Do Happy, Healthy Brains Need Meat?
Debating the ethics of eating animals for proper nutrition.
Posted May 10, 2012
The New York Times has announced the winner of its essay contest on the ethics of eating meat. My own 600-word entry failed to make the cut for the six finalists out of thousands of submissions. I’ve decided to post my essay here because none of finalists made what I think is an important point: If the human brain requires animal nutrients for healthy functioning, how can it be ethical to deprive the brain of what nature says it needs?
The Ethics of Eating Brain-Healthy Meat
Since human health relies on a diet that includes animal-derived nutrients, a debate on the ethics of eating animals should be confined to questions of quantity and quality. How much meat and fish do we need to eat? What is the optimal quality of what we eat? What quality of life is granted to the animals on which our diets depend?
As a physician, it seems clear to me that there are considerable health benefits to eating animals. Current epidemiological data support the need for animal-derived nutrients to provide optimal brain health, in particular. For example, B12 and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids essential for the development of a healthy brain are concentrated only in animal products. Excluding animal products from your diet, on the other hand, carries significant risk. A recent survey of 689 men found 52 percent of the 122 vegans were vitamin B12 deficient, which leads to fatigue, depression, decreased cognition, and irreversible nerve damage. As we age, low B12 levels are associated with shrinkage in brain regions related to memory and moods.
So why not eat a vegan diet and use synthetic supplements? For one thing, studies increasingly find that many vitamin supplements increase the risk of illness and early death. Secondly, synthetic supplements are not fully equivalent to the animal nutrients they claim to replace. Finally, even if you are able to use supplements as a substitute for animal nutrients, the question remains: would you? Any physician can tell you that people are often unreliable when it comes to taking any medication regularly, dietary supplements included. Supplemental vitamin D is readily available, for instance, and yet millions of Americans suffer from vitamin D deficiencies, which increase the risk of a host of physical ailments including increased risk of depression. We need to do whatever we can to fight depression. The World Health Organization ranks depression as the most widespread cause of adult disability on earth.
Granted, how we raise and eat animals today leaves much to be desired. Crowded feedlots, antibiotic overuse, cramped cages and other inhumane features of our food production system are indefensible. Additionally, factory farming of meat and fish diminishes the beneficial nutrients we would ordinarily derive from them. Grass-fed beef and free-range chickens are more nutritious than their factory-farmed counterparts. Similarly, wild salmon is far more beneficial than farmed tilapia.
The answer to the ethical question of eating animals is that we should limit our intake, but eat a higher quality of meat and fish that are ethically and sustainably raised. A half-dozen sustainably-raised oysters provides a whopping 272 percent of daily B12 requirements, 100 percent of vitamin D, and more omega-3s than a fish oil pill. It is a far better choice than a supermarket steak cut from a factory-farmed cow that was gorged on grains in a cramped feedlot during the final miserable months of its life.
There are those who think it is never right to take the life an animal, for whatever reasons. I think those people should consider the alternatives for the animals in question. Mankind is often cruel to animals, but Mother Nature is much crueler. In the wild, defenseless creatures like cows and chickens would be subject to hunger, disease and predation. By contrast, when animal husbandry is practiced at the highest standards, the grass-fed cows raised in pastures and the cage-free chickens raised in open pens arguably have the most pain-free, hunger-free, stress-free lives of all animals on earth. In exchange for their meat, they enjoy the most mutually beneficial relationship with humans outside that of our beloved house pets. What is unethical about that?