It’s one of the most frequent questions I get from blog readers: How do we respond to people who insist that they require meat in their diets?
I know very well that some vegans struggle with their health, because I hear frequently from those who are looking for help. Most who contact me are animal advocates who are experiencing nutrient deficiencies (diagnosed through blood work) or they simply don’t feel well.
These are not people who are eating junk-food vegan diets. Anyone who gets sick from eating a diet based on potato chips and cookies will usually have a fairly good idea of why they got sick, and they also know how to take some steps to fix that. Instead, those who write to me are usually eating what they believe to be a healthy diet, based on whole plant foods. They are also very motivated to stay vegan.
Writer Sayward Rebhal describes that motivation in a recent blog post about her experience with failing health. She was determined to make a vegan diet work, to reclaim her health without abandoning her commitment to an ethic that she describes as the “cornerstone of my life.”
Not everyone expends as much effort. The latest blogger to bail on her vegan diet is Alex Jamieson of Super Size Me fame. I remember seeing that movie quite a few years ago and rolling my eyes at Alex’s observations about nutrition. I had pretty much the same reaction when I read her story about why she returned to eating meat. She claimed that her cravings for meat were a sign that she needed to be eating it. Jack has some comments on that in his post on the topic.
With the exception of those who have extensive intolerances to numerous plant foods—leaving them with few plant food choices—I believe a vegan diet is a safe option for everyone. But, I can’t know that for an absolute fact because it’s something that is impossible to prove.
Instead, the burden of proof lies with those who say that a vegan diet failed to support their health. And so far, I’ve not yet heard a story from any ex-vegan that sounded convincing. I was not convinced by Lierre, or Tasha or Alex. Again, it’s not to say that I know that they could have recovered their health on a vegan diet. I don’t know what they were eating and I didn’t see their blood work. It’s just that their stories are all so flaky and misinformed and filled with holes, that they invite skepticism. So, until someone actually presents some evidence to the contrary, I continue to believe that vegan diets are safe for everyone.
But yes, some vegans struggle more than others to stay healthy. Nutrient needs vary among individuals so some people may need to work a little bit harder to obtain everything they need. And some vegans are not getting enough of what they need because they are eating diets that are too restrictive and/or they are not taking appropriate supplements. My initial recommendations for someone who is craving meat or dairy are these:
- Add umami to your diet.
- Eat more concentrated sources of protein—soy, seitan and beans.
- Add some healthy fats to your meals—nuts, avocado, and foods cooked in small amounts of vegetable oils.
- Check your diet against the Plant Plate which summarizes information in Vegan for Life and Vegan for Her.
Most of the claims against veganism can be countered with a few science-based observations, but it’s not so easy to change the minds of those who firmly believe that meat is a dietary essential. Probably the best we can do is to make sure our own diets are health-supporting and that we share good evidence-based nutrition information with other vegans.