It’s easy enough to get drawn into the hype, hyperbole, and conspiracy-driven drama that’s often used to advocate for vegan diets. It’s sometimes meant to convince people that vegan diets have one-of-a-kind health benefits. Or it might be used 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 whole foods vegan 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, 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 a 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.
Veganism is a principle built around issues of justice, compassion, and integrity. It’s hard to imagine that it is well-supported by anything less than total honesty. We need to advocate for animals and for good science. I’m convinced that this is how we will best help animals (and the people who care about them) in the long run.