IS EATING MEAT IMMORAL OR UNETHICAL?
The ethical concerns about eating meat inspire many vegetarians, including millions of Buddhists around the world. I spent two weeks in , a Tibetan monastery with a Bon abbot. (Bon IS the pre-Buddhist indig. 1′ enous religion of Tibet.) His beliefs dictated that he not harm any liv! ing creature, because you never know which being (human, animal, or‘ insect) was your mother 1n your last life, or who will be your mother in your next life. That surely engenders loving kindness to all beings. There was only one problem: Because he followed his traditional diet, the abbot was overweight and a poorly controlled diabetic.
One morning in his private quarters; he and I shared a breakfast of tsampa, a traditional Tibetan roasted barley flour, dri’ cheese (from a female yak), and hot salted tea. I suggested that he might not want to eat flour for breakfast since he had type 2 diabetes. He protested, saying that was his traditional breakfast. I said yes, that may be so, but that diet would make sense only if he were herding yaks all day at an elevation of 17,000 feet, not sitting on a meditation cushion all day. We checked his blood sugar after eating it. It was over 300 mg/dl (normal is less than 90mg/dl).
While I didn’t convince him to start eating meat, I did get him on a high-protein, high-fat, lower-sugar, and lower-carb diet of nuts, seeds, beans, and vegetables and had him walk around the monastery every day for an hour. He lost thirty-five pounds and reversed his diabetes. Now I have 1.5 million Bon people praying for me!
I honor those who want to be vegetarians for moral or religious reasons, and I do believe you can construct a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet if it follows the basic principles of good-quality fats and low-sugar, high-fiber, and unprocessed foods. It may be harder to eat that way, but with a good plan and discipline, it can work for many people. In full disclosure, I was a vegetarian for nine years and did pretty well, although my health is much better now, with less inflammation, baggy eyes, and allergies, fewer rashes and digestive problems, and more muscle mass, even though I am 25 years older.
Vegans quote studies of large populations who are vegetarian that show they live longer and are healthier. This is true, but the question is, Why? Is it the absence of meat, or is it their other lifestyle habits? Vegetarians on the whole are more health conscious and more likely to exercise and to avoid junk, sugar, processed foods, and smoking; they even floss their teeth more.32 Remember, this is called the healthy user effect. On the other hand, as we’ve discussed, meat eaters tend to have worse habits. So is it the meat or is it the bad habits that cause more deaths? Studies that compare health-conscious meat eaters with vegetarians show no difference in health outcomes.
One of the most eye-opening discussions of the ethical issues surrounding vegetarianism is The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith. While you may not agree with all of her arguments, she points out that in the plowing of fields, clearing of forests, and growing of plants, there is wholesale destruction of natural ecosystems, including the death of birds, rodents, bugs, worms, and trillions of microbes in the soil. She says, “The truth is that agriculture is the most destructive thing humans have done to the planet, and more of the same won’t save us. The truth is that agriculture requires the wholesale destruction of entire ecosystems. The truth is also that life isn’t possible without death, that no matter what you eat, someone has to die to feed you.”
What most vegetarians don’t realize is that many organic agriculture practices require animal products to .build up the soil. I recently visited the largest rooftop organic farm in America, the Brooklyn Grange, on top of an old navy shipyard. It was a marvel to behold, and as we toured the farm, I asked about the soil, and how they cared for it. It turns out it is fortified with bone meal and oyster shells. Who knew that your vegetables were carnivores!
It is well known that vegans are more likely to have nutritional deft
ciencies of B omega-3 fats, fat-soluble vitamins like A and D, iron,
12’ calcium, vitamin K2, and zinc.33 I have treated tens of thousands of patients and have seen serious nutritional deficiencies and health prob~ lems in vegans and vegetarians. It can be a healthful choice, but you need to make sure you are getting the right nutrients: focus on eating seaweed and DHA supplements from algae, and high-fat plant foods such as nuts and seeds, avocados, and coconut oil; and minimize starchy foods, sticking instead with high-fiber, low-glycemic grains like black rice and quinoa. Eat non-GMO soy foods such as tempeh or tofu, which have been consumed safely for thousands of years in Asian countries. Eat more mushrooms, which contain minerals and vitamin D. Avoid sugar and refined vegetable oils, except extra virgin olive oil.
I support my friends who choose to be vegetarian or vegan for moral, health, or environmental reasons. The key is making it a highfat vegan diet. But as I’ve said, each of us is genetically and biochemically different and may do better on different diets. Find out what is best for you by monitoring yourself. How do you feel? What does the scale say? What are your numbers: your blood pressure, waist size, blood sugar, levels of inflammation, HDL, and triglycerides, and the size of your LDL particles? Monitor your levels of nutrients such as vitamin D, zinc, B and iron.