Running for the Revolution: An Interview With Vegan Activist and Ultramarathoner James McWilliams

August 21, 2012


A few weeks ago, Alex and I lifted weights and did push-ups together while cheering each other on with reminders of all the personal and political empowerment that comes along with physical and mental health. As the only tattooed, scruffy-haired vegans at the gym, it felt bold and empowering to take back the image of strength we’d so often lost through implicit and explicit messages: that vegans don’t even possess baseline health, let alone strength; that there’s too much work to be done to waste time taking care of ourselves physically and mentally; that we simply don’t matter as much as the nonhumans and humans around us. We got to talking about how important it is to be strong and healthy if you’re going to work for justice. How you’ve got to stay present for the future—to have the strength required to get things done now, as well as to hold, with calmness and compassion, all the hope, vision, and space that’s required for a beautiful future to take shape. After all, you’ve got to have a strong body, heart, and mind to start a revolution.

In that spirit, we had the honor to pick the brain of somebody whose body, heart, and mind have figured all this out: James McWilliams. McWilliams is a vegan activist, historian, author, professor, and ultramarathon runner. You can find some of McWilliams’ wonderful writings at his Eating Plants blog.


CZ: Many folks know your work as an historian and vegan advocate, but many of your readers are probably not aware that you are an extremely accomplished runner. Can you talk about your history with running, why you started, why you continue, and what your current practice looks like?

JM: I ran in high school but, for some unknown reason, quit doing so when I went off to college. Eventually, I fell out of shape physically. I also fell out of shape mentally and emotionally, which was worse. Too much beer, bad food, inexcusable behavior. Then came my running epiphany, one of the few genuine epiphanies I’ve experienced, and my life changed.

One afternoon, after a physics exam (bombed it), I decided to go for a run. I’m not sure why. I left at five in the afternoon with the intention of running a few miles, but something happened.  A mysterious switch flipped and I entered a zone and decided I liked this zone. I lived in Washington, DC at the time—a beautiful city, especially at night. I ran until the sun went down and kept going. I couldn’t recall ever having run so far, ever feeling so present, so alive, so unified with my ideas. I got home at about nine PM having run about twenty miles.

I ran my first marathon a year later in San Francisco and I’ve run at least two a year, plus ultramarathons, since 1992. It’s now a central part of my identity. What’s perhaps the best part about running is that I enjoy it more as I get older. Everyone tells me my knees are going to quit, but until they do, I think they’re wrong.

CZ: I’m a big fan of the idea that the personal is the political—that our relationships to our bodies and food can’t be separated from politics and society. What connections do you make, if any, between your life as a runner and your life as a vegan?

JM: I ran for twenty years before going vegan, so for a long time, there was no obvious connection.  In retrospect, running proved to be excellent training for my transition to and advocacy of ethical veganism.

Long distance running is personal and political, but even more, it’s transcendental. You transcend “normal” behavior as well as your own expectations. Over time, this serial transcendence plateaus at a different idea of “normal.” Through this beautiful, empowering process, you locate and relocate your identity. You constantly create new conceptions of what’s possible and those new concepts become part of you. The key here is this: You then become more involved with the world as an agent of change. You rage a bit. And this entire process is modeled. Others witness it; many are moved by it—they change for the better.  In this ongoing empowerment and transcendence, you are a public model, whether or not you think so. When you start running seventy miles a week, the people around you will eventually take notice and become curious. It’s an exceptional thing.

A very similar scenario—this internalizing, identifying, witnessing, and modeling— happens with vegan advocacy. My chances of convincing a non-runner to run by declaring “run!” are the same as convincing a non-vegan to go vegan by declaring “go vegan!”  Basically zero. Yes, you have to make your case, and there are a million ways to do it, but ultimately you have to do so while putting yourself out there, by allowing yourself to be witnessed. It’s risky as all hell, but there’s really no choice. A long distance runner cannot hide her running identity any more easily than a vegan advocate can hide his vegan identity. Nor should they hide it. Exposure has its costs, for sure, but the rewards are sublime; just ask any ethical vegan or self-identified marathoner. In these ways, both long distance running and ethical veganism etch positive standards—personal and political—into the pantheon of unrealized possibilities.

CZ: Mental and physical health and its relationship to revolution: discuss.

JM: I may have touched on this connection in the last answer a bit, so let me swerve in a related direction. A revolutionary mentality demands several qualities: the ability to waver between individualism and community, the ability to not care when people you admire love or disagree with you (or end up hating you), the ability to choose peace over force whenever possible, and the ability to admit when you’re wrong and not gloat when you’re right.

I think running religiously has a way of imparting and nurturing the emotional preconditions of many revolutionary-minded qualities. I won’t go into precisely how for each, but I will say: In general, running teaches humility; greed for what’s good; inestimable self-assurance (but not arrogance); and a deep sense of what really matters. These attributes strike me as critical for any effective revolutionary mentality, whether collective or individual.

CZ: What do you say to folks who want to start running but don’t have the slightest idea how?

JM: There are a gagillion books out there that can answer this question better than me, but I can share an anecdote. I had a friend who never ran but, inspired after watching the Marine Corps Marathon in his home town of Washington, DC, decided he wanted to run a marathon. He consulted me for guidance. Our first run was a block and a half, and it left him keeled over, wobbling for air. I thought to myself, forget it. A year later he completed a marathon. What I failed to appreciate was my friend’s persistence. Not strength or power, but persistence. He ran regularly (not daily), gently nudged up his distance, listened to his body, ate and slept well, and stuck with it until that magic moment occurs when you run far and get high.

CZ: I’m sure you have some super inspiring running stories. Can you tell us one?

JM: You are right, I have a lot, and I often go back to them for inspiration. Running, for me, often inspires peak moments. When this happens, I often have to stop running because the force of the experience overwhelms me so much. It’s as if you cannot be more present in the world at that moment.  And the beauty is, you don’t need to do anything. Just exist. Every distraction evaporates and you feel completely, fully alive. This last happened to me while running trails alone in the mountains around Eugene, Oregon, about two years ago. (Actually, I had one two weeks ago on the Golden Gate Bridge, but I’ll hold off on that one, as I’m still processing it… boy it was amazing.)  It was an impossibly crisp day. My run began in the city and, as I dealt with traffic and noise, my mind started to clutter with the data of daily life: work, bills, deadlines. I was dealing with a sore foot at the time and feeling sorry for myself as I entered the woods. When I hit elevation, my breathing picked up. As I reached about twelve miles, I turned this corner on the trail. Next thing I knew I was so high-jacked by the beauty of the forest around me that I found myself leaning against a Douglas Fir tree in tears. Joyful tears. I get chills even writing about it.

(Of course, when I returned and told a friend about the run, she noted that those woods were full of mountain lions. I’m glad I found this out afterwards!)

CZ: Any book recommendations for folks, particularly vegans, who want to be healthy runners?

JM: Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run is a wonderful book on veganism and running.

CZ: What are your favorite vegan foods for staying a healthy, strong runner?

JM: Oh, the list would be virtually endless. I’ll put it this way: My recovery from long runs has improved dramatically as a result of eating a diverse array of nutrient-dense foods. It used to take me a week or longer to get over an ultramarathon while non-vegan. Now, as a vegan, I can typically go out and run the next day.  I seek out beans, greens, and nuts of all sorts, whole grains, fruit, seeds, nutritional yeast; lots and lots of avocados and blueberries; a ton of root vegetables; nut pastes;  burritos, porridges, and so on. In a good day, I’ll eat 20-30 different kinds of nutrient-dense foods (and on a great day, 40.) All the while, I try to avoid junk food and anything too processed—I go easy on vegan cheese and meat substitutes. I eat tofu regularly, but in small quantities. That said, I’m no food purist. I drink a boatload of beer and love coffee and chocolate with a rare fervor.

CZ: Obligatory minimalist running discussion: At this blog we’re pretty critical of anything that stinks of paleofantasy and use of the naturalist fallacy to justify ideologies and behaviors, as so many people do with carnism. To me, it seems like the recent trends in minimalist and barefoot running lend themselves to being embraced by animal-food-obsessed paleodieters and, by extension, advocates of “humane” animal farming. What do you think? Is minimalist running legit?

JM: You’re right that barefoot running, inspired by the book Born to Run, is a bit of hokey trend, and one very likely linked up with sordid pornographic paleofantasies involving endurance and  hunting game across the dusty tundra with self-fashioned spears. Personally, I think it’s all rather silly. As my friend from Burundi, who grew up running barefoot because he couldn’t afford shoes, says: “Why would anyone willingly do that?” That said, I do run barefoot on grass for a couple of miles a week to stretch out my foot. I find the experience to be pleasant and effective. Needless to say, I don’t dream about hunting a leopard as I go; I just want to keep my Achilles tendons healthy. Ultimately, though, when it comes to running, I say do whatever works. I once met a guy—a doctor—for an early morning run before he had to be at work for his 6 AM shift. As he got out of his car, he realized he’d left his running shoes at home. He thought about running barefoot but, recalling all the patients he saw with torn calves from barefoot running, decided against it. He ended up running ten miles in a pair of rubber Wellingtons from the trunk of his car. Whatever works.

CZ: This society kind of doesn’t want to admit that vegans can be strong and healthy. A lot of vegans internalize this message and it doesn’t even occur to us that we, too, can be bad-ass runners. Any words of wisdom for us?

JM: There’s no need to rush out and become sculpted models of athletic prowess. The health that vegans should want to share is a health that unifies a state of mind and a state of physical being, both of which are intimately connected. Running is one the purest and most authentic things I do. I hope the way I present myself physically to the world naturally reflects this—not through superficial markers like musculature or leanness or whatnot, but through overall bearing and presence. I realize that this all wades into the choppy waves of body-image, and in no way do I wish to downplay the complex turmoil of that concern. It’s just that I know many long-distance runners who you’d never guess, by standard conceptions of what runners are supposed to look like, were avid marathoners. On the contrary, no matter what their bodies look like, what’s always evident in their physicality is a quiet security and confidence. That’s what strong and healthy vegans should, in my opinion, seek to model.

 


Guest Post #2: “It drives me nuts when adults find out I’m a vegetarian and think I need to be saved.”

June 15, 2012

This guest post comes from seventeen year-old Kiley Krzyzek, who stands up for animals as well as her own right to eat ethically.

Myth: Teenage Girls are vegetarian to cover up eating disorders

Truth: Some Teen Vegetarians actually are healthy

In 2009, Time magazine published “Study: Is Vegetarianism a Teen Eating Disorder?” claiming that most teenage ‘vegetarians’ actually just want to lose weight and mask an eating disorder because it’s more admirable to call themselves vegetarians. They also pointed out that some still eat poultry and fish, even though that food was living, too.

Granted some teens may have given up meat to lose weight, but it’d be stereotyping to think that goes for all teenage vegetarians.

I’m seventeen years old and have been a vegetarian since the age of twelve. My whole teenage career I’ve eaten a vegetarian diet, and I am healthy and do it for the sake of animals. I certainly do not have an eating disorder, and am proud that I don’t eat fish or poultry.

My older sister is a vegetarian for health purposes, and I’ve always admired her for helping animals. I felt kind of guilty at a young age for eating animals. At the dinner table I remember asking my parents what animal the meat came from and they never wanted to think about it. However, not cooking the meals and not really understanding the extent of the cruelty, I didn’t take action right away.

I became a vegetarian in seventh grade. Middle school is a time where most students strive to fit in and copy peers. Instead, I strove for individuality and decided to go veg. It was dissection day in science class. We had to dissect frogs, and even chicken breasts from the super market. Everyone was so grossed out and lunch was next. My friends were talking about how they didn’t want to eat meat, and I wondered: Why would I want to eat meat ever again? So after seeing that display of animal cruelty, not to mention how disgusting those veins in the chicken breast were, I vowed to go vegetarian.

It helped having Courtney, my older sister, to give advice on a healthy vegetarian diet. She taught me how to get enough protein from veggie burgers and how to cook tofu. Having someone around to cook me vegetarian meals and make sure I was getting the necessary nutrients was a great help.

I also talked to my doctor about it. He recommended I take daily vitamins and to make sure I eat enough veggies and fruit.

If you know a teen who’s a vegetarian, it’s okay to be concerned and make sure they’re getting enough nutrients. Ask them about the kind of foods they eat, but don’t accuse them of not being healthy. It drives me nuts when adults find out I’m a vegetarian and think I need to be saved. It’s a choice, and done right it can be a very healthy one.

Going vegetarian is a personal decision and isn’t for everyone. However, if after research and consulting your doctor you think it could be right for you, try switching meat products with what I refer to as “fake meat” ones such as Morning Star Farms products you can find in your local grocery stores’ freezer aisle.

A vegetarian diet is right for me. I feel more healthy and take pride in the fact that I’m saving animals from cruelty. I think instead of blaming the vegetarian diet, people should take a closer look at what the media portrays to young girls as the ideal look. And no, Time Magazine… I don’t have an eating disorder, thank you very much.


Chapter four: Claims and realities, part one

July 25, 2010

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 of The 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.

This concludes part one of chapter 4 claims and realities. We’re not done yet. For now, here’s a photo of a heart-shaped cosmos-thing:


Notes on meat-capitalism, paleofantasies, & Keith’s weird feminism re: chapter 4 resource analysis

July 23, 2010

Before we continue, some food for thought about our initial chapter 4 resource analysis…

1. Consider the connections between this low-carb, high-meat craze, how much money is made by the kinds of “brand” diets– capitalist business ventures–Keith is referencing, and how meat industries (including “humane farms”) stand to profit from it. Since only about 3.2% of people in the US are vegetarians, and 0.5% are vegans, we’re assuming this question about capitalism and ulterior motives does not pervade the public conversation re: plant-based diets the way it does re: the meat conversation.

2. A lot of the dietary “facts” Keith offers in this chapter, are based in assumptions related directly and indirectly to some kind of “paleo” diet, which Keith assumes (erroneously, if we look back at this article which takes us through the first-hand, peer reviewed sources Keith makes claims on but apparently hasn’t read) is based largely on meat. There is actually very little objective information about the diets our ancestors ate. The evidence we’ve found can only be speculated upon based on best guesses. This is the nature of paleontology– it’s the study of incomplete evidence. It’s an easy science to use, alongside evolution theory, if you’re trying to justify ideology. (Also see discussions here and here about how using the 3Ns– natural, normal, and necessary– is a classic way to couch bias and ideology.)

This New York Times article is worth reading: Evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk makes some valuable points about different “paleofantasies”– nostalgia for a non-existent time when humans ate a diet somehow “perfectly” suited to them. Some of her thoughts:

“In short, we have what the anthropologist Leslie Aiello called ‘paleofantasies.’ She was referring to stories about human evolution based on limited fossil evidence, but the term applies just as well to nostalgia for the very old days as a touchstone for the way life is supposed to be and why it sometimes feels so out of balance…The notion that there was a time of perfect adaptation, from which we’ve now deviated, is a caricature of the way evolution works.”

“How much of the diet during our idyllic hunter-gatherer past was meat, and what kind of plants and animals were used, varied widely in time and space. Inuits had different diets from Australian aboriginals or Neotropical forest dwellers. And we know little about the details of early family structure and other aspects of behavior. So the argument that we are “meant” to eat a certain proportion of meat, say, is highly questionable. Which of our human ancestors are we using as models?”

This article by Greg Downey builds on Zuk’s and makes some interesting points. That the “perfect” or “noble” savage had a diet “perfectly” in line with nature is, according to Downey, “an adaptionist fantasy”. He states: “Zuk draws on Leslie Aiello’s concept of ‘paleofantasies,’ stories about our past spun from thin evidence, to label the nostalgia some people seem to express for prehistoric conditions that they see as somehow healthier. In my research on sports and masculinity, I frequently see paleofantasies come up around fight sports, the idea that, before civilization hemmed us in and blunted our instincts, we would just punch each other if we got angry, and somehow this was healthier, freer and more natural (the problems with this view being so many that I refuse to even begin to enumerate them). It’s an odd inversion on the usual Myth of Progress, the idea that things always get better and better; instead, paleofantasies are a kind of long range projection of Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (‘Things were so much better in MY day…’), spinning fantasies of ‘life before’ everything we have built up around us… So before we start waxing nostalgic about all the health benefits of a Pleistocene diet, perhaps we should remember that our ancestors’ food often came in this nasty packaging which tended to run away, attack them, or just go missing entirely when they were really hungry.”

3. It’s noteworthy, and upsetting, that Keith– supposedly a radical feminist– keeps citing from authors who are in some way proponents of fad diets, weight training, getting thin, anti-aging therapies, etc. We are radicals who see the intersections between animal rights and feminism, and we don’t trust things that come out of the mainstream “diet” industry, or support things that play a role in women hating the way they look. We thought Keith– veganism aside–supported women in this way, too. Why in the world is she giving so much credence and attention to these resources? And how, after all this, does she have the nerve, in other chapters, to a) simplistically critique vegans as eating disordered and b) conveniently reference Naomi Woolf’s The Beauty Myth, a groundbreaking and highly regarded deconstruction of the misogynist diet and beauty industry? For all of the energy she puts towards proclaiming all vegans as anorexics, she conveniently fails to discuss the connections between anorexia and low-carb, high-meat fad diets (whether it’s the atkins, the paleo, the south beach, or any other play on this theme), as well as the connections between low-carb diets, fad diets, long-term lack of satiety, and how this can incite bingeing and purging.

Not to harp on it, but this is doubly infuriating, since Keith and many of her positive reviewers (see amazon.com) “beg” us (see chapter one) to just trust her and give her the benefit of the doubt as a seasoned radical. We thought this was supposed to be a book about radical ecology, agriculture, vegetarianism, and meat-eating. What we find, instead, is a book that is subtly based upon– indeed, permeated with–information from quick-fix diet cures that prey on insecure people, brand-name diets with profit motives, and Atkins-style/”paleo” diet fads that help the both the meat and the woman-hating diet industries profit… and are, by a preponderance of the most reliable medical evidence avaliable, definitley unbalanced and most likely unhealthy in the long-term. All of this is couched in passionate–and patronizing– language about compassion, ecology, liberation, and the ignorance of vegans. She even says “duh” more than once in this book. Throw is kas-laamal, the idea she uses to state that vegans think like children, and it’s really hard to not envision Keith as a domineering, mocking, and psychologically abusive mother.


Chapter 4 resource analysis…

July 22, 2010

 

Of the 288 citations in chapter 4…

-28 (10%) are from the pop-science, brand-based book The Protein Power Life Plan by Eades & Eades. This book generally talks about low-carb diets like the Atkins. At least they are doctors. But here are some thoughts about this diet and similar diets, from other doctors:

WebMD, a conglomeration of different doctors,views the Protein Power Life Plan, as the authors seem to as well, as one which is largely useful for short-term weight loss. (See Keith’s many discussions in this book about how veganism basically equals anorexia, and feel free to scratch your heads like we did.) They also say that in the long-term, it can be “seriously deficient in important nutrients”. Bonne Brehm, Ph.d and nutrition scientist, writes: “In the short term, the low-carb diets are effective — we see weight loss, improvement in some metabolic functions such as blood pressure, loss of body fat, but their real hazard is that they are nutritionally poor,” she says. “They are low in calcium, low in vitamins C and A, low in fiber. We don’t know if taking a vitamin-mineral supplement is adequate. There are a lot of micronutrients in foods that are not in supplements, including some we don’t even know about yet. We do not have any long-term studies on these alternative diets with the extreme modifications of a nutritionally balanced diet.”

Famed vegan doctor and researcher Michael Gregor is the author of Carbophobia: The Scary Truth About America’s Low-Carb Craze, which you can read for free here. Here, you can also read about how the ADA, AMA, The American Cancer Society, The American Kidney Fund, and The American Heart Association have been warning about the health risks of low-carb, high protein diets for years. Etc.Make of this what you will. Dr. Gregor, in his aforementioned book, also talks about how the Atkins and other high-protein diets have directly profited the meat industries, while dismissing wide-ranging evidence that these types of diets are ultimately unhealthy. Then the Atkins Corporation threatened to sue him because, essentially, he was challenging this low-carb, high-meat industry.

-41 citations are from the book controversial book Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubs who, although he has studied physics and aerospace engineering, is also not a nutritionist or medical doctor. This book is also largely about obesity, dieting, and its relation to low-carb, high-protein diets. See above for other opinions about this diet craze. 6 more citations are from Taubs’ article “What If It’s All Been A Lie?”, so Taubs makes up 16% of Keith’s citations.

-12 citations (4%) are from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions cookbook. Sally Fallon, like Keith, is also not a nutritionist, doctor, biologist, or trained in any health traditions. She is a “nutrition researcher” with two college degrees in English, who wrote a cookbook. This book has been criticized in similar ways to Keith’s: “While Nourishing Traditions has over 200 references, many are antiquated, with poor observations. For the most part, the authors reference their own articles and those of other Weston A. Price foundation authors. Only fourteen of the references are from peer-reviewed journals published in the last ten years, and for most of those fourteen, the authors misrepresented what was stated in the articles.” This critique goes on: “Nourishing Traditions… is a smorgasbord of woefully outdated and potential dangerous advice. For example, ‘If you cannot get your family to eat organ meats whens served as such, there are plenty of ways to add them to their foods without their knowledge… Poached brains can be ground up and added to any ground meat dish, as can grated raw liver.’ Even if it were not so clearly known that animal products in general need to be strictly limited in the diet, common sense should tell us not to eat the brains of animals in light of what is now known about mad cow diease and its human equivalent, Cruetzfelt-Jakob disease… Fallon and Enig perpetuate long-held  nutritional myths by referencing the same people who started the myths in the first place.”

-18 citations (6%) are from The Untold Story of Milk by nautropath Ron Schmid. Our friend (see above) Sally Fallon says this is a “fascinating and compelling book”. They publish on the same press. Actually, it is unclear whether or not Sally Fallon has something to do with the publishing and/or editing at New Trends Publishing. Let us know if you figure it out. There are 4 citations from another of his books, Native Nutrition, so that’s 20 citations (7%) from this author. We also feel the need to point out that this Schmid has a brand of various “formulas”, beauty products, anti-aging products, and other things he sells based on his ideas. Look, his shampoo only costs $17.

-32 (11%) citations are from the controversial Against the Grain by Richard Manning, who is a seemingly well-regarded investigative and environmental journalist but also not a doctor, nutritionist, or anthropologist of any kind.

-28 citations (10%) are from The Whole Story of Soy by Kaayla Daniels, who has a Ph.D in nutritional science and “anti-aging therapies”. She has never published a scientific paper. Furthermore, this book has been criticized as a pseudo-scientific–at best– rant that basically serves to uphold the theories of our friends, Sally Fallon and the rest of the Weston A. Price Foundation. In fact, Fallon is the editor of this book (see here, for instance). This org has what many consider to be an unreasonable and unsubstantiated bias against soy. And here’s an interesting review that breaks down the misinformation in Daniel’s book. And believe it or not, not all vegans eat soy or are ignorant to potential problems of soy (see our resources page for info about soy-free veganism), nor is everybody who eats soy a vegan. So even if it were a vaguely reliable source, this book only relates directly to veganism by a dishonest intellectual stretch. Keith cites it anyway in her case against veganism– 28 times.

-26 citations (9.7 %) are from The Great Cholesterol Con: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Cholesterol, Diet and Heart Disease Is Wrong! by unabashed anti-vegan, Anothony Colpo. Colpo is an “independent researcher” and weight trainer and his controversial book is basically about what the subtitle title says. A lot of people seem to think he’s a bit off his rocker. Check out some of the posts he’s made about people who disagree with him, including Keith’s off-cited Eades and Eades. We don’t want to get our health information from someone whose only expertise is in weight training, who has not even the smallest bit of training in medicine or how to interpret the technical language of scientific articles. You decide for yourself.

-4 citations (2%) come from another book called The Great Cholesterol Con, by Dr. Malcolm Kendrick. This seemingly intelligent and in-depth review states:“Although it makes a number of excellent serious points, readers with a background in the relevant science might also laugh at some of the egregious scientific errors in the book and some of Kendrick’s poorly conceived speculations – or at least find themselves scratching their heads.” Again, you decide. Do your own research. Compare Kendrick and Colpo against thousands of peer-reviewed studies about cholesterol.

-11 citations (4%) are from an internet article by Ben Balzer that has no citations or references listed!!! The article is about his book, which also seems to be a brand, The Paleo Diet. Ben Balzer is a family physician, but he is not an anthropologist, paleontologist, or biologist. He even gives a disclaimer about his book on his own blog. When I googled Ben Balzer + the name of this article, the only thing that came up was it and a link to Lierre Keith’s website.

 

-13 citations (5%) are from two books by Julia Ross, The Mood Cure and The Diet Cure. Ross has an MA in clinical psychology and an MFT (masters in family therapy.) So, though not a psychologist (as that requires having a Ph.D and years of research experience, as opposed to clinical psychotherapy training), we’re sure she knows a lot about psychotherapy and mental illness. However, she is not a nutritionist or doctor. Her two books also seem to be some kind of brand. The Diet Cure website tells us, Here you can learn which of the eight key physical indicators is causing your particular problems and get an idea of how to use the book to correct them in 24 hours…You’re also in the right place for an image adjustment. You’ll find the healthy, sensual, immortal beauty of Venus throughout the site. Contrasted with her opposite, she is here as a reminder that a healthy body image is an important part of your Diet Cure.” No thanks, Julia.

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The preceding citations comprise 80 percent of Keith’s “substantiating evidence” in this 105-page chapter… a chapter that supposedly makes scientific claims about health, carnism, and veganism, in a book that supposedly does the same. All of these resources are non-scientific or pseudo-scientific; not one is from an academic or peer-reviewed journal. For Keith, they are second-, third-, and fourth-hand sources. At least one of them has no references at all!

At least three of the authors– 20% of citations– are directly involved with the Weston A. Price Foundation, a controversial anti-vegan group. It is noted for its pro-meat, pro-animal fat diet, pro-raw meat and dairy regimen that runs completely counter to, and has been debunked by a preponderance of, modern medical evidence (again, a diet similar to those of the “paleo” and Atkins genres). It’s noted, also, for its zealotry, its intolerance and mockery for views and research that differ from its own, its constant referencing of its own members as “proof” of its theories, and its misrepresentation of the complicated and extensive work of Weston Price. See this resource or some of the above-linked articles regarding this. Or, get a copy of a book or two by these authors and skim through it. On the very cover of Fallon’s cookbook, for instance, it is dismissed as “politically correct” and “dictatorial” to talk about cholesterol concerns.  Many people believe that the hype about soy products being bad for you goes back almost entirely to this organization’s campaign against it.

Even the claims that come from people who have an academic background are written in a journalistic, editorial style, and/or are written about an subject they didn’t study in academia. And most of the information here is from books whose content is about what many people, both lay-people and scientists, consider, at best, silly and counter-intuitive, and, at worst, highly dangerous. Several of these authors are, in fact, marketing “diet brands” for their own profit. Many of the use manipulative, mocking language to suggest that if you disagree with them, you are being aggressive or naive. Perhaps this is where Keith gets her tone from.

We have a lot more to look at in chapter 4, including the remaining 20 percent of citations, a select few of which are peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as the particular ways in which Keith interprets and uses her references. Keep checking back.

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Carolyn reads chapter one: part two

July 15, 2010

Claims about health
Page 9: “But I’m also writing this book as a cautionary tale. A vegetarian diet—especially a low-fat version, and most especially a vegan one—is  sufficient nutrition for long-term maintenance and repair of the human body. To put it bluntly, it will damage you. I know.” She goes on to talk about her negative experience with veganism, in terms of health. Here we go. Once again, Keith just “knows” and expects us to just trust her (after she’s repeatedly insulted us no less.) But once again, personal anecdote cannot be substituted for fact and, once again, the healthiness of different kinds of diets is an issue that, in the most “objective” of scientific communities, is up for serious debate. If you do a simple google search right on “human as omnivore”, you will find innumerable amounts of information regarding this complicated debate.

Suffice it to say, vegans can be healthy or unhealthy or somewhere in between. Keith’s bones, stomach, and other various parts were unhealthy, and no one should have to go through that. She was also depressed and anxious, which all of us can relate to. But again, she offers no evidence that this was related to veganism or not. I don’t doubt that her experience of feeling better when eating meat is true for her, but again, it becomes an argumentative fallacy since it leaves out the possibility of third party or extraneous variables. Any apathetic, hungover undergrad who has to get up at 8AM to go to Research and Statistics 101 knows that correlation does not equal causation. In regards to mental health, Keith does state the following: “And now I know why. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. And there are no good plant sources of tryptophan. On top of that, all the tryptophan in the world won’t do you any good without saturated fat, which is necessary to make your neurotransmitters actually transmit.” But there are plenty of plant sources for saturated fat. Furthermore, it is straight-up untrue that tryptophan is hard to come by in plant sources. This is another fallacy often argued against veganism: that just because there are lots of animal sources for certain nutrients, there are no plant ones, or that the plant sources somehow have a different “type” or quality of said nutrient. Untrue. She seems unreasonably determined to blame her problems on veganism, as in the statement “if end up with cancer in my reproductive organs, I’m blaming soy.” Additionally, she is falsely equating veganism with soy conspumtion. Here, I offer a couple potential third party variables that could account for her health problems: familial health history/genes, being an angsty and hormonal teenager, being an unhealthy person in regards to food, the HPV virus which many people get through sexual contact and can lead to reproductive cancers, and environmental factors like pollution and toxins (never underestimate the unknown when it comes to this issue- for instance, my high school was built on a superfund site!)

Additionally, because veganism is a non-mainstream diet that even doctors and nutritionists don’t know much about (to be liscenced in the US, they must be educated under the USDA “food pyramid” model, which is largely based carnism and meat industry politics) it is easy to assume that veganism is the source of health problems when something goes wrong. Let me reinforce that I understand veganism can be unhealthy, if executed badly—like any diet. But Keith’s argument here is again based on assumption and anecdote and offers basically no scientifically or ethically valuable, solid information as to the healthiness of either a vegan or carnist diet.

For my part, the following things aren’t “proof” either, but can maybe give some needed balance: This guy’s not unhealthy. These people might be totally marginal in their own way but they don’t exactly apply to the stereotype Keith paints. For what it’s worth, their problematic politics admitted, the Amerian Dietary Association has done extensive research and concluded that one can be perfectly healthy on a vegan diet. On the other hand, people with adult-onset diabetes might die soon soon for reasons that are, by most educated guesses, in some way related to meat consumption; and it’s common knowledge that eating meat is often related to heart attacks. These are extremes and my guess is most of us fall in the middle, animal products or not. As a vegan, my personal belief is that most diets, so long as they include a balance of protein, fats, essential nutrients, and micronutrients, can be healthy—even a carnist diet. But I think all this could be beside the point. Vegans argue that humans are “natural” plant-eaters, carnists argue the opposite– both, largely, to support their ideologies. I do not use health arguments when advocating veganism for all these reaons. I think the controversial and unresolved question of health is often a distraction from the ethical issues issues that are almost impossibly hard to reconcile. Because of their difficulty, many of us throw these out the window altogether, but that doesn’t make them go away: I’m talking about issues regarding the domination, killing, and keeping captive of individual sentient animals.

We will talk about many more erroneous health claims when we explore TVM’s specific chapter on health.

Oh, Lierre…
Finally, page 11: “If I’m questioning your lifestyle, your identity, you might feel confusion, fear, and anger while reading this book. But take my word: you don’t want to end up like me. I’m asking you to stay the course, read this book, and explore the resources in the appendix. Please. Especially if you have children or want to. I’m not too proud to beg.”

Let me just say that, since a very small percentage of people are vegan, most of the beings in my life– my family, my partner, my house mates, my beloved feline and canine friends, many of my most respected human friends, professors, and mentors– are vegetarians or carnists. I do not get angry with them (the human ones) when they want to explore veganism me, when they are curious or critical. In fact, I love them very much and see them as complicated, compassionate people struggling with innumerable complicated questions. We have very calm conversations. Just this week I had two. They tell me why they eat what they eat, and I tell them why I’m vegan, and generally we are both the better for it because we respect each other and are having real dialogue in which we are assuming the other is coming from their best place. Maybe you don’t believe me, Lierre, because it doesn’t sound like this was ever your experience. But your experience is not the objective truth nor do you get to make sweeping claims about veganism because you were a vegan for two decades. This doesn’t give you extra “points”. This book, while completely complicating carnism (fair enough—meat eating is complicated), is framed with little to no respect for the various complicated theories and practices of veganism. It’s a one-sided polemic that leaves no room for reasonable dialogue. Vegans are literally written of as ignorant children, and that’s the end of it. What are people who disagree, or just want to engage in critical conversation, supposed to do with this? We have been defined and written out of the argument from the start. To me, this is a scary tactic that doesn’t deserve a place in radical debate. In the language of anarcho-feminism and some brands of ecofeminism, this tactic arguably enacts a patriarchal paradigm of “power over” as opposed to egalitarian one of “power with” and “power to”.

But you’re right, I’m angry reading this. I’m sure I have defenses I’m not conscious of; I am an emotional person known for having my fair share of knee-jerk emotional reactions; also, I identify very strongly as a vegan. (It seems most people who have conscious food politics identify very strongly with them, because they dictate a lifestyle… Lierre, you can’t possibly believe you’re exempt this?) But could you consider that my anger might be because you just made an extended analysis of my ignorance, my childish mind, and my lack of information? That you’ve erased those who disagree with you and literally do not see us as equals? Perhaps you are being as patronizing and self-righteous now as you, yourself, claim to have been when you were vegan? We’re eleven pages in, and already I feel no reason to give you, Leirre Keith, the benefit of the doubt. But I want to be fair and finish the book; after all, I consider myself a nuanced and open-minded adult, even if you don’t. Will you look past your own nose and hear us out in return—or at least respect us as intellectual equals? Will you consider a very valid critique of your research methods? Will you consider that there might be more than one “way”? Will you consider that veganism might exist beyond your personal experience and practice of it– that it is multitudes more complicated that you are painting it? Because that flavor of openness really where we have the potential to come together and start figuring things out. We have lots of things to come together on. I want to be in solidarity with you and your friends. I’m not too proud to beg.


Carolyn reads chapter one: part one

July 14, 2010

My veganism

Hi, I’m Carolyn Zaikowski. For my part, save some teenage self-righteousness that’s become a more and more complicated analysis as I get older, I see veganism as a way to minimize destruction and death–not eradicate it. I do not deny the fact that death and destruction exist, which is something Keith states about vegans in several different ways. I fully understand the destructiveness of agriculture– this is a point on which Keith and I agree (and even the most “humane” farming, especially if it involves animals, is quite destructive.) I understand the politics of peak oil, permaculture, bioregionalism, local farming, soy production, industrial vegetable farming, etc. I’m not an expert, but I have been studying these issues for 15 years. As a result, I try my darndest to both eat vegan and local, as much as is possible. My goal is to minimize, in obtaining my food, the use of both animals and plants, in an attempt to balance my political and ethical concern for both individual animals and whole species. As a resident of the Northeastern United States, I have not found this diet impossible by any means. Challenging in some ways, certainly; requiring compromises sometimes, of  course, especially in the winter. My diet is ethically imperfect as any diet is, due to the unfortunate state of the planet. Keith’s is imperfect too. But she doesn’t earnesly admit it, which is a shame, because this creates a tone that distracts from some of her really important and critical points about the destruction caused by agriculture.

I rued the day in college when I had to take a research methods and statistics class, thinking, how will this ever be useful to me? I am a radical! I believe in direct action, not abstract math or “quantifying” human behaviors! I believe in the validity of complicated emotional information, not just cerebral logic–I am proud of my right-brain! Science is elitist and patriarchal! I never thought that one day, years later, I would come across a context in which I’d be so glad that I had learned about the most basic research methods and argumentative fallacies.

Are there ignorant vegans? Of course! Are there ignorant carnists? Of course! Ignorance is a trait that cuts through human life, far beyond dietary choices. Especially when consumer capitalism is brought into the equation, we see horrifying patterns in food production across the board. But, while it is entirely possible to eat an environmentally irresponsible diet as a vegan, it is not the fault of veganism, as a philosophy, that some vegans are self-righteous or do not have information about ecology. Just as, for better or worse, there are lots of reasons why people eat meat, there are lots of reasons why people are vegan, and there are lots of ways that people are vegan. Not all of us– maybe even not most of us, though I can’t say for sure, since there are no numbers– fit into the convenient stereotypes Keith paints. If we’re going to assume, then it is probably safe to say that most vegans, like most humans, have extremely complicated beliefs, lifestyles, emotions, and general ways of relating to the world.

Self-righteousness, fallacies, , “kas-limaal”, and erasure of vegan permaculture
My distaste and surprise at Keith’s arrogance and tone is solidified on page 5, when she posits that vegetarians have the minds of ignorant children, while people like her have the minds of integrated adults: “The only way out of the vegetarian myth is through the pursuit of kas-limaal, of adult knowledge. This is a concept we need, especially those of us who are impassioned by injustice. I know I needed it. In the narrative of my life, the first bite of meat after my twenty year hiatus marks the end of my youth, the moment when I assumed the responsibilities of adulthood. It was the moment I stopped fighting the basic algebra of embodiment: for someone to live, someone else has to die.” I begin to wonder why I should read this book, since it feels extremist and insulting in tone, and I haven’t been convinced to trust it, or her.

I can’t find any information on “kas-limaal”, a concept Keith refers to in one way or another throughout the book. I do not speak the language, but a simple google search shows many hits that refer to the word only in regards to Kieth, and one or two that refer to the book she quotes it from. My library search engine yielded no results. In a different spelling, “k’aslimaal”, I’ve found, refers to the name of Guatemalan organization who says that the word means “life” or “rebirth”. I haven’t read the book that Keith gets her information about “kas-limaal” from, but it is written by a Native American with roots in New Mexico and Canada, who moved to Guatemala and was initiated as a Mayan Shaman. I don’t doubt it’s a concept; but for what it’s worth, and considering the rest of sketchy information in Keith’s book, I think a little skepticism and our own research regarding Keith’s interpretation of “kas-laamal” could be useful.

Onward. Here is one of her first examples of fallacy: “I’ve heard vegetarian activists claims that an acre of land can only support two chickens. Joel Salatin, one of the High Priests of sustainable farming and someone who actually raises chickens, puts that figure at 250 an acre.” In the text, the former point is based on literal heresay, with no citation. The latter point, however, has one, which is an unfair way to argue. She goes on to spend pages talking about her negative experiences with vegans on internet message boards. She is actually using anecdotal evidence from message boards—and she doesn’t even tell us which ones, or who was talking. I hate to be a hypocrite and make assumptions myself, but I really think that most reasonable, curious people can understand why this does not equal reliable research. For instance, just now I googled “anti vegetarian” and found a facebook message board called Anti-Vegan Action Group upon which someone wrote: “since i’m in idaho for a year, i’m really picking up on my meat-eating, and it feels great – just like dennis leary said…vegatarians say, ‘you know, you eat red meat and it stays in your colon for ten years.’ GOOD! I paid for it, i want it there! anyway, i put a nice 3 inch steak on the grill for prob under 5 minutes last night and it was delicious. i like it bloody.” Most writers would never refer to this genre of source in a book that is touted as scientific and expected to be taken seriously. This is not even allowed on Wikipedia. Keith does not, as she could have, wrestle with the abundance of centuries of highly regarded first-hand research and accounts of innumerable theories and practies of animal rights, welfare, liberation, and abolitionism, from Pythagorus and ancient Greece, to Peter Singer and Henry Spira, to the intersection of feminism and anti-vivisectiion movements during US First Wave Feminism, to Mahatma Ghandi, to modern anarchists and ecofeminists, to sects of all the major religions. In chapter 2, she speaks generally about facets about humanism and the animal “rights” movement, but again fails to wrestle with, debunk, or cite complicated theory. Literally, all of her claims about animal rights theory and practice are unsubstantiated. In over two hundred references, she cites one– one!–pro-vegetarian resource, Diet For A New America by John Robbins. I (sort of) apologize for being flip, but if this is not a dubious and wildly biased “scientific” research style, then I have fourteen arms and twelve nipples. I recently finished writing a critical master’s thesis, and I never would have earned my degree if I had not considered the research and theory that challenged my thesis. There is a reason for this– it makes us more honest and gives us a deeper understanding of the issues.

Keith becomes very up front about, literally, how stupid she thinks her readers are when she states: “So, on the theory that many readers lack the knowledge to judge this plan, I’m going to walk you through this.”

Here’s some more of her selective information: “Because without grazers to literally level the playing field, the perennial plants mature, and shade out the basal growth point at the plant’s base. In a brittle environment like the Serengeti, decay is mostly physical (weathering) and chemical (oxidative), not bacterial and biological as in a moist environment. In fact, the ruminants take over most of the biological functions of soil by digesting the cellulose and returning the nutrients, once again available, in the form of urine and feces. But without ruminants, the plant matter will pile up, reducing growth, and begin killing the plants. The bare earth is now exposed to wind, sun, and rain, the minerals leach away, and the soil structure is destroyed. In our attempt to save animals, we’ve killed everything.”

This is the beginning of a discussion– grazers as necessary to keep soil healthy– that is one of the major themes throughout the book. In some ways this is right, in regards to how some grazing works. But what she leaves out here is significant: Humans have evolved many ways to renew topsoil with no or minimal non-human labor: crop rotation, companion planting, ley farming, composting, using human waste, green manure, and other ways, plus possibilities for the future. In farming, there is no necessary connection whatsoever between renewal of topsoil, sustainable farming, and grazing animals– there never has been– let alone killing them or using their products. In part, it seems, Keith makes these kinds of claims because she is invested in making a case for a return to prairie-style living, which we will get to later. But vegan permaculture is an established practice all over the world, in all kinds of climates. Keith’s claims about this impossibility, which she makes throughout the book, are a complete falsehood. I simply do not understand why Keith has not only erased this possibility, but this actuality.

Furthermore, grazers in the wild are much different from grazers in domestication, who have been constructed for centuries to be of human use, by various forms of domination, and kept in captivity. There’s no way, really, to know if or how we can compare them, their bodies, or their effects on the earth. But is my opinion that, if we are radical and looking to alter a paradigm, we must consider this wide-spread form of domination that is animal agriculture. Let’s, then, touch upon the phrase “in our attempt to save animals, we’ve killed everything”, which is an absolute falsehood. I am a great believer that emotional appeals and emotional information can be valid, useful, and based in reality. But this appeal is little more than a hyperbolic emotional reaction, not connected to any substantiated claim that is suitable for holding up a theory supposedly based in science. “We’ve killed everything” is an unfair, simplistic emotional manipulation, and it doesn’t admit to its own basis in biased ideology and knee-jerk polemics.