I had the great pleasure of speaking to the members of the Vegan Chicago Meetup last week. In addition to being warm and welcoming, this is another group on my list of organizations that aim to promote an evidence-based approach to vegan advocacy. Before my talk on the Seven Habits of Healthy Vegans, event organizer Dave Sutherland introduced the group’s Vegan Chicago Baloney Detection kit—a guide to critical thinking for vegans, which is based on material from Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World.
Detecting baloney is no easy thing. Resources on veganism are packed with good and not-so-good information, and how are you supposed to know the difference? (It can even be difficult for health experts. If the critical evaluation of research isn’t part of your college curriculum–and it sure wasn’t part of my dietetics program–it can be hard to learn these skills unless you have good mentors in your professional life.) Add in the fact that evidence-based nutrition tends to be kind of unexciting, and it’s no wonder that vegan nutrition sometimes seems overwhelmed by exaggerated health claims, nonchalant dismissal of nutrition concerns and recommendations that are based more on stories and belief than evidence.
Someone asked me recently why it matters whether vegans understand how to interpret different types of research and claims about diet. If vegans want to believe that cow’s milk causes osteoporosis or vegetable oils clog your arteries, or all processed foods are evil and disease-promoting, who cares?
But I think those misconceptions matter. As I’ve written about before, there is plenty to lose when vegans are given inadequate health information. And from an advocacy standpoint, I can’t imagine a good future for a movement based on inflated and unsupported claims, no matter how attractive they sound.
Back in the mid-1990s—when the internet was young, and I don’t think there was even such a thing as a blog—I was part of a group involved in the creation of an email list called sci-veg. It was a forum for those devoted to scientific understanding regarding vegetarian and vegan issues. The list attracted a diverse group of participants—vegan dietitians and nutritionists, experts in other fields related to veganism, and those who simply wanted to discuss the issues in a factual, evidence-based way. Sci-veg was successful in bringing a solidly scientific perspective to the various topics. It’s really too bad that it’s not still around, because I don’t think there has ever been another place on the internet where a group of people so carefully evaluated claims about nutritional, environmental and ethical aspects of veganism.
There are, however, a number of blogs that fill the gap, written by ethical vegans who are committed to critical thinking and scientific integrity. They aren’t afraid to question the prevailing vegan dogma or ask unpopular questions. You may not always agree with them, but they produce some of the most thoughtful and provocative reading on the vegan internet. The authors of these blogs would have been right at home, and extremely valuable voices on sci-veg.
And it goes without saying that Jack Norris RD is on this list, right? There is absolutely no place on the internet to find a more unbiased treatment of the research on vegan diets.