Why Jack's Book Matters
Updated June 2013
If you doubt any of the below, please read:
Facing Failing Health As A Vegan
From vegetarian to confirmed carnivore, and
I'm not vegan anymore.
Or just Google "former vegetarian" or "former Vegan" -- there are, sadly, tens of thousands of results.
I have many regrets. One of the biggest is that the early days as a vegan were concerned mostly with saying how great veganism was and winning an argument with a meat eater, rather than actually helping animals. I am grateful to everyone who helped me get out of the vegan bubble.
So I obviously understand wanting to believe the best about veganism, as well as the siren song of appealing to self-interest to promote veganism. However, the idea that the majority of people will give up their familiar, favorite foods in order to benefit their long-term health has long shown itself to be...unrealistic, at best. A simple survey of American's eating habits proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt. (Discussed in greater historical and nutritional detail here, and in an advocacy context here.)
Of course, the health argument isn't just an unrealistic attempt to trick the masses into going veg. As pointed out in the links above, it takes hundreds of intensively confined broiler chickens to provide the same number of meals as one steer. So even though the health argument has convinced some people to stop eating all animals, the others who moved from beef and pork to chicken and fishes can easily counter these new vegetarians.
This, sadly, has led to many, many more animals being slaughtered.
Thus, appealing to people's self interest via the health argument has created much, much more suffering.
Still, many advocates have this seemingly unshakable, unfalsifiable belief that veganism is so miraculous in its health benefits, there simply must be a way to convince the majority to go vegan. But the fantasy that veganism -- and veganism alone -- is the perfect diet isn't simply false, it is the exact opposite of many people's real-world experience. (Again, see the three links at the top, and this, especially the meta-survey that shows actual vegans to have higher mortality than fish eaters, and the same mortality rate as meat-eaters. More recent studies of meat and mortality: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)
When VO cofounder Jack Norris started leafleting around the country in 1995 and '96, he was surprised and frustrated by the number of former vegetarians and vegans who told him they had gone back to eating meat because they hadn't felt healthy as a vegetarian or vegan. This, of course, is completely counter to the standard vegan line that meat, eggs, and dairy are deadly poison; being vegan will cure / prevent all manner of diseases; etc.
How could this be? How could so many people feel so unhealthy as to go back to an animal-centered diet (feeling healthier upon doing so), when at the time, we knew, just knew, being vegan was the only way to be healthy?
The tidal wave of failed vegetarians was so overwhelming that Jack, instead of rationalizing it away and staying in the vegan bubble, went back to school to become a registered dietitian, so he could read the actual original nutrition research, rather than merely seeing the selective vegetarian spin / distortion.
Jack's experience is backed up in this Psychology Today article, which indicates 75% of people who go vegetarian in the US eventually go back to eating animals.
In other words, if everyone who went vegetarian had stayed vegetarian, there would be four times more vegetarians in the US today! (A similar survey in the UK also showed more former vegetarians than current vegetarians there as well.)
And what is the leading cause of people going back to eating animals? The existence of "happy meat"? Ha! Peer pressure? Nope. Missing the taste? Not even close.
The leading reason the vast majority of vegetarians go back to eating animals is because they didn't feel healthy.
Again, compare the real-world reality with the propaganda put out by many vegan advocates. An amazing disconnect!
It is, of course, easy for us to attack the people who go back to eating meat. "They weren't really vegetarian!" "They weren't vegan!" "They weren't organic non-GMO whole-foods vegan!" "They weren't raw!"
Of course, this can be initially satisfying ("Those quitters aren't as smart / dedicated as me! They just didn't go far enough!"). But here is the important question:
Is our goal to feel good about our particular diet?
Or do we want to help animals?
The only way to help animals is to help new people stop eating them. Attacking non-vegetarians -- especially those who had been willing to alter their diet -- is the exact opposite of helping animals! That it took me years to realize this is one of my biggest regrets.
To help new people take action to help animals, we must first accept their experience, rather than vilify them to rationalize our vegan mythology.
Understandably, many people are still keen to Defend The Vegan Faith: "But I know the health argument works -- just look at near-vegan Bill Clinton!" In the first case, Bill Clinton proves the point.
Secondly, a relative handful of self-selected individual examples can't counter the overall numbers: for every person out there saying they are vegetarian, there are more saying, "Well, I used to be vegetarian, but...."
Anyway you look at it, this is a disaster for the animals. They don't need us to glorify veganism -- they need us to help new people make and sustain positive change. To do this, we need to face facts (again, something I resisted for years).
The facts are clear. The biggest net impacts health concerns have on the public's diet are:
1. Eating many, many more smaller animals, and
2. Causing people to go back to their previous animal-centered diet.
The numbers are stark and unequivocal: when we promote the vegan health fantasy, overall, we hurt animals.
Again, I have total sympathy with the desire to believe the anything and everything claimed for veganism: it will cure cancer, reverse baldness, halt global warming, undo impotence, create world peace, and make us all much, much better looking.
But then I watch the latest video of the brutal, sickening barbarity inflicted on farmed animals. And I know that, no matter how much I want to buy into the feel-good fantasy about my personal veganism, it is infinitely more important to deal with the real world.
Knowing the reality of what the animals are going through, as well as the reality of how most non-vegetarians actually react to different arguments, I am compelled to work for the biggest possible net impact for the animals, given the world as it really is, and accepting the facts as they exist.
And the way to have the biggest impact for the animals is simple:
1. Focus on the animals as the irrefutable bottom line: Buying meat, eggs, and dairy causes unnecessary suffering; we can each choose not to cause this suffering.
2. Provide people with honest, thorough, evidence-based information so they can change their diet and maintain that change.
The latter is why Jack and Ginny's book -- and their work in general -- is of vital importance.
It isn't that big of a change. We simply stop saying that adopting an ethical diet is healthier. Instead we let people know how very healthy it can be, and here is how. As Jack has said elsewhere:
"Every person who goes vegan and assumes it doesn't take any planning is at significant risk to have future poor health, leading them to end up quitting and telling others how their health failed as a vegan. My activism is basically dedicated to trying to stop this flow of ex-vegans who claim to have had poor health.
"Before I came along, any ex-vegan's story was simply countered by blaming them. What good does that do, other than to protect people's pre-conceived ideas? Here is a response to the ex-vegan phenomena that, in my opinion, can help people advocating for veganism. I hope that my work and my talks empower vegan advocates to be able to answer a lot of the nutrition questions they get, and with answers that are true and believable."
It is an absolute moral imperative that we learn and present the reality of vegan nutrition, so we can help new people stop eating animals, and stick with it.
The animals deserve no less.
Please also see Ginny's articles:
How the Health Argument Fails Veganism
Bad news for red meat is bad news for chickens
"I was vegan for a while, but...".