Vegan For The Health Of It?

I’ve been resisting the urge to write about last week’s big news story concerning meat and mortality. The study made a case against high intakes of meat and got lots of press. It reinforced the idea that red meat is bad for us, so that’s a good thing for anyone who promotes a plant-based diet.

Like all epidemiologic studies, it had its share of weaknesses, but the large number of subjects helps to counteract some of that. Furthermore, the results are supported to some extent by other research about the dangers associated with red meat consumption.

But the study also found that eating more white meat, like chicken, was linked to a lower risk of mortality. The take home message, according to many of the articles I read, was “Eat less red meat and more chicken and fish.” It’s the same message we’ve been hearing for decades, ever since people started talking about cholesterol and heart disease. And it’s a message that really sticks. Most health conscious people don’t eat less meat; they eat different meat. And even among those who have cut back on meat for health reasons, most haven’t cut it out.

The same goes for dairy. Whole milk may be taboo on many menus, but it’s simply been replaced with nonfat yogurt.

We have piles of good data about the benefits of eating more whole plant foods and a largely plant-based diet. What we don’t have (yet) are studies showing that vegans have significantly better health than those who eat mostly plant foods but still include some small amounts of animal foods in their diets.

That’s just one of the reasons I’ve never been a big fan of the “health argument” for vegan diet. If we are going to rely on the scientific data in a way that is smart and responsible—as all good vegan health professionals should—then the argument falls short of convincing.

The best advocacy is based on arguments that are rooted in solid fact—the ones that focus on the suffering of farm animals. When it comes to health, I’m not convinced that a few bites of chicken would hurt me. But I know beyond a doubt that those few bites would contribute to animal suffering.

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9 Responses to Vegan For The Health Of It?

  1. Ryan Andrews April 8, 2009 at 1:30 pm #

    Agree 100%!!

  2. Charlie Talbert April 8, 2009 at 3:16 pm #

    Do you have a way that your posts could be sent automatically to my email address? Some bloggers offer this functionality.

    Thanks!

  3. christian köder April 8, 2009 at 3:31 pm #

    great post!
    i think animals are the only reason to be 100% vegan.
    is there any research that indicates that actually a plant-based diet that is non-vegetarian would be healthier than a varied B12-supplemented all vegan diet?

  4. Ginny Messina April 9, 2009 at 11:11 am #

    Charlie–I had no idea that people couldn’t have my posts delivered directly to their email! I’m working on this. Please check back or drop me an email.

    Christian–I don’t know of any research that shows an “almost vegan” diet has benefits over a well-balanced vegan diet.

    Rdandrew–Thanks!

    ~Ginny

  5. Lobo Pasolini May 2, 2009 at 2:44 am #

    Very well put. Ethics, and not heath, is the driving force of veganism. Good health is an added bonus.

  6. Lynn May 3, 2009 at 3:11 am #

    Yes, a few bites would contribute to animal suffering. So well put, thank you. Because so many people say, A few bites wouldn’t make a difference, or A few bites wouldn’t hurt, no one would know.

  7. Lindsey May 18, 2009 at 10:25 am #

    Charlie – this link should let you subscribe – http://feedburner.google.com/fb/a/mailverify?uri=TheVeganDietitian&loc;=en_US

    Virginia – Great post as usual! Nice to see a vegan dietitian who thinks this way. We make veganism less credible by claiming it's the only healthy diet. I rarely use the health argument. Focusing on exploitation of animals and the environmental effects of animal agriculture is the way to go.

  8. xavier May 18, 2009 at 2:02 pm #

    I find a vegan diet ‘healthier’ because by default it cut out a lot of the rubbish I used to snack on (choc biscuits and the like). Now my cravings have turned towards fruit.

    On hearing this, many people say ‘well you can do that not eating vegan’ and while this is strictly true, I found veganism the best way to actually change behaviour. It’s not that I don’t eat much junk food anymore, I don’t *want* to eat it.

    There is also a case to be made for environmental veganism.

  9. Anonymous August 10, 2009 at 6:36 am #

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