Mongolia’s Meat Diet: An Inconvenient Truth for Veganism

Goat Ft

Mongolia 7

Meat. It’s what’s for dinner.
All photos by the author

My guide grunts as he stabs his finger at the knife sitting in a bucket of bones that are covered with bits of stringy flesh. This is my invitation to eat. I have a choice among the boiled femurs (I’m not sure if they are cow or horse), a bowl of clotted cream, dried milk curds and some bread-a fancy spread considering that many people just subsist on makh, the Mongolian word for “meat”-usually boiled mutton parts with a few potatoes thrown in.

I’ve come to Mongolia for a couple weeks to get some fresh air and perspective. Despite the country’s glowing reviews as an adventure travel destination, everyone I have spoken with has warned me that getting used to the food could be a challenge.

Meat in the winter and meat and dairy products in the summer are the traditional staples of Mongolia’s nomads. The introduction of wheat, rice and potatoes from conquered nations and trading partners has added some variety, but as the climate is harsh and farms and nomads go together like water and oil, many rural Mongols continue to subsist on a diet consisting almost entirely of animal protein and fat.

I’m not a big red meat eater, but I am pretty excited about my meal-all free-range, and I mean really free-range. Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world and nomads, who still comprise about a quarter of the population, move their homes and their herds several times a year.

Mongolia 4

Mongolia’s animals are truly free-range

Animals are grass-fed-make that grazed (no one “feeds” them, they eat when they are hungry) and virtually no antibiotics or hormones are used. With little industry outside the capital, the air, water and earth are clean and I have little doubt that I am eating some of the most natural animal protein currently available to mankind.

But does that make it healthy?

I recently watched Forks Over Knives by Lee Fulkerson, a 2011 documentary that presents a strong case that most “Western” illnesses, i.e. cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, are caused by the consumption of animal products and processed foods. The film’s solution is simple; if we want to live healthy lives we must switch to a plant-based diet, a carefully chosen euphemism for veganism.

The film relies heavily on the research of Cornell University’s T. Colin Campbell and his 2005 book, The China Study, a vegan manifesto that purports to scientifically demonstrate that the consumption of any animal product of any type and in any amount (what Campbell dubs “the Western diet”) causes significant health problems in humans. The book is based on a comprehensive study that Campbell did over an astounding 20-year period in rural China and Taiwan.

Given how overweight, out of shape and addicted to prescription drugs the American public has become, it’s a compelling argument, particularly against the backdrop of America’s factory-farmed, corn-fed, hormone injected industrial meat supply portrayed in films like Food Inc., and Fast Food Nation.

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Sitting down for some Airag, or fermented mare’s milk-Mongolia’s animal-based answer to beer

As I contemplate the merits of a plant-based diet, a woman hands me a wet rag to wipe the animal fat from my fingers (like many Americans, Mongols eat with their hands). I wash my meal down with some Airag or fermented mare’s milk, a sour Mongolian beer-like beverage clocking in at around 2%-3% alcohol (yes, in Mongolia even the booze is derived from beasts).

To be honest, I’m starting to feel a little pissed and I don’t mean in the British sense. You see, according to Campbell’s assertions, Mongolia’s diet should be about as bad as theoretically possible and Mongols should be dropping dead left and right from “Western” diseases because of their “Western” diet. It must be no small inconvenience for the Fulkerson/Campbell team that they are not.

The Mongols have been eating this way since recorded history and it turns out that their present-day average lifespan is 68 years. While this is certainly shorter than America’s 78 years or Japan’s record 83, Mongolia is still a developing country with a GDP per capita of less than 1/10 of the US, and a very poor healthcare infrastructure. Furthermore the environment is extremely harsh and alcoholism and smoking rates are high among both men and women. All things considered, 68 years seems surprisingly good.

In fact, if you compare Mongolia to Laos, also a developing landlocked Asian country but with a rice-based diet and significantly higher vegetable consumption per capita, both Mongolian men and women live longer. While crude as formal science, this simple analysis raises a red flag.

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Making Boodog, or blowtorched goat
The animal’s hair is burned off while hot rocks are stuffed in the chest cavity thus cooking it from the inside and out

It is here that both Fulkerson and Campbell appear to have forgotten one of the most basic techniques in science: always check the extreme cases; in this case, societies with meat-heavy diets like Mongolia.

The problem is that both men have conflated the consumption of animal-based foods with the consumption of processed foods. Admittedly highly correlated in America’s industrial food supply, but as every passing Statistics 101 student should know, “correlation does not imply causation“.

Thankfully, using proper statistical techniques ex-vegan Denise Minger has meticulously (and humorously) demonstrated that while there is plenty of evidence that processed and refined foods are the problem, Campbell’s claim that animal protein is fundamentally harmful is simply not supported by his own data. She also presents an excellent critique of the “science” in Forks Over Knives and how the film cherry picks its arguments and definitions to support a vegan ideal. She also notes that the movie completely ignores the well-documented benefits of fish-based diets in countries such as Norway and Japan. (Last time I checked fish were animals.)

This is good news for me-not because I need someone to justify my carnivorous predilections, but because like HAL in 2001, I would probably have a psychotic episode if I weren’t able to reconcile theory with reality. Fulkerson’s and Campbell’s theory is that meat is an unmitigated evil; reality says that ain’t so. The reconciliation is simple. The theory is wrong-now I feel rational again.

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A bowl of curd ferments on the stove in a ger (yurt)

Personally I’m not a huge fan of mutton and if forced to make a binary decision between going vegan and eating the traditional Mongolian diet for the rest of my life I would probably choose the former, but for me it’s a matter of taste, not purported health benefits.

Going vegan because you prefer to is fine. What I can’t tolerate is sloppy filmmaking and pseudo-scientific dogma being used to scare people into thinking that doing so is medically necessary when obvious counter examples are so easily in sight. Perhaps the ultimate lesson I will take away from this trip to Mongolia has nothing to do with meat or documentaries or books, but rather travel itself: nothing beats first hand experience when it comes to trying to figure out the truth. Observations Over Proclamations.

Trained as an aerospace engineer, writer/director Jesse Veverka was a financial analyst on Wall Street before co-founding his own media production company, Veverka Bros. Productions LLC, with his brother Jeremy. He has worked and lived throughout Asia, including Japan, Korea, Indonesia and China, where he has produced a number of award-winning films. His articles have appeared in various publications including CNN Travel, Japan’s Metropolis Magazine and China’s Global Times. He was born in Ithaca, NY. Jeremy Veverka is a media professional with specialties in documentary filmmaking, photojournalism, cinematography, sound design, and commercial work. His award-winning films, including the feature documentary China: The Rebirth of an Empire, cover a range of geopolitical issues and have been screened at dozens of film festivals worldwide. With a degree in English from Cornell University and extensive travel experience throughout Asia and the Middle East, Jeremy brings his background in storytelling and international journalism to each of his projects and strives to give a voice to historically underrepresented groups. To learn more, visit or follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyVeverka.

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  1. Frances WebbFrances Webb08-22-2012

    I don’t know. Your conclusions seem, like the ones you’re trying to debunk, to be a little broader than your data supports. I could ask whether the Mongolian nomads would be healthier on a diet which includes more vegetables, but that would be pointless, since they wouldn’t be nomads if they turned farmer. Still, you seem to have reported average life expectancy for the entire nation while reporting on the diet of what is now a minority group. I think you did successfully argue that a meat diet doesn’t have to be seriously detrimental, particularly when the animals are raised in a healthy environment, but I suspect that even these nomads’ diet would become a major issue if they overate and under-exercised the way most of us in the U.S. do. (Obviously, what we eat isn’t the only major factor in health, and a positive can help mitigate a negative.) If you did demonstrate that the nomads’ diet was the best diet for them, it would still be hard to extend that conclusion to the developed world, where naturally raised meat tends to be either extremely expensive or entirely unavailable.

    It’s dangerous to spend so much copy criticizing the rigor of someone else’s conclusions unless you put equal effort into making sure that your own logic isn’t equally vulnerable to charges of cherry-picking. I have read “The China Study”, and while it does leave room for criticism, it also includes a lot of very thoughtful work. It deserves to be debunked through more rigorous effort, and your dismissal of the theories based on one under-analyzed data point and an off-hand comment that everyone knows the Japanese seafood diet is a healthy one, comes off as a too-facile effort to arrive at your desired conclusion. If you care enough to really put in the effort on your data analysis, you might be able to construct a more solid argument. As it is, I’m afraid that you won’t change any minds here, and people will only find your argument persuasive who are already inclined to believe your conclusions.

  2. AthonwyAthonwy08-22-2012

    Actual average life span in Mongolia: 65.2 years.

    Leading cause of death by quite a margin: Cardiovascular Disease at 38.5 %!

    Percentage of fatal Cardiovascular Disease in Laos: 13.61%

    Enjoy that meat, and the blocked arteries it comes along with.

  3. EthanEthan08-22-2012

    seems true though

  4. baterdene1968baterdene196808-24-2012

    Mongolia has the highest rate of liver cancer in the World, and based on a rough analysis of raw data from WHO it seems like it has the World’s 2nd highest mortality rate of all cancer types.

    Traditionally, we Mongols only eat meat during the winter. Due to reasons of traditional Buddhist values of compassion we do not like to kill animals. Your photos of slaughter are because you were a guest (most likely, they quietly were very sad to have to kill those animals).
    Vegetarian and vegan diets are increasingly popular as the 75% of the population that is sedentary recognises that meat is a major cause of their cancer, heart disease etc. There are now more vegetarian restaurants per capita in Mongolia than “enlightened” places like Washington DC and Los Angeles.

    Please visit us again and this time spend time with us who embrace compassionate healthy lifestyles. Thank you.

  5. leiannaleianna02-04-2013

    I appreciate this article. I posted it to my facebook with this title: “The never ending search for whats good and bad for us, the planet, and all its creatures- this is an interesting read :)”
    One day we will find harmony.

  6. Tim ShellTim Shell02-28-2013

    Very spot on article, do your homework noble citizens, strict vegetarianism leads to deficiency diseases within two to 4 years for most people.

    I have lived in China 7 years and now Mongolia 2 years as a US citizen abroad. After bringing many false US dietary ideas to Asia with us we have had to rethink our beliefs. Our family of 7 now believes that it is the destructive “things” both in the processed foods, fats and oils and the by products of the digestion and metabolism of them, that gradually remove health from the body, not the natural animal fats themselves.

    We partake of all natural animal fats with relish to the fullest extent of our desire without grief or guilt, knowing that in order for us to live, something must die, even if it is an insect or microbe. Sacrifice is a part of the real world, one dying so another can live. Real living is learning to strategically lay down your life for another, and mothers are some of the greatest examples of this. Knowing also that some of the things our bodies need cannot be obtained from a plant only diet.

    Thinks for yourselves like this writer.

    While the writer of the article does not have 20 years of research behind his comments, yet only a little common sense is required to see that natural fats are not killing the Mongols today, and never did kill the Mongol hordes that conquered the known world in the 1200′s. Yes, you can live a healthy life on primarily milk and meat products, but you must ferment the dairy products and eat the whole animal, not just the flesh but primarily and intentionally the organs and blood.

    But the propaganda from the global food conglomerates is in full swing convincing even the Mongols to turn to processed, hydrogenated vegetable fats over their traditional dietary fats.

    The key factor to remember in it all is that the processing, chemicalizing and denaturing of nutrients, nutrients both known and unknown at present to science, for the purpose of shipping and shelf life are the primary cause of degenerative disease.

    If it comes in a package, or wrapper other than the one nature gave it, chances are it’s not the best choice. Anything with a barcode? Probably not a good choice.

    The Chinese diet is extremely high in soy oil, but it is traditionally fresh pressed and only processed by heating. They eat hugh amounts of every veg, fruit, and meat conceivable under the sun. Probably no culture has a more varied diet than the Chinese, no living thing is off limits to them. While starving under Mao they learned to eat everything and then grew up to seek the foods of their childhoods so that all strange things became a part of their diet. They are generally speaking far healthier than the Americans and much harder working.

    But they too are swallowing their daily does of propaganda and switching to refined, hydrogenated oils and etc. This is readily demonstrated by the epidemic of obesity afflicting the school age children living on pop and chips.

    By far our favorite cusine to date is Korean, which we were also exposed to on a daily basis during our time in China. It is much lower oil content than the Chinese and has flavors never encountered elsewhere, and yes, plenty of meat.

    All of us have instincts to guide our dietary choices, but they can be tricked and deceived by modern foods of commerce. The original design was to have the most nutrient dense foods indexed to the highest salty, sweet, bitter and sour tastes. But snack foods give only the salty, sweet, etc flavors without the requisite high nutrient content. The natural instincts can be retrained.

    Also remember that it is not the toxins we eat that kill us but the ones that aren’t excreted. Fasting is the single biggest overlooked, low cost means for regaining health. Even the best diet of any kind, if there is no periodic fasting, will build up detrimental products of metabolism in the body and corrupt it’s health. All animals in nature fast. All. No animal lives in perpetual abundance of food 24/7/365, they have periods of feasting as well as fasting. We should copy their style.

    Wonderful article, thanks so much for sharing, Jesse, if you’re ever back in Mongolia give us a shout.

  7. Tim ShellTim Shell02-28-2013

    Oh, I forgot to mention,

    Whatever diseases, (i.e. liver cancer) are rampant here in Mongolia come from rampant poverty and alcoholism which ensued at the collapse of the Socialist system in 1990. Many Mongoians can no longer obtain or afford the choice foods of their traditional diet, but many still instinctivelly seek those foods when at all possible.

  8. emily davisemily davis06-11-2013

    I would be described as “vegan” (what I actually eat is brown rice, potatoes, oats, green vegetables, beans, and fruit with absolutely no salt, oil, sugar, or additives. I eat meat very occasionally, maybe once every few months. Hardly the diet of your average vegan) and I do so because it makes me feel more amazing than any diet I’ve ever had. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and after about six months on this diet it disappeared. It’s been about 10 years now and I’ve had no health issues. While following this diet I have never suffered from common problems that Americans assume are normal, such as PMS and menstrual cramps (in the past when I was eating a heavy meat and dairy diet I had actually been admitted to the hospital for severe cramping. Now I wouldn’t even remember what a cramp feels like.), depression and anxiety, or even just feeling tired throughout the day. Almost half a century old, I have more than enough energy to work 9 hours a day in manual labor, then come home to go out hiking with my family. I’m trim and my face always has a shiny healthy glow. My hair and nails grow very fast and have a natural brightness that people notice and mention.

    It works for me, and I always let people know how much luck I’ve had following this lifestyle in hopes that it can help them too (because it really has changed my life). but I really don’t care what others choose to eat. That’s no one’s business but their own. Lets just try to help each other out where we can, get the clearest information about diet available (always check your sources, who funded that study you’re reading?), but otherwise leave people alone.

  9. kristin parshallkristin parshall07-13-2013

    Tim Shell: Get real! Your comment:”Very spot on article, do your homework noble citizens, strict vegetarianism leads to deficiency diseases within two to 4 years for most people.” This is BS. I have been vegan for several years and I don’t have a single sign on disease, I never get sick. I do however work with plenty of meat/dairy eating co-workers who complain about their ailments and call in sick quite often. But the real question is – what’s more important to you, a cruelty-free diet or something that you simply enjoy eating that involves slaughtering an animal. No one on this thread would kill and eat their own dog but slicing open a goat is OK? The most disturbing aspect of this issue is that most humans feel no empathy toward other sentinent beings who are raised and killed for food. They are every bit as aware of pain and suffering as any human but humans continue to act entitled to eat/use all the animals they want. I happen to care about non-human beings and eating plants has suited me just fine and I am healthier than I have ever been!

  10. OdkoOdko08-09-2013

    Thanks Jesse. It is a nice article.

    Being a Mongolian girl, i like our meat and dairy products. You just have to follow your instinct. Eat less meat during summer time and more diaries or local vegetables (variety is limited. But that is fine as long as they are grown in Mongolia.
    I try not to eat processed food and/or imported vegetables or fruits.

    For high rate of heart problem – it is mainly among city people who do less physical activity plus due to air/environmental pollution.

    For liver problem among the population – i suspect it is mainly because of all those vaccines we have exposed (origin was unknown or some craps under the name of aid) during our childhood. 1 needle for the whole class or probably for the whole kindergarten. I remember fire was used to sanitize needles to give a shot to next kid.

    I do have an older brother (born in 60s) and an older sister (born in 70s). Both of them has liver issues. Both got infected (hepatitis) when they were young.

    For me, healthy eating is eating natural food. That is all.

    (Even bread turns bad within 2-3 days in Mongolia. In the States, even the organic breads could stay fresh for around 7-10 days – terrible!)