Eating meat is healthier than going vegan: The provocative message in a book which argues much of the so-called evidence supporting a plant-based diet should be taken with a pinch of salt
- In October 2019, the mayors of 14 cities around the world (including London’s Sadiq Khan) committed their citizens to the near-vegan Planetary Health Diet
- Jayne Buxton dedicates pages to research on heart disease and cancer
- UK-based author finds that the link between illness and meat is questionable
BOOK OF THE WEEK
THE GREAT PLANT-BASED CON
by Jayne Buxton (Piatkus £25, 544pp)
Jayne Buxton’s son was recently working in a Central London delicatessen. A customer who had ordered a coconut-milk latte announced that she used to be a vegan. ‘It was the best diet,’ she said. ‘I felt so great on it.’
Buxton’s son asked why she was no longer vegan. ‘Oh, well my hair and nails started to fall out,’ came the reply, ‘so I had to stop.’ He asked whether this might be a sign that the diet wasn’t particularly healthy after all. ‘Oh no,’ insisted the woman. ‘It’s a really, really healthy diet. I felt incredible.’
As an example of the level at which much of the debate on this subject is conducted, it’s hard to beat. Extremes rule, and nuance can sling its hook.
In October 2019, the mayors of 14 cities around the world (including London’s Sadiq Khan) committed their citizens to the near-vegan Planetary Health Diet
The direction of travel is clear. In October 2019, the mayors of 14 cities around the world (including London’s Sadiq Khan) committed their citizens to the near-vegan Planetary Health Diet. The students of three UK universities have banned beef from their campus bars and shops. At least one company has forbidden staff to claim meals containing meat on their expenses.
Christiana Figueres, former head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, thinks omnivores should be treated like smokers: ‘If they want to eat meat, they can do it outside the restaurant’. Meat has been taken off the menu at the Golden Globe Awards, and Joaquin Phoenix urged the world to go vegan in his 2020 Oscar acceptance speech.
Of course, as soon as you hear an actor pontificating on something you know the truth has to be far more complicated than they make out. (It’s called the Rule of Cumberbatch.) Thankfully, Jayne Buxton is here to fill us in on some of the complexities.
For a start, is meat really as bad for you as its critics claim? Buxton devotes many pages to studies on heart disease and cancer, finding the ‘evidence’ that these conditions can be linked to meat is questionable at best. Much of this analysis is, by its nature, fairly complex. But for simplicity’s sake, she also quotes a former director of medical research for the Royal Navy: ‘For a modern disease to be related to an old-fashioned food is one of the most ludicrous things I have ever heard in my life… We’ve been eating meat since before we became humans.’
And can plants on their own supply all the nutrients we need? Some experts talk of ‘end-stage veganism’, where years of the diet lead to muscle wasting, skin conditions and other disorders.
Vegans suffer hip fractures at more than twice the rate of omnivores — indeed, the pop star Miley Cyrus cited hip pain as one of the reasons she went back to eating fish and meat, along with the feeling that she was ‘running on empty’.
Jayne Buxton dedicates pages to research on heart disease and cancer. UK-based author finds that the link between illness and meat is questionable
Her ex-husband, the actor Liam Hemsworth, also changed his vegan diet after his morning smoothies, which included five handfuls of spinach, ‘almost certainly’ gave him kidney stones.
Then there’s the argument that animal farming is bad for the environment. Again, Buxton’s forensic examination of the evidence raises questions. The 2020 documentary Apocalypse Cow claimed that livestock farming is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector. This simply isn’t true — in the U.S., for instance, the respective figures are 3.9 per cent and 28 per cent of the total.
As I say, a lot of this book is number-heavy. But even if the details might occasionally fog your brain, Buxton is brilliant at reminding us of some basic statistical truths, ones that are usually forgotten these days. For instance, you shouldn’t confuse ‘correlation’ with ‘causation’ — just because two things happen at the same time, it doesn’t mean that one is causing the other.
If you plot the number of people who drowned in swimming pools between 1999 and 2009, the rise and fall almost perfectly matches the number of films in which Nicolas Cage appeared each year.
That is clearly a coincidence. Yet when there looks like there could be a link, we’re often too ready to believe it. If a study finds that red meat is associated with higher rates of cancer, ‘how can we be sure it’s the red meat that’s at fault, and not the bun, fries and cola consumed alongside it, or the lifestyles of the people who eat more meat?’
Buxton cites examples of media doctors refusing to criticise veganism, but muttering reminders about the need to take vitamin and other supplements
Another crucial mistake is focusing on relative rather than absolute risks. ‘Eating x,’ screams a headline, ‘increases your risk of cancer by 100 per cent.’ You’re terrified, and you start avoiding x. Yet your risk might just have gone from one in a million to two in a million. Still so scared?
Why are some people convinced that veganism is the only way to save themselves and the planet? The young have always loved simplistic slogans that make them feel superior, and Buxton mentions the influence of Greta Thunberg. But she also points out that three-quarters of the world’s vegans are women in the U.S., who are more likely to prioritise weight and appearance over health.
Fear of causing offence, as ever in the modern world, constrains what experts are willing to say. Buxton cites examples of media doctors refusing to criticise veganism, but muttering reminders about the need to take vitamin and other supplements. In other words, they’re admitting that a vegan diet on its own is not enough. Not unless you’ve got a very big plate — for a teenage girl to get her recommended daily intake of iron, for example, she would need to eat 2kg of beetroot.
It’s refreshing to read a book which recognises that life is complicated. Buxton clearly isn’t saying that fruit and veg are bad for you, and she thinks that ‘factory farming is abhorrent’. But equally, she knows that for the entire world population to stop eating meat tomorrow would be absurd.
‘It’s about the how, not the cow,’ as she puts it.
Asking how much greenhouse gas a cow emits is nonsensical, one professor tells her. ‘What breed is she? Where is she? What is she fed?’ Applying global averages to a specific farm means you’ll be wrong ‘perhaps by ten, 15 or 20 times’.
Buxton’s research is a constant reminder that for every three experts you’ll get four opinions. Far better to eat sensibly (you know yourself what that means), and remember that, in the words of the book, ‘there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet
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