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Sunday, Sept. 2, 2001

Who needs meat?

Why carnivores are a dying breed


Staff writer

In 1984, Carl Lewis won four gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics. At the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, he set a world record of 9.86 seconds for the 100 meters. By the time he retired in 1996, he had bagged nine Olympic gold medals and had written himself indelibly into the list of all-time great athletes.

The secret of his success? Lewis was fueled by a diet of rabbit food. During the crucial training periods for his competitions, Lewis was a vegan, avoiding all animal products in his diet. A hippie? A crank? A limp-wristed, bead-wearing radical? No -- he was the fastest man on Earth. That pretty much wraps up the case for whether humans need animal products for a healthy lifestyle, doesn't it?

Actually, it doesn't. What about long-term health? Lewis might be quick on his feet, but if he avoids animal products for the rest of his life, won't he suffer from some deficiency when he's older, or be more prone to some disease? Anyway, isn't it natural to eat meat? Isn't meat an essential part of a healthy diet?

A strong case can be made to answer "no" to all these questions. In a landmark review of the major medical studies on vegetarianism, Tim Key and colleagues at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's Cancer Epidemiology Unit in Oxford analyzed an enormous amount of research on vegetarian diets -- and found overwhelming evidence of their beneficial health effects.

They compared the mortality rates over 10 years of 76,000 men and women, of whom 28,000 were vegetarians. Meat-eaters, they found, were 24 percent more likely than vegetarians to have died from heart disease, including heart attacks, during that time. The results were published in 1999 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Other research has confirmed that vegetarians have unusually good health, with a 40 percent lower risk of colon and certain other cancers than meat-eaters, and low rates of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity and kidney stones.

The problem with interpreting such results is in assigning a cause to them. Do vegetarians enjoy good health because they happen to also have healthier lifestyles than nonvegetarians (they often have lower levels of smoking and are more physically active)? Is it because they avoid harmful food components in meat? Or is it because they eat more beneficial dietary compounds? Walter Willett, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, looked at this problem.

"Current evidence," concludes Willett in another review paper in the same journal, "suggests that the answer to all three questions is 'yes.' "

So what's harmful about meat? And what is particularly beneficial about a nonmeat diet?

N-nitroso compounds in meat, and heterocyclic amines produced during cooking, are linked to various cancers. For heart disease, fat is the most harmful component of meat, and heme iron (iron derived from blood) is strongly associated with heart disease in middle-aged adults. The health effects of antibodies, hormones and other chemicals introduced to animals during the farming process are largely unknown.

On the other hand, the benefits of a vegetarian diet are well established. It is rich in antioxidants, thought to fight cancer growth by mopping up free radicals (atoms with an unpaired electron that can damage DNA). More than 900 non-nutritive compounds have been identified from plants. These so-called phytochemicals, present in foods from cauliflower to garlic and tomatoes to tumeric, are thought to prevent and fight various diseases. A vegetarian diet is low in fat, particularly saturated fats, and low in cholesterol. It is also high in fiber, which protects against (and treats) coronary artery disease, certain cancers and diabetes.

Another paper by Key, published in the British Medical Journal in 1996, followed up the fates of 11,000 respondents to a food survey in the 1970s. Seventeen years later, those who had reported being regular fruit-eaters were 24 percent less likely to have died of a heart attack, and 32 percent less likely to have died of a stroke, than those who said they seldom ate fruit. It's not surprising that nutritionists recommend that a substantial amount of the diet should be fruit and vegetables.

Sir Paul Nurse, director general of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, said, "Currently one in three people in the U.K. will develop cancer at some time in their lives . . . fruit and vegetables provide the greatest protection, which is why we recommend people eat at least five servings every day."

A paper published in July in the Journal of Clinical Pathology suggests why fruit might provide such good health benefits. The study looked at the blood of Buddhist monks living on a vegetarian diet: It was unusually rich in salicylic acid, a component of aspirin that is thought to be the active component protecting against heart disease and some cancers. The monks' blood had 12 times the salicylic acid content of meat-eaters' blood. Fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices are rich in salicylic acid.

Statistics are all very well, but one of the most convincing demonstrations of the power of a diet free of animal products comes from the Coronary Health Improvement Program in the United States. Run by Hans Diehl, the program takes 500 people at a time who suffer from heart disease or other health problems and cures them with a vegan diet. The program has successfully treated 3,500 people in southwest Michigan alone. Over the one-month program, the average cholesterol loss is 15 percent (which translates into a 30-45 percent decrease in the risk of heart disease); while for half of those participants with type II diabetes (insulin deficiency usually diagnosed in the over-45s), the need for insulin was reduced or even eliminated.

This much is uncontroversial: There are harmful things in meat, and we should eat more fruit and vegetables. So what about this: "Nothing will benefit human health, and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth, as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet."

The speaker? Albert Einstein. When one of the most brilliant thinkers of modern times voices such a clear opinion, it might be sensible for the rest of us to listen. Einstein was right about many things -- could he have been right about vegetarianism, too?

The world population has brimmed over 6 billion, and is climbing. What is the best way to feed the hundreds of thousands of children born every day -- with plants or animals? The mathematics is simple. Raising a 100-kg pig (which will feed a carnivore for 11/2 months), requires the same amount of grain that would feed a vegetarian for 16 months. Figures in "Animal Agriculture and Global Food Supply," published in 1999 by the U.S.-based Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, show that pigs need to be fed 3.7 kg of grain to yield 1 kg of human-edible product. Cows need 7 calories of cereal to produce 1 calorie of beef.

To put this into perspective, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agriculture Statistics Service, 9.7 billion animals (including about 100 million pigs) were killed in the U.S. for food in 2000.

It doesn't take an Einstein to work out that if we ate some of the grain we feed to animals, more people could be fed. Moreover, less intensive land use reduces conflict and environmental damage.

The NASS gives figures for the numbers of animals raised by farmers and the numbers killed at slaughterhouses. The difference between the two totals, 857 million, represents those animals that died from disease, malnutrition, injury or suffocation before they reached slaughterhouses.

It's clear how modern farming techniques can lead to disease. Again taking pigs as an example, when confined to cages that prevent them from even turning around, they start showing abnormal behavior. Hardly surprising, when by some measures, pigs are more intelligent than cats or dogs; Pennsylvania State University scientists have taught them to play video games with the skill of primates. Abberant behavior includes biting the tail of the pig in the stall in front. This leads to infection, so piglets' tails are routinely sliced off (without anesthetic). We haven't even mentioned BSE (mad cow disease), swine flu, salmonella or foot-and-mouth virus -- all diseases associated with modern farming techniques.

Advice like that in Hog Farm Management magazine, recommending that farmers "forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory," doesn't suggest that animal welfare is a big concern. The suspicion is borne out by the high number of "dead on arrivals" at slaughterhouses. Testimony from slaughterhouse workers that they (out of frustration and boredom, they said) hacked the snouts off of live pigs, inserted metal hooks up their anuses and dropped them, conscious, into the scalding-hot hair-removal tubs reinforces the fear.

Bernard Rollin, professor of philosophy, physiology and biophysics at Colorado State University, says in his book "Farm Animal Welfare": "U.S. society is extremely naive about the nature of animal production. If the public knew more about the way in which agriculture and animal production infringes on animal welfare, the outcry would be louder."

The outcry is not widespread. In the United States in the mid-1990s, 2.5 percent of the population professed to be vegetarian; in the United Kingdom, that figure was 6.1 percent. In contrast, continental Europeans are bloodthirsty: 1.25 percent are veggie in Germany; 0.9 percent in France. One recalls Gandhi, writing in "The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism," "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Allez France.

And Japan? Animal welfare is not one of the country's strong points, and vegetarianism is no longer well understood. India has the highest density of vegetarians: a legacy of Buddhism, which prohibits the killing of animals. (Incidentally, anyone who thinks a vegetarian diet is boring should take a look at the food from southern India: If you think that's boring then you must be tired of living.) Buddhism has left no such legacy of vegetarianism in Japan, and the country's famously healthy rice/soy/fish-based diet is being abandoned. (Fish, if not contaminated by chemical pollutants, present far fewer health hazards than red meat.)

The consequences are most clearly seen in Okinawa. Makoto Suzuki, of the University of the Ryukyus, found that the older generations of Okinawans are in better health, with less cholesterol and homocysteine (an amino acid from meat linked to heart and vascular disease and strokes) than the younger, Westernized generations raised on burgers.

So why hasn't a diet of rabbit food caught on? The reason's obvious: People like eating meat. People like their sausages. There's a massive industry dedicated to delivering animal products that are so far removed from the animal that we can eat without making the connection. It's easy.

In any case, it's "natural" to eat meat, some people say; we evolved eating meat. Our dentition (flat grinding teeth like herbivorous animals) and digestive system (long like that in herbivores, as opposed to the short guts found in carnivores) suggest otherwise, but for the sake of argument, let's suppose we did evolve eating meat. So what? It might also be "natural" to go to the neighboring settlement and murder the men and rape the women. An evolutionary argument falls down flat -- isn't that the good thing about humans, that we can override instincts that other animals obey?

Many people reading this will recognize the problems with eating meat, but will still not be worried by them. "Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity," said George Bernard Shaw. But if you care about feeding the hungry, about personal health, about the environment or about animal welfare, custom had better change soon. One day, instead of vegetarians being asked, "Why don't you eat meat?" meat-eaters will be asked, "Why do you eat meat?"

Why do you?



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