If we look at the term political correctness we see that it connotes the idea of making an effort, through language or action, not too offend anyone. Unfortunately, what it usually amounts to is trying to predict what could possibly offend others and self-censor; usually in the most ungraceful and obvious manner so as to draw attention toward the effort being made and leading to an increase in discomfort for all involved. What could be more uncomfortable than having laid bare what another person thinks would offend you, usually without any insight to who you are as an individual but rather acting on simplistic stereotypes and even then completely missing the mark?
Politically correct nutrition can be looked at in the same manner. It is eating in a way that is designed not to offend anyone, particularly those who conform to the conventional mainstream perspective of what constitutes healthy eating. It is undeniable that at least part of the answer to the vast majority of the chronic health problems currently plaguing our population is to radically change and improve our diets, but just what changes need to be made is generally a hotly debated topic. The politically correct answer is what we have been told for the last half-century or more - eat less, exercise more, lower fat consumption, avoid cholesterol and, increasingly, eat less meat.
It seems that consensus in mainstream diet-recommending bodies is that meat consumption is a bad thing and that cutting down, if not eliminating entirely, one's meat consumption is what is best for one's health. Meats are slowly moving their way up to the narrower end of the government mandated food pyramid to take up fewer recommended portions per day. Gone are the days of the 4 basic food groups, when meats were given as much value as fruits and vegetables. If one is consuming a politically correct diet, one is a vegetarian at the very least, vegan ideally. The mantra of Michael Polan, media darling and current king of the erudite food writers, is a prime example of the politically correct nutrition mantra: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
Increasingly, 'health food' is associated with vegetarianism. Often, newly processed vegetarian concoctions line the shelves of health food stores while healthy meats, if present at all, are relegated to a freezer section in the back. A healthy, organic butcher, preparing meats free of chemicals, hormones and antibiotics seems far removed from this 'health food' culture. Even amongst the aware health aficionados, who know enough to avoid processed foods, raw food veganism is the default, not conscious omnivorism.
But the question that needs to be asked is whether this move towards a vegetarian diet is in our best interest from a health perspective. There are many arguments for vegetarianism, but do any of them bear up under investigation?
In order to answer this question we have to look back into history. Despite the assertions that we should, through science and technology, become a healthier population, the opposite effect is obvious to anyone - even those promoting the 'politically correct' diets. It is true that deaths resulting from infectious disease have dropped significantly since the turn of the century; almost to the point where such deaths are unheard of today (when was the last time you heard of someone dying of cholera or typhoid?). However, chronic disease has been on a steady rise over this same time period. Human lifespans may have increased post-industrialization ("may" because this fact is debatable once infant mortality statistics are adjusted for), but these longer lives are, frankly, riddled with chronic disease. Cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis - these are the plagues of the modern age and while they may not kill us quickly, they certainly make our newly acquired longer lives full of much more suffering.
So in order to properly address this problem of chronic disease, it seems most logical to look back to a time when these chronic diseases weren't present, or at the very least were considered an anomaly instead of the norm. This is where the work of Weston A. Price becomes invaluable. Weston A. Price, a dentist and nutritionist, traveled the globe in the 1930s, and had the unique fortune of being able to study the diets of numerous native societies while they were still untouched by the blight of the modern Western processed diet. What's more, he was able to directly compare those of the same gene pool who were either eating a traditional diet or a modern processed one (often studying members of the same family or even twins, comparing one family member who stayed in the village eating their traditional diet to another who moved to the big city and took up a modern processed diet).
What Price came across was nothing short of remarkable. He primarily found that wherever natives took up modern processed foods like sugar and white flour - the staples of Western life - degeneration and disease followed. He found that the plagues of modern civilization such as muscle fatigue, headaches, dental caries (cavities), narrow mouth with impacted molars and the crowding of teeth, allergies, asthma and many of the degenerative diseases of the day including tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease and cancer, were simply not present in populations who continued to sustain themselves on their indigenous diets. However, with the move toward Western foods, within a single generation these same cultures experienced all the above listed ailments and more.
But aside from this main finding, Price also found no healthy vegetarian societies or tribes. Although he did come across some vegetarian tribes, he inevitably found a healthier tribe in the vicinity that consumed some form of animal product. Cultural anthropology has shown that meat eating within a society is generally dictated by availability, not by beliefs or religions. Healthier traditional societies ate meat and there was, therefore, no reason for a society to adopt vegetarianism, especially for reasons of health.
In light of this finding, the adoption of vegetarianism in modern times, needs to be looked at for what it is - a moral decision. It is not, contrary to the politically correct view, a health-based decision. If Price had found societies thriving on a vegetarian diet and it made sense for those societies to forego animal products in order to improve their health, the argument could go otherwise. But he didn't. He found the opposite.
Despite this fact, the vegetarian movement continually attempts to fit the square peg into the round hole by attempting to 'prove' time and again that a vegetarian diet is a healthier option. And the propaganda that results from these wiseacreings are effective; so effective that many who are now taking up the mantle of the vegetarian movement, or its little cousin the 'flexetarian movement', dedicated to reducing meat consumption while not foregoing it completely, are doing so for 'health reasons'. Even those in the holistic health field are not immune to the careful propaganda campaign, often espousing the health benefits of removing animal products from the diet and lending a professional credence to the vegetarian hypothesis. Holistic restaurants are vegetarian restaurants, while eateries offering healthy meats are few and far between.
Several diet authors will even use Price's work to defend increasing vegetables and fruit and decreasing meat and even increasing polyunsaturated vegetable oils in favor of animal fats. Their connections make sense if one takes Price's work in the most simple of terms, i.e. moving away from a processed diet towards one based on whole foods, but the specifics of increasing vegetables and vegetable oils by sacrificing animal foods is the antithesis of Price's work and findings. Price's own recommendations were to eat organ meats, raw milk and butter, bone broths, and plant foods grown in fertile soils. Nowhere did he recommend cutting meat consumption in favor of more vegetables or pouring on the vegetable oil.
Enter the Lipid Hypothesis
Part of the strength of the vegetarian hypothesis stands on the shoulders of the lipid hypothesis. The lipid hypothesis proposes that the rise in cardiovascular disease over the last century can be blamed on saturated fats and cholesterol in the blood and that both these factors can be controlled by dietary intervention, i.e. eating fewer animal products. This hypothesis has so invaded our collective psyche that it is rarely if ever questioned. It is taken as truth that only through the abstinence or severe restriction of animal fat consumption can heart disease be avoided.
Wide acceptance of the lipid hypothesis started back in 1954 when Ancel Keys' Seven Countries Study was published, demonstrating clear links between saturated fat intake and heart disease. The study, however, was seriously flawed in its methodology. While the seven countries selected graphed a clear link between saturated fat consumption and heart disease, the other 16 countries that Keys had looked at showed no such correlation. Keys simply discarded the data from the countries that didn't conform to his hypothesis. Keys, nonetheless, was treated as a hero, put on the cover of Time magazine as 'Man of the Year' in 1961 and the lipid hypothesis has dominated contemporary nutritional thought ever since. It's the dietary version of the IPCC Global Warming report.
The Cholesterol Myths, The Great Cholesterol Con, Know Your Fats; the 'alternative health' books and articles all shout from the sidelines that the emperor is naked, but the media continues to studiously ignore all the scientific evidence in favor of continuing to present the same old myth. And the vegetarian hypothesis relies heavily on this 'common knowledge' that animal foods cause heart disease.
Looking Further Back
One of the common arguments brought up frequently in support of the vegetarian hypothesis is that human physiology resembles more the build of a herbivore than that of a carnivore and that we are, therefore, built for veganism, not a diet that includes animal products. These arguments are, to put it bluntly, patently false. Whether these arguments are intentionally misleading or simply wishful thinking is beside the point - humans are omnivores and they are built like omnivores and any 'evidence' to the contrary is fraudulent.
While some hypothesize that our ancestors evolved a large brain in a short amount of time, in evolutionary terms, due to increased need for complicated hunting and gathering strategies or because of increasing group size leading to complex social strategies, these explanations look more at the 'why' than the 'how' of our evolving brain size. The 'how' isn't an easy question to answer due to thermogenics. Brains give off a great deal of heat due to the amount of fuel that they consume. In fact, the metabolic rate of the brain is nine times that of the average for the rest of the body.
However, total metabolic rate is determined by the size of the organism. As the mass of an organism goes up, so does the heat that it gives off in a neat linear relationship. An animal the size of a mouse gives off less heat than an animal the size of a human, who gives off less heat than an animal the size of a horse. The formula that determines metabolic rate with respect to mass is known as Kleiber's Law, named after Max Kleiber who discovered it. Because of Kleiber's Law, the metabolic rate of any animal can be predicted given its mass.
Thus, given that paleontologists have determined the mass of our pre-human ancestors using skeletal remains, Aiello and Wheeler were able to use their metabolic rate as a jumping-off point for their theory using Kleiber's Law.
As Dr. Eades puts it, "According to Kleiber's law, an australopithecine weighing 80 pounds would have the same metabolic rate as a human weighing 80 pounds despite the disparity in brain size between the two. The much larger brain of the human would have 4-5 times the metabolic rate of the brain of the australopithecine, yet would have the same overall metabolic rate." So therefore, given the constant metabolic rate according to mass and given that the energy-balance equation says that the total metabolic rate is the sum of all the individual metabolic rates of the various organs and tissues added up, something has to decrease in order to accommodate the increasing brain size and its increasing demands for energy. And, in order to keep the total metabolic rate consistent, that accommodation has to be equal.
Put in the form of an equation:
Total BMR = brain BMR + heart BMR + kidney BMR + GI tract BMR + liver BMR + the remainder of the body's tissues
If Total BMR is to remain consistent (which it has to), yet brain BMR is increasing, something else in the equation has to decrease in order to maintain balance.
Aiello and Wheeler found that the heart, kidney, liver and gastro-intestinal (GI) tract account for the majority of the Total BMR, aside from the brain, so these are the choices for what could decrease to account for the increasing brain. Because of the great amount of energy these organs consume given their small size, the authors named them "expensive tissues".
Looking to primates, Aiello and Wheeler found that heart, kidney and liver in a 65kg primate was about the same as that found in a 65kg human. Clearly, those organs could not be sacrificed for the brain. It was therefore the GI tract that needed to decrease in size to make up for the increased brain size of our human ancestors. In fact, our GI tract is about 900g (about 2 pounds) less than that of a similarly sized primate. As stated by the authors, "the increase in mass of the human brain appears to be balanced by a [sic] almost identical reduction in size of the gastro-intestinal tract."
It doesn't matter what the driving reason is for increasing brain size, it corresponded to an equal decreasing in the size of the gut. And in order to still be able to extract enough nutrition given a smaller gut-size, a higher quality food source was necessary - meat. Increasing the amount of easily-extracted energy source from animal foods allowed us to maintain our total metabolic rate while our guts shrank and our brains grew.
Anthropologists, looking at primate brain size, have noted a correlation between the size of the brain and the presence of animal foods in the diet. Prior to the ETH, no one had ever previously theorized that an omnivorous diet was the reason for a larger brain. Theories explored the need for more complicated reasoning required in strategizing food gathering in an omnivorous diet or the need to organize better foraging techniques over larger areas. However, in these scenarios the need for a larger brain was always looked at as the driving force rather than what enabled the evolution, i.e. a change in diet. Given that a large gut is needed to extract enough energy from a vegetable-based diet, regardless of the need for a larger brain size, if a vegetarian diet is maintained, increasing brain size is not possible without violating Kleiber's Law.
We can see that, compared to humans, chimps and gorillas have large protruding bellies that hold in their larger GI tract. By examining the rib cage of these primates and comparing them to humans, we get support for the hypothesis that our smaller-brained primate ancestors would have larger guts similar to modern primates. Modern primates have an inverted funnel-shaped rib cage, (not tapered at the bottom), to accommodate a large abdomen. Humans, on the other hand, have rib cages that taper in at the bottom, leading to a narrower waist. Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy's species, thought to be our most distant relative at an estimated 4.4 million years ago) has the same inverted funnel-shaped rib cage as modern primates, indicating a large belly and a low-quality, vegetable-based diet.
The China Study
Getting back to the vegetarian hypothesis, despite the evidence that we have evolved by eating meat, some still argue that to do so is unhealthy. One of their more popular claims is that meat consumption leads to cancer. And one of the biggest guns in their arsenal is "The China Study."
T. Colin Campbell is the author of the book The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-Term Health, released in January 2005. Confusingly, the author was also one of the researchers in the actual 'China Study', a massive epidemiological study which examined the dietary habits and health of 65 different rural regions of China. (Note to reader: Going forward, references to the book The China Study will be in italics while the study itself will be indicated by quotes). The book details the main points in Campbell's post-graduate research, including participation in "The China Study", that led him to become a vocal advocate of the vegan diet. One of the more famous lines from the book, and one which wraps up its thesis: "eating foods that contain any cholesterol above 0 mg is unhealthy." Given that all animal foods contain cholesterol and no plant foods do, the author's thesis is that eating animal foods is unhealthy.
Campbell has argued that "The China Study" illustrates the vast superiority of a plant food diet to one that includes even small amounts of animal foods and ties almost all Western chronic disease to the consumption of animal foods. In the section of the book that focuses on 'The China Study', Campbell asserts that a clear relationship exists between a society's meat consumption habits and their succumbing to modern chronic disease, particularly cancer. As such, Campbell's book has been the focal point of the vegetarian/vegan movement since its publication.
However, even if it was a perfect interpretation of the study data, The China Study was never good evidence to be used as fodder for the vegetarian argument because it concentrates on an epidemiological study. Epidemiological studies, or observational studies, are good for looking at certain trends to derive hypotheses, but they do not imply causation; they show interesting correlations, but prove nothing.
Despite this fact, the vegetarian community holds this book up as their bible. And understandably so; it tells them exactly what they want to hear - that a scientific rationale exists for their highly emotional and moral choice of avoiding consumption of any and all animal foods. This book has led more than one former meat-eater into the waiting arms of veganism, if blog comments are to be believed. The China Study receives little criticism, not only due to the fact that so many people wish it to be true, but also because it 'proves' the conclusion that politically correct mainstream nutrition has been herding us toward since the Seven Countries Study - that meat eating is inherently unhealthy.
Enter Denise Minger, an English major with a personal interest in nutrition and a penchant for statistics. In May of 2010, five years after the original publication of The China Study, Minger went back to the raw data of the study and started crunching numbers, publishing what she came up with on her blog, RawFoodSOS, all laid out neatly, a little bit of snark sidled along with graphs displaying the data. Eventually, Minger put all the data together in an extensive 36 page analysis called "The China Study: A Formal Analysis and Response" which included responses to Campbell's own comments on her analysis.
Because it is so extensive, space limitations prevent a thorough summary here, but what Minger found was that the data from 'The China Study' did not support the conclusions in Campbell's book; not one of them. The data simply does not show what Campbell claims is shows. On top of this, Minger unearthed data from 'The China Study' that was not included in Campbell's book which also doesn't support his conclusions. The citizens of the county of Tuoli, for example, who eat twice as much animal protein per day as compared to the average American and consume 45% of their diet as fat, were in extremely good health with low rates of cancer and heart disease; this is never mentioned. As Minger states in her conclusion:
"A theory as purportedly universal as Campbell's should, by definition, unite the various health and disease patterns of global cultures without generating frequent anomalies. By naming animal products as the source of Western afflictions, Campbell has created a hypothesis valid only under hand-picked circumstances -- one that cannot account for other epidemiological trends or even recent case-controlled studies. This is a symptom of a deficient theory, embodying only partial truths about broader diet-disease mechanisms. ...The China Study is 'The Seven Countries Study' all over again.
"While he [Campbell] has skillfully identified the importance of whole, unprocessed foods in achieving and maintaining health, his focus on wedding animal products with disease has come at the expense of exploring - or even acknowledging - the presence of other diet-disease patterns that may be stronger, more relevant, and ultimately more imperative for public health and nutritional research."
Chris Masterjohn, in a blog post reporting on Minger's analysis, cited as the death blow to The China Study something that actually comes from one of Campbell's own studies:
"The only rigorously controlled experimental science that Campbell cites [in his book] in favor of his hypothesis that animal foods, and specifically animal protein, are uniquely harmful to our health, is his own experiments in rats showing that casein [a milk protein], but not wheat or soy proteins [vegetable proteins], promoted cancer in lab animals. ...While the actual study provides an excellent data set for epidemiological analysis, Campbell's conclusions as presented in his book have been thoroughly debunked -- both by his own data and the myriad studies that have revealed its falsity. This hasn't stopped many in the vegan community from rushing to Campbell's defense or, more often, attacking Minger, Masterjohn or any other health blogger posting criticisms of Campbell or his book. In both these criticisms as well as Campbell's own responses to Minger's analysis, the scientific questions raised are rarely disputed, however, as the argument usually focuses on the author's lack of credentials and criticisms of methodology (the same methodology employed by Campbell's himself, no less).
"When I wrote my review in spring of 2005 I pointed out that Campbell was jumping the gun by making conclusions about other animal proteins and even all "nutrients from animal foods" when he only studied powdered casein, but I went no further than that. Denise Minger, however, dug up the original study and used it to blow a death knell to Dr. Campbell's argument... When the amino acid lysine was provided in the diet, wheat protein had the same effect as casein! The research showed definitively that the only reason wheat protein didn't promote the cancer was because it is not a complete protein!"
Perhaps the lesson to be taken away from all of this is to always be leery of those who blame modern 20th century ailments on behavior we've been adhering to for millennia. Throughout evolutionary history, spanning hundreds of thousands of years, humans have eaten meat and saturated animal fats. If these behaviors were as unhealthy as has been suggested, the human race would never would have made it this far.
The Spiritual Question
Another common vegetarian myth deals with matters less concrete than scientific studies or academic treatises can elucidate. It involves the question of spirit and the widely held belief that meat eating is less spiritual than a vegetarian diet. Perhaps a quick look at the many religions of the world may help to shed some light on this line of reasoning.
Hindus are vegetarian. Some Sikhs are vegetarian and some aren't. Some Buddhists are and some aren't (the Buddha actually condemns meat eating in one writing and gives it the OK in another). Jews and Muslims aren't vegetarian, although they do adhere to dietary restrictions. Of the thousands of different Christian sects around the world, some are vegetarian, but most aren't. In the ancient Indian medical and spiritual practice of Ayurveda, some constitutional types are told to eat meat and some are told to abstain. Native American tribes of centuries past lived a spiritual life every minute of every day, it could be argued, yet they consumed meat (and smoked tobacco!). In other words, the question of whether meat consumption is congruent with a spiritual path is clearly not settled in the religious world. Any assertion, therefore, that eating meat is less spiritual than being vegan is nothing but a giant assumption - the musings of an unenlightened individual on what it means to be enlightened.
It's understandable that the spiritually inclined do not like this fact. No reasonable person in possession of a conscience wants to hurt another living being. We do not tend to think about this when we sit down to our meals because it makes us uncomfortable. This may be the root of one of the problems in our food chain. Our avoidance of acknowledging that it is indeed life that has been given in order to feed us may be what has led to our allowance of animals, (and even plants, it could be argued), being treated in a deplorable manner in factory farming practices that are horrific. We have succumbed to a willing blindness, turning our backs on our food chain; a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy that hides us from uncomfortable truths about our sustenance. While a great deal of suffering goes on behind the scenes, we are presented with neat little styrofoam packages - free of any signs of the life that once flowed through the muscles that are now food.
We cannot excuse the flagrant abuses of respect and dignity witnessed in the factory farming prevalent in the West. There is no question that the conveyor system of Western meat production is absolutely deplorable. Eating what can be called 'commercially farmed' animals, those raised on antibiotics, steroids and feed burdened with toxic poisons from mold and fungus as well as other toxic additives, can simply not be justified. Nor can the unspeakable torture animals in factory farms are forced to endure for their entire lives be considered acceptable in any way.
This is not what our Paleolithic ancestors evolved eating. This certainly didn't give us bigger brains. On the contrary, we would have to consider ourselves lucky if we were to escape a venture into this diet without sustaining brain damage. This is the exact opposite of what Weston A. Price witnessed traditional cultures thriving on in their isolated communities. Eating animals raised in the most unnatural of settings and fed a completely unnatural diet can only lead to a population as diseased as the animals on which it feeds. This can safely be said to be anti-spiritual food. Burdened with toxicity, suffering and karmic load, to eat this way is to walk the path of entropy and death.
But this is where the argument of the vegetarian movement often makes its most fundamental error - by equating all omnivorism with participation in the conscienceless food chain. There is a middle ground between ethical veganism and kill-mill factory farming practices, and this middle ground is what thinking, feeling, spiritual humans are struggling to find in today's food environment.
The Right Way To Eat Meat
There is a way to eat meat as part of the daily diet, not having to confine consumption to every other day or only on the weekends as Graham Hill, founder of treehugger.com, recommends. Farming, when done in a way that views the entire farm as an organism unto itself -- each part, including the plants, the animals and even the farmer all vital components that symbiotically assist each other's development -- need not cause damage to the environment or the people who derive sustenance from the farm itself.
Animals don't naturally eat grains and soy, and so we shouldn't be feeding it to them. Cows should eat grass on pasture, and thereby return nutrients in the form of manure to build the soil. Unlike the problems inherent to feedlot operations where massive amounts of waste from diseased animals is pumped into the surrounding environment causing pollution problems, healthy animal waste on a balanced farm is prized as a means of feeding the soil. The health of the soil is the best means of gauging the health of the farm, including all the plants and animals.
Farming as a spiritual practice, imbued with objective knowledge, that recognizes the complex interrelationship of all life and how the cycles of one species are intimately tied to all others in the environment, is the farming of the future. This is the essence of biodynamic farming, and it is the only hope for saving the planet. Eliminating animals from this delicate balance would be akin to eliminating an organ from the body.
The politically correct view is that raising meat hurts the environment, uses up valuable land and resources and is toxic to the planet as a whole. This, again, confuses the factory farming operations perpetrated by Big Agra for the simple process of raising meat on a small family-operated farm. These two things are not one and the same. Before giant agri-business killed the family farm - centralizing giant meat-raising conglomerations in one central location to the detriment of the environment, the animals and the humans who feed on them -- the family farm maintained a holistic relationship with the environment. This can be achieved once again.
All that has been said here should not be confused with an attack on vegetarianism. Whether to eat animal products or not, like any lifestyle decision made from a place of subjective morality, is a personal decision which should be considered very carefully. What has been challenged is the increasingly widely held assumption that a vegetarian diet, or as close as one can get to it, is the 'right' diet for everyone, the healthiest diet and the diet best for the environment. Political correctness, a blight on social interaction and the relationships between disparate groups, is equally out of place in discussions on nutrition. It may not be politically correct to eat animals, but it is nutritionally correct to do so. Indeed, it is this path that has provided us the ability to have the debate.