Ginny Messina offers some great nutrition advice in her books and on her website, TheVeganRD. Ironically, Messina, a Registered Dietitian, recently posted an article titled “How the Health Argument Fails Veganism.” In the article, she relays some shockingly cynical thoughts.
She rightly worries about the minority of people whose cholesterol does not drop and who do not lose weight when they adopt a plant-based diet. She thinks they might be dissuaded from veganism, saying “if people don’t get the intended benefit—reduced cholesterol or weight loss—they don’t have much reason to stick with a vegan diet.” But she forgets to acknowledge that these people are in the minority and that most people who go veg for health reasons do see health benefits, which is a rather important piece of information!
Messina claims that “People who are focused only on the health aspects of a vegan diet are more likely to be enticed by other dietary philosophies that make promises about improved health.” This may or may not be true. She doesn’t offer any evidence to support her claim. But more importantly, she forgot to mention that when people are no longer eating animals, they don’t have to justify animal-eating. Their conscience becomes clearer and they’re far more open to hearing and accepting the ethical reasons to be vegan. They often take it further than diet and stop wearing animals or participating in other forms of animal exploitation. It’s simple, health “vegans” don’t have to do the mental gymnastics required to align their behaviors with their beliefs against animal cruelty. They’re in the perfect situation to swing over into ethical veganism.
- “There is, of course, a pretty good [health] argument for eating more plants (lots more plants) and less animal food”
- “getting people to go vegan for any reason is a good thing. It reduces animal use and it helps shift paradigms about food choices“
Even though she is vegan and promotes veganism, she reiterates her point that “there isn’t any health argument for veganism” because “no one has shown that you must eat a 100 percent plant diet in order to be healthy.” On this point, we’re in agreement. Diets that contain large amounts of plant foods and very small amounts of animals can have similar health benefits as diets that contain only plant foods.
Likewise, I agree with Messina that vegan advocates ought to be truthful and should not “overstate the benefits of vegan diets.” And honesty is exactly what many vegan advocates do. For example, the book, The China Study, is NOT a vegan book even though the author is vegan and promotes veganism. He honestly concludes that diets that contain large amounts of plant foods and very small amounts of animals can have similar health benefits as diets that contain only plant foods. (Only people who haven’t read the book or who are careless readers would conclude that The China Study “touts veganism.”)
Although Messina makes some good points, there are plenty of practical considerations of “the health argument” that she overlooks:
Ease: It can be more convenient to eat “a 100 percent plant diet” than a 97% plant diet. In the same way that it’s easier to quit smoking than to merely cut back, it can be easier to go vegan than to just “eat healthier.” While animal products may not be as addictive as cigarettes, as someone who has quit both I can assure you that there are striking similarities in these health-improvement processes.
Identity: It’s easier to obtain vegetarian or vegan foods when you identify as a vegetarian or vegan person. Just ask all the people who identify as vegetarian even though they eat fishes. They’ll tell you something along the lines of,”People get confused when I say I eat a plant-based diet that contains small amounts of oysters. Saying I’m vegetarian makes it easier for me to eat how I eat.”
Habits: The animals don’t care why someone chooses a plant-based diet instead of eating animals. Our behaviors and habits matter most, not our thoughts. Ultimately, it matters not why we’re vegan, just that we are.
Risks: The majority of the animal-based food supply is riddled with systemic problems that pose human-health risks. The risks range from salmonella and e coli to massive environmental destruction.
Facts: The simple truth is that for the vast majority of people, eating a plant-based diet is just as healthy or healthier than whatever other diet they’re eating. Encouraging people to change their behaviors can sometimes be more successfully achieved when given the impetus of personal health rather than the prevention of animal suffering and death.
Thus, it’s clear that “the health argument” can help. The caveat here is that behavior changes are tricky to create and predict. (Read Change of Heart for more details on that topic.) Some people will be motivated by heath while others will be motivated by more altruistic reasons. The challenge for vegan advocates is: finding and using the most motivating truthful argument for veganism for each circumstance and each individual.
Learn more about vegan nutrition at these resources: