When I order a vegan meal on a plane, it invariably comes with fat-free salad dressing. This annoys me more than I can say. It’s not just because I think fat-free salad dressing is basically inedible (which it is IMHO), but because somehow, vegan diets have become synonymous with low-fat eating. That’s not good for vegans or for the animals we want to help.
Given the fact that vegan eating is well outside the mainstream and very different from the way most Americans eat, it’s not surprising that many people view it as difficult and restrictive. (Most people view any dietary change as difficult and restrictive.) Making vegan diets as accessible as possible is an important part of activism.
I’ve written before on this topic but wanted to expand the discussion on unnecessary restrictions in vegan diets. By unnecessary, I mean that none of these restrictions have any particular health advantage and they are likely to have some disadvantages.
A gluten-free diet is an absolute necessity for those who have celiac disease, a permanent intolerance to gluten. It used to be a very difficult diet to follow but the rise in the number of excellent gluten-free foods is changing that, which is definitely a good thing. However, this autoimmune disease affects only one percent of the population so most vegans have no reason to eliminate gluten from their diets. In fact, a recent study in the British Journal of Nutrition suggested that gluten-free diets are associated with reductions in levels of beneficial intestinal bacteria and increased levels of harmful bacteria, which can affect resistance to disease. For those who don’t have celiac disease, it may be beneficial to include some gluten in the diet.
The use of very low fat diets is also questionable. Those who eat diets low in saturated fat , but include moderate amounts of monounsaturated fat have better cholesterol profiles than people who strictly limit all fats in their diet. Some research also suggests that including some fatty foods in meals is better for maintaining weight loss over the long term. And because fat makes food taste better, using it in vegan meals makes them more attractive to nonvegans.
Likewise, gentle cooking of foods has advantages. Some of the beneficial compounds in foods like lycopene (an antioxidant in tomatoes that protects against prostate cancer) are available only when foods are cooked. The vitamin A precursor beta-carotene is more readily available from cooked foods and is also better absorbed in the presence of some fat. It does tend to be more difficult to meet calorie needs from an all raw foods diet, which makes it a poor choice for children but a good one for those who want to lose weight. Other than that, there is not much evidence for any health advantage of eating all raw foods.
The issue of soyfoods—a staple in some Asian countries for at least 1,000 years—is a complex one and I’ve written about it elsewhere (like here, here, and here) It’s unfortunate that so many animal advocates have turned against soy when it is a food that makes it easier to be vegan. At the risk of sounding brag-y, my husband is kind of one of the world’s leading experts on soy and health, so I have access to a knowledgeable perspective on this topic. I eat two servings of soyfoods every day—sometimes a little more—mostly in the form of tofu and meat analogs. And based on the scientific literature, I feel comfortable doing so.
A vegan diet is a great choice for healthful eating and it is an essential choice for an ethical lifestyle. We need to make this way of eating as accessible as possible. Choosing to make a vegan diet restrictive in ways that have no health advantage and no advantage to animals doesn’t make sense.
I must cosign all of this! I'm wondering if we come across this because vegans and other sundry alternative diet people run in the same circles. Raw food especially seems to be getting a lot of play lately, but it just sounds like snake oil when its presented as this sort of panacea.
I'm with you on all this as a vegan who's really nothing else but maybe a slow food person. And as for soy, I must say that it mixes pretty well with tea in preventing disease like cancer.
Ridiculously good article, Ginny! This is going to help a lot of people.
Oh thank you so much for this post! You've put my feelings to very elegant words! I might want to add caffeine, sugar, and alcohol to this list. Alcohol might not be the healthiest thing in the world, but that has nothing to do with its vegan-ness! And small amounts of caffeine and sugar make life worth living, along with gluten, fat, and soy.
Great post Ginny. It amazes me what 'vegan' has ended up meaning to the general public. I recently said I would have a black coffee and they responded saying I was being a bit naughty for a vegan! Sigh.
People just don't know what it is all about.
I think vegans/vegan restaurants are (and should be) more understanding/aware of any special diet. I'm gluten intolerant and vegan and it's incredibly annoying to go places and see lots of vegan food I can't (or don't know if I can) eat. Vegans should be aware of the need for ingredient lists, and they should always make sure to provide all sorts of different dietary options.
Thank you for making these points! People are so easily confused. I was in a restaurant that marked their vegan options as such, and heard someone at the next table ask their dining partner what "vegan" means about the dish it's written next to.
"Oh it means there's no sugar or salt in it."
I'll definitely be passing your article around. 🙂 Thanks for making it a little easier for people to understand what being vegan *isn't*. 🙂
Thanks for this interesting essay. I just want to mention, that there are other conditions (like fibromyalgia) that benefit from a gluten-free diet. Otherwise, I think all the points you have made are spot on and excellent.
Great Article. I have been wondering about raw vegan diets for a while now. Everything I read makes it sound like raw vegan diets stop the aging process and cure several different diseases. There does seem to be a push in the veg community towards raw cooking, just like the push to vegan from vegetarian. I was recently at "the taste of health" conferance in Vancouver and many of the vendors went on about the dangers of soy and the virtues of raw and unprocessed. It can be very confusing.
This is very interesting, thank you. I am a gluten-intolerant vegan, so no gluten or wheat for me! I love soy though…..
VEGirl (Vegan, Environmentalist, Gluten-free)
Thank you so much for posting this! I'm a longtime vegan who happens to love deep-fried tofu, coconut-milk ice cream, and all sorts of other goodies. It's sad when people dismiss veganism because they think it sounds bland or unsatisfying.
I think the problem is that vegans are stereotyped as this radical, cultlike group. We all agree with each other on everything and we all collaborate. Come on, has anyone here never been told, "OMG! I had no idea you were one of those PETA people!!!"
The main argument that has caught on is the health argument. Ethical veganism still means you're crazy. Therefore everyone assumes that if you're vegan, and you're not crazy (or even if you are), you must also be a health freak. I have to say that I did start paying more attention to what I put in my body after going vegan, but I'm not dumb enough to think everyone else had the exact same experience.
Low-fat diets are better, but most of our diets already are low fat. There are certain dietary fats that keep your body operating properly; however, in their defense, none of these people are asking us to exclude all fat from our diets. They're just being considerate of what they believe are our choices.
I have a question:
are there any reasons for parents to avoid soy in the diet of their children, especially that of boys when no allergy to soy has been diagnosed? As a vegan activist I am often confronted with this question but I am no dietitian to answer that with certainty or in detail.
I love this post and I really love your blog. You give a great educated and sensible perspective on the health benefits of a vegan diet. I think I need to link your blog to mine — veganheartdoc.blogspot.com.
Keep up the great work!
I disagree … when I eat a vegan salad, I'd love to have a low-fat dressing (when I make salad myself, I only put vinegar, or even better, a dressing made from blending some citrus fruit with celery).
But that is my own health decision. If you want to know more about that, check out the 'China Study' (http://www.thechinastudy.com) that showed that by eating a whole-food, low-fat, plant-based diet it is possible to reduce the risk of 'diseases of affluence' like heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes.
All I can personally say on the issue is that after a short time I clearly notice differences in my personal energy (and my body weight) compared to when I was eating dairy products( for 20 years) and only vegan food, but high on fat (like fake meat products) that I had for 1 year.
PS: And no, our 'normal' diets are nowhere near 'low-fat'. If you are a raw-fooder and like your nuts and grains, chances are that you get up to 60% of your energy from fat. Do the math.
i have celiac disease and want to follow an animal friendly diet, but i struggle with it. it's not that it's impossible, it's just challenging. prepared gluten free breads usually contain eggs, and if not, they still usually have lots of gross starches like tapioca.
Mandy – I’ve seen some evidence that people with gluten intolerance can eat wheat just fine if it has been processed in traditional, old ways such as a sourdough instead of yeast bread. i guess I don’t understand the aversion to tapioca, I’ve loved it since I was a kid 🙂
Both Dr McDougall and Dr Esselstyn’s research would contradict this on fats at least. If you are overweight (and we know many people are), fats are best limited to what naturally occurs in low-fat plants.
And Dr Esselstyn thoroughly documented what refined oils do to your body in his Heart Disease book.
This post isn’t specific enough to prove your claim of “no health benefit”, and falls into the category of “people love to hear good news about their bad habits”.
Fat doesn’t make food taste better – it has no taste and masks flavours. It’s another myth worth debunking that lowfat means bland. Ever had an Indian restaurant make a dairy-free curry for you? Smokin’!
Their “research” would not contradict this, because both McDougall and Esselstyn do not compare one vegan diet to another. They compare “fat, sick & nearly Dead” ™ Omnivores who have a history of health problems with a vegan diet they chose to be low fat. They make several mistakes such as extrapolating outcomes from people in advanced disease states to healthy people (the largest population of centarians are not vegan btw, so the extrapolation fails out of the box) and the assumption of treating all fats as bad as saturated fat which is untrue.
We have tomes of data that shows plant fats have different physiological effects and we have data from all 3 levels of scientific inquiry, the molecular biological level, the intervention level, and the epidemiological level. When people replace saturated fat with Healthy plant fats, their bio-markers for disease risk drop.
There are two sources of saturated fat. There are animals humans eat who make saturated fat and the second source is the human body, because saturated fats are the primary storage fat for mammals (including humans). Cows who are loaded with saturated fat eat hardly any saturated fat. They are on a low fat plant based diet and they are filled with saturated fat.
Likewise, humans do the same thing. After glycogen stores are filled, your body converts excess carbs to saturated fat (and to some extent, monosaturated (~3%). But if you eat plant fats, you store them as is. Since only ~30% of the lipids in your blood at any given time are used for energy and the other 70% are just being moved around. Eating a low fat diet actually increases the amount of stored and circulating saturated fat.
For vegans, that’s not much a of problem, because there’s other factor like fiber (as a fat and bile sequestrant), but the idea that eating a low fat vegan diet is better than a moderate fat vegan diet is just made up. There no significant data on this. If you have research on disease rates between vegans who eat 10% fat diet vs 30% fat diet, I’d love to see it.
Esselstyn got cornered in an interview once and when pressed to explain why he thought fats were bad, he admitted it has solely to do with weight gain, not an intrinsic property of plant fats themselves. Some of the other celebrity speakers can’t find any evidence, so make some hand-waving argument about postprandial “flow mediated dilation” which is transient phenomena and equate it to a chronic condition. It’s the equivalent to saying that if you blood sugar goes up after a meal, then it’s as bad as having diabetes. Completely unfounded claims with no research to back it up. That’s probably why they write books, rather than publish peer reviewed research papers.
[…] buy into health claims that are none or cut out foods for heath reasons when in fact these foods aren’t bad for them. And I hate it that most of these people are women. So my question is: What the hell happened here? […]
[…] as in “you must not eat anything with gluten,” may push would-be-vegans off the path. Nutritoinist Ginny Messina discusses the importance of vegans encouraging diverse food choices in th… and loved ones, and I agree with […]
Right on! Spot on!
I can’t praise this article enough!
I’m so fed up with all the pseudo-science, fear and restrictions of many vegans!
Not only makes it seem living vegan as an impossibly difficult task, but all the other arguments that these persons come up with seem way less reliable. Who listens to a nutcase?!
I personally wouldn’t trust any info that comes from a person that mentions to love Mercola and dr. Young and who’s afraid that cooking food will kill all the good stuff.
We got science on our side!
Sure, if someone only wants to eat ‘alkaline’, 80/10/10, only red foods, foods that start with the letter ‘s’, or only juices; by all means, go ahead!
But please make sure you mention that it has nothing to do with veganism! Thanks:)
I KNOW! I am not vegan, although I often eat that way. but many airlines, even if you say “vegetarian” will give you raw, fat free and dairy-free. I’m sorry, but I want milk in my coffee and would really like to have that croissant instead of a cellophane pack of rye crackers with my unseasoned boiled green beans. Why can’t I have one of those yogurts?
And the vegans I know are not into the “uncooked” thing. They are in fact fabulous cooks who make the most wonderful pasta dishes and roasted avocado relishes and …… I don’t think the “health nut pseudoscience” crowd defines veganism at all.
[…] in which a perfectly healthy food is demonized for no good reason. Unless you have a soy allergy, there’s no good reason to avoid soy foods. The idea that eating soy foods will give men feminine traits is hooey. If you don’t have […]