Book Review: The Vegetarian Myth

I wanted The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability to be a persuasive, easy read about how vegetarianism is not the panacea it’s been made out to be for our global and personal health. I wanted substantiated facts about the horrors of large scale grain and soy production, a hard core dismissal of the vegetarian myth that all meat production has to be an environmental and moral disaster, and a robust explanation of why a diet rich in high quality animal products is essential to good health.

The Vegetarian Myth

The Vegetarian Myth

What I got instead was a manifesto, rooted in radical feminism and shattered faith. While facts are in there, they are occasionally poorly researched and sometimes inconsistent. This is a shame because people will surely use that as an excuse to dismiss many of her very salient points.

Lierre Keith was no typical vegetarian. She was a strict vegan, the kind who chose to avoid all animal products for moral, political and environmental reasons, and then constructed some sort of belief system about health that justified it. She’s writing for people like her: the ones who have constructed an entire identity around veganism and elevated it to the status of religion. Tragically, her vegan diet irreparably damaged her health.

Having had the experience of losing my religion, I could relate to her arguments and understand why she took the approach she did to the book. She was writing it for herself, to get through a complete identity shift and come to terms with her experience.

There are people out there who will gain immensely from this book: The people who feel their veganism isn’t working, but have left no room for themselves to take another road. I feel that most vegetarians, though, will get lost and confused by the arguments she spends the most time discussing, because while they are truly the core of most radical vegans’ experience, they are not the core of the mainstream vegetarian experience.

I love that Keith reminds us that no matter what we eat, something dies. The idea that it’s morally reprehensible to kill or otherwise use animals for food is certainly a core belief for many vegetarians, and she is right to put us in our place in the natural world. I appreciate that we need to look at death as a natural part of the cycle of life we participate in, and I agree that all life should be respected.

But launching the book with pages of arguments that plants are sentient and also die when we eat them is far enough from the mainstream to alienate many readers. The catch is, that is an argument which is absolutely necessary for someone who is transitioning from a more radical perspective.

She is right on in pointing out the environmental degradation inherent in monocropping, the importance of farming methods which build soil, and the necessity of animals in such systems. She goes further, to locally produced food… and then further, to say we should return as a species to our species’ former foraging ways… and further, saying we ought not have babies.

Keith rightly debunks the idea that you can be a healthy vegan. While her experience is not representative of every vegan’s experience it moved me to tears. Vegetarian diets, though, are very different than vegan diets. While she did do a great job of explaining how grain and soy based diets do more harm than good, I worry that the extreme nature of her experience may be enough to give vegetarians the excuse to discount the nutritional component of the vegetarian myth.

Ultimately, I agreed with most of the point made in this book, yes, even the radical feminist ones. But I’m the choir… already converted. The book’s title speaks to a broader audience, but I’m afraid the book itself does not.

Here is a quote that exemplifies this basic problem with the book. First she compares The Left to Radicalism, not even mentioning The Right in the equation, then goes on to say:

But personal purity only asks for shopping and smugness. The mainstream version involves hybrid cars, soy milk, soy burgers, and soy babies, and checking off the “green power” option on your electric bill. On the very fringe, there is a more extreme version which offers a semi-nomadic life of essentially mooching off the employed. To point out the obvious: power doesn’t care. Power doesn’t notice the existence of anarchist freegans and it certainly doesn’t care if they eat our of dumpsters.

How many of you identify as “The Left” or “Radical” in the first place? (I’m somewhere beyond left, progressive, libertarian, green, or radical, truth be told.) How many of you can put ten (loved) faces to the words “anarchist freegans” like I can? I’m guessing I’m in the minority here.

The points need to be made. The Vegetarian Myth has its place. But maybe it needed a little more disclosure on the jacket. If you’re up for a holistic, radical, emotional, political approach to the issues, by all means buy this book. However, I believe we need someone to write a more mainstream version.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Have you ever been vegan or vegetarian?

This post is part of Sunday School, Monday Mania.

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3 comments to Book Review: The Vegetarian Myth

  • I have been a vegetarian, a very ignorantly informed yet preachy one. I regret having started my oldest son on all things soy, I ignored the naysayers and lived in denial. Thankfully, all that changed. I do have Lierre’s book and have only just begun reading it a few times (school takes precedence, oh so many books I want to read and so little time). I heard her years ago on an interview with Nora Gedgaudas I believe and it was excellent – her passion is very real and honestly, needed. Perhaps her style is not ‘mainstream’ per se, but her voice is a critical one as vegetarians can be very ‘radical’ in their stance, and yes any dietary way of life can turn into religious zealotism (just made up that word). I too appreciated the argument that we can not avoid death – in order for their to be life, there has to be death. It cannot be avoided.
    I find it highly compelling that someone whose health, and sadly so, has been irreparably damaged due to this dietary way of life. So far, there are no long term healthy true vegans we know of -that’s rather telling. I guess I really appreciate her story, it gives her an authority on the subject that is profound to me. I am not too sure that you will find any other vegan story less radical, and consider the fact that the vegan brain is rather malnourished in a way that likely puts them in a rather ‘out there’ – so I am not sure you will likely find another book written all that differently. Just my thoughts. (and I am not trying to be judgemental or offensive towards any vegans, it’s just the physiological facts that brain chemistry will be severely altered on a vegan diet.)

    So far, I’ve enjoyed both book reviews I have read of yours – thanks for sharing Joy!

  • Given that my politics fall a little more in line with Lierre’s, I was really excited to hear someone from that “side” of things coming out in favor of a more traditional diet and explaining why the veg*n line isn’t the answer people think it is. I’ve been a feminist for a long time and remember well that for some, being veg was almost expected to be automatic when you declared yourself feminist. So I know about books like The Sexual Politics of Meat (never read it and imagine I’d pick it apart to the core) and the idea of the poor treatment of animals in this culture being linked to the poor treatment of women. Of course given agribusiness, I’d say no food is spared in that mistreatment.

    On the other hand, I’ve heard some criticisms of the book not coming from people who follow the meat is murder mantra. Apparently some of her archaeological and anthropological material is way off, but I don’t know much more than that.

  • GeorgeD

    I very much agree with your book review. It is an extremely powerful book and should be widely read.

    But, and it’s a very big But, the real “meat” of the information is too heavily marbled with radical viewpoints of all kinds which get away from the theme. It’s a book I’d like to see in every public library, except that I know, after reading it myself, that most people would never wade through it. It’s hard work reading this book, with difficult vocabulary, long sentences and complex thoughts.

    It’s clear in reading this book that this writer lives in physical and mental pain. Her writing is so emotional and deeply felt that her words seemed to shout out at me. She did say that she wrote the book for herself, and that’s very clear in reading it. I hope it helped her, but somehow, I suspect she still feels all the pain.

    Nevertheless, I’ll very glad I bought the book and read it. It makes an incredibly powerful case for avoiding a vegetarian lifestyle, dispelling all the myths you hear stated as fact. I simply wish there was a boiled down version of this book available, making all the same points, without the outcry from her soul that permeates the book, and without her radical views that will cause many to dismiss all her information.

    That said, every vegetarian should read it to see if their faith in their beliefs can withstand her research and experiences. And having read the book, I am now better equipped to defend my lifestyle and point out the many myths connected with the vegetarian lifestyle that are widely accepted as fact.

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