Weight loss, clear skin and reduced risk of diabetes and cancer: according to animal rights’ groups, a vegan diet is a panacea for many ills. But a new book is making the opposite case, saying that meat, if carefully raised, can be good for you and the planet. According to Diana Rodgers and ex-vegan Robb Wolf, authors of Sacred Cow: The Case for (Better) Meat, the real problems stem from factory farming and processed food.
Their argument begins by looking at what humans are designed to eat. We did not evolve to be vegan, they say: our teeth can break down both vegetation and meat, and compared to other primates, we have smaller colons, the part of the gut that breaks down fibre.
So, although a gorilla thrives on eating just plants, we may run into some health issues if we try it. To start with, cutting out meat can make it difficult to get enough of some nutrients like iron. A woman of menstruating age would need to eat 510g of cooked chickpeas, or two entire tins, a day to get enough – or just 80g of pork liver.
Even eating this quantity of chickpeas could leave that woman with a deficiency, though, as your body can only absorb up to 4.7 per cent of the iron in plants, compared to 20 per cent in red meat. It is a similar story for other minerals, like calcium and omega-3, which are also denser and more absorbable in animal foods. “Animal protein is healthy, and it needs to be consumed”, says Rodgers.
The pair also say the high level of protein in meat is beneficial, since many of us, particularly older adults, aren’t getting enough. A study from last year found up to 46 percent of Americans over 50 weren’t meeting targets, and those eating less protein were physically weaker and less likely to be getting enough of other nutrients.
Of course, while plant foods like beans and nuts contain protein, they don’t have as much per calorie as meat, which can make it more difficult to eat enough while keeping your calories down, write Rodgers and Wolf. For example, to get 30 grams of protein, you need to eat 137 calories of fish or 640 calories of beans.
Wolf and Rodgers were drawn to the benefits of meat after suffering from health issues. Two decades ago, Wolf suffered from ulcerative colitis, or irritation of the bowels, while following a vegan diet. “I’m about 175lbs (12st 7lbs), but then I was so bad that I was down to 130lbs (9 st 4lbs) from malabsorption issues. My hair was falling out and my nails were split”, he recalls. He repaired his health with a diet of whole, unprocessed foods including meat.
Rodgers also suffered from digestive issues. After a diagnosis of coeliac disease, she began eating lots of gluten-free packaged foods. This did not make her feel well: “I had to constantly eat every hour or two, or else I would be sweating and have tunnel vision”, she says. After changing to a diet of “whatever meat and vegetables I have in the house”, her hunger levels have stabilised and she is no longer “obsessing over food”.
They are now passionate about warning people of the “horrors of the modern industrial food system”, which is damaging our health and environment. Over half of calories in British diets are now from “ultra-processed foods” such as breakfast cereal, sweetened yoghurt and crisps. Young people eat even more of it, with children getting three-quarters of their calories from these foods, and teens getting 82.9 percent.
Ultra-processed food isn’t as nutrient-dense as “whole” foods like meat, eggs, and vegetables. Furthermore, ultra-processed food is easy to overeat: “It tastes really good because it’s been engineered to bypass the neuro-regulation of appetite”, says Wolf.
Somewhat surprisingly, Wolf and Rodgers acknowledge that turning vegan can, in fact, be good for the health of some people, if it encourages them to stop eating processed food. “By simply cutting out nutrient-poor, ultra-processed foods that stimulate us to overeat, people will naturally lose weight”, they write.
Even if there is a nutritional case for meat, many of us still prefer to steer clear of it for ethical and environmental reasons. Wolf and Rodgers acknowledge both of these, but believe the impact can be mitigated by returning to traditional husbandry practices.
Rodgers is a proponent of “regenerative agriculture”: a set of practices that claim to suck carbon out of the air and store it in soil. She practises this on her organic vegetable farm in rural Massachusetts, which uses the urine and faeces of grazing sheep, goats and chickens to add nutrients to the soil. “We realised that we needed animals to provide fertility for the kale”, she says. “Soil needs blood and guts.” She brings the animals to graze after crops are harvested to clear away leftovers while adding nutrients and microbes to the soil for the next growing season.
On regenerative livestock farms, ruminants are regularly moved from field to field of grassland, where they can add nutrition to the soil, without stripping it bare of vegetation. Healthy grasses can draw carbon from the air and send it to their roots in the form of sugars, which feed microorganisms that provide the plant with the nutrients it needs. Some of this carbon is then sequestered into the soil.
Rodgers and Wolf point to a study from 2018 which shows that cows which spend their entire lives on pasture can more than offset their carbon emissions through the amount of carbon they help to put into the soil in this way. However, not all beef is equal – the conventionally raised kind produces about 10 times as much carbon dioxide per kilogram than soybeans.
Rodgers and Wolf also demonstrate we could do away with a lot of the land used to grow grain to feed to livestock. For example, at present, pigs are largely kept in indoor pens, where they are quickly fattened on grain. This is radically different from the pigs of the past, which ate leftovers including kitchen scraps, and even human excrement. Since a third of food is wasted in the UK each year, with better management we could use this to feed livestock, as we did in the past.
So what should we eat, to nourish ourselves and the planet, according to Wolf and Rodgers? If you can, buy sustainably-sourced protein like grass-fed beef or lamb and wild fish. Eat more offal, which is more affordable and packed with nutrients. Add fats like free-range eggs, olive oil and lard from pastured animals. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, which should be locally-grown and organic where possible.
For Rodgers, a typical breakfast is a bowl of berries with an omelette made of three free-range eggs with spinach. For lunch, she has a salad with pumpkin seeds and around 150g of wild salmon. Dinner is 150g of grass-fed steak with sweet potato and roasted broccoli.
Rodgers and Wolf believe we should be very concerned about climate change. They just don’t think that all the blame should be placed on well-raised meat when other human activities are damaging the planet too. “Better than swapping steak for salad would be buying less single-use ‘stuff’”, they write, so cut out buying gadgets you don’t need and poor-quality fast fashion.
Their overall message is pretty simple: “It’s not the cow, it’s the how.”
Life of a conventional vs high welfare pig
Sources: Compassion in World Farming, Viva!, RSPCA, Soil Association
Half of British sows are kept in cages after giving birth, which are so small that they can’t even turn around, let alone engage in natural behaviours like building a nest for their piglets or foraging for food.
93 per cent of growing pigs are kept entirely indoors in the UK. Without proper management, pigs attack and eat each other in this cramped and stressful space. Around 80 per cent of pigs have their tails cut off, to prevent other pigs biting them.
Only 3 percent of British pigs spend their entire lives outside living naturally.
Some pigs are routinely given antibiotics even when not unwell, to encourage them to put on weight faster. Drugs that are crucial to human health are allowed to be given to pigs, under EU law, which can increase the likelihood of generating antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Cages are banned.
Pigs are kept outdoors for their entire lives.
Tail cutting is not allowed and not necessary, as animals have space to roam freely.
Piglets are weaned at 40 days, not 21 which is the minimum for non-organic pifs.
Routine use of antibiotics is banned.
Levels of omega-3 in the meat are 291 per cent higher than in intensively reared pork.
In free-range pork, levels of vitamin E are up to 204 per cent higher, and iron levels are three times higher.