Being Fearlessly Vegan

If you read the comments on this blog, then you know that not everyone in the vegan world is happy with some of the perspectives presented here. The two criticisms I hear most frequently are these: First, that my recommendations, which focus on areas where vegans may fall short, make it seem “too hard” to be healthy on a vegan diet. And second that, because I’m an animal advocate, I care only about making it easy to be vegan—refusing to condemn foods like vegetable oils, nuts and veggie burgers—with little regard for human health.

Obviously, both of these things can’t be true. In fact, I know that the second one isn’t, and I don’t think the first one is, either. My recommendations for staying healthy on a vegan diet are exactly as hard as they need to be. I take no blame, or responsibility for the nutrient needs of humans. They are what they are, and I do my best to help people meet them based on current understanding of nutrition. Yes, I err on the side of caution. We’re wise to be a little cautious in our recommendations regarding veganism, a way of eating that has no cultural or historical underpinning.

I don’t think that this detail and specificity are necessarily off-putting or scary to new or potential vegans, either. Instead, candid observations about the potential pitfalls of vegan diets, with straightforward guidelines on how to avoid them, make our advocacy trustworthy.  Jack recently posted this comment from someone who had (I’m assuming) heard one of his presentations on vegan nutrition:

“I directly credit my final willingness to make that leap [to becoming vegan] to your nutritional research presentation, especially as veganism applies to athletes. That information, presented so honestly, specifically, and with no misleading window-dressing or skewing of facts, is what gave me the confidence to try it out and we are thriving!”

As for my alleged lack of concern about vegan health—it makes no sense. The image of veganism, and therefore the fate of animals, isn’t served very well by a population of vegans who are staggering around in poor health. Anyone who cares about animals needs to care about the health of vegans.

So yes, guidance toward dietary choices that reduce chronic disease risk is an important part of advocacy. But a message that veers into fear and fear-mongering about food choices isn’t.

Why are some vegans eager to believe that certain plant foods, or sometimes, whole categories of plant foods are so dangerous that they need to be avoided at all costs? Where is the evidence that a plain old vegan diet that includes all kinds of plant foods (ones that have been part of cultural diets for centuries) is harmful to health? Marla Rose, who blogs as the Vegan Feminist Agitator had an excellent post on this recently. She says:

“Unless there is something radically and uncommonly wrong with one’s body, that person has serious allergies or addictions, no, a little oil, a little sugar or some carbs won’t likely kill anyone. It just won’t. This is absolutist and fear-based thinking that is not rooted in science or fact.”

And

“ Instead, it becomes a form of zealotry and, because we are still a small minority of the population, this then becomes associated with veganism to the public at large, which already considers how we live to be extreme and requiring the discipline of a mountain-top dwelling monk as it is.  […] We should be doing everything we can to remove the barriers to compassionate living, not putting up more arbitrary and personal hurdles that have nothing to do with it.”

This is it exactly. After all, we’re not just selling veganism, but selling lifelong, successful, no-turning-back veganism. It means ensuring that vegans have the information they need to stay healthy, while stripping away prohibitions that don’t serve much purpose for vegans or for animals.  To me, these don’t seem like especially threatening concepts.

Please read Marla’s post The Slippery Slope of Nutritional Surveillance. She’s an inspired writer, and her observations are spot on.

 

 

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38 Responses to Being Fearlessly Vegan

  1. rhonda March 21, 2013 at 10:48 am #

    Ginny, you’re the best! Love this.

  2. Matt Ruscigno March 21, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

    Agreed.
    Sometimes I feel like I’m more criticized by vegans fixated on some plant food they claim is absolutely detrimental than I am by omnivores.
    Thank you for writing about this!

  3. Vee March 21, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

    Haters to the LEFT!

    Ginny you are awesome and you do so much to keep the vegan community healthy! I bought (and love) your book – keep up the good work!!

  4. Melissa March 21, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    Thanks for this piece, Ginny! So true and so important.

  5. Christy Morgan March 21, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    Such an important post and I’m glad more people are speaking up about it. No scare tactics are needed to switch to a vegan diet. It’s the best thing for the animals, the planet, and for us. Sold!

    Am I correct is saying there are no long-term studies that show that a healthy vegan diet does anymore to prevent and reverse disease as one that is super restricted?

    • Coastalgirl March 29, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

      Check out Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. Dean Ornish, and there are others who have done studies. I like statistics too. I’m hard headed. enjoy the search. It’s fun to get all this info and put together what you want for yourself. I am leaning toward the Mc Dougall plan. My doc advocates it too. That’s a plus.

  6. Mandy March 21, 2013 at 12:33 pm #

    Bravo!! THANK YOU for saying this, concisely and clearly. I follow a lot of more “extreme” vegan blogs because I find good recipes and their obsessive research often proves helpful. But when I find myself terrified that the tablespoon of coconut oil I sauteed my veggies in is going to give me (horror!!) cholesterol above 150 and I’m GOING TO DIE, I come here for some balanced common sense. :) I know that oils, and all processed, non-whole foods should be the minority in my diet. I also know that the world is not going to collapse if I crave an Oreo every now and then.

  7. veganlinda March 21, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    Thank you for everything you do for the animals (humans included)!!!

  8. D March 21, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

    For me, the biggest threat to my diet is a bit of irrational nutrition anxiety perpetuated by folks who believe in blood type diets or that the only vegans out there are ones who deprive their babies of B-12. The fairly simple, research-based recommendations here help me feel confident about my diet, particularly since you make no bones about the areas that vegans DO tend to fall short and offer easy ways to remedy this.

  9. Bertrand Russell March 21, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

    Hi, Ginny,
    I think the main counter to your detractors is that we have hard numbers: 3 out of 4 people who go veg quit, and the main reason is because they don’t feel healthy:
    http://bit.ly/qPEmSv
    Those are the simple facts, and the animals are lucky to have you and Jack working with the facts, instead of being wedded to a certain vegan fantasy.

  10. Marian Silvester March 21, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    I have been vegan for 26 years, and am from the UK, although now living in Portugal. It is only recently, in the last few months, that I have started to read about the idea that oils are bad, nuts are bad and so forth. It makes my mind boggle!

    I tend to feel that eating a varied vegan diet is a good approach, and not to make it too difficult either. I agree that supplements are helpful – not only for vegans, but for everyone. There are some people for whom food is the whole expression of their being, and that is fine. The problem comes when the denial of so many foods, within the context of a vegan diet, is seen to be the vegan ‘norm’.

    I would love more people to become vegan, be healthy, and stay vegan. For the animals, the planet and people too.

  11. Rebecca Stucki March 21, 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    <3 Ginny + Marla <3

  12. tvoa March 21, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

    OMG I love you. That is all.

  13. Aleksandra March 21, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

    I like my food healthy (most of it), but I don’t really care what you eat as long as it’s cruelty free. Not my business, like I said, as long as it is cruelty free. :)

  14. Debby Sunshine March 21, 2013 at 8:35 pm #

    This post is right on. I believe that you must use your common sense and logic when considering your diet and your health. An informed practical approach to veganism will always win in the end!

  15. Robin March 22, 2013 at 1:18 am #

    Yet another excellent post. Thank you!

  16. Sarah March 22, 2013 at 2:30 am #

    I personally enjoy quite a “standard” diet (minus the animal products of course), and this does sometimes include fatty/oily foods, or even refined flours… But it also includes lots of healthy options…

    For me it’s not so much about restricting EVERYTHING potentially bad (if I did that – taking into account alleged allergens, carcinogens, irritants, enzymes that may or may not be harmful, blah blah blah – I’d have almost nothing to eat!), it’s much more about including life affirming foods (and yes, to some extent supplements depending on circumstances)…

    Being vegan, you can be healthy, and you do need to represent that to the outside world, as it’s just like you say; not just about becoming but STAYING vegan, but it’s about the animals first and foremost, and I dislike with a passion, those who would denounce my diet as “bad” for whatever reason, as it detracts from the philosophy/lifestyle choices, such as the toiletries I use, the products I clean my home with, or the way I dress/entertain myself.

    It’s not just about food!

  17. Kathy Gehlken, MA, RDN, CMP March 22, 2013 at 9:03 am #

    I appreciate your grounded recommendations and realistic assessments of dietary requirements–I look forward to reading your posts. Keep up the good work!

  18. Vicki March 22, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    “I take no blame, or responsibility for the nutrient needs of humans. They are what they are, and I do my best to help people meet them based on current understanding of nutrition.”

    I LOVE this! Thank you, Ginny, for doing the research and working so hard to give vegans the information we need to remain healthy and thrive and better advocate for animals. You are a blessing to the world! :-)

  19. Anneka Schneider March 22, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    Thats why I’m just a regular ole vegan. My cooking style tends to fall into the comfort diner style food, but I’m not a junk food vegan. Think occasional fried tofu, luscious gravy, and roasted veggies. I also love beet burgers smothered with vegenaise, and when I’m on a health kick I like juices and more raw meals. I love how I feel when I am high raw, but I would never call myself a raw vegan when I’m on a raw kick. We loose sight of the heart of veganism-saving the world with our forks and knives, when we focus on these minute things.

  20. Bonnie March 23, 2013 at 5:34 am #

    Awesome! Ginny, great blog. It answered all of my concerns that I had in a previous post and comment. I greatly appreciate this. Good work.

  21. Bonnie March 23, 2013 at 5:38 am #

    For Mandy, who commented above, I had to laugh at your comment. I totally agree. I made one of Brendan Brazier’s Pizza crusts last night (delicious) and it contained 1/4 cup of coconut oil. All night I kept waiting to keel over after eating such a product (LOL!). I am really tired of all the fear mongering that goes on too. But, you certainly don’t find that here.

  22. Tanya Sitton March 24, 2013 at 10:59 am #

    Love it! Agree totally.

    The soy-haters and anti-fat and gluten-fearing blocks of our group (and we ARE all one community, whether some factions of it claim me or not!) all frustrate me greatly. If the goals are less harm done in the world and long-term vegan living, 1) we must ground ourselves in reality, and 2) not invent (totally optional and unnecessary!) barriers for new folks to hurdle in order to join us.

    It seems so obvious to me… I’m not sure why we need to have this debate, but clearly we do. Thanks for writing about it so succinctly, and thanks for the reading recommendations! Well done, all around. :)

  23. K. Bryan Noyes March 24, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

    Fantastic post. I was thinking similar things the other day when someone told me that vegan food tastes like tree bark. It is unfortunate that with so much amazing vegan food out there, that people still associate vegan food with “health food”.

  24. Jan Carrie Steven March 24, 2013 at 6:51 pm #

    Biggest hugs! I love being vegan on so many levels, I just don’t get the animosity stuff.

  25. TheGreenForkExpress March 25, 2013 at 9:25 am #

    Excellent! as usual!

  26. Carnap March 25, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

    Whenever you discuss this topic you play the same game, namely, you exploit the the continuous (rather than discrete) nature of most nutritional issues. For example none of the advocates for low fat vegan diets think that if you consume “a little” oil you’re going to drop dead of heart disease. No, instead, they think it becomes increasingly problematic the more you eat and recommending “no oils” is a simple and effective message.

    Now, your commentary on these issues always strike me as a bit vague, so I’m not entirely sure what you really think. But I do see how people interpret your message and its a carte blanche to eat oils as they see fit. The average person thinking about a veg*n diet is coming into it with a relatively poor eating pattern and they just hear good things about their bad habits.

    It has always been my impression that you focused on getting people on veg*n diets that were “no worse” than the diets they started with, which would make sense if your focus was animal advocacy. Your post didn’t change my impression.

    I would also love to see you substantiate some of your claims about fats and oils, its disappointing to see such bold claims made with so few citations.

    • Ginny Messina March 26, 2013 at 8:02 am #

      Carnap, have you looked at my food guide on this site? I’m curious as to how you can think that the diet I recommend is “no worse” than what the average American eats!

      • Carnap March 26, 2013 at 10:47 pm #

        Yes, I have looked at your food guide but your comments are often at odds with it. For example, in the section on fats its stated that its “fine to have a few servings a day” and a serving is defined as 1 teaspoon. I’m fine with that, and if someone only ate a few teaspoons of added fat in a vegan diet they’d end up with a fairly low fat diet. But else where you condemn low fat diets, say oils are okay without every saying just how much is okay, etc. Even before you state the guide you say: “The guide doesn’t include things like chocolate chip cookies, potato chips, and wine. That doesn’t mean you can’t have them”. How exactly does that fit in with recommending only a few teaspoons of fat, doesn’t take many chocolate chips and potato chips to go over that amount…

        As I said, I’m not exactly sure what you intend to say sometimes but your commentary is being interpreted as a free pass on fats/oils (see some of the other comments..)

    • Gary March 27, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

      - I don’t see how anyone reading Ginny’s post can think she is “carte blanche” on oils.

      – The burden of proof is on those who claim that any amount of oil is bad for you. E.g, produce a study showing the ill effects of a tablespoon of oil a day. FYI, a clinical trial may not be the best way to study this, if – as I believe based on my observations and experience – that a little bit of oil can help people eat healthy dishes such as salads and veggies.

      – In my ten years of vegan outreach, I do not perceive that “no oil” is an effective message to the vast majority of people. My perception is that it sounds impossible and extreme to most people. I have much better luck explaining how to reduce oil and not fret over every drop.

  27. B Hartman March 26, 2013 at 7:55 am #

    as a nutritional researcher so much of the misinformation out there makes me shake my head, it is more about emotion than logic. Militant veganism, such as you are describing, sounds more like disordered eating and about control than it does about health.

    Still haven’t figured out why the nuts are bad……. aflatoxins or the fat? Or is it the ratio of Omega 6:omega 3?

    • Carnap March 26, 2013 at 11:01 pm #

      At least for the folks that recommend very low-fat diets, its about the fat. Nuts are very fatty and as such they can promote heart disease and weight gain due to the high caloric density. But they don’t make the same recommendation for all people, the recommendation to avoid nuts is primarily geared towards those who are obese and/or suffering from heart disease where as “limited consumption” for healthy lean individuals.

  28. Bea Elliott March 27, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    When every little plant based food is scrutinized as a threat to health it’s wonderful to hear a voice of reason! Thank you Ginny for giving vegans an opportunity to exhale.

  29. Coastalgirl March 29, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

    Seems to me we are putting a lot of responsibility on people who write blogs, etc. As I see Veganism, it starts with the premise that one eats no animal products. Beyond that, we all find our comfort zone.

    There was a quote in the 3-21 blog I read today, that ‘a little oil, a little sugar, a some carbs won’t likely kill anybody.’ I giggled at the thought that some people uninformed still talk about carbs like it’s all candy, cake and cookies. I, for example am on a high carb diet, a la McDougall. We eat carbs like, a lot of potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, brown rice, quinoa, peas, beans, corn etc along with lots of great vegis and some fruit. Maybe it’s time to make a point of good carbs and junk food carbs. Moreover, educating in a way that shows what can be found in what food but, like the blog says, take what you want and make up your own mind. I was raw for a while. I didn’t thrive. Maybe I didn’t do it right, but maybe my body is just at a place where it needed something more, Does cooking food really destroy the ‘energy?’ Is juicing the best way to ‘detox’ the body, or is getting the max amount of fiber the best for the delivery of nutrients? I have heard all these arguments and more.

    What I personally feel about overt oil is that it’s not food. I add some avocado and/or olives each day to my salad. Sometimes some nuts and/or seeds. Oil is a substance manufactured from whole foods. I like the whole foods.

    Lets stop arguing and take responsibility for our own choices.

    Thanks Ginny for giving us your expertise.

  30. Em April 1, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    Awesome post.

    In addition to the things you’ve said here, I am uncomfortable with the selling of veganism as the one true path to health, because I am a vegan and I am not healthy.

    I have both a rare genetic disorder that impacts most of my organ systems in some way and a moral compass that tells me that animals aren’t mine to use and that factory farming is an industry that exploits workers and the environment.

    But on more than one occasion, someone who has been introduced to the idea of veganism as a means of attaining superior health and eternal youth has said to me, “Well, look at you. Clearly veganism doesn’t work.”

    I disagree. I became vegan in order to reduce the suffering I cause and I strive every day to do less harm and do more good. I think in that sense veganism works.

    But the more veganism is pitched as the way to live to a hundred or to never need medical care or to have clear skin and shiny hair or whatever, the more we’ll turn people who might have been interested away.

    We can’t all be healthy. And no one is healthy all the time. That isn’t a moral failing and we should stop acting like it is.

    I am so grateful that the first vegans I met were people who did it for the earth and the animals and for the people who don’t have food. I can only listen to someone talk about super foods for 4 seconds before I start playing tetris in my head.

    To be clear, I think people can and should eat however makes them feel best. There are many (so many) foods that I do not eat because they exacerbate my health problems. But that’s my own business. That’s not veganism- that’s Em’s Super Special Emesis Reduction Plan.

    There’s no reason someone should be turned off of compassionate living, because I personally feel queasy when I eat chocolate.

    I’ve always appreciated your focus, Ginny, on veganism as a philosophy rather than a diet. Thank you for providing such solid and accessible nutrition information.

  31. unethical_vegan May 5, 2013 at 9:15 am #

    “a way of eating that has no cultural or historical underpinning.”

    the jain tradition is thousands of year old and many jains are essentially vegan. there are also a significant number of hindu communities (esp. in gujarat) that eat neither dairy or eggs.

  32. CS May 6, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

    Hi Ginny, Maybe you’ve addressed this before but about the oil thing: Can you do, or re-post if you’ve already done, a piece about oil? I’ve read The China Study and Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease and they seem really convincing in their discussions of oil being an unmitigated bad for people (mind, Campbell is more about minimizing and Esselstyn is about eating no oil whatsoever). If oil is okay, how is it okay? Is a certain amount good but any more after that bad? These are real questions. I find all the conflicting information out there really, really confusing!!!

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  1. Episode 73 – We Can Be Heroes | Team Earthling - June 9, 2013

    [...] Failing Health As A Vegan – Sayward Rebhal Do Some People Need to Eat Meat? – Ginny Messina Being Fearless Vegan – Ginny Messina You’re Not Hardcore Unless You Live Hardcore – Episode 57 of Red [...]

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