“The Vegetarian Myth” Myth: A Blogger Confronts Keith’s Propaganda with Facts

Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth is a book so riddled with errors and sloppy logic that, as I read it, I kept thinking that it would take a lifetime to undo, contextualize, and correct the myriad inaccuracies that mar this book. Turns out it doesn’t take a lifetime, but just a lot of patience and research acumen. Writing at the vegetarianmythmyth.wordpress.com, Carolyn Zaikowski, who I recently met, is taking down Keith’s book  footnote by footnote, claim by claim, innuendo by innuendo. With her permission, I’m including a sample of her work here. I urge you to share it with friends who’ve abandoned their plant-based diets based on this troubling book. This is just the first installment of several related posts from Zaikowski. [she can be reached at carolynzaikowski@gmail.com]      -jm

Chapter four: Claims and realities, part one

Claims/realities: Chapter 4

Claim: “Actually, if we really look at gorillas [vegetarian animals] et al., what we find are animals that contain the fermentative bacteria necessary to digest cellulose. We humans contain no such thing. This man writes books about diet without knowing a thing about how humans actually digest (p141).” On the next page she cites a chart that says humans have no bacteria in their stomach.

Reality: Humans currently have over 130 known bacteria in their stomach. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won a Nobel Prize in 2005 for their research in this area.  Keith’s information here came from a chart from 1975 (see below) and second- and third-hand analyses done by Eades and Eades and the Weston A. Price Foundation people. Additionally, the fact that we don’t have an enzyme to breakdown cellulose does not, in any way whatsoever, mean we don’t need cellulose. Keith uses this characteristic of cellulose to claim that we don’t need and weren’t “meant” to eat cellulose. In reality, cellulose is one of our most important sources of fiber. If it broke down in the stomach, our intensines wouldn’t move because they would have no bulk… we wouldn’t poop. Here’s a primer to some things that can happen if you don’t get enough fiber. “This lady writes books about diet without knowing a thing about–” oh wait, that would be obnoxious.

Claim: Humans are carnivores, here’s a chart to prove it (pp. 142-3).

Reality: This is a classic compartive anatomy chart. Here’s one that makes it look like humans are “naturally” vegetarians and if you combine them, you can probably get a chart that makes a good argument for how humans are “naturally” omnivores. Here’s a good article about how such charts are decieving and how we don’t really know what humans “naturally” are.Keith’s chart is from a The Stone Age Diet, a book self-published by Dr. Walter Voeltin in 1975– that’s 35 years ago. And  self-published books not only don’t need peer review or feedback, but don’t technically even need an editor, a manuscript reader, a consultant, or anyone else besides the author to decide what should be published. So it was already a dubious book when it came out. As you might guess, tons of research has since been done that severely complicates his theories about meat and plant eating (see all of our chapter 4 discussions, and do your own research.) This diet was a fad in the mid-70s and became faddy again in the 2000s, in part due to this inconclusive yet fairly well-publicized study.

Claim: “If the getting of food, of life, means we are destined for sadism and genocide, then the universe is a sick and twisted place and I want out. But I don’t believe it. It hasn’t been my experience of food, of killing, of participating. When I see the art that people who were our anatomical equals made, I don’t see a celebration of cruelty, an aesthetic of sadism. No, I wasn’t there when the drawings were made and I didn’t interview the artists. But I know beauty when I see it. And the artists left no question about what they were eating. Besides their drawings, they also left weapons, including blades for killing and butchering (p144).”

Reality: By now, hopefully we realize that mainly this isn’t even a “claim”, it’s a subjective anecdote about Keith’s internal eating experience. As for cavemen leaving “no question” about what they ate, this is simply wrong. Palentology is all question and speculation. Since time machines don’t exist, there is no way to truly prove anything in paleontology, even moreso than in many of the other sciences. This is partly why it’s an exciting science, and partly why the palentologists who are worth listening to, are carefully trained not to create overarching, unsubstantiated narratives based on cave paintings, like “all humans should eat meat” or “no one ever ate meat”. This kind of use of the social sciences is biological determinism, which is related to sociobiology. Generally, radicals, especially feminists, have noticed and criticized these methods of logic, which  have historically been employed by fundamentalist Christians, eugenicists, racists, misogynists, anti-semites, and others who dismiss loaded, complicated political and social issues by claiming that all correct human behavior is based in biology. This is what Keith’s sources do. This is the practice of using science as scientism– a dogmatic and simplified faith in science– versus using science for the critical and useful tool that it is. Keith, a second-wave radical feminist, apparently either missed or is willfully ignoring how one of the most significant and successful movements inside second-wave radical feminism included a huge, substantiated critique of this kind of science. You can read about this in any intro to women’s studies textbook. See also “paleofantasies” and the myth of the three Ns.

Claim: “One version of the vegetarian myth posits that we were ‘gathererhunters’, gaining more sustenance from plants gathered by women than from meat hunted by men. This rumor actually has an author, one R.B. Lee, who concluded that hunter-gatherers got 65 percent of their calories from plants and only 35 percent from animals (p146.)”

Reality: First off, this “one R.B. Lee” who started a “rumor” is one of the most well-respected and influential living anthropologists, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, and the editor ofThe Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunter-Gatherers. It’s probably safe to assume she has not read any of his numerous academic opuses, since she only quotes a second-hand analysis. We don’t want to be redundant about Keith’s resources, but suffice it to say, she goes on to use her usuals here plus an article written by Dr. Loren Cordain of the PaleoDiet Brand in an attempt to debunk him. She then uses pages more of anecdote about not feeling good when she was a vegan and how, if you don’t believe her, you, too, should see how you feel after eating beans (p147-8.) In any case, Dr. Lee’s studies present information and possible, though ultimately not provable, conclusions. Keith and her resources present psuedo-informaton plus rampant, unapologetically biased interpretation. Again, this is biological determinism.

Claim: Lectin might be damaging to our digestive tracts, we aren’t really sure (pp147-9), so this is another reason we aren’t meant to eat plants.

Reality: First off, her citations in this lectin discussion are all from our friends Eades and Eades, Davis, and Cordain (see above)–as are the rest of her claims in this chapter about how wheat causes health problems from indigestion, to arthritis, to multiple sclerosis, to schizophrenia. “According to Drs. Eades” almost functions as a catch-phrase in this chapter. She offers a hyperbolic disaster scenario about lectins, but her discussion of lectins’ known, unknown, and potential roles–and the research that has and hasn’t been done on them–is so limited as to basically be useless. Second, let it be noted that lectins are found in meat and dairy foods, not just plants. Thirdly, in the whirl of her hyperbole, Keith conveniently doesn’t mention things like the fact that lectins, specifically ones from plants, might be able to help/cure cancer. See these peer-reviewed studies:

Lectins as bioactive plant proteins: A Potential Cancer Treatment

Lectins: from basic science to clinical application in cancer prevention

Diet and colorectal cancer: An investigation of the lectin/galactose hypothesis

We’re not saying there are no potential problems with lectins. We’re just trying to round out the discussion.

Claim: Vegans can’t get Vitamin D (p180).

Reality: Vitamin D is hard to come by in food. It seems to occur nowhere in plant foods, except for certain mushrooms, and in only a very small handful of animal foods. Some types of fish contain Vitamin D, and small amounts are found in beef liver and chickens’ eggs. In no food is it abundant. No matter what your diet, unless you survive on certain types of fish, you probably get the bulk of your Vitamin D from either A) fortified foods–fortified cow milk and other dairy; fortified fruit juices; fortified cereals, vitamins, etc. or B) the sun–human skin synthesizes Vitamin D from sunlight. It’s not totally clear how much sun exposure one needs in this regard, and seasonal changes and geography play a role, especially in places with extreme weather. It’s worth looking into this based on where you live. The Vitamin D Council writes,“The skin produces approximately 10,000 IU vitamin D in response 20–30 minutes summer sun exposure—50 times more than the government’s recommendation of 200 IU per day!” They also write that people who don’t have regular sun exposure would have to take a 5000-IU Vitamin D supplement daily to catch up… that’s the equivailent of 50 glasses of fortified milk a day. So let’s look at the source Keith points to for her claim that vegans are sick from lack of vitamin D: an article called “Dietary Intake of Vitamin D in Premenopausal, Healthy Vegans was Insufficient to Maintain Concentrations of Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D and Intact Parathyroid Hormone Within Normal Ranges During the Winter in Finland”. Now, this might be something to consider if it’s winter and you are a premenopausal Finnish vegan. But it cannot be generalized to all vegans, nor does it follow that, if this is indeed a problem, eating meat would be the remedy. In fact, this study shows that people-in-general from other arctic climates might not get enough D, and would benefit from supplements. Keith states, “It is possible to get vitamin D from ingested sources alone, which is how humans survive in the arctic.” This isn’t true. Lots of different people all over the world might have to take Vitamin D supplements.

Claim: “In every cell your body makes the sugar it needs, therefore there’s no need for carbohydrates and in fact carbs don’t actually exist…. There is no such thing as a necessary carbohydrate. Read that again. Write the Drs. Eades, ‘the actual amount of carbohydrates required by humans for health is zero.’ ” (p 154.)

Reality: Compare this simplistic and sensationalist claim, made by a couple proponents of brand-name diets, with over three-thousand research studies done on the mircobiology of carbohydrates. Keith’s entire discussion about carbohydrates and sugar is Eades-based, as is almost the entire ensuing discussion about diabetes. It’s redundant at this point to talk about how  problematic the Eades are, so please refer back to our previous discussions. Our only guess is that Keith, following the Eades, is attempting to reframe what has otherwise been a very medically useful paradigm regarding micronutrients. Their reframing is not based on anything reliable and seems to have pretty serious bias/ideology backing it.

Claim: Eating a high-carbohydrate diet can destroy your stomach by giving you gastroparesis. Keith knows, because she gave it to herself (p. 159.)

Reality: To back this claim, Keith cites a no-longer-available internet article from her favorite place, the Weston A. Price Foundation’s website. Keith came to this diagnosis with the help of a doctor who works with “recovering vegans”. We haven’t been able to find information that says gastroporesis is caused by carbohydrates, though there is a lot of information about how eating a low-carb diet can help it. These are two different things. In any case, no matter how many times Keith says it, veganism is not interchangeable with a high-carb diet.

Claim/implication: “Before we go even further, do you even know what cholesterol is?” (p162).

Reality: Yes.

Claim: “The Lipid Hypothesis—the theory that ingested fat causes heart disease—is the stone tablet that the Prophets of Nutrition have brought down from the mountain. We have been shown the one, true way: cholesterol is the demon of the age, the dietary Black Plague, a judgment from an angry God, condemning those who stray into the Valley of Animal Products with disease. That at least is what the priests of the Lipid Hypothesis declared, having looked into the entrails of … rabbits” (pp160-1.)

Reality: In her classic manner, and it what some say is the classic manner of the Weston A. Prince zealots, Keith goes on for pages and pages making claims regarding “cholesterol panic” and “supposed” information regarding cholesterol’s dangers that go against literally thousands of thousands of studies and meta-studies from around the world (not just one study done on a rabbit, as she sensationistically states). She makes these claims based on these resources, including, mainly, the highly questionable Anthony Colpo, whose only expertise is in weight training. That’s three or so wildy dubious sources against thousands and thousands of international studies about how complicated cholesterol and microbiology are, how dangerous too much animal-based cholesterol can be (as opposed to the cholesterol that is naturally manufactured in the human liver– if you really don’t “even know what cholesterol is”, here’s a link where doctors explain it to kids), and so much more . We don’t know what else to say. How can throwing all this away, literally not giving it one paragraph of attention in exchange for giving attention to a handful of people who have no expertise, be a reasonable, helpful, or safe move? We can’t go through all these studies and all this counter-information for you here… there’s literally too much. We trust that you’ll do your own research.

“Not to put to fine a point on it but, duh?” -Lierre Keith, p. 161. Wow. Seriously? Classy.

Claim: Vegans don’t get omega-3s (all over the book.)

Reality: There are many vegan sources of omega-3s, including flax seed, pumpkin seed, canola oil, hemp, walnuts, etc. It is easy to, say, buy a bottle of flax oil and put a little in your food, or toss some pumpkin seeds into your salad. Vegetarian supplements are also extremely easy to come by.

Claim: Vegans get no B12 (all over the book.)

Reality: False. Though it is hard to come by in plant foods, B12 is extremely easy to supplement, and many foods are fortified with it (both plant and animal foods). Keith’s resources here are, again, the Weston Price Foundation, highly selective information, and unsubstantiated personal anecdote. She has, again, completely simplified the issue of how people– meat eaters and vegetarians alike– obtain or do not obtain B12.Here is a wonderful article that discusses B12 specifically in relation to Lierre Keith’s claims. Please read it.

Claim: There are no plant sources for tryptophan. This can cause depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and other mental serious problems (see discussions in chapters 1 and 4.)

Reality: False. Tryptophan is found in many plant sources, including potato, banana, wheat flour, sesame, sunflower seeds, spirulina, raw soy, rice, and oats.

Claim: There are no plant sources for saturated fat. This means vegans don’t absorb essential nutrients like tryptophan and fat-soluable vitamins (see discussions in chapters 1 and 4.)

Reality: False. There are so many plant sources of saturated fat. They include various oils, avocado, coconut, nuts, and nut butters. Many nutrition experts say these are actually among the best sources of saturated fat, because they aren’t generally accompanied by the more problematic fats found in many animal products.

Claim: “Listen to your body, reader, a listening that must make your body known to you, less mysterious and more beloved” (p 153.)

Reality: Keith only wants you to listen to your body if it tells you the things she’s telling you. If it tells you something different, you’re stupid and you do not possess an adult mind. We wish we were being flip or exaggerating, but, no matter what you think of her, Keith makes it really clear that this is where she’s coming from.

Claim: Meat is good for you and being vegan isn’t.

Reality: All ethical issues aside: There are bodies upon bodies of research from widely divergent organizations and agencies that vegetarian and vegan diets can be extremely healthy. There are bodies upon bodies of research from widely divergent organizations and agencies that eating meat and dairy can be extremely harmful. There are certain things you should do to be a healthy vegan/vegetarian, like be mindful of your B12 intake. If you’re intent on eating meat, there are lots of things– probably many more things– to be mindful about. Again, there is no way we can go over all of this information. This isn’t to make claims on nature as vegans– if anything, we are trying to get across that all diets are imperfect because evolution and adaptation are imperfect, that there is no one “correct” way to relate to our human bodies, and that lots of people chose veganism for very complicated, valid reasons and execute it in a healthy way.

You don’t have to make the same choices we make. We just ask that you will be as critical and objective a thinker as possible, and no matter what your diet, do your own research if you are going to read this book–because a lot of it is straight-up wrong. Lierre Keith is not a doctor or nutritionist and neither are most of her sources! It is necessary and radical to be critical of scientific paradigms, but this by no means equals throwing away carefully established scientific ideas and methods. The following is one of the most critical points we’re going to make in this blog, so we’re going to make emphatic keyboard choices:

PLEASE DO NOT USE THIS BOOK AS A BASIS OR GUIDE TO MAKE DIETARY CHANGES! INSTEAD, READ ALL YOU CAN FROM THE MOST DIVERGENT AND OBJECTIVE SOURCES POSSIBLE! IF YOU CAN, FIND DOCTORS YOU TRUST, WHETHER “WESTERN” OR “HOLISTIC” OR BOTH– ASK ABOUT THEIR EXPERTISE AND TRAINING AND THEIR PARADIGM. DON’T JUST SEEK OUT PALEO-DOCTORS IN ORDER TO VALIDATE YOUR INTEREST IN THE PALEO-DIET, FOR INSTANCE.

About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

15 Responses to “The Vegetarian Myth” Myth: A Blogger Confronts Keith’s Propaganda with Facts

  1. Tim says:

    That entire book is basically a total regurgitation of Price “foundation” propaganda. With “foundation” being a pretty word for pro-meat/dairy lobbyist group, based out of DC, founded and supported by animal products “interests.”

  2. carolyn zaikowski says:

    Thanks so much for this. You are truly awesome.

  3. This little ditty from p. 46 of her book had me in stitches: “Humans have lived on savannahs and grasslands for millions of years without devastating them, and without needing technical fixes. We shared them with other species and kept our own numbers at carrying capacity. We didn’t destroy the world, our home. ”

    I suppose if one defines hunting 80 percent of mammalian megafauna larger than 100 lbs. to global extinction in just a few thousand years as “sharing with other species,” then she has a good point.

    I’m always amused at how little these “paleo” types really know about paleontology, earth history or evolution. It just compounds the horror they’re inflicting on animals today and whitewashes our species’ actual impact on faunal change, replacing it with a paleofantasy of a Stone Age populated by spear-carrying personal trainers.

  4. JM says:

    I’ve been following this “debate” for a year now and Carolyn Zaikowski’s site is excellent. Thanks for posting this entry, James. Your blog keeps getting better.

  5. brian lindberg says:

    When I was young (I seem to be saying that a lot, lately….well, hell, most of it IS behind me) I decided (I won’t get into that process) that a worthy project for my life would be to become enlightened. Being a bit lazy, I gravitated to mechanistic theories first, one of which was the Zen macrobiotic diet. One of the attractive things about it was that if you couldn’t do all of esoteric calculations necessary to eating a diverse diet, you could just eat a lot of the perfectly balanced food: buckwheat. So, I went off into the San Juan Wilderness with a bag of brown rice and buckwheat groats, no salt, (for brevity’s sake, I am skipping the hilarious 2-week prelude to my getting on the narrow gauge in Durango…you can read the whole story in my forthcoming, mostly-true memoir), and the next thing I know, I’m sitting under a tarp (did you know that it rains EVERY afternoon in the Rockies?) at 10K up in the San Juans, talking to the only other human being for miles, who happens to be an old beatnik peyote-head from Berkeley in the 50′s, currently residing in Santa Fe, who is a “follower” (diet-wise) of the perfect diet enjoined by the explorer Vilhjamur Stefansson: meat.

    Well, to cut to the chase here, I eventually realized why Gandhi titled his autobiography “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.” Gandhi was as insightful a theoretical thinker as any, but he was distinguished by his determination to put everything to the test. This is a world of claims and counterclaims, mostly put forth by fools who never follow their own advice (just check out the world of religion). And (as anyone who spends some time in the internet universe of commentary soon discovers) some of these “fools” can only be explained by a deliberate intention to obfuscate the truth (shall we call that the “dark side”?). Like the tar baby, their intention is to distract you, tie you up, keep you jousting with their windmills, waste your creative energy. Gandhi had a perfect solution for this: smile, love them, say they are wrong, and stick to your agenda. Keep on truckin’, baby.

  6. carolyn zaikowski says:

    Dear Cobalamin,
    Hi, I’m the original writer. Respectfully, I want to let you know that although you may not agree with my analyses, I actually possess a lot of intellect.

    I’ve never claimed to be an expert in this blog–quite the opposite–but what I do say is that I’m offering counter-information to round out and complicate the conversation that is so often dumbed down with hyperbolic rhetoric. Many people need B12 supplements, not just vegans. B12 is a complicated issue and for anybody who wants expert views on it from a vegan perspective, I recommend the extensive work of Ginny Messina and Jack Norris, and I recommend not solely listening to people in blog post comments, including yours, and for that matter, mine. Be critical thinkers, read a range of experts, learn how to read scientific articles. That’s the best we can all hope for, in terms of conversations that aren’t disingenuous– and don’t think that just because you’re a scientist (that’s what I’ve gotten from the implications of your comment), you don’t possess bias. If you own up to your subjectivity, you might also see that you, like the rest of us, have a lot to learn, as that is the nature of being human, and it’s kind of wonderful.

    Vegans get B12 from supplements and fortified foods, and that B12 made from the same source that animals get their B12 from, which is the micro-organisms in plants. Nobody is saying that you can eat plants and get B12 but, rather, that the reason we evolved to need B12 might be in part because of this relationship between B12, plants, and animals. This is speculation and always will be and is not the point of the cited article. Additionally the cited article is arguing exactly what you are, that we cannot get B12 from fermentation. The people who wrote this article are vegans who are trying to disseminate information about the fallacious claim certain other vegans make about fermented food being an appropriate source of B12. Please do a closer reading before making claims about others’ intellects.

    There is an abundance of information regarding the fact that vegans should supplement B12, and when they do take it, along with engaging all the other precautions that people of any diet should engage regarding adequate protein, nutrient, and fat intakes, a vegan diet is sustainable and healthy. Carnists like to distract from this fact–the fact that vegans can indeed be healthy–by talking about B12. The fact that you can be a healthy vegan is an a argument that’s long been settled. Let’s move on and talk about the real issues.

    Best,
    Carolyn

    • carolyn zaikowski says:

      *Perhaps I should be clearer. I don’t mean the micro-organisms *in* plants, but those around roots and in dirt.

      • carolyn zaikowski says:

        What I’m saying isn’t a complete or perfect analysis (which would be impossible in a blog and I’ve always been very vocal that this isn’t my intention), and I appreciate what you’ve added because it’s all an important part of the conversation and knowledge base, but I’m not sure I understand: if you are not a scientist or expert, how is it that your analysis any more valid than mine or Lierre Keith’s, considering that you think we are out in right and left field? I get the feeling you’re a pot calling some alleged kettles black.

      • carolyn zaikowski says:

        Wait… I just read your comment again. Did you say it is impossible that you possess bias? Okay. I’m dropping out of this convo. Best of luck to you.

  7. Please note: cobalamin has requested that his comments be removed from this discussion.
    -jm

  8. Pingback: “The Vegetarian Myth” Myth, Part II: Questionable Citations « Eating Plants

  9. What do you say to the claim that the fat soluble vitamins A,D,E and K are not found WHOLE in plants. She says they are produced in animal bodies — human and animal products humans eat.

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