This morning, as I was on the train to work, friend and reader Grace emailed me to ask whether or not I’d heard Angelina Jolie’s recent statements about her failed experience as a vegan. I hadn’t; by the end of my train ride, though, I’d caught up.
Edited to add: I found out about five minutes ago from a friend who works at a news publication that this statement from Jolie hasn’t actually been confirmed. So let’s assume I’m most interested in Mercola’s response, and the issues underlying this topic–whether Jolie actually uttered these exact words isn’t as important.
Ms. Jolie was quoted as saying that veganism “nearly killed her” by failing to give her adequate nutrition. Soon after, Joseph Mercola—a notorious health alarmist and product peddler who is quick to expound upon anti-vegetarian sentiments—launched into one of his customarily roving monologues in response. You can find his thoughts on the topic here.
Mercola’s sentiments are not without validity, of course. It’s other posts of his, always hysterical in tone, that have earned my disdain (I also make it a rule never to trust anyone who has a pop up window on his or her site trying to sell me something useless). I agree with him wholeheartedly that human beings have different constitutions and nutritional needs; this is why I never get into prescriptive dialogs about calories, vitamins, protein, or the like on this blog. I’d also agree that there may be a portion of the human species that has above average needs for animal protein. I’ve spoken to MDs who support vegan diets for most people, but note that there are some people who have an unusually hard time assimilating complete proteins from plant based sources. (Naturally, this doesn’t take into account other reasons why veganism may be a challenge: lifestyle, culture, tastes, psychology, etc.)
But it’s also important to note that, from a scientific standpoint, a careful, informed, and balanced vegan diet can provide for all essential human nutrients, with the exception of B-12 and D3 (which are easily had via supplementation). The lived experience of veganism may take some getting used to, some trial and error, but the diet itself is a perfectly healthy option for most people. Some (myself included) might say that it is a superior option for many people!
I also have to chuckle at the glee and zeal with which Mercola (and some others who have tried veganism and given it up) love to speak out against the lifestyle—as if, since it didn’t work out for them, they must tear it down for others. Vegan diets may not work for all people, but it’s usually hard to know why. Take Angelina: who knows what her actual diet consisted of? She’s rumored to be a restrictive eater (certainly past photos indicate as much), so is it possible that she simply wasn’t eating enough, or with enough variety? The sufficiency and adequacy of any way of eating is contingent, at least in part, on the responsibility and motives of the eater in question, and we don’t know what Angelina’s state of mind or daily habits were.
The vast majority of women I’ve worked with who had a bad experience with veganism in the past simply were not eating enough variety and caloric density to supply their bodies’ needs; they also frequently paired veganism with other drastic and overnight dietary changes (giving up certain food allergens, or going 100% raw). The overall effect was a devastatingly restrictive pattern of eating. I have absolute respect for anyone who has followed a well balanced vegan diet and found it wanting, but I know from experience that many people who try veganism and fail to thrive simply haven’t bothered to modify the lifestyle to suit their own needs. Any new way of eating involves guesswork, patience, and trial and error: you figure out what’s working and what isn’t, and you modify it until you feel great.
This is actually why I so admire my buddy Brendan: many of you may be surprised to hear that Brendan’s first run with veganism was a big flop! He was tired, sluggish, and hungry all the time. Rather than decide right away that veganism itself was to blame, Brendan studied nutrition carefully and identified precisely what was lacking in his diet. In his case the culprits were, among a few other things, iron and Omega-3 fatty acids. As soon as he took care to find vegan sources of these nutrients, he found his own best health, and the rest is history.
The point? Holding up one vegan who failed to thrive as proof that veganism is nutritionally inadequate is just as silly as pointing to an obese person with heart disease or diabetes and saying that he or she is proof that all omnivorous diets are excessive. There are healthy omnivorous diets, and healthy vegan diets. One can be either restrictive or overly indulgent with all sorts of foods. Perhaps omnivorous diets have a greater built in risk of excess and Western disease than plant based diets, and perhaps plant based diets carry a greater risk of nutritional inadequacy. But both ways of living can provide most people with all that they need (and not too much).
And that’s quite enough food and debate for this Monday! I’ll be back tomorrow with a fun cooking tutorial.