These days, it seems like everywhere you turn, another celebrity is talking up the health benefits of going vegan. Venus Williams, Carrie Underwood, President Clinton, even fur-wearing Beyonce, are among the many high-profile people who are publicly praising the curative powers of a plant-based diet.
Adding to the hype is American’s favorite physician, Dr. Oz. In addition to helping unhealthy cowboys go vegan on his show, Oz is highly supportive of the work of two well-known physicians who advocate a vegan diet: Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and Dr. Fuhrman. In fact, Dr. Oz wrote the forward to Eat To Live, Fuhrman’s classic health bible. And after viewing Esselstyn’s popular documentary, Forks Over Knives, Dr. Oz made the following statement:
“We have the science to suggest that if you can make three changes -– give up all meat, all dairy, and refined foods including free oils — you can avoid dying from cancer and heart disease. It’s being brought to life in a new documentary called Forks Over Knives. I saw it, I loved it, and I need all of you to see it too. This could be the Hail Mary of medicine.”
“Health vegans,” it seems, are on the rise.
Now until recently, I admit I might have rolled my eyes at such stories. After all, veganism is an altruistic philosophy based on nonviolence, justice and compassion, not a weight-loss miracle or fountain of youth cure-all.
Of course caring about animals and caring about one’s health are not mutually exclusive, and one can often lead to the other. Many people who initially go vegan for health reasons eventually “upgrade their motivation” (as Will Tuttle describes) and become animal advocates. Others, however, do not. And some may return to eating animal products as soon as they believe their health (or desires) might be better served by doing so, as this article (also by Dr. Tuttle) points out.
Nutritionist Ginny Messina raises some additional concerns in her outstanding article, How The Health Argument Fails Veganism. She writes:
There is, of course, a pretty good argument for eating more plants (lots more plants) and less animal food, but no one has shown that you must eat a 100 percent plant diet in order to be healthy. So to make an argument for a 100% vegan diet based on health benefits alone, we have no choice but to stretch the truth. We have to overstate the benefits of vegan diets, and sometimes minimize or dismiss the risks. And as soon as we stray from the actual facts, our advocacy is on shaky ground.
Like Messina, I don’t believe animal foods are, in themselves, dangerous to human health; nor do I believe that a vegan diet is a cure-all. One can be a healthy omnivore (eating mainly plant-based foods) or an unhealthy vegan (eating mainly vegan pizza and french fries. Not that I know of anyone who would do such a thing. Ahem).
An interesting aside: while simply going vegan doesn’t guarantee weight loss or radical good health, the American Dietetic Association states that a well-planned vegan diet “may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” You don’t see them making that same claim for meat-and-dairy-based diets.
In any event, for reasons mentioned above, I have tended to shy away from using the “health argument.” But lately, I find myself reconsidering.
Over the years, I’ve observed that one of the key objections people have to adopting a vegan diet is the fear that doing so will result in poor health. They wonder: “Where will I get my protein? Calcium? Iron?” and so forth. We have been conditioned since childhood to believe that good health can only be achieved by consuming plenty of dairy, eggs, fish, poultry and meat. “Milk does a body good,” right? And notice there are no ads for kale, quinoa or strawberries on TV. It seems we’ve been duped, as Gary Yourofsky so colorfully explains.
Thanks to such incessant indoctrination, few people are even aware that protein, calcium, and all other nutritional needs, can be met with a properly planned vegan diet. That’s why I don’t think we need to convince people that a vegan diet is the healthiest option so much as we need to convince people that a vegan diet is healthy, period.
Tackling this objection and re-educating (or rather, de-programming) the general population is something that “health vegans” do quite well. And until this objection is overcome and the myths about the “dangers” of a vegan diet are put to rest, animal advocates face an even steeper uphill battle. A person may care tremendously for animals and want nothing more than to abstain from causing them harm. But if that person mistakenly believes they must consume animal products in order to be healthy, well, the animals don’t stand a chance.
Every time a celebrity, fitness trainer, politician, physician or other public figure promotes the health benefits of a vegan diet, I believe another brick is knocked out of that particular wall. Additionally, every world-class vegan athlete and bodybuilder (particularly those, like Kenneth Williams, who encourages concern for animals as well as human health) serves as a powerful visual antidote to the damaging stereotype of the pasty, vegan weakling.
I understand some people are concerned that dietary vegans will dilute the true meaning of the word. Some suggest they should refer to themselves as “strict vegetarians” or something similar instead. But I recognize that like it or not, “vegan” has become shorthand in our society for someone who doesn’t eat eggs, dairy, or flesh (regardless of motivation). Also, as I explained in a previous post, I’m inclined to think that at this stage of the game, we should want as many people as possible to self-identify as vegan, even if they aren’t vegan for ethical reasons, and – gasp! – even if they aren’t yet eating a completely vegan diet. (Kindly read that previous post before sending me hate mail.)
Some have pointed out that public figures who adopt a vegan diet for their health may actually do more harm than good since they are often on some highly-restrictive form of a vegan diet (raw food, macro-biotic, or no sugar/oil, etc.) which proves to be unsustainable, and results in a return to eating animal products. This sends a message that being “vegan” is somehow unrealistic or overly-difficult. I suppose that’s true. But I optimistically believe that despite such setbacks, the cumulative effect of people publicly choosing to eat vegan for health reasons will ultimately prove beneficial in the long run.
I guess what I’m saying is, so long as the information they are sharing is truly health-promoting and scientifically sound, well…long live the health vegans! Though not based in the ethics of veganism, I believe their work will result in one less barrier for our work. One less excuse we need to overcome.