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(Vegetarian Problem Scenarios--continued, Part C)

What happens if vegetarian diets
are not best for everyone?

That vegetarian diets are more "natural" is no longer defensible, and that they are "best" is debatable.

Rise of evolutionary research has shown hominid ancestors to be omnivores from the beginning. In recent years evolutionary science has been delving more closely into the prehistoric human past. Recent consolidation of findings in the field of research coming to be known as Paleolithic diet (or "Paleodiet," for short) has in the last 10-15 years been confirming that ancestors in the human line have been serious omnivores going all the way back to the inception of the human genus Homo over two million years ago. (Again, see Timeline of Dietary Shifts in the Human Line of Evolution for an overview of this information, as well as Corrected Anthropological Survey Data Shows Meat Averages Over 50% of Hunter-Gatherer Diets.) This means the rationale for vegetarianism as the most "natural" diet for human beings (for those who have presented it that way) has been getting the rug pulled out from under its feet, and must now rely more on other appeals.

If vegetarian diets are not necessarily the healthiest above all others, then the appeals become primarily ethical in nature. The wave of clinical studies in the 1970s and 1980s critical of excessive fat and particularly animal fat in the diet--which have themselves been coming under criticism in recent years as the fat issue is being explored in more depth--have in reality never been an argument against omnivorous diets anyway. Rather, they are an argument against the high-saturated-fat SAD diet--which should not be equated with all omnivorous diets. (See Which Omnivore Diet? The "Omnivorism = Western Diet" Fallacy for more on this point.) This may end up leaving primarily a spiritual/ethical/environmental rationale for eating veggie, particularly if it cannot be shown nutritionally superior not just to the SAD, but to other alternative--but omnivorous--diets as well (which it probably cannot be).

Some, of course, believe the spiritual or ethical rationale that is their primary motivation for a vegetarian diet is in itself quite reason enough, while others find the wisdom of doing so very debatable. But if the diet does not work for some people, then that leaves vegetarian individuals--even those promoting just the ethical/environmental rationale--new questions the movement needs to look at that haven't been faced till now.

When answers are no longer clear-cut, open-mindedness requires the willingness to question and rethink the issues.

And that's the reason for Beyond Veg--to provide a place staking out territory where those who were open-minded enough to have embraced vegetarianism in the first place can also be open-minded enough to explore the problems and limitations that we may find have surfaced, now that enough time has passed for us to draw on past history over larger numbers of people. As a vegetarian pioneer, Herbert Shelton, the founder of the modern "natural hygiene" self-care movement, once said and took as his motto: "Let us have truth though the heavens fall." When you have put your heart and soul into following as all-encompassing a lifestyle as vegetarianism can often be, it is not easy to find that sometimes information you may have relied on with implicit belief in its authority is later found to be superseded or contravened by experience or additional data.

When there is too deep an emotional investment in diet, open-mindedness is more difficult. For those of us whose diets are based not just on nutritional ideas but on philosophical principles or beliefs that may underlie an entire lifestyle, the toughest aspect of making a transition to a different diet that may serve you better is not food. It is being able to transcend your emotional identification with the philosophy or worldview underlying the diet you may have lived by for many years. This can often be very difficult psychologically, because our food habits help to comprise a literally "visceral" sense of who we are. Integrating a new or more all-inclusive dietary vision based on new information that one may only be beginning to realize the implications of, takes not only intellectual understanding and assent but also patience and emotional honesty. Even when one is faced with well-corroborated research like what is presented in some sections of this site, we recognize it is difficult to change the beliefs of a lifetime, or half a lifetime.

The mirror of self-recognition. Hopefully you will find interesting--and perhaps may note a shock of self-recognition in--the kinds of games outlined here that we often play with ourselves when faced with information we do not want to hear. Those of us here writing about them know about them because in many cases we have played them on ourselves before. We hope the candor and occasional humor with which we approach our common human foibles here will help you to consider these issues for yourself.

For lurking skeptics

We want to make clear here that it is not our intention to simply--or categorically--impugn vegetarianism. One of the main writers for this site is a long-term vegetarian and intends to remain so. We recognize that such diets do work depending on the individual, and from regular contacts with a range of vegetarian individuals we know that for some they work well. However, we also are painfully aware from ongoing contacts with this same range of various individuals that the number of individuals they work for--or at least work well for long-term (a key issue)--is probably less than most vegetarians like to think, particularly the more strict the practice; and the margins for error can sometimes be thin on this "straight-and-narrow" path, depending on which byway you are walking.

The illusion of an "ideal" for "everyone." Perhaps the hardest "ideal" for anyone believing in the superiority of a single diet over all others to have to give up is the cherished assumption that a "perfect" or "ideal" diet will work the same for EVERYONE. However, due to our own ongoing contacts with a range of vegetarian individuals, making that admission is eventually what we have had to do, at first against a felt sense of "what was (or 'ought' to be) right."

Thoughtful comments welcomed, flames not. In the spirit of balanced inquiry, we invite those of you who may disagree with what you will read here to send in your objections and counterarguments if you can do it in the spirit of civil debate and inquiry. Most flames we get, however, will likely hit the bit-bucket fast. As former or current vegetarians, and/or observers for many years, rest assured those of us putting the site together are familiar with most if not all of the standard objections against animal foods. (As well as cooked foods: An important part of what we present here on the site addresses the cooked vs. raw debate.)

If you are vegetarian and wish to comment or respond, please take the time to familiarize yourself with the various standard objections covered here on the site before emailing us your own, so as not to waste your time bringing up issues already dealt with elsewhere on the site. Due to time constraints, we will not answer broadsides unless they bring up new information and are not simply repetitions of time-worn mantras. If you have objections to what is presented here, send us NEW objections. Those which are well-thought-out and supported, we will certainly consider posting here--in the spirit of "let us have truth though the heavens fall." Those that are not new will be dumped straight into the bit-bucket for a thorough digital composting.

The crucial yet problematic role of our own "anecdotal" stories in exploring dietary practices that lack current scientific investigation.

Real-world reports as a corrective to traditional "theory" not backed by research. After a number of years having been swallowed up by alternative dietary theories often infested by mesmerizing double-think that effectively insulates the individual from any possible counterargument, one of our primary interests here is in what WORKS and what happens in the real world when the food hits the gullet, and the results are stripped of obfuscating rationalizations. To that end, we are interested in controlled studies and scientific research on alternative diets, but just as importantly your own case histories.

In poorly explored areas, anecdotal evidence is helpful in opening up inquiry. We include in "case histories" personal stories, but we should note that as far as research is concerned these constitute "anecdotal evidence," and we should attempt to proceed carefully with as much objectivity--or at least honesty--as we can muster given that fact. Cross-examination here can be helpful in attempting to weed out biases that may color the way we relate our stories. We do not automatically reject "anecdotal evidence" out of hand here, like many investigators sometimes do, because the way a new line of inquiry gets started in the first place is very often due to the suggestive nature of initial anecdotal reports. If we never investigated anecdotal reports, some lines of inquiry would rarely ever get started except by accident.

Criticizing anecdotal evidence is unproductive when it is primarily what is available. Thus, if you are someone with professional research interests reading over these pages, we ask for your patience with the case histories or "stories" presented here. Because you will discover if you have any interest in this subject matter that in certain cases (fruitarianism, all-raw-foodism, etc.) there simply ARE no controlled studies (or exceedingly few, or not germane to a particular issue at hand) that have been done on some of the questions we will be highlighting. If one cannot abide such "anecdotal" evidence and is interested in these questions, then the only logical response is to begin designing and conducting studies to test and either verify or falsify the hypotheses and tentative conclusions presented here. If one isn't willing to help do this, then sniping at one of the only ways we currently have of attempting to look into some of these questions with the state of knowledge as it currently exists is simply closed-mindedness or irascibility. It only contributes to the problem, not the solution.

Reports of research welcomed from those with constructive criticisms to offer. We want to emphasize that we are desirous of input from people aware of or involved with research addressing these questions scientifically, but please attempt to be critical in a constructive way rather than merely be derisive if you find something said here that doesn't square with studies we are not yet aware of. If you are aware of such studies, then send us the abstracts for possible summary here. We expect that not all of what we have to say here will, or can at present, be proven. Much of it is in the nature of hypotheses to be looked into further. If you cannot be helpful with constructive suggestions that point us toward data to clarify or modify or test these hypotheses, you will find we have no response to you. For now, a good portion of the evidence we have to go by is anecdotal, but it will not always be this way if those with research agendas begin investigating these questions.

Increasing public awareness of vegetarian diets (and beyond) demands better exploration of neglected issues about them that can lead to problems.

As the planet gets more crowded, the reputed economic advantages of vegetarian diets and their presumed more-efficient use of land and resources than heavy animal-food diets will continue to attract more attention. This motivation for considering vegetarian diets on an economic level has also been accompanied by the more personal motivations people have to improve their own health as well. These stem, of course, from historical trends in scientific research on fat in the diet and the value of substances in diets high in fresh fruits and vegetables in preventing disease.

Much research on alternative diets is not yet sufficiently informed about long-term issues apparent to seasoned veterans. Currently the pendulum of scientific study has been swinging in the direction of vegetarian-like practices without knowledge of the extremes to which people often go. Also, much current research seems to be proceeding without knowledge of the pitfalls that have been experienced by many who have been on vegetarian diets for lengthy periods of time--problems which tend to be known only to seasoned veterans who have learned through hard personal experience. It is possible (indeed it happens often) to go far enough that vegetarian practices can result in ruined or poor health of the individuals who try them, and who end up collecting the arrows in their backs.

Ethical considerations about vegetarian diets too often proceed under the simplistic assumption the diet will work for everyone. Particularly when failure to thrive is an issue, then whether to be vegetarian becomes a question only the individual can best decide or not, and the issue loses any sacrosanct status as a social agenda that some may believe it to have. The idea of vegetarianism as a social solution for environmental concerns, or for the so-called moral problem of killing animals for food (which is not made into an issue where other omnivorous animals are concerned) is based on the idea that vegetarianism can work for everyone. But if such presuppositions do not hold, then the questions become more complicated, and there are no longer any easy answers (if there ever were anyway).

Tough questions often not faced. Can the health and well-being of an omnivorous animal who may depend on animal food for optimal health be measured against the lives of the animals that are sacrificed for such food? Only the individual themselves can answer such a question; and supposing that the question can, should, or ought instead to be made a prescription for society is seen as presumptuous. How does one weigh the "right" of an omnivorous animal to eat omnivorous food against the "rights" of its prey? These are questions that have no definitive answers, and perhaps should not have to be asked in the first place.

What if "planetary" or "trans-species" interests conflict with health of the individual human? Aside from the pets we own, few bother presuming to ask the preceding questions for other omnivorous animals--whom we seem to believe have a right to the normal everyday elements of their natural life, if they desire them. Easy answers cannot be generalized for these questions, since the ecological problems we face, and the extinction of other species, are at root due to human overpopulation--a species-wide or better yet, planetary, question. Yet what may be in the best overall interest of the planet (trying to eliminate the effects of human overpopulation such as reigning in the human desire for animal food) may not be in the best interest of any particular individual human being or their health.

In the interest of individuals making their own decisions, the Beyond Veg website is geared toward openly addressing and presenting information about the problems that can arise on vegetarian and other alternative diets, as well as going beyond the "party line" and exploring other dietary options, including research with a bearing on the concerns that so often bring people to consider a vegetarian or other alternative diet in the first place. There is a considerable lack of research on some of these questions and bull-session topics which are of concern to many long-time vegetarians and/or ex-vegetarians that, in many cases, have yet to reach the ears of the scientific community. These are in large part what we'll be focusing on here.

So heave ho! And when you have had time to digest these issues, we hope to hear from you here at the feedback department of Beyond Veg.

--Ward Nicholson

Before writing to Beyond Veg contributors, please be aware of our
email policy about what types of email we can and cannot respond to.

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