Naturalistic Pagans not only view the Earth as sacred, but also ourselves, each other, and other beings that share this planet with us. But regarding food, what does the most Naturalistic Pagan diet look like? Writers, Renee Lehnen (an omnivore) and Kansas Stanton (a vegan) debate this question regarding topics on human evolution, health, environmentalism, ethics, sustainable meat, and clothing. We hope that within this debate, the reader can answer this question for themselves and be able to make a spiritually conscious and physical difference. -Kansas Stanton
Humans are adaptable, omnivorous opportunists. People populated most regions of the earth by surviving on what they found in their environments: aquatic mammals, fish, caribou, and berries in the Arctic; marsupials, reptiles, and tubers in the Australian Outback; and mammals, birds, insects, and fruit in the Amazon basin. From the paleolithic to the present, people have thrived on varied diets that have included plants and animals. Even vegetarians in India’s Hindu communities usually include dairy products in their meals. Strict veganism is rare in our species for health, environmental, and practical reasons. -Renee Lehnen
We started out as casual vegans (we might’ve eaten insects). We never had canine teeth, built to rip into flesh or claws that could tear hide and shred muscle. We needed tools to do this for us, and fire to cook the meat. We existed long before the time of early tool scratches on prehistoric bones of animals. So, consuming meat isn’t hard-wired into our development; it’s culturally mediated and probably a recent introduction to survive in diminishing ecosystems from weather and climate change. But regardless, to believe that humans have always had meat readily available for their consumption is untrue because droughts, extreme storms, floods, and other natural events can reduce animal populations and force animals to migrate to find food. So, when our game was reduced from death or migration, we as a species had to find other sources of food to survive.
Culturally speaking, the book of Genesis expresses using only green plants that bear seed as food to all living creatures in a utopian Garden of Eden. In Greek mythology, the Lotophagi were a North African people who only consumed lotus fruits and flowers. Beginning in the 4th century, Taoists ate a vegan diet for their mental, physical, and spiritual health. Before 1492, Choctaw First Nations were such great agriculturists, they ate a plant-based diet, housed themselves in mud, wood, cane, and bark, and wore plant-based clothing. Plato once said that the gods created trees, plants, and seeds to replenish our bodies. The Roman philosopher, Porphyry, taught that if one were to abstain from meat, then one should abstain also from wool, milk, and honey. Some early Christian monks of the middle ages believed that consuming meat and dairy resulted in gluttony, sex, and sin, and kept to diets of bread, salt, water, olives, and dates (and could supposedly live past 100 on this diet)! Leonardo Da Vinci once asked, “Does not nature produce enough simple [plant] food for thee to satisfy thyself?” and denounced those who harvested honey, wore shoe leather, fished, used animals for labor, and slaughtered animals. And there were several in the 17th century who spoke highly of vegan diets such as John Evelyn, Margaret Cavendish, Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, John Ray, Dr. Phillippe Hecquet, and Thomas Tryon. So, even though the word “vegan” was first coined in 1944, veganism itself is not a modern concept.
You have found some atypical examples of veganism in history and mythology such as the diet in the Book of Genesis, cherry picked from a thick, largely fictional book rife with meat-eating. This doesn’t prove your point but rather suggests that veganism as a dietary choice is an outlier.
Human ancestor groups may have transitioned to a mixed diet by first being carrion-eaters. As they learned to hunt, they would have enjoyed meat more frequently. We have evolved since the discovery of fire and the development of tools in the distant past, so what humans ate prior to this time has little bearing on human physiology and optimal diet now. Furthermore, although the Choctaw were sophisticated horticulturalists, they ate some meat. That medieval Christian monks forwent meat to dampen their sexual urges is a compelling argument against veganism in my opinion. You have made a list of vegans, and I could make a list of omnivores, but what would that prove? Only that omnivores vastly outnumber vegans. I wonder if those monks were deficient in zinc…
Without modern pharmaceutical intervention, a vegan diet is almost always deficient in vitamin B12, a nutrient that is essential for nerve function, cell metabolism, and production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. In addition, vegan diets tend to lack vitamins D, K2, and A, and absorbable iron, calcium, and zinc. Although some people manage adequately on carefully-planned, artificially-supplemented, vegan diets, other people do not.
Vitamin B12 is naturally found in soil and manure. The reason vegans today are deficient is because when livestock graze, they eat their food straight from the earth. When humans eat the animal, this passes into them. Thus, vegans did not have a problem getting B12 when we too ate our food straight from the ground. However, today grocery stores and markets that supply produce thoroughly wash the B12-packed soil off the plants that we would have consumed.
Vitamin D3 can be provided by the sun. About 10 to 20 minutes a day of exposure is more than enough for humans. Any longer than that, and your body stores it in fat in order to draw on it during the winter months. Vegans should just soak up the sun when they have it, and they’ll be fine!
I agree, sunlight is important for our health. Nevertheless, vitamin D stored during the summer months is usually insufficient to keep a person who dwells in winter darkness healthy. A fish dinner or regular dairy consumption is the easiest way to restore this essential nutrient.
Vitamin K2 is found in meat, dairy, and fermented plant-foods like the Japanese plant-food, nattō. K1 is found in leafy greens such as spinach and kale. Both forms of vitamins help blood to clot, but K2 helps prevent osteoporosis, prostate and lung cancer, dementia, and cardiovascular disease. However, most meat-eaters don’t consume enough K2. Our bodies already convert K1 into K2 naturally (MK-4 version specifically, which is thought to be the most effective version of K2), which is enough for blood clotting and great sex, but adding fermented plant-food to the diet is a way for vegans (and omnivores) to help further. And by the way, being vegan lowers your cholesterol and helps prevent cardiovascular disease.
Do you like natto? It’s an acquired taste to be sure. The link between dietary cholesterol, blood lipid and cholesterol levels, and cardiovascular disease is unclear and may depend more on genetic factors and consumption of artificial trans-fats than whether one consumes animal foods. This discussion is for another whole article! I agree, we should all be eating fermented foods. And vitamin A?
Retinol vitamin A is found in meat, while beta-carotene vitamin A is found in plants. It is retinol that humans use, and a healthy gastrointestinal tract can convert beta-carotene into retinol to achieve this. Not being able to process beta-carotene is limited to half the population of Caucasians and is the result of genetics. Those with polymorphisms in their BCMO1 gene can still convert beta-carotene into vitamin A, but it is a 30 to 70 percent reduction in efficiency. This just means that vegans who have this genetic variant need to gobble down more beta-carotene.
I wouldn’t brush this off as unproblematic. As a homozygous, inefficient converter, I turn as orange as a carrot when I eat a lot of them. Spreading a little retinol-rich butter on vegetables is a better health strategy for the many people with this genetic trait. Assuming you are correct in numbers, half of white people is a lot of people who may look like your president if they follow your suggestion. Do you worry about iron deficiency as a vegan?
Heme iron comes from muscle tissue, and non-heme iron comes from plants. Heme iron is much more absorbable to humans than non-heme. However, adding more sources of vitamin C helps the body to absorb the latter better. Furthermore, some experts argue that heme iron acts as a pro-oxidant, contributing to the development of atherosclerosis by oxidizing cholesterol with free radicals, which can promote stroke.
I think this is a question of quantity. A little meat or egg stretches far in meeting people’s iron needs. You’d have to eat an awful lot of greens to match a single chicken drumstick. Like iron, calcium is a tough mineral to obtain for vegans.
Healthy calcium levels can be achieved from leafy plants, beans, and almonds. However, some greens like beet greens, Swiss chard, and spinach contain both calcium and oxalates. Oxalates inhibit the absorption of calcium, but collard, kale, and mustard greens have less oxalate and the calcium in them is absorbed in high rates. The calcium in non-dairy milk alternatives is also an excellent source that is easily absorbed into our bodies.
I think you are suggesting that people should drink pretend milk to get calcium. A cup of whole fat milk, rich in vitamins D and A, calcium, and protein is a delicious, less processed option than fake milk. And then there’s zinc. That’s tough to find in a vegan diet.
Zinc found in plant-food is bound to antioxidant compounds called “phytates.” Phytates deter insects and small animals from consuming the grain or bean, as they have a bitter taste. Phytates, unfortunately, also prevent the human body from absorbing zinc. Soaking or allowing the nut or bean to germinate removes phytates and bacterial flora found in our guts strip a percentage of the phytates as well.
You can process vegan food to coax out the zinc. Or you could have a couple of oysters or an egg. Let’s shift from nutrients to the big picture- humans in the biosphere.
Many vegans refrain from animal consumption for laudable ethical reasons. Raising meat in crowded feedlots or catching fish in indiscriminate drift nets is disastrous for the health of our planet and cruel to animals. However, omnivorous, non-vegan lifestyles can be ecological sustainable and humane if food choices are made with care. Vegan propaganda claims that farm animals take up land, waste water and energy resources, and issue unmanageable amounts of fecal waste. Those are valid concerns. Let’s examine each of them.
To be continued……..
About the Authors: Renee Lehnen
Renee Lehnen is a registered nurse and recent empty nester living in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. With her new found free time, she enjoys outdoor sports, working on local environmental projects, and gazing at the sky wondering, “What does all of this mean?”
Kansas Stanton is a Naturalistic Neo-Pagan who resides in Seattle, Washington. He belongs to, and practices with, a local group of Reform Pagans and blogs at https://leavesontheroad.wordpress.com/. He also volunteers every year at the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle and regularly attends various Pagan festivals and events.
He is a full-time student, earning his degree in Environmental Science and a Certificate in Sustainability, after which time he will move on to law school to receive his Juris Doctor in Environmental Law. When Kansas is not in class or working his job in the art industry, he also attends heavy metal concerts both locally and internationally. He is also a vegan outdoorsman who frequents the trails and whitewater rivers of the pacific northwest and loves to spend his time with friends over a cold, dark beer.