How The Health Argument Helps Veganism

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.
  • Messina acknowledges:

    • “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:

    5 Responses to How The Health Argument Helps Veganism

    1. I think it’s interesting that you take Messina to task for not citing a claim, and then you say things like “It can be more convenient to eat ‘a 100 percent plant diet’ than a 97% plant diet,” with no evidence to back it up other than an anecdotal similarity to quitting smoking. This claim strikes me as specious, magical thinking. It might be true if you’re preparing all your own meals, but if you eat out or eat any kind of processed or prepared food, it’s far easier and more convenient NOT policing whether a little butter or egg or whatnot might have snuck its way into your meal.

      Similarly, with your second claim, there is a lot of ignorance about what “vegan” and “vegetarian” even means. I tell people I’m vegan all the time, but I still have to explain that means no egg, no dairy, even no fish. Sure, it’d be more convenient and easier for us vegans if pescitarians would stop calling themselves vegetarians and sort-of vegans would stop calling themselves vegans, but I don’t see how there’s any huge convenience added for people to go from 97% vegetable food to 100%.

      I think Messina’s logic is sound. The point is, there is no sound reason for being vegan other than compassion for animal suffering. Every other argument can be easily debated. Compassion cannot be debated, only not shared.

    2. My main concern with Messina’s argument is the following:

      And as soon as we stray from the actual facts, our advocacy is on shaky ground.

      I see this argument over and over, and I think it’s just plain wrongheaded. Advocacy is marketing, and all marketers are liars. “Stretching the truth” as she puts it in fact does NOT put advocacy on shaky ground. It’s, on the contrary, absolutely necessary to get any message across to anyone.

      I’m not saying we should go around telling bald-faced lies to people. Of course not. But if you are beholden to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, you are often required to water down your message so far that it becomes ineffective.

      Eat a plant-based diet. It’s better for your health. Except that the nutritional studies in this area leave a lot of uncharted territory, and it’s probably not a big deal to eat some animal products as long as you eat mostly plants, and there are other ways to improve your health that aren’t vegan, and the evidence out there is too scant to prefer one over the other.

      All true, and also completely uncompelling. The person who hears this is just going to keep on eating cheeseburgers.

      Lost in all that “truth”, however, is the simple fact that MOST AMERICANS WOULD SEE HEALTH BENEFITS IF THEY SWITCHED TO A VEGAN DIET. Full stop. That’s not a lie. It’s true. It’s also compelling to some people. Omitting the exceptions and caveats to that statement is not lying, and it’s also good advocacy.

    3. Colinski, When I wrote 97% I was thinking more along the lines of people who eat fish once per week or drink a glass of milk everyday, not people who don’t care if there might be eggs in their veggie burger bun. Someone who eats 2000 calories a day on a 97% vegan diet will consume 420 calories per week of animal products. I doubt “trace ingredients” would add up to even 50 calories per week.

      Messina claimed that one group of people are “more likely” to do something than another group of people. I simply said that something “can be” and gave an example from my life of how that thing can exist. The burden of proof for my claim is much lower.

      Not that it matters!

      Like Plump said, “the simple fact [is] that MOST AMERICANS WOULD SEE HEALTH BENEFITS IF THEY SWITCHED TO A VEGAN DIET. Full stop. That’s not a lie. It’s true. It’s also compelling to some people.”

    4. Excellent article, Eccentric Vegan. The opposition to the health argument seems disingenuous to me. I think that if vegans had never used it, and focussed exclusively on the animals, the number of vegans today would be a mere fraction of what it is.
      Both arguments are important and both can support each other. I often talk about the health argument, and there’s nothing “dishonest” about that, for the reason that Plump identified – and also because I genuinely want to live in a world in which people are healthier as well as not torturing and killing animals for food.
      Another concern is that using only the animal argument rather than both arguments in combination will leave the door open for the proliferation of stereotypical aggressive, misanthropic “humans-are-evil”, burnt-out, sickly-looking animal-rights activists who re-inforce negative stereotypes about veganism. I have met a few of such people and it is most alarming.

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