Several months ago, I was asked to respond to an article about the “dangers” of vegan diets that had been published in At the Wedge, the newsletter of the Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis. It was written by a holistic nutritionist who, among other things, counsels “recovering vegans.”
People abandon vegan diets for all kinds of reasons, but those who are “recovering” from this way of eating obviously believe that being vegan damaged their health and that it may very well damage yours, too.
This isn’t a term that crops up in mainstream nutrition circles. I’ve never heard it from any of my dietitian colleagues. In fact, while most RDs may not endorse vegan diets with wild enthusiasm, they don’t appear to have anything in particular against them. I was reminded of this recently with the review of veganism by the U.S. News expert nutrition panel. Even those who are unfamiliar with vegan diets—and perhaps a little cautious about them—aren’t bent on convincing people that being vegan is a one-way road to a health disaster.
In fact, it seems like faulty ideas about the “dangers” of vegan diets often arise from a surprising source: advocates for sustainability and health. One recent example comes from Kathy Rudy, an associate professor of ethics and women’s studies at Duke University. She tried being a vegan for a year, and by her own admission, became sick because of poor food choices. But despite admitting that she hadn’t planned her vegan diet appropriately, she concluded that she requires animal protein (which makes for some pretty fuzzy logic).
It’s an interesting problem because those who care about the environment and also, about animal welfare sound like pretty good vegan candidates—except not when they are convinced that vegan diets are unhealthy. As frustrating as that is, it’s most likely not worth trying to convince them otherwise; our time is probably better spent on outreach to people who aren’t afraid of vegan diets. But it’s also not wise to ignore the potential impact of those who suggest that vegan diets are unsafe. We need only look at how the anti-soy folks have so successfully convinced people that soyfoods cause cancer and infertility to realize that these myths can take on a life of their own.
It pays to be as knowledgeable as possible about meeting nutrient needs, not just for our own health, but also in order to be able to respond to the vegan critics with fact-based information. Just a few talking points regarding protein; minerals like iron, zinc, and calcium; vitamins A and D; and cholesterol can cover most of the anti-vegan rhetoric that makes the rounds. Here is the response that I wrote for the MN Co-op which addresses these unsupported claims against veganism.