Monday, November 22, 2010
Do Ex-Vegans' Stories Make the Case Against Vegan Diets?
By Ginny Messina
When I read the recent blog post by Tasha, who used to be The Voracious Vegan, it felt like déjà vu all over again. Just a couple of months ago I was blogging about another woman—Lierre Keith—whose vegan diet made her so sick that she had to go back to eating meat and, in the process, she learned about how “nutritious” cholesterol is, became an advocate for a type of sustainability that depends upon animal foods (ie, learned that it’s more ethical to eat animals than to be vegan), and realized that in the final analysis, “life requires death.”
There is so much that is eerily parallel in these stories—not just the vague descriptions of the health-related experiences but also the evolving philosophy regarding food justice, and some very, very similar language.
I have to admit I’m always a little suspicious when an ex-vegan dives headlong into a love affair with meat. I understand that someone who believes they require meat may need to tweak their overall perspective to make it feel ethically okay to eat it. But, there is a big difference between choosing to include small amounts of meat in your diet for health reasons versus absolutely reveling in meat consumption as is reflected in Tasha’s recent twitter post: “Bacon, bacon, bacon…how did I ever live without you for so long?” Or this: “Lunch – bacon egg cheese and jalapeno quesadilla. I’m so happy to be eating food that I love.” Or the admission in her blog post that, when she took her first bite of meat after 3 ½ years, she was “moaning with pleasure and joy.”
That doesn’t mean I think she has made any of this up. I do think, though, that a desire to eat meat coupled with sickness due to nutrient deficiencies could make anyone more susceptible to a message about the alleged dangers of a vegan diet. And because those messages are out there, and they are very attractive, I think we’re going to continue seeing stories like this.
Tasha found herself getting sick after 3 years as a healthy vegan, but it’s not until some 4,500 words into her post that she shares that—at the same time and by sheer coincidence—she was also beginning to talk to or read about “revolutionary ecologists,” and was learning that eating meat is the real way to decrease one’s carbon footprint.
On October 4, she tweeted: “Time to reexamine my priorities. Discussions with feminist anthropologists, economists, and agronomists, have me discovering that agriculture, and especially annual grasses agriculture, is just as unethical, violent, and unsustainable as the animal agriculture I’ve been railing against for years. And this environmental devastation, violence, and havoc is nothing new; it’s been going on for 10,000 years.”
If you’ve read The Vegetarian Myth, this will all sound very familiar.
Also on twitter, she has words of praise for Derrick Jensen, who published The Vegetarian Myth (and says that the book saved his life). And then—more coincidence: She ends up under the care of a physician whom Tasha finds “surprisingly knowledgeable about vegan diets,” but, to me, sounds like she walked straight off the home page of the Weston A Price Foundation website. (The WAPF is the group devoted to diets high in animal fats, based on the “research” of a dentist in the 1930s. Their theories are not at all in sync with basic principles of nutrition science.)
Tasha’s doctor “explained how the health problems we are plagued with in the Western world are not caused by animal products, far from it.” And “According to her, avoiding healthy, organic animal products was not only unnecessary for good health, but in most cases positively detrimental to our well being.” Then her doctor talks about a long list of compounds, some of which have been erroneously touted by the WAPF and other anti-vegan groups as missing in plant foods and necessary for health.
Although Tasha had been taking B12 supplements, her doctor tells her that “supplements aren’t a substitute for whole foods.” Actually, as far as B12 is concerned and for those who have severe iron deficiency anemia, supplements are way better than whole foods. And because the body has to work harder to digest and absorb B12 from animal foods, the B12 in pills and fortified foods is actually much more easily absorbed. (There could be other reasons why Tasha wasn’t getting adequate B12 from her supplements; maybe she wasn’t chewing them or was taking doses that were too small or she had pernicious anemia. None would be a reason to start eating meat.)
And when Tasha couldn’t stomach prescription iron pills, her doctor recommended that she eat several eggs a day. Eggs for treating iron deficiency anemia? Yes, they’re a good source of iron, but the protein in eggs inhibits iron absorption, so this isn’t the first food that comes to mind for treating a severe deficiency. These are all issues that make me think that Tasha’s doctor was one more factor in convincing her that a vegan diet was unhealthy.
But it also seems clear that Tasha has bought into the myths behind The Vegetarian Myth. For example, kind of out of the blue—really, a total non-sequitur—she writes: “I know that the lipid hypothesis is completely fallacious.” The lipid hypothesis is the theory that saturated fat raises cholesterol and heart disease risk. Lierre writes about it extensively (rejecting it, of course) and it seems curious for it to be plunked down in Tasha’s post, where she also talks about “nutritious cholesterol and wholesome saturated fats.”
Nobody talks about “nutritious cholesterol” other than the WAPF gang and their protégées like Lierre. So while the post starts out making the case that some people just can’t get enough iron and vitamin B12 without animal foods, it steadily evolves into a full-blown embrace of the importance of animal products overall for both health and the environment.
And then there is the kind of instantaneous healing that occurs with the first bites of animal food. In The Vegetarian Myth, Lierre says “I could feel every cell in my body—literally every cell—pulsing. And finally, finally being fed.” Tasha says “I had only eaten a small piece of cow flesh, and yet I felt totally full, but light and refreshed all at once.” Eating meat also instantly improved her heart rate!
I don’t doubt for one second that Tasha experienced these feelings when she ate meat; I just know that it had nothing to do with what she had eaten and everything to do with her expectations about what the food would do for her. As I said in my review of The Vegetarian Myth, you have to actually digest and absorb the nutrients in food before you’ll feel any of its effects. And if you are consuming nutrients to reverse a deficiency, it will take weeks to feel the benefits.
The whole “listening to the wisdom of one’s body” philosophy is not scientific. Your body is notoriously bad at telling you exactly what you need. You can go for years on a diet that is deficient in calcium and your body won’t say a word about it until you hit your 50s and get osteoporosis. Likewise, you can have a marginal B12 intake and feel great, even though elevated homocysteine levels are busily wreaking long-term damage on your tissues.
Often, your body won’t start to complain until you are well on your way to a serious deficiency. Tasha was apparently deficient in both vitamin B12 and iron. Iron deficiency can be hard to treat especially since prescription doses are often difficult to stomach. But reversing a severe deficiency with food alone in the space of just a few weeks seems unlikely unless she was really eating a lot of red meat and liver. She seems to tweet mostly about eating bacon (not an especially great source of iron), eggs (they inhibit iron absorption) and dairy (it’s devoid of iron and also inhibits iron absorption). So none of that sounds like a blood-building diet to me. It’s true that the protein in meat boosts iron absorption but there are a lot of things that can be done to improve iron status on a vegan diet, and I wonder if Tasha’s pro-meat doctor explored them.
This is all conjecture, of course. I don’t know the extent of Tasha’s deficiencies or what she was eating. In her more than 7,000 word post, she’s rather vague about these details, as is Lierre Keith in her book. I do know that a lot of vegans think they are eating healthfully when they really aren’t. And I believe that a lot of vegans get sick and return to eating meat when all they needed was more sound information about vegan diets and less misinformation from the pseudo-scientific anti-vegan world (as well as the pseudo-scientific pro-vegan world.)
Do some people need to work a little bit harder to get adequate nutrition from a vegan diet? Sure. Young women with heavy periods may find it a challenge to keep up with iron needs. But are there healthy people whose needs absolutely cannot be met on a vegan diet? Maybe; I certainly can’t say that this is 100% impossible. What I can say is that Tasha’s post doesn’t make the case for this. It’s too vague, filled with too many questionable observations about nutrition, and is too clearly indebted to The Vegetarian Myth. I think there is a very good chance that she could return to a vegan diet and do well on it if she had appropriate nutrition advice.
But yes—some people do get sick from their vegan diet. And in some ways, the vegan community—or at least segments of it—are largely at fault for this. People like Lierre Keith do tremendous damage to the cause of animal rights because their stories appeal to others who are not thriving on a vegan diet. Some people are just bouncing around from one dietary philosophy to another, of course, and are especially susceptible to those stories. But others would stick with their vegan diet if they had the right information. That means that vegan activists need to do much more to make sure that good vegan information is available. And that is a segue to another post for later this week.
Ginny Messina, MPH, RD is a dietitian specializing in vegan nutrition. She works with organizations to promote healthy vegan diets and has been eating this way herself for two decades. This article is reprinted with permission from Messina’s blog, The Vegan R.D.Share