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Got Health?

New Preface, Feb. 2012

Perhaps the most common refrain we hear from vegans is frustration that meat-eaters just won’t consider reality. “How can I make them face facts??”

It is, of course, human nature to believe the best about what we do, and to go out of our way to avoid countervailing facts. This is true of everyone – vegans included.

If you listen to the standard litany of miracle properties assigned to a meat-free diet (and the claims of toxic horrors associated with any and all animal products), it’s clear vegans should dominate society – the best athletes and the longest-living, most energetic individuals would all have to be vegans, setting an undeniable and irresistible example.

Reality, however, is somewhat different. The exact opposite, in fact. There are more failed vegetarians – people who went back to eating meat – than there are current vegetarians. And the main reason these former vegetarians give for eating animals again is that they didn’t feel healthy without meat.

As with adherents of every diet (Atkins, raw foods, etc.), we vegans have plenty of anecdotes and cherry-picked correlations that support our position, seeming to indicate animal products are deadly poison / veganism is the only healthy diet. But as pointed out below, the only review of studies that looked at actual vegans (as opposed to those who ate more or less meat) showed vegans have a worse mortality rate than lacto-ovo vegetarians and fish-eaters. Vegans – actual, real-world vegans – have a mortality rate no different than meat-eaters.

Like meat eaters unwilling to look at pictures and videos of factory farms, it is easy for us to ignore these facts. But if we want to really make a difference in the world – rather than simply stroke our vegan ego – we need to deal with the world as it actually is. In this case, the more important point is that health simply doesn’t matter in the real world. Go to any grocery store or restaurant and ask anyone: “Are you buying / ordering that because you think it is optimally healthy?”

Of course, optimal health simply isn’t what motivates people’s food choices. Even after a heart attack, people not only don’t go vegan, the majority don’t even give up fast food!

Again, as with every other diet, there are anecdotes of people whose health was improved by going vegan, going raw, going on Atkins, etc. But while we find anecdotes that support our personal diet very compelling, the general public won’t. They’ll always have anecdotes of their own to support whatever it is they want to believe.

While many vegans cling tenaciously to individual examples and cherry-picked correlation studies, we ignore the very real downsides of the health argument. As discussed below, the push to “eat healthy” has prompted millions to cut back on eating a few large animals (cattle, pigs) with many, many more smaller, intensively raised animals (chickens, turkeys, fishes).

Has anything else in history caused more suffering than the health argument?

Furthermore, promoting “optimal health” as the motivation for eating vegan has led many food suppliers and restaurants to make their vegan option “healthy” – also known as taste-free. These examples – while optimal for the quinoa and sprouts crowd – are quick to put off anyone somewhat interested in veganism but who still wants familiar and tasty food.

This, again, hurts animals.

If we actually care about helping animals, rather than building a vegan myth, we must step beyond the vegan bubble and consider the many facets of actual reality (and the further points below), so we can reach out to non-vegans in an honest, constructive, and effective manner.

 

Got Health?

It seems inevitable that, at one point or another, the majority of vegetarian advocates are struck by the inspiration of focusing on “the health argument.” They feel that we can avoid confrontation and controversy, while reaching everyone, by just appealing to people’s self-interest.

What Weight Does the Health Argument Carry?

The advocates of the health argument believe that Americans are obsessed with health, especially as the baby boomers approach retirement. They point to the booming health-food industry, nutrition supplement sales, and all the popular diets.

Probably the main health concern for Americans (at least as related directly to diet) is their weight. Yet this obsession with being thin has not lead to any significant change for the better. As reported in a 2006 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services summary, “During 1995–2005, obesity prevalence increased significantly (p<0.01) in all states.” Also (with additional statistics from the February 2002 Scientific American):

Percent of adults who were overweight in:
1980: 33%
2005 : 60.5%

Percent who were obese in:
1980: 15%
2005 : 23.9%

(Updates: July 2008, see Study Suggests 86 Percent of Americans Could be Overweight or Obese by 2030; June 2009, see A Fatter, Sadder America?

July 2011 -- still have doubts? Check this out! And even more: Daily Show clip

Sept 2011 update: Back in 1991, there were zero states in the U.S. that had an obesity level over 15 percent. Today, Colorado is the only state with an obesity rate below 20 percent. Another 12 states have levels over 30 percent. Feb 2012 -- fat and getting fatter.)

Obesity-related disabilities and mortality are also rising rapidly. Given that many organizations and government agencies (with significantly greater prestige and resources than vegetarian groups) are dedicated to promoting better health for U.S. citizens, it does not appear that health arguments are carrying (or shedding) a lot of weight in this country.1 It is true that the health-food industry is experiencing a boom, but it appears that it is easy to get someone to eat an additional something else (soy, red wine, dark chocolate), but it is infinitely more difficult to get people to give up something (even something for which there is a substitute, like chicken for red meat).

This is borne out by the statistics of specific consumption. After decades of mainstream calls for healthier eating, as well as stories about contamination, per-capita consumption has not decreased significantly for any animal type – including red meats. The exception is veal, where the concern is ethical. After decades of health arguments by both animal advocates and the “cut back on red meat” mainstream establishment, the average number of animals eaten per person each year in the United States is at its all-time high – again, except for veal, where the argument behind the decline is ethical. (Update, Jan. 2012 -- people are now eating fewer animals!)

Per Capita Consumption, lbs
  1990 1999 2004
Beef 95.8 96.2 94.1
Veal 1.3 0.8 0.6
Lamb and mutton 1.6 1.3 1.3
Pork 63.6 65.5 65.6
Chicken 70.3 89.0 98.4
Turkey 17.5 17.5 17.0
Fish and shellfish 14.9 14.8 16.5
Eggs 30.2 32.2 33.0
Dairy products (milkfat basis) 568.0 584.1 591.8

Gross carcass weight; source: ERS Agricultural Outlook / December 2005

 

What Is the Health Argument?

Nutritional Breakdown of Foods Often Cited in the Health Argument:

  • Tofu (from Becoming Vegan)
    • 40% calories from protein
    • 54% calories from fat
    • 14% calories from saturated fat (73% of this is palmitic, the worst kind of saturated fat)
  • Skinned, white meat chicken (from Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy)
    • 60% calories from protein
    • 23% calories from fat
    • 7% calories from saturated fat (15% of this is palmitic)
  • Fish (from Becoming Vegan)
    • 50–92% of calories from protein
    • 5–50% calories from fat (many fish high in Omega-3 fatty acids)
    • ~20% of this saturated

Since tofu has a very high water content, it is lower in fat per unit weight than chicken.

Animal advocates assume that their diet is inherently the healthiest – to such an extent that people should be motivated to significantly alter their lives in order to reap those benefits.

Is this belief justified? The largest meta-study to look at the relative merits of various diets (in terms of rates of mortality) found:“There were no significant differences between vegetarians and nonvegetarians in mortality from cerebrovascular disease, stomach cancer, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, or all other causes combined.” (Emphasis added.) Looking only at ischemic heart disease, mortality rates were lower in fish eaters and ovo-lacto vegetarians than in vegans, who had approximately the same overall mortality rate as regular meat eaters.2 Note that this survey looked at actual vegans, instead of being a comparison of people who ate more or less meat.

(See also postscript 2. September 2011 update: See this review of Jack's new book; see this interview with Ginny Messina, RD)

Where Does the Health Argument Come From?

Yet many (if not most) veg advocates assume the superiority of their diet. Given the relatively isolated nature of vegetarians, it is somewhat understandable that some want to believe only the best about their diet / lifestyle. It is common that minorities, in creating their unifying mythology, selectively read supporting ideas, exaggerate some results while ignoring others, and misrepresent some facts.

 

Where Can the Health Argument Lead?

It is well known (and widely advocated) in the United States that one can improve their health by maintaining a healthy weight and eating less cholesterol and saturated fat. To the extent that some (especially those who are older and/or have experienced health problems) are concerned with their health, this understanding of nutrition inclines them to eat chicken and fish. In combination with the decrease in the price of chicken (once a luxury item: “a chicken in every pot!”), the health argument has aided the absolutely staggering increase in the number of chickens (and fish) killed for food every year during the past few decades. The worst of it, though, is that while one can argue that eating less meat (to a point) can improve health, one cannot honestly argue that an animal-free diet is inherently healthier than a well-planned omnivorous diet, as pointed out by the meta-study mentioned above.

Ignoring the increase in the slaughter of chickens and fish and per-capita animal consumption, is there any other evidence as to the success of focusing on the health argument?

Even if most people who hear pro-vegetarian health arguments ignore them or choose to eat more chickens and fishes instead of cows and pigs, it might be expected that true vegetarianism (as opposed to self-proclaimed yet animal-eating “vegetarians”) would be gaining some ground. Is this true, in our society allegedly obsessed with weight and health, being bombarded with anti-cholesterol and anti-fat messages, and host to a number of health-pushing vegetarian groups? As of ten years ago, the percentage of the U.S. population who were vegetarian had hardly changed in many decades. Having noted this failure to grow, Donna Maurer concluded in her dissertation (1997) about the vegetarian movement in North America, “the strategies that vegetarian groups enact to promote ‘healthy diets’ for each individual’s personal benefit inhibit people from adopting a collective vegetarian identity based on moral concern regarding human/animal relationships; without commitment to this moral concern, ‘being a vegetarian’ is a lifestyle vulnerable to changing personal and cultural tastes.”

Update, 2011: Only recently, after hard work promoting ethical eating / exposing factory farms, has there been much movement in the number of vegetarians and vegans -- especially on college campuses, where VO focuses.

 

Are There Any Upsides to the Health Argument?

For those concerned with reducing suffering, it is important to realize that the people most likely to actually eat fewer animals because of the health argument are often those with health problems so serious that they are nearly forced to change (e.g., Bill Clinton, although he's the exception, as pointed out). For the most part, these are older people who have already spent their entire lifetime eating animals. Thus, the “payoff” of any reduction in eating animals is relatively small, compared to a younger person who changes.

This is not to say that these people’s vegetarianism is not a positive thing. With our limited resources and the enormity of the task at hand, however, we can’t pursue every tactic that has had some success. Rather, we must maximize the amount of good we do per hour worked and dollar donated. Outreach to younger audiences (who, as discussed here, are relatively more open to new things, and have a lifetime of eating ahead of them) is the area with the greatest potential payoff and where we should focus our efforts.

In the promotion of animal liberation, each individual’s example and actions as a spokesperson are at least as important as the economic impact their individual choices have. Promoting a “plant-based” diet for health reasons feeds our society’s focus on selfishness by implying that animal suffering is not worthy of people’s concern. It delays the time when we, as a society, will come to terms with our treatment of animals.

 

Conclusions: Effectively Promoting Health as an Animal Advocate

Be honest with yourself.

Just cutting animal products out of your diet will not make you healthier. As pointed out above, vegans do not have better mortality rates than nonvegans.2 For this reason, it is imperative that advocates move beyond the veg mythology. It is entirely possible that, with proper understanding and planning, a vegan diet can be as healthy as any other. But a thorough understanding of all aspects of vegan nutrition, especially nutrients that need attention, is necessary.

Be honest with others.

A primary foundation for advocates is knowledge. We must be knowledgeable in order to set a good example, and to offer honest information to potential new vegans. While it feels better to say, “Go vegan and you’ll lose weight, have more energy, and never get cancer or suffer from heart disease!” this is not only untrue (and comes across as propaganda to the skeptical), but it sets up potential vegetarians for failure (as pointed out previously). The handful of people who try a truly vegetarian or vegan diet to feel healthier will resume consuming animal products if they feel no improvement. Because they do not necessarily have their hearts into being vegetarian or vegan, they often will not experiment with it long enough to find a way of eating that makes them feel healthy. This can have far-reaching, negative effects, as they go on to tell others how unhealthy they felt when they were vegetarian or vegan.

Even those who are motivated for stronger reasons are likely to revert if their health suffers. Those who continue with a poorly planned, unhealthy vegetarian diet set an example likely to turn off anyone interested. (Many veg advocates, whose information has come from self-selecting via veg groups, have little or no experience with “failed” vegetarians. Unfortunately, during our 17 years of activism, we have encountered a disheartening number of people claiming “I was vegetarian for a while, but…”)

Carefully consider the best use of your time / resources.

Given that many larger organizations and agencies have been arguing for lowering cholesterol and saturated fat for years, will your advocacy add much to common knowledge? Will it do the best to alleviate suffering, compared to other forms of advocacy? That bottom line – reducing suffering – must always be foremost on our minds.

 

Update, September 2011

In the years since I've written this, the case against arguing health as a way to help the animals has gotten stronger, as pointed out in many of the links throughout this article. The bottom line is absolutely simple: The vast, vast, vast majority of people don't make food choices for optimal health. They make choices based on taste, familiarity, and convenience. They might choose chicken over steak for "health" (or a deep-fried corn dog over fried butter), but except for a tiny minority, they won't choose steamed tempeh and quinoa on a bed of arugala.

So let's help the animals by giving people what they want: familiar tasty veg meats!

 

Notes

  1. The fantasy is, of course, that people just haven’t tried the whole-foods vegan approach to losing weight, and if they just went vegan (or raw, or another marginal diet), they would lose weight. But the basic nature of maintaining a healthy weight – burn as many calories as you consume – is well known, yet obesity rates continue to rise. I believe that if so many people are unwilling to make relatively simple changes (e.g., moderate portion sizes) to avoid becoming obese and harming their health, it is naive to think that a significant portion of the current population will give up their favorite and familiar foods and follow a diet quite different from their friends and family for health reasons.

  2. Mortality rates, with confidence intervals:

    Regular Meat Eaters: 1.00
    Occasional Meat Eaters: .84 (.77, .90)
    Fish Eaters: .82 (.77, .96)
    Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians: .84 (.74, .96)
    Vegans: 1.00 (.70, 1.44)

 

Postscripts

1. An Example

There is an incredibly passionate community of people committed to promoting raw foodism as the optimal, natural diet. They have their set of arguments and “scientific” studies to support their position, and are quick to attack anyone who dares to question them.

Like other diets (vegan, low-carb, ultra-low-fat, etc.), some people thrive on a raw food diet. But many fail at their attempt to “go raw,” just as is the case for other types of diets. As an outsider who knows several“failed” raw-foodists, it is easy for me to look at the raw foodist community and say, “Hey, there is something wrong here. I think they should re-evaluate their position and advice.” But it is rare for this attitude to take root inside a closed community.

The same is true of the vegetarian community. For example, there is a depressingly long list of famous ex-vegetarians who have said how their health improved after they started to eat meat again, including Michael Stipe (R.E.M.), Prince Fielder, Marilyn Diamond (Fit for Life), Mollie Katzen (The Moosewood Cookbook), Tracy Pollan (actress, married to Michael J. Fox), Drew Barrymore, etc. There are more failed vegetarians than current vegetarians, and the main reason people go back to eating animals is because they didn't feel healthy as a vegetarian! Yet many animal advocates are committed to proclaiming veganism as the only healthy diet, and with the same fervor as many raw foodists.

Instead of insisting that everyone else “drink the Kool-Aid,” if we are concerned with having veganism grow, we have to recognize and accept the bad outcomes so as to be able to learn from them.

 

2. The Relationship between Consumption of Animal Products and Risk of Chronic Diseases: A Critical Review

From the summary:

“The effects of animal products on risk of chronic diseases are an area of considerable controversy.… [I]nternational correlations between per capita food consumption and disease rates are seriously confounded by other lifestyle factors associated with economic affluence.… One of the most comprehensive correlational studies conducted within a country is the China-Oxford-Cornell study.… These correlations, although informative and valuable in many ways, cannot be used to establish causal relationships between dietary factors and disease risk. The limitations of geographical correlations were precisely stated by Drs Doll and Peto:

Trustworthy epidemiological evidence, it should be noted, always requires demonstration that a relationship holds for individuals (or perhaps small groups) within a large population as well as between large population groups. Correlation between the incidence of cancer in whole towns or whole countries and, for example, the consumption of particular items of food can, at most, provide hypotheses for investigation by other means. Attempts to separate the roles of causative and of confounding factors by statistical techniques of multiple regression analysis have been made often, but evidence obtained in this way is, at best, of only marginal value.

“Indeed, some of the correlations produced from the China-Oxford-Cornell study are peculiar and probably incorrect. For example, esophageal cancer had no clear association with smoking, and had a negative correlation with daily alcohol intake. These results are clearly contradictory to the well-established findings from studies of individuals that both smoking and alcohol use are strong risk factors for esophageal cancer. In addition, the study did not find a clear association between meat consumption and risk of heart disease or major cancers.”