a wine barrel eating up all the nutrients and then dying off - I can only assume she means yeasts (fungi) unless the wine has turned sour and is fermenting towards vinegar. On p. 143 she claims that survival without animal proteins is impossible for humans in a diagram comparing humans to a carnivore and a herbivore whereas apparently she could imagine survival without microorganisms or intestines, which in accordance with medical literature is not a viable long-term option (Wikipedia quotes Spencer et al. 2005 citing a 5y survival for newborns with short bowel syndrome below 10 % of the normal length to be approxmately 20 %, Ann. Surg. 2005).

Another obvious glitch occurs on p. 162: "All of your hormones, including your sex hormones, are made from cholesterol." In a chapter mentioning the peptide hormone insulin on every other page this is not a small mistake ...

Among the more controversal claims are the ones about the opioids (exorphins) contained in grains (particularly wheat). While speculations seem to existed that gluten exorphins could cross the blood brain barrier under certain circumstances, this could not be proven in studies researching dietary interventions for autism (Wikipedia quotes three, e. g. "Elimination diets in autism spectrum disorders: any wheat amidst the chaff?", Christison et al. 2006 J Dev Behav Pediatr). She also divulges the rumors that cholesterol and fatty acid intake have no influence on the risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD), restating the controversial concepts from Uffe Ravnskov's "The Cholesterol Myth" (2000), Gary Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories" (2007), and Robert Atkins' low carb diet on pp. 160ff, alternating between linking carbohydrate intake to the generation of adipose tissue and denying the infuence of cholesterol levels on CVD, atherosclerosis, and CHD.

On the way (p. 155) she denies that the distinction between mono-, di- and polysaccharides has any influence on nourishment, using a qotation explaining in detail how in contrast to the smaller molecules polysaccharides are digested slowly only to conclude that "there's very little metabolic difference between [...] a medium baked potato [...] or a 12-ounce can of soda pop". While energetically this is true, the metabolic difference could hardly be greater ...

In other places she alternatingly blames plant enzymes for making them inedible uncooked and claiming that cooking destroys all nutrients (exorphins/opioids on p. 34, lectins p. 150, phytoestrogens p. 210, isoflavones p. 211, etc., blaming the latter two for female infertility and promoting endometriosis, p. 224 with regard to making soy milk by quite a different process than the one I use)

From a technical standpoint, besides the lack of or one-sided fact-checking and quotation for many of the medical claims, I missed an index - writing this critique would have been much easier using one.

I would have liked to like Lierre Keith's book. She is a feminist and propagates extensive farming, water, soil, and energy conservation, which I sympathize with. However, she overdoes it on every page, offending anyone I could imagine in sympathy with her cause. Gender myths like the grandmother cliche also pop up (p. 176).

Despite being written in a light and a narrative tone of voice, this was one of the most irritating books I ever read - so many interesting facts, and most of them are only used for cheap polemic ...

It seems there now is a PDF Version of Lierre Keith's The Vegetarian Myth if you want to see for yourself. The copy I reviewed is located at the Library of the Medical University of Vienna