An Ethics-Based Diet: Quelling the Debate over Biology and Vitamin B-12

The health benefits of a plant-based diet are being widely acknowledged by respected professionals the world over. Scientists and physicians are validating the benefits a vegan lifestyle can offer to both the heart and digestive tract, while the myth that vegans are incapable of high level athletic performance because of a “protein deficiency” is being debunked by the success of world champion vegan athletes in an eclectic array of sports.

While many are opening their eyes to the myriad of health benefits veganism offers, there are of course still many detractors. The principle argument made against veganism is that human beings are “meant to eat meat,” and that because vegans choose to abstain from doing so, they are living an “unnatural” lifestyle. While stating that human beings are meant to abide by any one specific diet is certainly debatable, and calling a plant-based diet “unnatural” is entirely oxymoronic, the one factor working in favor of the theory that humans are biologically predisposed to eating meat is our necessity for vitamin B-12.

While a natural, plant-based diet is more than capable of supplying all essential micronutrients, macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals, vitamin B-12 is the one exception. The only way for a human being to ingest vitamin B-12 “naturally,” is through the consumption of animals that have already consumed the vitamin. However, with the advent of technology there are plenty of readily available vegan-friendly foods and supplements containing more than enough of the vitamin to maintain a proper intake.

Vitamin B-12 is an essential, water soluble vitamin vital to normal brain, muscle, and nerve functioning. A deficiency in vitamin B-12 is very rare, even for individuals who do not regularly consume the vitamin, because the liver, where over 50% of the vitamin is stored, is able to store large amounts of the vitamin for up to several years. However, it is still VERY important to maintain a regular intake of the vitamin. A deficiency in vitamin B-12 can result in fatigue, anemia, and depression. An extreme deficiency, untreated for several years, can result in muscle deterioration and permanent damage to internal organs. Vitamin B-12 occurs naturally through the fermentation of bacteria. Neither human beings nor animals are capable of producing the vitamin internally, thus it is an essential vitamin, but animals are able to absorb the bacteria into their digestive track by ingesting plants containing the bacteria. Human beings are NOT able to do so.

Ensuring a healthy dosage of vitamin B-12 on a plant-based diet is no problem. For adequate intake of vitamin B-12, the Vegan Society recommends eating fortified foods two or three times a day to get at least three micrograms (μg or mcg) of B-12 a day, taking one B-12 supplement daily providing at least 10 micrograms, or taking a weekly B-12 supplement providing at least 2000 micrograms.

So having established the importance of vitamin B-12, and its “natural” availability to humans—outside of supplementation—solely being the consumption of animal products, it is easy to see how meat enthusiasts can use B-12 as a means to state their claim that human beings are biologically predisposed to eating meat and that veganism is “unnatural.”

However, what these detractors of veganism fail to consider, is that regardless of the fact that we may be biologically and physiologically dependent on vitamin B-12, and that a portion of our caveman predecessors diet’s consisted of animal products, we still, as fully-evolved, modern human beings, have a choice to THINK about what we eat and how it affects both our personal health, and more importantly, the world we all live in.

While these detractors are so quick to look at biology as their argument to eat meat, they never consider the concept of evolution, and more specifically, ethical and psychological evolution. To base a sound argument, in modern times, on a lifestyle practiced thousands of years ago is simply unpractical, and in regards to our environment and health, downright irresponsible. On top of that, it is actually a fallacious statement that Paelolithic humans thrived off a largely animal-based diet.

The theory that ALL “hunter-gatherer” societies thrive on a largely animal-based diet is simply not true. While the current fad of the Paleo diet has everyone believing that ancient human beings were thriving off mass quantities of meat, this was far from the case. Sure, cavemen ate meat, but they also captured and killed this meat themselves, and ate when they could. They were not carnivores, and even the term “omnivores” is not really an adequate description of their lifestyle: “opportunists” is a more fitting label. Cavemen ate whatever they could whenever they could.

The theory of this meat-centric Paleo diet is also largely based on a limited, Western perspective of Paleolithic times. It rarely considered that Paleothic people in different cultures consumed varied diets according to their local resources and geographical locations. As Katharine Milton observes in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the !Kung, a tribe in present day Africa, live in an almost ideal hunter-gatherer environment, yet thrive on a diet that consists of approximately 67% plant food, and only 33% animal foods. Similarly, Josh Vales shares in his article “8+ Reasons the Paleo Diet Should be Extinct” that observations of modern hunter-gatherer tribes in New Guinea show that large animals are only killed a few times in a hunters entire career, and that “an average days hunting of modern hunter-gatherer tribes in this region consists of one or two baby birds (not even half an ounce each), a few frogs, and a lot of mushrooms.” These thriving, modern hunter-gatherer societies certainly do not seem as meat-dependent as detractors of a plant-based diet would like to lead on. Sorry Paleo lovers.

The theory that we must continue to consume animal products as part of a biological disposition to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is completely at odds with our modern, Western society and drastically different way of life. While the cavemen would go through days of fasting to catch and kill the meat they consumed, modern man is able to, and often chooses to, walk into McDonalds several times a day and quickly consume an excess amount of processed “meat” paired with refined carbohydrates, containing an absurd amount of saturated fat, cholesterol, and empty calories.

The over consumption of processed, refined foods often results in morbid obesity, heart disease, depression, and irritable tendencies, and has been proven in recent studies to contribute to the progression of mental disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s: sounds like the traits of individuals who may like to argue, right?

While the argument can be made that supplementing Vitamin B-12 is “unnatural,” what is “natural” about the modern meat industry? For that matter, what is “natural” about our society as a whole? We walk down man-made sidewalks, pollute the air with automobiles as we drive down man-made round roads, and destroy our bodies, and the world around us, by consuming processed, industrialized man-altered “food.”

Even though  modern, industrialized meat is just about the most unnatural “food” possible, and the basis of emulating a “meat heavy, hunter gatherer” diet is historically inaccurate, but just for fun, let’s pretend that they are right. Let’s say that veganism is “unnatural” due to its reliance on vitamin B-12 supplementation- that an entirely raw, organic plant-based diet is unnatural because of the weekly inclusion of a synthesized vitamin.

Okay Paleo lovers and Ted Nugent advocates, you are right. Because of our supplementation of vitamin-B12, we are all “unnaturally” going against the grain of biology. Cool, you win, and you can certainly celebrate with an artery-clogging, super-manly Big Mac. But while you are stuffing your faces and lining corporate pockets, remember that we are adhering to a lifestyle that is NATURALLY the most beneficial to our planet and personal well-being.

Not to mention, the production of B-12 supplements are really not that “unnatural” anyway. B-12 is synthetized in laboratories by extracting its natural bacterial composition from micro-organisms.  As observed on vegansociety.com, “In choosing to use fortified foods or B-12 supplements, vegans are taking their B12 from the same source as every other animal on the planet - micro-organisms - without causing suffering to any sentient being or causing environmental damage.” Much like the plant-based diet itself, synthetized vitamin B-12 is innately extracted from an entirely pure source, and by choosing to consume the supplement in place of animal-derived products, you are saving natural resources as well as animals’ lives.

By choosing to eat organically grown, local produce, we are keeping small-scale farmers in business and enjoying the most nutritionally sound and pesticide-free food available, and by simply omitting the inclusion of meat with this local produce, we are saving an expediential amount of natural resources, and preventing a multitude of damage to our planet, ozone layer, and environment. Just one such example validating the vegan lifestyle’s ability to preserve natural resources, as shared by vegansociety.com, can be found in a study conducted by the University of Chicago. The study compared a typical U.S. meat-based diet with a vegan diet and found that the ‘typical’ U.S. diet generates the equivalent of nearly 1.5 tons more of carbon dioxide per person per year than a vegan diet. The authors of the study concluded that it would be more environmentally effective to go vegan than to switch to a petrol electric hybrid car.{1}

Statistics and facts can be rehashed and reprinted all day, but for the sake of brevity, and the accessibility of free information, let’s keep it simple: by not eating meat you are making the world a better place! Be happy knowing that by enjoying a plant-based diet, you are making a great decision for yourself nutritionally and an even greater decision for your planet ethically. Eat your greens, remember your vitamins as needed, and reap the satisfaction of giving back to the planet that has given us everything we have.


{1}Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin in New Scientist 17 December 2005, page 19. vegansociety.com. Web. 6  June 2012. 

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