More food for thought


With regard to the discussion between Alicia M. Holland and Bernard G. Prusak about the need for humans to consume animal products and specifically meat (Letters, August 13), I noted in a previous letter that many nutrients essential for human health are not available in plant foods; I cited vitamin B12 and branched-chain amino acids (Letters, September 14, 2007).* These were simply illustrative, and not an exhaustive list. Certain trace minerals are also more likely to be obtained in adequate quantity from meat than from plant sources, and iron from red meat is much more available to the body than is iron from plant sources. For nutrient after nutrient, plant sources come up short when solely relied upon for human nutrition. It is not a matter of having the nutrients in the right ratio, whatever that might be. It is simply that there are many nutrients plants can’t provide at all, or not in the quantities humans need.

The fact that we now can provide through chemistry some of what plant foods lack is not very helpful. For many nutrients, there are no feasible supplemental sources. Nor would an individual supplementation strategy work for the poor and disadvantaged. Though doubtless well-intended, this approach, even if it worked, would be available to only a privileged elite.

Nor is it simply a question of the nutrient content of animal vs. plant foods. The human gastrointestinal tract is designed for an omnivorous diet—part animal, part plant. This is seen in the relative lengths of the small and large bowel. Similarly, our unique mix of bile acids is that of an omnivore, like the grizzly bear, and the human intestine lacks the enzymes needed to break down many complex carbohydrates in otherwise protein-rich plant foods (like beans). The movie Blazing Saddles is a monument to that lack.

To refer as Holland does to the human digestive apparatus, tuned to meat, as evidence of the “fallenness” of nature seems an insult to God. Moreover, fallenness implies moral fault, and, while there is no shortage of that in our world, it must be recognized that our biochemistries evolved millions of years before moral agency appeared on the scene. No one knows what the new creation will look like, but it is hard to imagine that the entire animal kingdom will have its basic biochemistry radically changed. (It seems doubtful that St. Paul meant anything of that sort in Romans 8.) To suggest that abstaining from meat means occupying the moral high ground implies an insult to all meat-eaters, including Jesus himself.

Moreover, to claim that meat-abstainers are healthier and live longer seems wishful thinking. If anything, the evidence tilts in the other direction. Optimal nutrition is like car maintenance. If one fails to change the oil and filters regularly, rotate the tires, and maintain adequate inflation pressure, the car still runs perfectly well—for a while. But though we don’t notice a difference at first, the car breaks down sooner. Likewise, we can get away with all kinds of suboptimal diets without immediately obvious effects. But our risk of various chronic diseases increases, and ultimately that catches up with us.

Concern for the well-being of the animals whose flesh we eat is, of course, ethically important. Animals should not suffer and do not have to suffer. Nature may be “red in tooth and claw,” but it is not thereby gratuitously cruel. The lion kills the wildebeest in a matter of seconds. We can do it even quicker. Nor is it always true that meat is not a “green” food. Northern, hilly, arid, and rocky environments will not support agriculture as we know it, but such land does support goats, sheep, and various kinds of cattle, thereby converting a barren environment into one that produces high-quality food. Is it not natural and right for people living in such places to consume animal products?

I do not claim that there are no abuses in our food-producing systems. They should be vigorously opposed and eliminated. But, in the words of the Latin maxim: Abusus non tollit usum.

Robert P. Heaney, MD
Omaha, NE

* The print version gave an incorrect date for this letter from 2007.

Published in the 2010-09-10 issue: 
Also by this author
St. John on Patmos

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