Full disclosure: I am not a nutritionist. Nutrition is not even my primary interest. But I’ve educated myself on the subject of plant-based nutrition to a degree sufficient to counter the most widespread misconceptions on the subject and to satisfy my interest in being a healthy herbivore. While I was at first wary about going vegan, I have since read enough scientific reports on vegan nutrition to be convinced that their information about the human body’s nutritional needs is accurate. My confidence has allowed me to move on to ethical issues about animals that I think are far more pressing.
Many people, when faced with a vegan who praises the numerous benefits of a plant-based diet, utter the knee-jerk response, “Humans are omnivores.” They have been educated to believe that we need meat, dairy and eggs (or some combination thereof) in our diet.
But this is not accurate. Let me explain why. This view is based on the false premise that humans are carnivores. In other words, that we, like lions and wolves, require flesh for health and survival. That’s obviously a fallacy. What people are really saying, when declaring that ”humans are omnivores,” is that the human body has the ability to digest both plants and animal flesh and obtain nutrients from both. And because of this ability, they mistakenly assume that consuming half of our daily calories from animal products is a sensible, “omnivorous” way to eat. They then arrive at the false conclusion that humans must lack essential nutrients when they don’t consume animal products. (1)
The truth is that all the nutrients we need can be obtained from plant foods. Moreover, these plant-derived nutrients are often available in greater abundance and are more readily absorbed in the system than are nutrients obtained from animal products. Too, they have the advantage of being without the harmful health effects that nutritionists are now attributing to our consumption of animal products. For vegans with special dietary needs, fortified foods and supplements can further reinforce their needs.
Our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees, are considered omnivores. Yet despite the fact that chimpanzees have huge, pointed canine teeth designed for tearing flesh, only a tiny percentage of their diet is the flesh of other animals and some insects. (2) Dale Peterson, one of the world’s leading chimpanzee researchers, once mentioned to me that he believes chimps given the opportunity to satisfy their hunger with plant sources may very well ponder the morality of eating other animals. Could they be evolving ethically, just as we humans are?
Unlike biological carnivores, we will not die from malnutrition if we stop eating animal products. We will simply go vegan. On other hand, if we stop eating plants, we will die of malnutrition. Physiologically, we have the ability to be healthy and happy herbivores. Ethically, there is no good reason not to be vegan, and in so doing stop causing needless harm to animals.
For a concise reference to plant-based nutrition, I always recommend Vegan for Life by Jack Norris and Virginia Messina, both registered dieticians. Vegan for Life will answer all of your concerns and questions. It is backed up by the best peer-reviewed scientific research. It even has a chapter on how to evaluate nutritional claims in an age of confusing and conflicting information, much of which is directly funded or heavily influenced by the meat and dairy industries.
So the next time you are confronted with an “omni” who insists that he or she will get deathly ill and die if they don’t eat meat or dairy or eggs at least once a week, stand your ground with confidence and point them to the overwhelming body of evidence that a plant-based diet is not just healthful but also complete. And you might also point out that there is no credible scientific evidence that the human body needs meat, dairy, and eggs to be healthy. If they insist, ask them for the evidence. I’d like to be the first one to review it!
(1) Milton Mills MD, The Comparative Anatomy Of Eating, Vegsource.com.
(2) Human Ancestors Were Nearly All Vegetarians, Scientific American, 2011