7 Nov 2010

THE VEGETARIAN MYTH

Review of "The Vegetarian Myth"
by Ginny Messina on 21. Sep, 2010

Lierre Keith suffers from numerous chronic health problems. Unable to secure a diagnosis for most of them, she decided that the vegan diet she had followed for twenty years was to blame. But she wasn't content to add a few animal products back to her diet. Instead, she set out to prove that healthy diets require copious amounts of animal foods and that small-scale animal farming is the answer to sustainability. To prove it, she has cobbled together information from websites (yes, she actually cites Wikipedia!) and a few popular pseudoscientific books.

It's next to impossible to review this book; it is so packed with misinformation and confusion that refuting the claims could be another book itself. This is a long post, and it doesn't begin to address all of the problems in The Vegetarian Myth.

I read the section on nutrition first. Since it's my area of expertise, I figured it would give me some idea of the quality of her research and analysis. But quality isn't at issue here because there is no research or analysis. Keith doesn't bother with primary sources; she depends almost exclusively on the opinions of her favorite popular authors, which she presents as proof of her theories. For example, when she writes about evolution as it affects dietary needs, and suggests that "the archeological evidence is incontrovertible," she is actually referencing the book Protein Power, written by two physicians who have no expertise in evolution or anthropology. It's a neat trick, of course, because we have no idea where the Protein Power authors got their information. By burying all of the actual studies this way, she makes it laborious for readers to check her facts.

I doubt she did this on purpose. And I don't think she was being sloppy or lazy, either. She just doesn't understand how complex the research is and she certainly doesn't know much about basic nutrition. Worse, her conclusions are indebted to the Weston A Price Foundation, a non-credible group that bases its recommendations on the opinions of a dentist who wrote up his observations of indigenous populations in the 1930s.

Keith makes a big point about the fact that humans now eat foods—grains—that our Paleolithic ancestors rarely ate. But she never discusses the fact that dairy, a food she heartily endorses, falls into the same category. In fact, while grains could be gathered, ground and consumed by our ancestors, dairy is 100% dependent on agriculture. The fact that normal human development—throughout most of the world, at least—results in a decreased ability to digest dairy foods, should provide a major clue that humans did not evolve to consume them. None of this gets even a mention in the book.

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