Thursday, April 02, 2009

Are all animal/animal products nutritionally "bad"?

Recently, many vegetrian advocacy organizations have been celebrating the release of a new scientific study that finds a large, positive corrlation between the high consumption of red meat and all categories of health related mortalities. Such organizations and people, however, infrequently care to read all the findings and appreciate these types of studies in a more nuanced fashion. More sensational organizations will even disegard the truth of the matter and create a distorted frame just to get some media attention, thus losing credibility in the eyes of the better-read public. For instance, many vegetarian advocates ought to read the findings more carefully before approving of its finding which include that "
those [people] with high white meat intake had a slightly lower risk for total death". Taken alone, this study may sound the death knell for "red meat" only to usher in the reign of "white meat."

We must ask ourselves whether we should praise single nutritional studies as much as we do, and whether making very bold and controversial nutritional claims about "animal products" under a single-label is truly effective.

Before assuming animal flesh and dairy are essentially unhealthy for human biology, we ought to consider all the factors that may influence why "meat" and dairy are "bad" for "us," and not so bad for others. Perhaps the poor health consequences "meat" and dairy have on Americans has to do with a) the species of the animals eaten, b) their lifestyles and diets, c) the way they are cooked, d) the way they are eaten, e) the amount eaten, and f) what they are eaten with. Take any couple of these interrelated variables and alter them and you may end up with "
health paradoxes." Social/cultural practices of eating/killing animals and certain kinds of cuisine also play an important role in health outcomes. "Meat" may be culturally worse for human health than naturally worse.

Note that the results from the recent study only apply to Americans and specifically address "red meat" and
processed meats (from animals confined to feedlots)--much of which are cooked at high temperatures that release known carcinogens. Obviously the Standard American Diet is a nutritional time bomb, but what about the French and Masai diets that include high amounts of fatty cow's milk and ruminant flesh? Are the French and Masai's genetics that radically different from "our" own, or is it more likely that their nutritional fitness has more to do with (agri)cultural practices?

Michael Pollan has labeled the broad generalizations the public and scientific community takes from studies like these
"nutritionism"--which often backfires more than it helps by being appropriated by processed "food" marketers to seel their product to a scared and gullible public. Yet, these broad exertions of "meat is bad," not only is very reductive scientifically, but also in terms of acknowledging animal lives. In a sense, vegetarian advocates are saying meat = meat (i.e. corn-fed cow = wild salmon = broiler chicken, etc). Veg*ns, through this discourse, erase differences between species, breeds, and individuals' lifestyles by objectifying animal others as exchangeable bodies. By appropriating the discourse of "meat," we thereby make "meat" of animal others, as Carol Adams might say, by no longer addressing animal others' subjectivity, merely their fragmented corpses. Jacques Derrida, an extremely influential thinker among animal ethicists today, calls such a reduction of "animals" to "the animal"--or in this case "meat"--"carno-phallogocentrism".

Obviously, as a vegan, I don't endorse the commodification and slaughtering of animal others. I only hope our resentment of the harm from killing/eating animal others be more nuanced. Depending too much on health arguments, as others have argued,
distracts away from the moral/political reasons for veganism and exposes it to more dismissal.

If we want to address the health benefits of a vegan diet, we ought to do just that.

There is no evidence that one is any less healthy on a vegan diet and plenty of evidence to suggest one is healthier. With "meat" and dairy, however, I have yet to see any decisive evidence that it is *always* bad in *any amount* of *any kind.* I have yet to see a collection of studies condemning fish (without mercury contamination) and honey, for instance. It is thus reductive and naive to categorize all animal products under a single label as nutritionally "bad."

Certainly we ought to address the continual promotion of "healthier" and "humane" "meat" by the nutritional authorities of these studies at every opportunity, noting that vegan diets are equally, if not more healthy for generally everyone. Obviously, many researchers and doctors are concerned their advise will not be taken as seriously if they were to promote plant-based diets in our meat-centered culture, and may even wish to rationalize that certain "meat" is healthier than other kinds to make "us" all feel less concerned about the "food" that is literally craved. However, if a scientific study is published or there is a culture that doesn't fit within the paradigm, it is not going to convince anyone (but some vegans) to call such findings "backlash." We cannot rely on rhetoric and conspiracy theory to challenge sound scientific research. Science may not always be perfect, but it is up to the scientifically literate to criticise such claims, not anxsty activists (whether either for or against "meat").

Vegan diets by themselves are not necessarily healthy. What is most important in maintaining good health is a variety of whole produce, not merely the absence of animal products. After all, what is best about a pant-based diet is the high consumption of cancer-fighting and body-nourishing vitamens in plants; the commonality of "bad" fats (i.e. Omga-6s) are only contingently absent in plnt-based diets, not necessarily so. It is sufficiently compelling to recommend a vegan diet because animal products 1) are unnecessary for our health, 2) most often detrimental to health, 3) are generally catastrophic to ecological health, and 4) morally unjustified; these are all incontestable points, while "moderate consumption of animal products is no different" than moderate consumption of tobacco is not one.

Why risk our credibility with stretchy claims?

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