Image courtesy of Marie Claire

A week or so ago, my friend and reader Rachel sent me a link to this article in Marie Claire, asking me if I had any thoughts. The article was actually posted over the summer, though I just saw it now. Anyone who has researched a vegan diet carefully, or been a balanced, healthy vegan for any substantial period of time, will probably find the article impossibly biased (I sure did). But the fact is that, even if well-informed vegans know better than to get worked up over this kind of stuff, articles in mainstream magazines do capture the public imagination. They can influence our family and friends, who may in turn worry about our vegan lifestyles. They can be fodder for people who are reflexively or ignorantly anti-vegan to get more firmly entrenched in their bias. For all of these reasons, it doesn’t hurt to say a couple of words about them, albeit belatedly.

The most misleading thing about this particular article, I think, is the provocative title. “The Vegan Myth: Could the so-called healthiest diet in the world actually make you sick—and fat?” Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be a women’s magazine article if there were not at least one alarmist reference to “fat”,” but let’s focus on the “sick” part. At first, I was expecting this article to be a polemic presenting veganism as a lie, a la Lierre Keith or Weston Price. It’s not, actually. The article states outright:

There’s no question that a balanced, well-planned vegan diet can be healthy. “Studies show that vegans have lower BMIs and a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer,” notes Vandana Sheth, a Los Angeles–based dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who frequently works with vegan clients.

It goes on to say:

That said, whole-food sources of soy, like edamame and tofu, along with legumes and grains like quinoa, can provide plenty of the protein you need.

So what’s the issue? Well, according to the author, and Columbia’s Michael D. Gershon, whom she quotes, veganism can present more opportunities for nutritional deficiencies. The author also suggests that, because of food desserts and the lack of fresh produce in America, vegans are often forced to turn to ersatz meats and vegan junk food. Of course, this claim ignores the fact that, if you want to eat any kind of diet that focuses on fruits and vegetables—be it vegan or omnivore—food deserts and a lack of affordable produce present a clear challenge. Food deserts are serious social problem that deserve more media attention, but vegans are certainly not suffering disproportionately from them. (And it does not seem that any of the women profiled in the article were living in food deserts, either.)

The article’s real argumentative force comes from a few anecdotal profiles of women who had bad vegan experiences. Of the four referenced, three were:

  • A competitive athlete who was already gluten-, bean-, and soy-free (due to allergies), and felt weak and sick as a vegan
  • A woman who went vegan to lose weight, but eventually gained ten pounds, citing her “very carb-heavy diet.”
  • A twenty-six-year-old woman who “ate mostly raw foods and also started to bike everywhere. A diet consisting mainly of fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds, combined with the sudden rigorous exercise, helped her drop 25 pounds,” but it also ultimately left her low in energy and with adrenal fatigue.

This article may as well be called “super limited/extreme vegan diets can lead to health problems.” Veganism is not the extreme diet; the particular nuances described here are. Is that really a vegan issue? Anyextreme sort of diet can lead to failing health or deficiencies. Between eating disorder bouts, I lived off of vegetables and teeny tiny portions of “lean protein”—yogurt, chicken, some fish. I ended up anemic, very tired, and and underweight. It does not follow that omnivorism is an extreme diet. My particular approach to it was.

Of the types of vegan eating described here—carb-heavy, all raw + heavy exercise, and bean/soy/gluten free—it’s easiest to address the first two. Any dietician, especially one with knowledge about veganism, could help to balance a diet overly heavy in carbohydrates. And likewise for a diet that is perhaps too exclusively focused on raw foods, given the person’s caloric expenditure. In the latter case, the simple edition of cooked root vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and tempeh or tofu can transform a limited raw paradigm into a balanced vegan approach, without diminishing any focus on the beauty of fresh fruits and veggies.

Numerous food intolerances, on the other hand, can prove challenging within a vegan paradigm. It’s more than possible and practical to cope with gluten intolerance, soy intolerance, or both as a vegan, but combining them with a legume allergy certainly does limit a number of concentrated energy sources. That said, a dietician might have insight into ways of making those limitations work, too—perhaps with a carefully planned combination of gluten free grains, nuts, and plant protein powders.

The article cites the need for planning as a knock against veganism. And I do think it’s true that, because most of us didn’t grow up with examples of balanced vegan meals three times a day, there is a learning curve of planning involved with the choice to be vegan. One also has to be conscious of proper supplementation (B-12 is mandatory, Vitamin D (nearly all vegan D supplements are D2, but there is a new one, Vitashine, that is approved by the Vegan Society), Calcium, and DHA may be wise, depending on the individual), of getting adequate caloric density, and—yes, groan—of protein. I’m not protein-obsessed by any means, but it has seemed to me in my years of writing about nutrition and working with clients that many people do feel better when they pay attention to how much protein they’re getting. This doesn’t mean tons of protein supplements or stress; it just means keeping an eye on having a decent protein source at every meal, if possible.

This level of planning is hardly insurmountable, and at least half of it is the same amount of planning that anyone ought to devote to his or her diet. It’s possible for omnivores to develop B-12 deficiencies or skimp on protein, too, and Vitamin D deficiency is practically ubiquitous at this point. Vegans aren’t the only people who need to invest their food choices with consciousness; in this day and age especially, we all do.

The approaches to veganism cited here—high carb, bean- soy- and gluten-free, and super high raw—can no doubt work for some vegans. But they’re not representative of what works for most vegans, or what’s recommended by vegan health professionals. The article cites one dietician who says, “Vegan clients have walked into my office with scaly skin because they reduced their fat intake too much.” This, too, represents an extreme approach, and it doesn’t fairly depict what veganism can and should be. Ginny Messina and Jack Norris have written extensively on how very restrictive approaches to veganism can undermine one’s health and damage vegan activism. To get their perspective (which is far more knowledgeable than mine) and learn about their guidelines for healthy vegan living, I highly recommend Vegan For Life.

Had Marie Claire simply titled the article “Extreme Approaches to Veganism Are Extreme,” or “When Veganism Substitutes for Extremist Food Tendencies,” I’d have been totally receptive. Let’s face it: some people always do and always will look to veganism as a means of expressing overly restrictive or monotonous approaches to food. When I host Green Recovery posts, it’s with a full awareness both that veganism can transform and restore a broken relationship with food, and an acknowledgment that it can also compound restrictive thinking. I’m interested in teasing out and openly, frankly discussing this tension.

But that doesn’t change the fact that most people who become vegan are not doing so to mask an eating disorder; they’re doing it because they want to help animals, and often because they want to get healthy, too. And so long as they don’t approach veganism with extremist tendencies, it will deliver on those promises. Consciously planned, veganism can confer incredible health benefits. And it is and always will be a powerful expression of compassion for animals, as well as an objection to their abuse and commodification. On both of these fronts, there is nothing myth-like about veganism at all.

Your thoughts?