I think you’ll find it’s a little bit more complicated than that…
Pride of place among my selection of childish T-shirts featuring things that I find amusing, is one I purchased some years ago from Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog.
It has “I think you’ll find it’s a little bit more complicated than that.” written across the chest.
I bought it because it’s a good way to look at life. I’m one of life’s natural sceptics, dubious and irritated by much and chief among the things that I am dubious of and irritated by are people who offer apparently simple solutions to obviously complex problems. People who do this tend to fall into two distinct categories, they’re either ill-informed or they’re dishonest.
The former are often demonstrating what’s known as the Dunning-Kruger effect — that is they don’t know enough about something to understand why the things they think can’t possibly be correct. Sufferers of Dunning-Kruger literally don’t know what they don’t know and as a result often hold forth with great confidence as they barge through life in perpetual error. A lot of politicians and people selected for TV vox-pops fall into this category.
One problem that we as a species face is that people with Dunning-Kruger syndrome often end up in charge of things because we humans tend to like people who are confident of their opinions. We falsely associate confidence with knowledge. Person X seems so sure of themselves we think, they must have researched it, their opinions must be valuable, no?
Meanwhile, the ‘expert’ who has in fact studied the problem, who understands the nuances and contradictions of it, has to present a much less certain opinion. Our expert knows that Thing A might happen, providing Thing B continues but if Thing B doesn’t continues then Thing C or Thing D may happen and … yawn…that’s complicated and already we’re back to checking twitter on our phones. Our expert can’t be certain because they know that everything depends upon everything else around it. The job of science is to try and evaluate and map the complexities. The job of politics often seems to be to simply gloss over them.
The second category — the deliberately dishonest, well they’re just as, if not more, dangerous but they’re usually easier to spot because they usually have something to gain from their lie. Follow the money as the saying goes.
If we’re doing this properly, there needs to be a Venn diagram of the D-Ks and the liars so that we can show the rather large segment of people who straddle both camps. They believe what they’re saying but it’s also not in their financial interest to question their beliefs. The journalist Upton Sinclair encapsulated this crowd perfectly — “It is difficult to get a man to understand something” he said “ when his salary depends on his not understanding it”.
Well quite. So there they all are, oil industry executives who just happen to not believe in climate change, soft-drink manufacturers who think a can of cola is fine as part of a balanced diet and well, you know them, you’ve seen them. The half liars, the ostriches, the willingly blind.
All of which brings me to the new fad that’s currently doing my fucking head in.
Some version of the hair-shirt emerges as the all new thing — injected into the popular consciousness by magazines and news articles after every Christmas because we’ve almost all spent a fortnight putting chocolate brandy barrels into our mouths at any given time of the day with little or no thought to the consequences. And so, as we pack away the decorations and pop the cards into the recycling bin, we examine our waistline and our conscience and we resolve to pack in the booze or the fags, start a diet, or a detox or join a gym or all of them at once as if that won’t go horribly wrong. New year, new start, new me.
And so here we are and this year’s addition to the pile is going vegan for a month.
Now, I wish to make it absolutely and I really do mean absolutely clear, that I find an individual’s choice to become vegetarian or vegan, because they care about animal welfare, a thing of wonder and awe. I couldn’t do it again and I’m impressed by the commitment to principles and compassion that this decision shows. I do not wish to tell any other human being what they can or cannot put into their mouth and eat. If you’ve thought about it and vegan is your thing, more power to you. You have my sincerest respect.
And I write this as ex-vegetarian, as somebody who in my late teens was persuaded by the cruelty argument and took what I thought was appropriate action. But I did so, with incomplete information about what I needed to be eating and because, as it turns out I have digestive problems with grains and beans, I ended up being anaemic, depressed, fatigued and in permanent gasto-intestinal distress. Now, you might want to argue that had I eaten a better version of that diet, with more information maybe that wouldn’t have happened. I’m absolutely willing to concede that as a possibility but as I’m sure you’ll understand I’m also not really inclined to go back and check. I’ve made my peace with animal produce by doing my best to pick the highest welfare options I can, whenever it’s possible. My good enough may not be good enough for you but on this, we will have to differ. That’s how freedom of choice works — my freedom of choice needs to be as free as yours.
So what then is my bug bear with Veganuary you might ask?
Well, it’s a classic simple solution to an obviously complex set of problems and my dubious-shit — ometer is off the charts when I consider who is behind the thing.
I think it’s a marketing campaign for Soylent green by big food companies who’ve made all the crap that’s made people fat and ill to begin with and who are once again trying to hi-jack people’s new year resolutions, to sell them more of the same crap but new and improved with a shiny green health halo! Vegan sausage roll anybody? It’s a perfect circle of profit — sell them the problem then sell them the supposed solution.
I took a look on the Veganuary website the suggested reasons given for doing it are that it’s good for animals, good for the planet and good for your health.
I take issues with all three of those (All three? Yes, all three!) so let’s tackle them one by one.
Let’s start with the low hanging fruit — health.
As I watched the C4 Dispatches episode about veganism the other night, the presenter asked a nutritionist if it was possible to get everything you need from a vegan diet. Absolutely, she said, provided you take a couple of supplements.
Press rewind for a moment.
That’s a ‘yeah but, no but’ answer isn’t it?
Yes you can get everything you need from a vegan diet if you take supplements.
So the answer to the question is ‘no’ isn’t it, not ‘yes’?
The actual answer is ‘No, it is not possible to get everything you need from a vegan diet and you will need to take supplements if you want a diet that is nutritionally sufficient.’
Now, to play devil’s advocate, I’d say a lot of people’s diets are nutritionally insufficient, vegan or not but that’s not the point up for discussion is it? An omnivore can improve their diet and meet their requirements through food alone, a vegan never can without synthetic supplements. Those supplements are available now, we have the technology and if you want to be vegan and take them to maintain your health then great, go for it.
But let’s not kid ourselves about the facts, which are that you are deliberately eating a poorer diet than you could be and topping it up with pills, for the sake of another principle entirely, so please don’t tell me I should go vegan for the health benefits.
So let’s look at those deficiencies.
B12 and omega 3 are the main two but I’d argue for heme iron as well.
Omega 3: That oily fish thing that people keep banging on about….
Vegans can get their omega 3 from flax-seed can’t they? You’ve almost certainly seen that little factoid somewhere. Well the answer is technically yes but practically no, not really. The omega 3 in flax seed is not bio-available. Omega 3 is found as ALA, DHA and EPA. (Look it up if you care enough to find out what they stand for, my spell-check isn’t up to it).
ALA is the plant form — it’s the one found in flax. For it to be useful, your body has to covert it to the other forms, which it does at a general rate of between 5–15% efficiency.
What does that mean?
It means you’d have to eat around ten times as much ALA as you would have to eat DHA or EPA. That’s an awful lot of flax to eat every day but on the plus side, imagine the headway you’ll make with your book in the bathroom.
Is Omega 3 essential? Yes. It is an essential nutrient which means it is required for health and it cannot be synthesised by the body and therefore must be found in the diet.
It does all sorts of things but controlling blood clotting and binding to cell membranes are the core of it. Deficiency can lead to heart problems, bad skin, hair and nails, sleep disturbances, brain fog, memory problems and mood disturbances.
Your best sources are oily fish and good quality free range eggs from hens who get to eat grass. Vegan supplements are made from algae and they provide the correct forms. A month’s supply will cost about £15–20 at the moment. A couple of cans of sardines a week will give you the same amount for about £6 a month. And are delicious. Just saying.
B12: That thing they add to every processed vegan product going….
B12 is naturally found in animal products but not plants. It’s made by micro-organisms. So vegetarians may not be getting enough and vegans who don’t eat any processed vegan foods will definitely not be getting enough through food.
Failure to get enough will result in fatigue and anaemia because it plays a vital role in producing red blood cells. It also helps with your immune system, your eyesight and like Omega 3, your moods and memory.
So the good news is that you can get good sources from yeast extracts providing you haven’t also gone to the furthest extreme of veganism by classifying yeast as being too sentient for you to consider eating. You may think I’m joking here but trust me, they’re out there - not in high numbers, presumably because they don’t live long enough to breed, unlike yeast.
So overall, B12 isn’t difficult or expensive to put into your vegan diet but you either have to be eating processed fake foods or you’ll have to take a daily tablet.
So tell me again how being vegan is good for my health….
Heme iron: the stuff that stops you fainting when you stand up in a hurry.
Most people know they need iron, most people don’t know that it comes in more than one form. Once again we’re back to bio-available and not so bio-bio-available forms — or heme and non-heme. But it’s less cut and dried than Omega 3 in terms of what comes from where. Heme iron is exclusively found in meat but meat’s iron is not exclusively heme.
Heme is far more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme and just under half of the iron in meat is heme.
Although eggs are considered a good source of iron, it’s still not heme iron so they’re still not as good a source as meat.
And meat and fish contain high levels of iron of which roughly half is very efficiently absorbed, vegetables tend not to contain high levels and what they do contain is poorly absorbed. Absorption rates for iron are between 5–12% for non heme and 20–30% for heme iron.
So let’s consider that — to get exactly the same amount of iron absorbed, you would have to eat anything from double to six times the amount of iron in non heme form as heme. Then let’s consider how much poorer vegetable sources of iron are compared to meat and eggs.
With the emphasis that’s been put on red meat being bad for you, many women and young girls in particular avoid it, with the result that the majority of women and girls are now iron deficient.
An adult male requires about 8mg of iron a day. An adult woman requires 18mg — more than twice as much iron as a man, a lactating woman requires 27mg — more than three times as much.
Red meat especially, game, liver can provide perfect sources. A couple of small portions a day and you’re well on your way to meeting your needs.
With vegetables you’re going to have to eat your body weight daily. Spinach — that legendary vegetable source — provides 3mg per half cup cooked — that’s about a packet’s worth. You’d need to eat something like 6 packs of spinach a day to meet your requirements as an adult woman and that assumes you’re absorbing it at all. More about that later.
Once again we’re in the realm of technically you might be able to do it but you’ll be doing nothing else all day than chewing leaves. You are not a panda — you surely have other stuff to do?
One caveat here is that cocoa is a very good source or plant iron along with a variety of other important minerals, so folks, tell everyone to get to fuck and eat your dark chocolate with a swagger, informing anybody who cares to listen that it’s a superfood. Am I not merciful?
But meat is bad for you and plants are good for you aren’t they?
Yeah, we’ve all been sold a pup with this one. Blame Ancel Keyes the physiologist who decided fat was bad for you and picked the countries to study that proved it - by ignoring the countries that didn’t.
He took data from 22 countries, picked seven that matched his theory, chucked out the data from the rest and then visited the 7 that sort-of did at convenient times like just after the war and Lent, when people weren’t actually eating their normal diet. Then he told everybody that this diet, one altered by deliberate religious restriction and post war austerity, was what made people in the Med healthy.
Don’t believe me? Look it up — trust me, youtube is full of people who will tell you why Ancel Keys was an arsehole.
He also went after a British doctor called Yudkin who thought sugar was the issue and effectively ruined his career, and all the while it seems he may have been taking money from the sugar industry himself. That noise you can hear is my teeth grinding themselves to stubs.
I could go on at length but I won’t because Nina Teicholz and Zoe Harcombe have both covered this material better and with more depth than I ever will. I’ll just advise you to go and watch almost anything featuring either or both of them on YouTube for an array of facts and stats that if you’re new to them, will probably make your eyes pop. Suffice to say that butter and olive oil beat any of these nasty tasteless vegetable oils and meat is powerhouse of nutrition. Morality is another subject but meat isn’t bad for you.
But plants at least aren’t bad for you are they?
Well deadly nightshade is a plant — the dose makes the poison as they say.
Plants provide a wide variety of micronutrients and I personally enjoy eating as much variety as I can of above ground plants and some roots. When I do, I feel well. But not all plants are good and not everybody tolerates them. Plants contain their own built in pest resistance, to stop themselves being eaten and we are a pest that eats them. Fruits tend to want you to eat them, that’s why they’re sweet. Fruits are sluts, vegetables are puritans. They don’t want you to touch them, which is why they tend to be bitter.
So let’s go back to spinach. Yes it’s a reasonably strong source of non-heme iron but it’s also a source of oxalic acid, the stuff in rhubarb leaves that everybody tells you not to eat. And do you know what oxalic acid does? It blocks the absorption of iron. So strong is that effect that eating spinach with other foods can disrupt your absorption of the iron in them as well. So spinach can in fact be a negative source of iron — depleting your absorption from other foods.
Turns out, plants don’t really want to be eaten any more than anything else does and they too have ways of making it known.
So is being vegan healthy? Is meat bad for you? Are plants good for you?
Well, I think you’ll find it’s a little bit more complicated than that.
Good for the planet.
Next up — the environment! Being vegan is good for the planet.
Is it? Really?
I know we hear a lot about this, that cows are responsible for climate change.
But the cows have always been here — ruminants have been here treading their evolutionary path alongside us. Cow-farts only became a problem where they had to compete with car-farts. Cows aren’t responsible for climate change, people are.
Ruminants eat grass, turn it into milk and meat and excrete out the waste material. That rots into the ground, fertilises the soil and between that, some rainfall and some sunshine, it turns it into more grass which the cows eat and …. well you get the picture. Cows are beings that can turn the worst quality food on the planet into the highest quality food, courtesy of an army of microbes in their impressive collection of stomachs. They are marvels.
Is feeding them grain a good plan? No, it’s a wasteful use of all the resources. Land that can grow crops is rare and that land could more productively be used for food for people. Nobody concerned with the planet or animal welfare advocates that for anything more than the occasional week when it’s too cold for animals to graze outside. But eliminating ruminants and dairy from the food chain on environmental grounds is insanity. They can make high quality calories from land that we couldn’t grow anything useful on and keep that land and the rest of our arable land healthy at the same time. Without them, our soil will die. With them, grass can be kept at its most productive level of growth which actually acts as a carbon sink. Stop allowing ruminates to graze and carbon will actually leech out of the ground back into the atmosphere.
But the emissions….
Yes, cows fart and so do you.
Ruminants are eating grass that has grown using carbon that is currently circulating in the ecosystem, they’re repackaging it as calories and farts — it goes back into the ecosystem then is recycled again in the growth of new plants. This is so obviously a short term cycle that it makes my brain melt to see it described as problematic. Yes it’s more complicated than that but the ruminants have been here for literal ages. Who are we to decide that they have no right to exist because their farts are making the world uninhabitable for us now that we’ve decided we like flying to Majorca a couple of times a year?
The real source of climate change is fossil fuels — ancient not recent sunshine that has no place being released back into the wild.
And this brings me neatly to my final point — good for animals.
Is extinction good for animals?
I find it interesting that the logical end point of the ‘cows are bad for the environment’ thesis is that we should eradicate them from the planet, presumably so that we can burn fossil fuels a little longer. You’ve maybe never thought of it that way but think about it, what else does that thinking mean? What else can it mean?
If cow farts are causing climate change then the only solution is to get rid of the cows. That’s pretty dark for people who profess to be animal lovers.
Wouldn’t you prefer to give up something else – your annual holiday for instance which probably has about the same carbon footprint as your meat and let the cows live?
So Veganuary riles me because it takes three complex problems that we’re facing, wraps them in a healthy green pashmina and says do this one thing and solve yourself and the world all at once.
Oh and by the way, here’s some stuff to make it easy! Buy this shit instead of that shit and it’ll all be fine.
A vegan sausage roll on every high street, a bleeding beetroot burger, quorn – whatever the fuck that is. It’s so easy to save the planet by giving your money to the same bloody corporations who ruined it and your health to begin with.
If you want to see where the money is coming from for this plant-based push, I recommend you go to the twitter feed of the academic Frédéric Leroy, who has mapped it out. Needless to say, big agri-firms and the world’s biggest producers of mass produced crap are at the core of it. And if you want to know why that’s a problem then I commend the book ‘Swallow This’ by Joanna Blythman as being an eye-popping exploration of how much and how little is actually in our modern processed foods. By which I mean how much crap and how little of what is promised on the label is actually in them. The things you’d make it with at home all get replaced with glues, gels, powders and starches. It looks like a sausage roll, it tastes like a sausage roll but what does it do to you or for you? And what the fuck is methyl-cellulose?
I resent the intrusion of these corporations yet again into our desire to do the right things, with their all new, plant based, faux-snake oil promises. Soy extract in pastry that’s probably made with palm oil isn’t going to save you or the planet.
Finally, let’s tackle the ‘I just don’t want to eat something that was sentient’ issue which is a deeply held principle for some people and it’s one that I understand profoundly even though I eventually came to a different decision myself.
I’ll say again, I do not want to force anybody to do anything they don’t want to do other than perhaps to face facts, which almost nobody ever wants to do.
Unless you grow your food yourself in your garden, then your vegetables, your grains, your soy, your beans, your weird burgers and vegan sausage rolls if you eat that crap, have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds, thousands, millions of micro-organisms, insects, small animals and larger animals. And even if you do grow it all yourself, you’ll have to decide whether or not you kill or deter slugs, beetles and a variety of assorted wildlife that will demand its tithe of your produce.
Orang-utans are on the brink of extinction for palm oil, modern deserts are being created by mono-crops growing on soils that are becoming exhausted and may never recover. Widening fields for modern machinery destroys habitats for wild animals. Vegan food isn’t innocent – in fact, vegan food may be significantly less innocent than mine. A single death can provide hundreds of meals whereas a hundred or more deaths may occur to provide one.
It is not as simple as food without a face — there are faces that you will never see but they nonetheless died to provide the food on your plate.
If you know all this and you still can’t bear to eat meat or dairy, then fair enough — that is your choice, my choice is my choice.
But I don’t want to be proselytised to with regard to the superior moral, environmental or health benefits of your way of doing things because as I said at the start, I think you’ll find it’s a little bit more complicated than that.