I am a vegetarian for moral and health reasons. When I debate with people about the morality of consuming meat, inevitably the conversation turns to the human body’s natural predispositions and needs for protein. The assumption is, if a human being needs protein to survive, and we need meat to get protein, it would seem counterintuitive to claim eating meat was immoral. While I agree it is counterintuitive to claim a necessity for human life is immoral, I do not agree the consumption of meat is a necessity, or even a healthy part of a human diet.
I understand the resistance to a vegetarian diet. Eating meat is a part of American culture. Meat is a sign of wealth and prosperity. The idea that eating meat is natural and healthy is introduced to us by our parents before we can even talk, and reinforced by our schools and much of the rest of society. Though it is difficult to go against what we have been taught our whole lives, I suggest the necessity of meat in our diets is a myth, and should be seriously reconsidered.
The first objection I face is an appeal to the body’s need for protein. Though the human body does need protein to live, humans do not need to eat meat to consume protein. Common food items such as wheat bread, peanut butter, brown rice, broccoli, and oatmeal all have between 3 and 7 grams of protein per serving. Beans have 15.6 grams of protein per serving. According to a study done by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, with minimal effort, American vegetarians and vegans consume more than enough protein to sustain their existence, while meat eaters tend to take in too much protein.
The American Heart Association has published warnings of diets that are too high in protein. Too much protein puts a strain on the kidneys, and may contribute to ailments such as kidney stones. Additionally, protein raises the acidity level of the blood. The body, as a way to neutralize the blood, leaches calcium from the bones. Over time, this depletion of calcium can result in osteoporosis.
The second objection I face is an appeal to the body’s ability to eat meat. The argument is that it ought to be morally permissible to eat meat because bodies are built to handle the consumption of meat. This argument fails on two levels. Primarily, simply because one has the physical ability to eat meat does not mean it ought to be morally permissible to do so. Many men may have the physical ability to overpower women, but overpowering women is not morally permissible. Secondly, a human’s ability to eat and digest meat, and how healthy consuming meat is, are different issues.
Planetvegan.org cites Dr. William Harris as saying “Animal source food is adaptive when there’s not enough food, but in a world with abundant and diverse plant foods, animal source food is obsolete and only causes problems.” The intestines of typical meat-eating animals and humans are vastly different. Meat-eating animals have a digestive system that allows them to expel cholesterol and fat in a quick and efficient way. By contrast, the human digestive system is slow, and it takes longer to complete. According to John Robbins, author of “Diet for a New America,” aside from the ease with which humans can consume ample protein with a meatless diet, the human digestive system works best on a high-fiber, low-protein diet.
Humans who consume animal fat run an astronomically higher risk of circulatory diseases, high cholesterol, heart disease and cancer. Nations where animal fat is scarce, like Mexico, Guatemala and Japan have far fewer reported deaths from colon cancer, breast cancer and heart disease. Nations with high animal fat intake per capita, like Canada and the United States, have a much higher rate of colon cancer compared to nations where the animal fat intake per capita is medium and low, like Sweden, Italy and Colombia.
Even if we grant that consumption of meat can be a healthy part of a human diet, the meat most people eat is anything but healthy or natural. Factory-farmed animals are injected with a disturbing number of pesticides. According to Robbins, chickens are fed “a steady supply of sulfa drugs, hormones, and antibiotics.” He goes on to say “over 90 percent of today’s chickens are fed arsenic compounds.” The diet of a chicken is so unnatural that when the animal is slaughtered for sale, the meat is dyed to look a healthy, edible color.
Cow meat is similar, as it is more economically efficient to feed cows heavily altered food to keep them healthy. According to Robbins, in addition to the insecticides, antibiotics and hormones cows are given, they are also fed diets that may contain “sawdust laced with ammonia and feathers, shredded newspaper, plastic hay, processed sewage tallow and grease, poultry litter, cement dust, and cardboard scraps.” Even if eating meat is a natural, healthy part of one’s diet, any sort of meat one purchases in a store is not bred in any sort of natural or healthy way.
Given the ease with which one can consume protein necessary for a healthy diet, the health risks of a low fiber-high protein diet, the dangers of animal fat consumption, and the disturbingly unhealthy environment in which the meat sold is raised, I feel there is no escaping the immorality of eating meat by claiming eating meat is healthy and natural.
Jes Bohn is a senior philosophy major and president of the Student Philosophy Society.