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.”
“ 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.