How the ethical argument fails veganism

Jeff Nelson, | 08/08/12

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Read More: ethical, health, matt ball, messina, vegan, vegan outreach

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Okay, please excuse the incendiary title of this article.  Someone recently sent me links to a couple of articles from vegan websites with titles like "How the Health Argument Fails Veganism."

These articles come from animal activists like Ginny Messina and Matt Ball at Vegan Outreach, and go something like this:  It's hard enough to go vegan because you have to restrict foods you eat, if you follow a program like Dr. McDougall or the Engine 2 Diet, you have to give up even more foods, the programs don't really work like they claim, and it's just too much to expect anyone to do.  And so it will lead to people not sticking with it!  So the health argument is bad. That's an argument that Messina makes.

Under an article entitled “Why Jack's Book Matters,” Matt Ball argues that it is “unrealistic” to think many people will give up animal foods just to benefit their long-term health, and that when asked why they quit being vegan, the main reason people give most is because of health.  Thus, reasons Ball, the “health argument” is defective, makes people quit being vegan, and “has created much, much more [animal] suffering.”

To try to prove his point, Ball cites a review published in Psychology Today which tried to look at the reasons why people give up being vegetarian and go back to meat-eating.  I read the article Ball cites – and found, surprisingly, it seems to prove the opposite of his point. 

Survey: Why some ethical vegans go back to meat-eating

The Psychology Today article is by Hal Herzog, PhD., a psychology professor from Western Carolina University.  Herzog wanted to examine why some people go vegetarian but end up going back to meat-eating.  So with the help of a friend, he set up a website to recruit people who had stopped being vegetarians.  He ended up getting 77 people who described themselves as former vegetarians, and had them take a survey.

Of the reasons participants gave for going back to meat-eating, Herzog reports the following from his survey:

  • 35%   stopped because felt they were becoming less healthy
  • 25%   stopped because of the hassles or social stigmas of being vegetarian
  • 20%   stopped because they felt “irresistible urges” for animal products
  • 15%   stopped because they felt it took a toll on their “social life”

If the largest percentage group – 35% – stopped being vegetarian due to “declining health,” then they clearly were not eating a healthy vegan diet.  

Too often people switch from the Standard American Diet to a vegan diet with a lot of junk foods in it.  They substitute unhealthy alternative products for the unhealthy meat and dairy products, and end up concluding that the vegan diet isn't all that healthy.  But of course in reality, they were simply eating the same SAD diet using unhealthy vegan foods instead.

Herzog notes that the majority of the respondents in his survey were women, and the average age was 28.  They were moved to become vegetarian by reasons around animal suffering.  Perhaps they read a book, heard a talk or saw a video, or were handed a leaflet showing animal cruelty.  They understandably were repulsed and decided they should go vegan so as to not be part of the barbaric and cruel farming system.

Herzog cites a 2005 CBS News survey that found 3 out of 4 people who go vegetarian end up going back to meat-eating.  That means a very high failure rate in terms of converting people to the idea of veganism, if that is your objective – as it is for Vegan Outreach and Messina.

Herzog reports in the article that, “In fact, most of the former vegetarians were still concerned with animal protection and the ethical issues associated with eating animals.”

Thus, we might conclude, if the surveys Herzog writes about are correct, that 3 out of 4 people who go veg for ethical reasons – will go back to meat-eating.  They will still believe in the ethical reasons that motivated them to become vegetarian, but that reason was not enough to stop them from going back and killing animals again.

Health vegans seek out info to stay healthy – and thus plant-based

Interestingly, on VegSource and with the many medical doctors and programs we have seen and helped promote since 1996, the average age of people going tends to be in their 30s to 50s, and are people concerned about being overweight or having health problems they want to deal with.  So this is an older crowd than the ones involved in Herzog's survey. 

These health vegans we see usually adopted a plant-based diet to get well, and so they realized they needed to educate themselves about what a healthy vegan diet is.  They sought out community and information about how to eat so that their health would improve, so that they could learn to make healthy meals quickly and easily, how to eat when they travel or go out, how to make sure they're satisfied with the food.  They may attend a program or watch videos, read books, and hang out at websites with information and experts in order to make the diet and lifestyle work for them, and achieve their objectives.

This is probably why the many thousands of people over the years going veg for health we've personally seen or heard from – do not generally fail, but thrive.  It also could explain why so many of the 20-something ethical vegans in Herzog's survey failed; they probably got little or no good health information from the source that encouraged them to go vegan.

I have seen it again and again when someone has been vegan for a long time and wasn't eating healthfully, if they one day decide to learn how to get exceptional health from a plant-based diet, they become supercharged as vegans, rather than failing and feeling bad about it.

The SAD diet is 35% fat and too high in saturated fat, added sugars and salt. Well the vegan recipes from AR dietitians are generally also 35% fat (just substituting junky soy replacements for meat) and still too high in saturated fat, added sugars and salt.  There isn't going to be much in the way of health improvement on a vegan diet like that, compared to the SAD diet.

Bill Clinton adopted Dr. Esselstyn's recommended whole food plant-based diet proven to reverse heart disease.  Clinton seems to be quite happy since the diet has reversed his disease.  He's sticking with it. He says he eats a little fish now and then, which I don't have a problem with.

Like Clinton, the wonderful Alicia Silverstone, who went vegan for ethical reasons, eats a little non-vegan food having gone back to occasionally eating cheese, which is also fine by me.  And I don't care in any way if she or anyone else is eating cheese, anymore than I care if Clinton may eat a little fish sometimes.

Now looking at this sample recipe from Alicia's book The Kind Diet for Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups, it starts with ½ cup Earth Balance butter substitute, sugar and lots and lots of sounds wonderful, but it's around 61% fat and 14% sugar.  There's a place for desserts like this at times, but you are not getting a good picture of a healthy vegan diet, if the books you focus your diet on contains recipes like this.  (But hey, I want to try that – and I endorse Alicia's efforts!!)

AR dietitians aren't credible sources of health info

AR dietitian Ginny Messina has written, "The science of nutrition holds just as many questions as answers and we have no idea what the 'ideal' diet is."  She says elsewhere that "the health benefits of veganism are overstated."

Contrast her opinion with someone who has actual clinical experience, who actually treats patients, publishes peer-reviewed studies, and has a long track record for creating great health using a plant-based diet -- someone like Drs. Fuhrman, Esselstyn or McDougall, who have shown again and again how to reverse serious diseases and create health using a plant-based diet.

To understand why Messina may not be convinced a plant-based diet is healthy (other than she may not read the studies), you need only look at the recipes she is promoting on her Pinterest:

  • Crispy Fried Tofu
  • Whipped coconut milk cream
  • Tomato Soup Chocolate Cake
  • Baked Almond Feta Cheese with Dill Oil

If you click through and see the recipes themselves, it's fairly horrifying. 

These are oil-laden, salt-stuffed, sugar-infused, highly processed – and absolutely delicious, fantastic-looking, yummy – wait, stop!  I could gain 5 pounds just drooling at her page.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is not health food, this is party food, this is put-you-in-an-early-grave food.  Very occasionally I'm going to eat something like these because they taste good.  But this is ethical vegan food, because as Messina believes, it's “too hard to follow a program” like McDougall, Fuhrman, Esselstyn, Novick, Engine 2, Ornish or Pritikin (i.e., the programs whose results and research are touted by many when enumerating the health benefits of the plant-based diet).

Let me say – I don't have a problem with anyone eating this way!

But if someone is eating this particular vegan diet and saying “the health benefits of the vegan diet are overstated,” this is someone who is only speaking about THEIR vegan diet.

They're basically saying you can save animals AND continue to eat vegan versions of all the junk food you've always loved!  That may suit an agenda to get you to help save animals, but it is not someone helping you achieve optimal health, and it's not someone I would rely on for health information.

The Pleasure Trap

Part of the problem with the SAD diet is what Doug Lisle PhD calls “the pleasure trap” – high fat, high sugar and high salt foods create drive to eat more bad foods, and it's a trap you need to recognize and escape if your goal is to be healthy.  Even mainstream leaders like former FDA Commissioner David Kessler talk about fat, salt and sugar altering brain chemistry and making people eat more and more junk food, see this article on   Kessler takes it a step further and exposes how food companies use this knowledge to intentionally manipulate foods to keep sales high (which, Kessler notes, destroys the public's health).

Yet the few AR dietitians who are out there aren't really health-aware, which is why they end up selling a veganized version of the SAD diet.  3 out of 4 new ethical vegans fail to remain veg – maybe because they don't feel that great eating a lot of pale, animal product substitutes, and other oily, sugary, salty foods.

Perhaps it is harder to target the younger crowd with health arguments if you're trying to convert people to veganism.  This is, I think, the main audience that outfits like Vegan Outreach and Ginny Messina are looking to appeal to.  Perhaps being so young, people in this group feel invincible and therefore not interested in the health argument.

On the other hand, I see many healthy vegan groups and even raw groups with lots and lots of young people participating, learning how to be healthy, wanting to be strong and avoid the obesity and diseases that come with the SAD diet, whether veganized or not.

Health is the future

The health argument for vegetarianism has been exploding in recent years, getting a lot of mainstream attention.  More and more people are discovering they can insure good health all their lives through healthy whole food plant-based nutrition.  Forward-thinking companies like Whole Foods Market have been educating their sickest employees about healthy whole food plant-based eating, see this video  and the result is Whole Foods is saving millions of dollars a year on employee health costs – at a time when most other companies are spending more and more on employee health care.

The bottom line from what we've learned on VegSource is this:  just getting people to "go vegetarian" is not enough to help them become healthy, and it's clearly not enough for the animals – when only 1 out of 4 people doing it just for ethical reasons ends up sticking with it, according to Herzog's Psychology Today article that Ball of Vegan Outreach cites.

Adopting a healthy vegan diet, is the key to making a lifelong change; it helps the animals, the environment – and you!



SPECIAL NOTE: At VegSource we support all of the many good reasons for going vegan, or shifting toward a plant-based diet. This article is intended as a little long-overdue response to the potshots taken by certain vegans against the work of people like Esselstyn, McDougall, Fuhrman, Engine 2 and so forth. I am pleased by and support all who work to save animals. What I object to is how people in some quarters feel they need to knock the health vegans who are succeeding. It seems the more successful the health vegans are, the more resentment they get from certain vocal, so-called ethical vegans. That is unfortunate, and it is the reason I felt this article was needed.



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