on 5 June 2010
I want to be clear about a few things:
1) I am a female.
2) I give the idea of this book 5 stars, but its execution 1.
3) I have been a radical vegan, a rabid meat-eater and everything in between (currently in the in-between)
4) I am working on an archaeological PhD on hunter-gatherer diets, subsistence, hunting and transition to agriculture.
I picked this book up after reading Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals". I thought it would be interesting to read a different perspective on the vegetarian debate. I found Safran Foer's book to be much more geared towards the inhumane practices of meat while Keith's book is geared more towards diet/health.
I admit that it took a very long time for me to get through this book, for several reasons. I purchased this book hoping to get something out of it. I am not an upset vegan who wants to hate it and I am not someone who bought it knowing Id love it. I was just neutral. There were two main reasons for my disappointment with the book. One minor, one major. First, I found the second agendas (specifically the radical feminism) distracting and unnecessary. I have nothing against the feminist agenda, but this wasnt the place to put it. Second, I found the book absolutely riddled with bad information, faulty facts and just plain lazy research (if you can call it 'research'). As someone who intensively researches these issues on a daily basis, I found myself underlining items on nearly every page that I knew were just plain untrue or were 'cherry-picked' facts slanted to give a certain perception. This is such a disappointment as a really great case could be made for the author's view if she had only put the real work into researching the book properly. Once you lose the reader's trust that you are providing factual information what do you have? Ill provide examples:
1) pg. 140: The author states that "Carbon-13 is a stable isotope present in two places: grasses and the bodies of animals that eat grasses". She goes on to suggest that since there is no evidence of grass "scratch marks" on the human teeth found, that they must have been eating animals. There are many flaws in this thought process. First, I cant even begin to explain the preservation and degradation issues present in examining three million year old teeth for 'scratch marks'. Second, carbon-13 is an isotope found in ALL terrestrial and marine plants, not just grass. Finding high levels of C3 or C4 (which are what carbon-13 breaks down into) in human teeth only means that that human was eating large amounts of SOME plant, seed, nut, etc. (not JUST grass) or the animal that ate those. It is not as simple as GRASS OR COW.
2) pg. 142: The author states that there are no bacteria in the human stomach. This is simply untrue. In 2005 Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won a Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering a stomach bacteria that causes gastritis and ulcer disease. There are currently over 130 known stomach bacteria.
3) pg. 146: The author states a "rumor" authored by RB Lee about hunter-gatherers getting 65% of their calories from plants and 35% from meat. She states that this "simply isnt true". First, this rumor-spreader is one of the most well-respected anthropological/archaeological researchers in hunter-gatherer studies who edited what is considered THE tome on hunter-gatherer theory, 'Man the Hunter'. He isnt some random hack. Second, saying those numbers 'simply arent true' is simply not true. Hunter-gatherers did and do inhabit a huge range of environments and likewise their diets cover a wide range. Some do follow the 65/35% number. Some eat much more meat. Some eat much less.
These are only three examples from a span of six pages. This pattern continues throughout the entire book. Fact is the authors 'facts' just arent believable (which, again, is a shame because a factual book on this topic could be powerful). She writes as if the anthropological and archaeological evidence she quotes is written in stone, when in fact many of these topics are constantly under revision or not well understood yet. Most importantly, I just believe that writing a book and promoting it as a factual, scientific account of a subject when it is not is doing a great disservice to your (mostly) unknowing readers. If you are not willing to put in the real research effort, write a book that is touted as a personal account and nothing more. Selling flubbed facts to people who are truly searching for answers, inspiration or (insert what you are looking for here) is just bad journalism.
Ill end this review with some facts and encourage any readers (whether you liked the book, hated the book or havent read the book) to always question whether what you are reading is true and to do some research of your own.
The author cites 207 references in this book.
62 of those references are websites (~30%)
18 are newspapers and magazines (~7%)
32 are journals (~15%)
95 are other books (~46%)
First of all, think about that. 30% of the references in this book come from website information. Five of those 62 website references were Wikipedia. Wikipedia! One was Google Answers. I wont let my freshmen students use Wikipedia as a reference in their papers, why would it be acceptable for a book? Like websites, newspaper and magazine information needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Of the 32 journals less than half come from well known, peer-reviewed sources. The remaining 46% are books, which can truly say anything the author cares to print (as this one does) and only show that the author is getting her information from another source (and another opinion) aside from the primary one. The point of this is to make clear that this is a book that is sold as (and which many positive reviews hype as) providing scientific, factual, intellectual knowledge on the vegetarian/diet/health debate. In reality less than 8% of the book is coming from peer-reviewed, fact-checked sources which can provide unbiased, neutral information.
If anything I hope this review encourages people to get away from the bias on either side, find factual scientific sources instead of second-third-fourth hand knowledge, check information for yourself instead of blindly believing an author, and to question published material and push for it to actually be factual if it presented as such.
on 10 April 2016
This is a fascinating book. I am a vegan and have been for 23 years, but I do have doubts.. I wanted to believe the dream. Over the years I have started to question my beliefs. I have always lived in farming areas - both animal farming and crop farming. The reality of what I was seeing with my own eyes was not what I wanted to believe. I wanted to know more about what I ate. I have done my own research.
Eventually I came across this book. There was part of me that wanted to read it and part of my didn't. Now I have read it. It is a lot different to what I expected when I read the other reviews.
Firstly this book is written from the heart. Her passion shines through the pages. There is also a hint of anger, possibly caused by her own health problems which were caused by veganism. As others have said it may also bring up feminist issues more than it should considering the subject matter. Having said that though veganism does sometimes play the feminist card as well.
There were many parts of this book I agreed with, and many parts I plan to research more. It is though a very informative book, and easy to read, There is a lot of information to take in and the author clearly has done her research. There are always more than one side to a story.
If you are vegetarian or vegan its worth reading - and then go do your own research.
on 26 May 2016
I wish I had read this book before I damaged my health with misguided extremist diets (vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic, I've been there). I too believed vegetarianism was the compassionate way to save the planet. It was only because of severe health problems that I decided to give up my long held "truths". And, behold, a few years later my latest lab tests are perfect and my health better than when I was 20! No one was more surprised than me!
Whatever your diet -- but especially if you're a vegetarian with health problems -- you should read this book. Read it all, even if it offends your beliefs. No diet is perfect for every single human. But, more than that, we have to face the consequences of what we choose to eat. Consequences for us, for the animals that die for whatever we choose to eat and for the planet.
on 19 February 2012
I decided to read the vegetarian myth as I had been asked about my opinion on it by someone who was considering veganism but
was concerned after reading the book.As someone with a background in both nutition and biology and chemisty as well as access to
the latest scientific journals I feel educated enough to give a fairly informed view on this book. I borrowed my friends copy and sat down
The book seems to me more about the author and her issues. It is very strange that she goes after vegans and expresses to have been a vegan for 20 years in this book but in interviews she has said that she was never vegan for longer than a week at a time. She also explains that she has an eating disorder and says that all people she knowns with EDs are vegetarian/vegan. This is very anacdotal data, I personally have met quite a few people with eating disorders and about 30% of those were vegetarian. This does not mean that this is representative of the population any more than her statement was. However her eating disorder does prehaps explain some of the physical ailements she reports, lack of nutrients certainly leed to health issues. Her conditions, spine issues,hypoglycemia,amenorrhea( loss of period), exhaustion,a bad immune system and dry itchy skin. All these are symptoms you would expect to find when someone has starved themselves.
One example of Keith's misinformation is her comments about serotoin, she says "And now I know why. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. And there are no good plant sources of tryptophan. On top of that, all the tryptophan in the world won't do you any good without saturated fat, which is necessary to make your neurotransmitters actually transmit." This is totally false, there are many plant based sources of tryptophan as there are for saturated fat.
Keith's topic about grazers as necessary to keep the topsoil healthy is repeatedly brought up. She misses many points but namely that vegan permeculture is well established in many climates around the world and topsoil can be kept healthy with no non human use.
Finally,the existance of long time healthy vegans really underminds the entire book. Many institutes including Physicians for Responsible Medicine and The American
Dietetic Association have come out and said that a well balanced vegan diet is appropriate for all age groups. I could write for a long time about the issues to do with this book but imagine it has been done better elsewhere. I would suggest looking at the issues surrounding this book before being taking in by it.
on 6 December 2015
I'd read many criticisms of this book from obviously defensive vegans and vegetarians. In their reviews of Keith's work, their terror at having to look honestly at their core beliefs it's palpable. This was one of the main reasons I bought the book. If you protest that loudly, then there must be something in it. In true denier style, many have accused Keith of being everything from a liar, to "not a real vegan".
I found it compelling reading. Keith has such an engaging writing style! Sweeping oratory buoyed along by heartfelt emotions, and the heartbreaking realisation that she is living a lie, and is part of the problem. I love her big picture thinking. She draws on threads from many disparate but connected spheres of life and weaves them into a journey that many scoff at, but that makes us evaluate our own thinking and understanding of the world, and our inter-connectedness with it.
This book is so much more than the sum of its parts, and regardless of your own worldview, so worthy of a read.
on 16 January 2016
I value the book for its first half, sensitively describing the natural savannah ecosystem of the US and how deatructive agriculture is. Lierre is honestly taking apart every argument for veganism that she was clinging to while being vegan for 20years and destroying her health this way. I find it a bit extreme her now being on paleodiet, as if going from one extreme to another was the solution, however, I recommend this book to those interested in the philosophy and ethics on eating animal products vs. Plant-based foods, to vegans who need to hear where their extremism is leading to, who need to see the greater picture.
on 20 April 2014
Sorry for my english I am french. I liked the book for the fact that it is full of scientific facts in environmental science, and well referenced. For people that think that vegetarism is systematically the best choice for ecology (or for health), it opens the discussion clearly and gives real and scientific arguments against. Now, I didn't like few other things : first, because the author is apparently now having a paleo-diet (mostly animal products from animal raised on pastures in her case), after she was a vegan for 20 years, this book is missing facts about bad sides of this paleo-diet, and not so objective on this side. In a way, it is a little bit like leaving an extreme diet for another extreme diet, I felt that she could have written the same book about veganism few years after she turned vegan. The other thing I didn't like is linked to this : the author put a lot of feelings in her book (which I completely understand she has and she wants to express, after her experience), and she often uses expressions like she was talking to a vegan or a vegetarian and trying to convince him or her that this is a terrible diet. I did'nt really like it and I don't know if it is so efficient to convince people. Finaly, she writes it at the beginning but it is good to write again : she is really promoting animal sustainable-farming, raised on pastures, not from grain (which is effectively known to be much better quality for health, and uncomparable for ecology and ethic that industrial products or even "natural" products of animals raised on grain), and she is not promoting at all the industrial animal farming, not for health, not for ethic, not for ecology (which I completely agree).
on 19 February 2014
It's such a shame that so many angry vegans are leaving poor comments here, and even the more intelligent and thoughtful negative reviews seem to miss the point of the book entirely.
I'm wondering if some of you negative reviewers read the same book I did, or even truly READ the book at all (instead of feeling emotionally attacked, shutting off critical thinking, and reading what you want to read).
Without going in and nitpicking tiny issues, I found the general gist of the book to be spot on. In a nutshell: We are destroying the resources of our planet, and have been ever since we started planting annual monocrops and exploding in population. The solution is to learn to live in harmony with the planet once again. Obviously, this will never happen without another major societal collapse like the fall of Rome, which incidentally, is just around where we currently are on the historical cycle.
The book is not an attack on those of you who choose to eat a diet of soy, corn, and wheat, but to believe you're saving the planet is simply to fall for another lie perpetrated by the powers that be. Everything in this world eats and is eaten, in a fascinating, complex cycle that can seem beautiful or horrible depending on your level of maturity. But it is what it is.
Humans can either learn to take a wise place in this cycle, or we can continue to impose our childish will upon the universe, and our so-called "civilization" will soon be nothing but a dream in the past. The real horrifying truth is that agriculture, whether vegan or carnivorous, is fundamentally unsustainable in the way it is currently practiced.
The whole meat vs plants debate is just another divide and conquer tactic, same as politics, religion, and pretty much every big social issue (gun control, gay rights, abortion). All of these silly, childish spectacles stop us from seeing the true battle this planet faces, which is between the dominating, entropic attitude, vs. the creative, giving attitude. Y'all are so ready to go to war with each other over eating meat or whatever, and never see the puppet masters that continue to get obscenely rich from exploiting the planet (and it's people) in pretty much every way possible.
The author was also interviewed here, which I found very interesting:
on 11 February 2013
I didn't know Lierre Keith's "The Vegetarian Myth" was a bestseller and underground classic of sorts. I only read one third of the book, and skimmed the rest. I can't judge the nutritional advice. However, I think it's obvious that the vegan diet is a Western, middle class luxury, complete with nutritional supplements. These were not available to our Stone Age ancestors, or to poor people in the Third World. There's a reason why most humans are omnivorous, or why vegetarian groups within Hinduism usually aren't vegan...
I remember the vegan craze of the 1990's. So does Keith, who was a militant vegan herself for twenty years (from the age of 16 to the age of 36). Personally, I found the vegans to be confused, utopian and naïve. Keith paints a more disturbing picture, describing veganism as "part cult, part eating disorder". She seems to have been a particularly extreme vegan, who developed a degenerative disorder and a long depression due to her particular diet (which is, however, never specified).
The author's story is both tragic and tragicomic. When growing her own food, she at first refused to use fertilizers. Some of them are made of oil, others come from dirty mining operations, and still others are made of animal bones and carcasses. The latter is particularly galling for vegans. But what about keeping chickens or goats, letting them "fertilize" the plants? That's apparently prohibited too, since vegans consider all domesticated animals to be exploited and enslaved! In contrast to more "moderate" vegans, who only care about mammals, birds and perhaps fish, Keith was also worried about the fate of the snails which ate her vegetables, and finally about the plants themselves. Plants are also alive and have some kind of consciousness. Is it really right to domesticate tomatoes? Or to eat fruit? At one point, the author therefore investigated the absurd teachings of the "breatharians", who claim to live on pure air (you heard me). Eventually, she relented and bought those chickens.
The anecdotes dealing with Keith's vegan colleagues are equally bizarre. At one point, Keith describes meeting a collective of vegan hippies, who looked like starving people in some poor Third World nation. The hippies *did* have chicken, horses and goats on their property, thereby breaking the ground rule about not domesticating animals. However, they never took milk from their goats (who were in perfect mint condition, in contrast to the hippies), nor did they use the fowl for fertilizer. Keith never found out what on earth the chickens were really for. At another point, the author ran into another vegan who compromised The Message by keeping chickens, excusing herself with the argument that they are really peaceful animals?! Clue: They are not. Pecking order, anyone? On a vegan message board, Keith encountered a man who wanted to stop animals from killing each other, by building a gigantic fence through the Serengeti, with predators on one side and herbivores on the other. In her book, Keith painstakingly explains that this would kill both groups of animals...
What is the mechanism behind these seemingly pathological behaviours? It seems to be a kind of utopian demand for absolute purity and perfection. Keith was shocked to realize (at the age of 16) that the world is marked by death and destruction. She somehow hoped that her vegan lifestyle, coupled with political activism of a left-wing radical kind, would somehow make it possible for her to avoid being implicated. This is why she even worried about the fate of snails, tomatoes or weeds. There are also hints that some kind of spiritual perspective might have moulded her worldview. In another book, Keith admits hanging around the New Age milieu, and in this book she mentions being warned by a qigong teacher that her vegan diet had made her "qi" disappear (a kind of cosmic energy). When the author finally accepted that death is a natural part of life, this too was connected to some kind of spiritual ideas about the world being filled with animistic creatures that sacrifice themselves on behalf of each other in a never-ending cycle of birth, growth and death.
Here, the story could have ended. Except that it didn't. Keith opposes all forms of agriculture as inherently destructive the planet, and presumably wants a lifestyle based on hunting, gathering and perhaps horticulture. It turns out that our author is a founding member of Deep Green Resistance (DGR), a group that wants to smash "civilization" by armed struggle and eco-terrorism on a truly massive scale. Sounds familiar? It seems that Keith is still obsessed with purity, perfection and utopia. She has simply replaced one extreme philosophy with another one. In fact, she seems to have inverted her old views. Previously, she wanted to sacrifice herself to save an imperfect world. In her new incarnation, Lierre Keith wants to sacrifice us to destroy an imperfect world.
I'm not sure if that counts as progress.
on 8 November 2012
Keith brings together some diverse and important ideas in a timely fashion. For me the important myths she tackles are (1) that vegetarianism is more healthy (2) that plant diets derive from a more sustainable form of agriculture and (3) that a vegetarian diet is more ethical. These ideas have become so widespread in the public psyche, and have taken on such stature among modern progressive environmental movements that to turn on them intelligently is both brave and daunting. Many of her detractors have criticised Keith for claiming she is a reformed vegan. Spitefully they condem her as never having been a real vegan. Regardless, the one thing you cannot doubt is that she is an environmentalist through and through. The real, unspoken, rage from the vegan community is that Keith has taken an axe to their claim to be on the side of the Earth, of the species over which we have dominion, on the side of the animals - she challenges their core ideals to such a depth that they react with undisguised venom. (read the one star reviews).
Keith bases her attack on the nutritional vegetarian myth on the growing scientific consensus around health benefits of eating a genetically-adapted palaeolithic-diet and the harm caused to human health with a switch to an agrarian lifestyle, circa 5000 BC. Keith summarises these important ideas, catching the main thrusts of the arguments about man's ancestral hunting past, but inevitably failing to elucidate the full depth of detail that is out there if you want to research further. This is a necessary shortcoming as the subject is vast, and Keith wants to forge links with other important ideas that need the page space. Many of the one-star reviews on Amazon attack this brevity quite unfairly in my opinion accusing Keith of being unscientific. Having read dozens of scientific papers on this subject I would say she has done a pretty good job, at least sufficient to provide the broad brush strokes needed to stimulate further research in the reader, whilst providing enough to forge links to the other areas of her book.
For me, one of the most important ideas Keith explores is the environmental impact of vegetarianism. Many vegetarians have an air of smugness of the righteous. After all we all know that vegetarianism is a more sustainable, planet friendly lifestyle don't we? Keith destroys this position roundly. I started to question this myself a few months ago. Behind my house is a commercial arable farm - producing the food vegetarians depend on: acre upon acre of lifeless soil, monoculture and machinery. In contrast, the farm where we buy our milk and meat has rolling pastures, full of wildlife, healthy living soils and free roamming cattle. Both produce food, but the arable crops come at a much higher environmental cost. When I read Keith's book the penny dropped - the idea that vegetarianism is an environmental solution only stacks up if you base your sums on factory farmed animals fed on grains! Keith's message, and it is one that resonates with many who occupy the middle ground in this debate, is that no form of factory farming, animal or vegetable, will save the planet - it will only lead to further environmental degradation, and the only truly sustainable farming is permanent pasture. Unfortunately that leaves us with no solution for the burgeoning population. Keith is not the first to point this out, but she is one of the first to point out that vegetarianism will take us towards the precipice more quickly and completely.
The third aspect of this book, that makes it so important and controversial, is Keith's attempt to point out the hypocrisy of the moral stand that vegetarians rely on. The quasi-religious belief that killing animals for food is wrong. This is the one that will push the buttons and get the reaction, but after being a vegetarian for 28 year's myself it was a position that I had come to realise was both false and blinkered. When I chose plant proteins over animal protein I was responding to the childish and immature emotional prejudice towards large mammals. I didn't want to kill a cow so I could live. To maintain this I had to ignore the facts that Keith drives home in this book - when we shift our diets to soy instead of free-range steak we condemn another acre of biologically diverse pasture to the plow. For each cow thus saved from the chop by our misguided vegan principles, we destroy the lives and habitats of millions of those less charismatic organisms - wild plants, fungi, insects, worms, nematodes and the whole irreplaceable ecosystem within the soil. Hardly moral is it? Indefensible in fact. Hence why the vegans are baying for blood, and Keith deserves an accolade.