Countering Claims Against Vegan Diets

Countering Claims Against Vegan Diets

By | 2011-11-08T13:20:45+00:00 November 8th, 2011|Tags: , , , |17 Comments

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.


  1. karoumy November 8, 2011 at 6:20 pm - Reply

    I suspect some people who say veganism didn’t work for them are covering for their cognitive dissonance. They probably want to live their ideals but find following a healthy vegan diet inconvenient.

  2. A-K November 8, 2011 at 7:16 pm - Reply

    Thank you for writing this article (I believe a pro-vegan response had been written previously, but not very well). As a former employee of that coop and now at a new one, I’ve had to take a few nutrition classes with the author of the article that began this controversy, and it’s great to read a response to her arguments that is well-crafted and backed up by science.

  3. mary November 8, 2011 at 8:14 pm - Reply

    I think a serious concern of “recovering” vegans should be whether or not they are actually recovering from anorexia or another eating disorder. As a recovered anorexic who knew many folks who used veganism and “healthy” eating to mask anorexia and orthorexia, I say this with empathy, not to attack them. I think a lot of people who go down the road of eating a poorly planned vegan diet, are actually anorexic or orthorexic. For instance, Lierre Keith in The Vegetarian Myth, without calling it anorexia, basically described all of the symptoms and mindsets of an anorexic and attributed them not to a poor diet that bordered on starvation (something that can happen whether or not you’re vegan), but to veganism itself. Such might want to consider exploring that and getting treatment for that, instead of being “treated” for their veganism, which seems like the more convenient thing to blame.

    • Connie Fletcher November 28, 2011 at 1:30 pm - Reply

      Well said, Mary, and something I hadn’t considered!! An interesting take on that issue!!!

      • Connie Fletcher November 28, 2011 at 1:36 pm - Reply

        And, actually, I am back to the vegan menu and was a self proclaimed “recovering vegan”, but certainly not for the same reasons Mary cited, but my husband encouraged (badgered) me to eat the way he wants to eat…..and I gave in. All I got in return, was fat and sick. I’m back to what makes my body work at it’s best, and have absolutely no intention to go back to the SAD diet. As they say, got that t-shirt and returned the darn thing!!!

        Having said that, I must say that I never blamed the vegan diet for not being healthy, on the contrary, I knew I made the choice, and that I didn’t feel as well.

    • Tanya May 6, 2012 at 10:36 pm - Reply

      Hi Mary,
      You have explained so well the conclusion that I also came to after reading “The Vegetarian Myth”. I just couldn’t understand how Lierre Keith’s health problems could have been caused by veganism, when my own health as a vegan has been so fantastic, as is the health of so many other vegans I associate with. When I was telling my mum about it, she suggested that Keith’s ailments sounded very much like those of anorexics. Then the light bulb switched on for me, and google searches have led me here.
      It concerns me too that Keith attributes veganism as being a cause of depression. I’d like to put the suggestion out there that depression is often suffered by highly sensitive people, who are just the type of people likely to choose veganism on moral grounds, as they may be more tuned in to the suffering of other beings. Could this not simply be a matter of correlation based on the vulnerability of a personality type rather than a causation?

  4. David November 8, 2011 at 9:13 pm - Reply

    Excellent response to Jennette Turner’s piece in the Wedge newsletter. Before even reading your response I was amazed at her bad and possibly intentionally misleading information about various nutrients. Unfortunately, too much bad information is being taught to unwitting students possibly leading to bad decisions and worse, misleading information being passed to others. Before Jennette teaches any future classes I wish she would take nutrition 101 to at least ensure her basic knowledge is up to muster.

  5. Aaron November 9, 2011 at 12:17 am - Reply

    I think messaging is and will continue to be difficult for us: vegans and RDs. As both of these things I find, like you, that other RDs who are not vegans are supportive of the vegan diet; however, they are realistic. That is to say, most people have a difficult time altering their diet, and thus the vegan diet is viewed, I think accurately so, as quite challenging for the general public. And, if someone happens to be motivated enough (after watching a movie, seeing an interview, or reading a book) to become vegan that motivation may not translate into educating and enacting proper behaviors in order to successfully implement the diet on a long term basis.

    So, we’re faced with a serious messaging problem. We have an RD community who is aware of the benefits of veganism but also aware of the difficulties in shaping human behavior and we have a community of former vegans who shout from on high the negatives and pitfalls of the diet. Only a very small community is showing the benefits and the science (i.e. Mrs. Messina, Mr. Norris). This is made worse by the horrible insurance coverage for dietitians, further limiting people’s access to said information. This leaves us as a niche group unable to properly and thoughtfully deliver messaging to a large contingent of people. While I agree that only a few talking points can set the record straight, we are drowned out by movies, healers, former vegans, and lobbying groups co-opting the message for their own gain.

    It’s certainly an ongoing challenge.

  6. beforewisdom November 10, 2011 at 5:45 am - Reply

    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.

    I think those people think they should be vegans, but they don’t really want to be, so they generate all sorts of nonsense to give themselves permission to be carnists.

    • selena December 6, 2011 at 2:36 pm - Reply


  7. Jaclyn November 10, 2011 at 12:32 pm - Reply

    they feel guilty and are trying to find a way to make it sound like they are better off slaughtering animals for their own personal pleasure.

  8. Tim November 14, 2011 at 7:01 am - Reply

    That was an excellent response article, thank you !

  9. Joe Espinosa November 16, 2011 at 9:09 am - Reply

    March of the excusitarians!
    It feels alot more comfortable, and looks better in the eyes of others, to have a seemingly real medical or nutritional reason for eating animal products than to just admit to being that selfish that you would cause others to suffer and die for your pleasure.

  10. Rebecca November 16, 2011 at 5:36 pm - Reply

    As usual, Ginny, you are a voice of reason amid all the misinformation! Excellent response.

  11. Drew December 12, 2011 at 10:23 am - Reply

    I just sat through my first nutrition lecture in medical school, and several times the lecturer (a PhD in Biochemistry) referenced the dangers of “strict vegetarian diets.” This ranged from an anecdote of a family friend who “died much earlier than he needed to” to the availability of vit B2 in meat, milk and eggs, so you really need to watch out for those vegetarian diets.

    I spoke with her after class and she said she herself eats a “semivegetarian” diet, but has cheese everyday because Calcium is so important. I just wanted to get her to agree that a plant-based style of eating could be healthy and complete, but she resisted.

    I am really interested in prescribing the Dr. Ornish program to reverse heart disease, or counsel my patients to follow Dr. Barnard’s diet to reverse diabetes, but I see that I am going to face a lot of resistance from the medical establishment community.

    Thanks for your blog, a real resource to counter a prevailing attitude,

  12. Robert December 13, 2011 at 1:30 pm - Reply

    Since I implemented this diet 1.5 years ago my latest blood tests show my cholesterol has dropped from 6.12 mmol/L to 4.81 mmol/L. Using the US system that would be a drop from 236 mg/dl to 186 mg/dl. This despite some cheating . I find cheese, not meat, is the hardest thing to drop from my diet.

    Serum ferritin and urate levels are also down with serum ferritin being the most drastic 305 ug/L to 87 ug/L. In Canada the normal range is 80-300 ug/L. Urate is now 474 umol/L down from 519 umol/L. Still high as the normal range for men is 200-440 umol/L. I ‘m finding this to be the hardest to bring down and it may be related to my genetics. I don’t know the equivalent measurements in the US. Perhaps Ginney would know this.

    I expect further reductions with the exception of serum ferritin. I now need to make a conscious effort to eat more non-heme iron rich foods and include some vitamin C to facilitate absorption. Dropping below 80 ug/L would not be good. I’d definitely have to give my diet a passing grade. :o)

    Sorry to bore you all with my numbers but I was very excited to see these improvements in my lab report.

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