Science Matters – for Vegans and Everyone Else

Science Matters – for Vegans and Everyone Else

By | 2017-07-07T12:11:59+00:00 April 4th, 2017|46 Comments

science-150x150.jpg It’s sometimes exasperating to advocate for science-based vegan nutrition in a world where many vegans prefer to rally around hype, hyperbole, and conspiracy-driven drama. But, when I whined about this on Facebook last week, the reaction was downright heartening. What I heard from my community is that I’m not alone in this concern. And that I actually have many allies in this work that we do to advocate for animals from an evidence-based perspective.

It made me feel better. But it doesn’t change the fact that there continues to be a lot of misinformation circulating in the vegan community. Much of it comes from hardworking, compassionate activists who want to create a rosy view of vegan diets. That is, it’s meant to convince people that they should eat a vegan diet because it has one-of-a-kind health benefits. It’s also meant to create a sense of comfort around veganism by assuring newcomers that it’s not possible to be nutrient deficient if you are eating all whole plant foods.

The truth is way less dramatic. There is no body of evidence to suggest that you have to be vegan in order to be healthy. The evidence does not suggest that every disease in the world is reversible with a low-fat, whole foods plant-based diet. And, yes, it is possible to fall short of nutrients on a vegan diet if you aren’t paying attention to food choices.

Understandably, though, a lot of people are annoyed when I point this out. And I’ll admit it: It’s not all that much fun to be a vegan party pooper. Whenever I see that I have a new follower on twitter whose profile rhapsodizes about the “power of plants!” I feel a twinge of angst. I know I’m going to be a disappointment to them.

But I don’t have a choice. While I do want to pull out all the stops when it comes to advocating for animals, I’m not convinced that exaggerations and half-truths are the stuff of good advocacy. I’m not convinced that the long-term impacts of these efforts will be positive ones for animals. Here is what I think can happen when we build activism around unsupported claims:

It undermines our credibility. If we get caught making easily-refuted assertions, it’s a good bet that anything else we declare will be viewed with suspicion and skepticism. Animal activists are already often perceived as more emotional than rational, and I doubt that over-the-top claims about diet and health or dismissals of established science do much to counter that image.

It creates resistance to real solutions for animals (and the planet). New products in the works sometimes depend on plant-derived versions of ingredients that are associated with animal foods, like heme and casein. Vegans who insist, without evidence, that it’s dangerous to consume these in any amount are hindering support for these ethical alternatives to animal use.

It’s harmful to some vegans. Believing that food is a cure-all for every disease known to humankind or that bad health is nothing more than the result of bad choices, can encourage vegans to ignore real health issues. It can convince them to decline helpful medical treatments. In the discussion on my Facebook page, for example, one person suggested that a vegan diet can reverse stage IV cancer. (Seriously.) Believing that eating whole plants guarantees adequate nutrition can (and often does if my email is any indication) cause health problems for vegans, many of whom are on their way to the world of ex-veganism.

It’s hurtful to some vegans. Not everyone who eats a healthy vegan diet enjoys robust health. We do not have all of the answers about how to eat in order to achieve perfect health. We don’t know that every single ailment has a dietary cause and a dietary cure. Not only is it naïve to believe that we do have this information, it’s also incredibly insensitive and alienating to many of our fellow activists.

These last two issues about the health of vegans have been on my mind even more than usual since I’ve just finished writing a book that addresses these and a number of related concerns. Please stay tuned for more on my new book, to be announced in the next couple of days, and also for more on this topic.  And thank you to everyone in this community who advocates for animals and good science.

 

46 Comments

  1. Steven April 4, 2017 at 6:12 am - Reply

    Thank you, Dr. Messina! You’re right that not all vegans are happy to acknowledge this stuff, but it does us no good as advocates to build our case on shaky scientific ground.

    • Ginny Messina April 4, 2017 at 12:09 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Steven!

  2. Richard April 4, 2017 at 8:55 am - Reply

    Thank you for the work that you do, Ginny. It is lonely enough to be a vegan, still lonelier to be an advocate for veganism, and loneliest of all to be a science-based vegan advocate. But like you say, there are scientifically-minded vegans out there who appreciate the mostly thankless work that you are doing. I am one of them. So, thank you!

    • Ginny Messina April 4, 2017 at 12:10 pm - Reply

      Thank you, too, Richard! It’s always good to find out there are more of us than I realized.

  3. Linda Hazzard April 4, 2017 at 9:17 am - Reply

    I find nutrition to be so confusing and full of bold claims from all sides of the coin. Meat and Dairy industry pushing their products. Sugar industry covering up the dangers of sugar. Drug companies pushing their products. PETA exaggerating claims of animal abuse. People hiding real animal abuse. Cultures who survive and thrive on eating animals, such as Inuit and other Indigenous groups. The impact of agriculture on the environment. I thought Vegans could be believed because they weren’t pushing a product, just plant foods, which they don’t sell, but many are pushing cookbooks and programs. So who does one believe? And, no, my toddler will not happily eat chick peas and is not tricked by mac n cheese made with nutritional yeast.

    • Ginny Messina April 4, 2017 at 12:35 pm - Reply

      Linda, I do have a blog post in the works on this issue. The fact is that almost everyone who is talking about nutrition has some kind of agenda. Vegans are indeed pushing a “product,” which is animal rights! It’s why we have to be so careful that everything we say can be supported by evidence. Stay tuned, because I’m going to share some guidelines for analyzing resources. I don’t know what to do about the toddler and the nutritional yeast, though!

  4. Steve April 4, 2017 at 9:40 am - Reply

    I’ve been mostly plant-based for several years now. I’m not at 100%, (mostly because of cheese!), but, I get closer every year. I definitely feel that it has made me healthier, and I have lost fat. I get a lot of my inspiration from what I consider main stream sources, such as Dr. Greger (Nutritionfacts.org), Drs. McDougall, and Fuhrman, among others. Certainly from these sources (which I think are fairly evidence-based) I get the impression that the closer one can be to plant-based, the better is one’s health outcomes. Vitamin B12 seems to be the main exception… Am I missing something by relying so much on these sources? Any thoughts would be appreciated… Thanks!

    • MVEE April 4, 2017 at 10:38 am - Reply

      I too would like to hear your opinion on some of the science behind Dr. Campbell, Dr. Esselstyn and Dr. Barnard’s claims. There seems to be some credible research pointing to the decrease in cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes following a whole food, plant based diet. Thoughts?

      • Ginny Messina April 4, 2017 at 12:32 pm - Reply

        There is definitely evidence for reducing heart disease with a plant-based diet, although no evidence that you have to eat only plants in order to do that and no evidence that you need to eat low-fat (as these doctors all suggest). There is evidence for good control of diabetes with high-carb diets as in Dr. Barnard’s studies and also with low-carb diets. Most likely the weight loss with either of those approaches is the most important factor.

        I don’t believe that Dr. Campbell has done research that looks directly at these issues, and Dr. Esselstyn’s research didn’t have a control group and I’m pretty sure it didn’t provide data on weight loss, so it’s hard to interpret.

        If we look beyond the handful of vegan doctors, though, at the (very big!) world of nutrition research, there is good evidence that eating lots of fiber-rich plant foods is good for reducing risk for chronic disease. We just can’t say that we know exactly what that diet looks like or whether it has to be a vegan diet.

        • MVEE April 4, 2017 at 3:18 pm - Reply

          Thank you! 🙂

        • Andrea April 5, 2017 at 4:55 am - Reply

          ” and no evidence that you need to eat low-fat (as these doctors all suggest).” I am very curious about that comment, as all I am ever seeing is “no oil” or at least to “reduce oil”. Where would I be able to find out more about whether oil is ok or not?

          Have you read “Proteinaholic by Dr. Garth Davis”? If so, what do you think about it?

          Thank you for the article btw. It is definitely something I will keep in mind.

    • Ginny Messina April 4, 2017 at 12:13 pm - Reply

      Steve, I think we know that eating a lot of whole plant foods is good, but there isn’t much evidence about the ideal ratio of plant to animal food. I’m guessing somewhere in the range of 80 to 90% plant food for health reasons. But, of course, 100% plant foods for ethical reasons!

      And this is my list of recommended resources on nutrition: http://www.theveganrd.com/resources

      • Steve April 4, 2017 at 12:15 pm - Reply

        Thanks!

    • Michael Parish April 14, 2017 at 9:39 pm - Reply

      There is one absolute truth. Food doesn’t “cure” anything. It’s the body that does.

  5. Shirley Tucker April 4, 2017 at 9:41 am - Reply

    Yes, it’s true not every disease can be helped with a vegan diet. I have Crohn’s Disease and have for over 40 years and I know diet does make a difference in how I feel.
    I tried a vegan diet for a few weeks and the results were disastrous. I really can’t do legumes and whole grains, despite what so-called nutritionists say. And my body will not gradually get used to eating them as i was also told. So I have adapted a diet that works for me eating dairy and fish.
    It’s true, every person is different and a vegan diet is not a cure-all. It’s more of a do what’s right for the planet, but do what’s right for yourself first.

    • Ginny Messina April 4, 2017 at 12:16 pm - Reply

      Shirley, have you ever worked with a registered dietitian who is an expert in vegan nutrition? There are ways to plan healthy vegan diets that don’t include dried beans (I assume those are the legumes you have problems with) and without grains. I understand that your condition presents limitations. Just want to make sure you’ve been offered all the resources you need for exploring veganism if that’s important to you.

      • Laurie April 14, 2017 at 1:13 pm - Reply

        I’d be curious to read your thoughts – and possible sources to read – on eating a vegan diet without beans and grains. Thanks.

  6. David Sutherland April 4, 2017 at 9:53 am - Reply

    Thank you Ginny for taking a stance in defense of science! Our vegan community deserves to be supported so we can build a strong movement for real social change. Junk science may be running rampant in our society but we can do and expect better within our own.

    I agree with your list of pitfalls. I’ve seen the negative effects as you described. Vegans derided as an irrational fringe element. The hard work of smart activists unraveled. Vegans leaving the movement in droves for failed health promises. Vegans being undermined and discriminated against for their body’s condition or ability.

    We can all play a part in making our space safer. Sometimes it’s as simple as speaking up but sometimes that’s the hardest thing to do.

    The work you do and the example you set helps a lot to inspire positive change. I’m so grateful for champions like you who hold fast to the truth and stay the course for justice. You are crucial a element of our movement even if sometimes you may feel like the “vegan party pooper”. Seeing vegans rally around you has been heartening to me as well. There’s hope! <3

    • Ginny Messina April 4, 2017 at 12:18 pm - Reply

      Yes, there is hope! You’re absolutely right about how hard it can be to speak up (you’re better at it than I am :)) but also right about how it makes our space safer. Thanks for all your support over the years!

  7. Jack Norris April 4, 2017 at 10:36 am - Reply

    Ginny—You are an inspiration to evidence-based vegan nutrition advocates! Thank you for this post and I look forward to your new book!

    • Ginny Messina April 4, 2017 at 12:18 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Jack! (You know I’m inspired by you, too, I hope!)

  8. laurie lyons April 4, 2017 at 11:23 am - Reply

    Vegan community is not the same thing as the Movement for Animal Rights. Many are who are not vegan are saying they are because they are on a plant based diet and care about animal “WELFARE” while they promote the idea that animals can still be used if treated with higher welfare standards.

    Let us always be clear- any diet needs to be well planned to be healthful. As with any human activity, our lives do cause harm to others- we know, when we build roads and cars, that lives will be lost- but we also know it is not right to run others down with our cars if we can avoid it! We are careful and RATIONAL.

    We do not NEED to consume nutrients from animals.

    Veganism is the baseline one must commit to, to help abolish speciesism and end the oppression and exploitation of all sentient beings. To be rational- we go vegan, to act on our concern for animals.

    • Ginny Messina April 4, 2017 at 12:24 pm - Reply

      Laurie, thanks for your comment. This is a vegan website based on the original meaning of the word as defined by Donald Watson. However, my focus here is on the dietary choices of vegans — because I’m a dietitian. My work is aimed at ensuring that vegans have good information for meeting nutrient needs and also good information to ensure that we advocate for vegan diets from an evidence-based perspective. So, basically this is a blog about nutrition for animal activists — although it’s read by many people who still consume animal foods and many who are plant-based for health, all of whom are welcome here.

  9. Allen April 4, 2017 at 2:34 pm - Reply

    I appreciate this article. Thank you.

    I think professionals should eventually clarify what constitutes a minimum threshold on nutrition knowledge which activists should aim for. I don’t mean some kind of list of all the facts to know, but what level of detail and understanding is appropriate for the non-RD.

    Relaying nuanced, accurate information is important but activists often get peppered with left-field questions about philosophy, ecology, nutrition, etc, and it’s unrealistic to expect that everyone get a PhD in each of these very expansive fields of research.

    It seems like your standard is fairly low, compared with those of others who basically expect every activist to be fully caught up on the intricacies of the latest studies. According to them, less than that is to risk perpetuating bullshit and pseudoscience.

    One question: Someone was skeptical that vegetarian/vegan diets are nutritionally adequate. I quoted from a 2009 ADA position paper, and referred to the ADA as our most credible nutrition organization. That characterization was met with total derision. Despite the criticisms of ADA/AND are they not the most mainstream, credible, consensus position to quote from? Is there a better paragraph-length position from another organization to use next time?

    • Tom April 5, 2017 at 2:53 am - Reply

      Allen I think that the people who deride AND for issuing a position paper that says well-planned “vegetarian” (including completely vegetarian) diets are healthy, will find a reason to deride anybody that reviews the science and comes to the same conclusion. Especially since AND’s sole national sponsor is the US dairy industry. We would expect AND to be against diets that are totally vegetarian if bias and industry influence is supposed to be the reason for this concern.

      However, you could refer them to the latest US dietary guidelines which identify “The Healthy Vegetarian” eating pattern including a completely vegetarian eating pattern (which they call “vegan”) as healthy and nutritionally adequate.
      https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-5/

    • Tom April 5, 2017 at 8:08 pm - Reply

      Oops. Just one further point …… AND issued an updated position paper on this matter some 5 months ago. It also summarises the evidence supporting the statement/
      http://www.andjrnl.org/article/S2212-2672(16)31192-3/fulltext

    • David April 27, 2017 at 5:09 pm - Reply

      Hi Allen,

      I understand how many people might see the AND as not the most credible nutrition organization. As a dietitian and a member of the AND, I think their position papers are well thought out and evidence based. The problem with the AND though is that they try to cater to all dietitians regardless of how science-based they may be. For instance, the AND has a Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine (DIFM) Dietetic Practice Group in addition to many local organizations having a heavily altmed and non-science-based bent to them. This, in part, is where some of the issues of credibility come into play.

      Regardless of why someone may have issue with the AND, the evidence they present is what matters not the supposed problems someone has with the organization. Simply put, character attacks (i.e. ad hominem logical fallacy) is the last resort of those that cannot support their position with evidence.

  10. Matt April 4, 2017 at 2:54 pm - Reply

    Thanks Ginny. One of the key points I believe everyone must consider is that 80% of people who go veg then go back to eating animals. The other key point is that the average American now eats more animals than ever before.

    So maybe we shouldn’t care so much about “vegan,” and care more about what can actually help animals in the real world. It is clear we’re failing at that.

  11. Kelly April 4, 2017 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    No references or studies of evidence listed here at all? Just because you are a doctor doesn’t mean that I should just take your word for it.
    I’ve done my own research which says otherwise. I’ve read and studied food Standards and guidelines in Australia, NZ and US. I’ve read countless studies and have my own experience and those of others who are vegan.
    It’s been proven that processed meats such as bacon, ham, salami etc are carcinogens.
    Laided out pretty clear in the most up to date food Standards and guidelines for Dairy in Australia the acceptable BMCC is 200,000 for cows and 1 million for other animals. There is nothing healthy about consuming puss and body cells from cows.

  12. TheVeganScientist April 4, 2017 at 6:25 pm - Reply

    Thanks for writing this and continuing to be the voice of reason. I think the make believe of a lot of vegan claims is symptomatic of a larger phenomena of presenting make believe, and click baiting for ad revenue, likes, and hits; tell people something that moves them emotionally and they will view your page.

    A huge problem on the internet now is that a lot of these “Celebrity” Bloggers & You tubers (especially physicians) just shout “Science” to prime viewers to believe their made up theories.

    They figured out, putting random footnotes and citations at the end of their blog makes them more “sciency” and believable (since no one actually reads the references)

    They reference papers that say absolutely nothing about what the blogger claims, or say the opposite of what the blogger claims, or makes claims the authors outright say they can’t make. Very, very, very few single papers are so dramatic they can come to a definitive conclusion on anything. It’s mostly all just hand waving arguments.

    Professional credentials don’t matter any more. (cf: the death of expertise)

    Mercola and a lot of the “celebrity” bloggers all wave around the word science like it’s a flaming dildo of truth to the point where science itself is being politicized and manipulated.

    The introduction of “impact factor” which is essentially a “like” button is starting to skew how research is conducted and what gets funded.

    I’m not really sure how to combat this. In other arenas, satire seems to be the best way to expose the make believe for what it is, since open debate just adds credibility as an “alt.theory” while satire just calls out the make believe. Maybe we need a youtube channel like SNL.

    That would be kind of funny.

    • Trish July 8, 2017 at 12:09 am - Reply

      TheVeganScientist–I like your analysis of the problem. The SNL idea sounds promising; I wonder if it would work. Oh, and “flaming dildo of truth”? That’s the best phrase I’ve seen all week. Maybe we could make it into some kind of award (for most convincing psuedoscience, maybe? Or should it be for good science that refutes it?)

  13. Lee Hall April 5, 2017 at 12:43 am - Reply

    Provocative post, Ginny! Although to my eyes it looks like common sense. Just shared it with the Compassion for Animals • Respect for the Environment (CARE) Facebook page.

  14. reed mangels April 5, 2017 at 4:47 am - Reply

    Thank you, Ginny! I just spoke to the Plant-based Nutrition Club at UMass about myths and facts about vegan/vegetarian nutrition and was happy to have a positive reaction from student activists – they want to have evidence-based information. I was happy to be able to refer them to your books and this blog.

  15. VStunt April 5, 2017 at 6:21 am - Reply

    As a fairly young (early 30s), healthy-to-date 13+ year vegan who has recently been diagnosed with gestational diabetes (GD) that is not responding well to the first few tiers of treatment options, this article could not have come at a better time! The resources available in the healthcare system for support with this diagnosis have no idea what to do with me; I frequently get the condescending statement to use this diagnosis as an opportunity to make changes to my lifestyle for my health. This is from people who assume people with GD are all couch potatoes who do nothing but snarf ice cream at every meal. While I would never assert that I am perfect, we eat a pretty well balanced, whole-foods based diet, sweets are infrequent, and we exercise regularly. On the flip side, a lot of the resources I’ve been able to find that show support for veganism come with an underlying agenda (promoting a vegan diet) and do not provide evidence for the assertions they make! I have been feeling very depressed and lonely in this journey. Doing my best to just get through it, but once again- thank you for this timely and well written piece! I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future

  16. Niels April 5, 2017 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    I appreciate this post tremendously and I love how it takes the hyper stimulating, do this or die attitude out of some of the conversations I see elsewhere—vegans have no monopoly on this of course; Chris Kresser anybody?

    Here’s my question though. Am I reading you right, and are you critiquing the community that sprung up around vegsource and includes Dr. McDougal, Dr. Campbell and others?

    I am not criticizing you. I just want to be clear and wonder if you could be specific about your points of departure. I ask, because I get a lot of my information from them, think them to base their ideas in science and yet, and yet…

    In particular, my partner struggles with digestive issues, sees mostly people who prescribe a paleo diet (which I abhor). And I find little to argue with them. I don’t see enough specific evidence out there that applies to her situation. And so when I read your statement “The evidence does not suggest that every disease in the world is reversible with a low-fat, whole foods plant-based diet” I wonder if that applies to her.

    Anyway, thank you. I love your work, read your book Vegan For Life all the time and use to plan food for my 9 year old.

  17. Alex Ivanov April 6, 2017 at 12:34 am - Reply

    Thank you very much for this article, Ginny! Only after reading it I realized that it’s normal to have some health problems – even if you are on a plant based diet.
    And you can not even imagine how much myths, misinformation and inadequate theories there are in russian-speaking vegan community! So I try to share information from your, Jack Norris and Michael Greger as much as I can there.
    By the way, does NutritionFacts is not in your recommended list because a plant based diet presented there as a cure for all diseases?

  18. Michael Parish April 6, 2017 at 9:34 am - Reply

    Ginny,

    Haven’t you heard a whole food plant based diet will even heal a broken heart?

  19. Ernest April 6, 2017 at 11:22 am - Reply

    Vegan people and people that eat plant based share common ground.
    That is, what you eat matters. It matters for the animals, it matters for people’s health, it matters for the environment.

    And while the line for health is not clearly drawn, we do know a lot.
    We do know that some foods are helpful and some harmful.
    We do know about nutrients.
    The line is not clear, but there is a line. We just haven’t found it yet.

    Clearly, you don’t like “drawing lines about health”, but veganism does the same thing about animal foods.

    I wouldn’t water down the message that what you eat doesn’t matter so much for health.
    It waters down the message that what you eat doesn’t matter so much for animals.

    Whatever you eat, even a small piece of animal or harmful food, matters.

  20. Laurie April 14, 2017 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    Thanks again for keeping the focus on science. Looking forward to your new book.
    You mention working with a vegan dietician. Finding one is a challenge and likely a reason why people search the Web (and why reliable sources are so important.)

  21. […] a recent blog post, “Vegan RD” Ginny Messina noted: “If we get caught making easily-refuted assertions, it’s […]

  22. Chris April 23, 2017 at 8:02 pm - Reply

    Thanks for all of these great evidence based resources! Very helpful as a new vegan myself, and an important part of creating a credible animals right movement!

    As a healthcare provider I often am amazed to see my peers advocating various diets for non-evidence based reasons– and I think far too often my evidence based peer assume I am vegan primarily for “amazing one-of-a-kind” health benefits, of which they are right to not believe in. Evidence based vegan diets put the focus back on the primary benefit for me: reducing suffering and protecting the environment.

    Keep up the great work!

  23. lani May 3, 2017 at 11:54 am - Reply

    Ginny,
    I have been following an SOS free plant based diet for a few years without problem but I am really wondering about the need for fats in the diet. I do not do avocado,nuts or tofu due to the high fat content. do you think that one gets enough fat from the plant based diet without adding these items?

  24. Lynn June 22, 2017 at 3:17 am - Reply

    Thank you for always be clear, concise and honest. I am embarking on a journey, after completing MSVA, of education and coaching. I certainly do not want to mislead or “over-arching.” As you stated, credibility will be crucial if we are to succeed.

  25. […] it was a lonely fight. She was inspired to follow up with a new article reaffirming once again that Science Matters – for Vegans and Everyone Else. Her latest book, Even Vegans Die, co-authored with Carol J. Adams and Patti Breitman is an amazing […]

  26. Dori Sharon Woodhouse June 26, 2017 at 4:29 pm - Reply

    Question: I understand that a vegan diet is not a solution for obesity, but what about vegans or wanna-be vegans (me) who want or need to lose weight? Some people say a vegan diet will even get in the way of weight loss! It’s hard to know what to do.

    I am well into the “obese” range and I have related health problems, so this is a serious matter for me, and not just a vanity issue. For a while, I postponed removing animal products from my diet, even though I wanted to for ethical reasons, because I was convinced the extra carbs would make me gain weight, or at least prevent me from losing weight. Now, I’m ready to try a vegan diet again (I am mostly there), but I still have this nagging worry about it exacerbating my weight problems.

    Do you have any suggestions on how one can lose or at least maintain weight on a vegan diet (as opposed to going on a vegan diet in a perhaps misguided attempt to lose weight)?

  27. mwr July 12, 2017 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    Well done! I just saw the film What the Health. It would have been an excellent film if it avoided the drama and the confrontational attitude towards the food industry. As someone who worked in clinical epidemiology for years, I was appalled by the cherry picking of the source literature.
    I am a vegetarian but I have questions about some of the vegan products. Many of them look quite processed.

    The long and short of it is there needs to be constructive engagement about veganism. Individuals need to read critically, be informed consumers, and make wise decisions that work for their own lifestyle. Last but not least, choose not to be manipulated by marketing tactics and propaganda. Good advice for other parts of our life, right?

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