Last week the vegetarian world was rocked by the results of a new study commissioned by the Humane Research Council (HRC).
The study uncovered some interesting and illuminating facts:
- Eighty-four percent of American vegetarians (including vegans) eventually revert to meat-eating. (Eighty-four percent!)
- Vegetarians who do revert to meat-eating are initially motivated to become vegetarian for health reasons alone.
- Long-term vegetarians are more likely to get into their lifestyles for ethical and/or environmental reasons, sometimes in combination with health reasons.
- Those who do give up on vegetarianism do so quickly; a third give it up within 3 months, and over half give it up within a year.
In some ways, of course, this data is disappointing. The more simplistic news stories have used the HRC statistics to suggest that vegetarianism is simply difficult and unsustainable, something which even vegans have fallen prey to on occasion. To me, however, the HRC results provide valuable and illuminating insight into both the process of going vegan and, more importantly, how we should advocate for veganism.
The most significant point the HRC study highlights is a fundamental difference between health “vegans” and ethical vegans; with the former quitting their diet, often quickly, and the latter maintaining a long-term vegetarian lifestyle.
Health “vegans” – i.e. persons adopting a plant-based diet solely for health reasons (sometimes by itself, and sometimes in combination with other types of unrelated dietary regime, but not in the context of a completely vegan lifestyle) – have been the subject of much debate in the vegan community. Many ethical vegans, myself included, reject the notion of “health veganism” because, simply put, it deeply misrepresents what veganism is: undeniably, essentially, and specifically, an ethical stance rejecting (amongst other things) the human usage of animals. As Donald Watson, founder of The Vegan Society, put it:
“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
Using the term “vegan” to describe a plant-based diet with no ethical foundation just isn’t accurate; worse, it’s deeply damaging to the actual vegan movement. It creates confusion among non-vegans about what veganism is, not only by ignoring the ethical nature of veganism, but also by colluding it with health and, in some cases, with health ideals which have nothing to do with veganism: raw food, sugar-free, gluten-free, paleo, juicing, fasting, and so on. The effects of all of this are visible and perpetuated everywhere, for example, by the celebrities who adopt “vegan” diets (often briefly), while continuing to wear and otherwise use animal products; in the commercial categorisation of vegan products alongside “special diet” products; and, similarly, in the many times I’ve been offered food which is gluten-free, fat-free, or preservative free, with animal products, as a “vegan” option.
In spite of all this, even some ethical vegans maintain that health “veganism” is still a force for good in the world. After all, the impact of plant-based dieters is the same as the impact of ethical vegans: animals get saved, the environment gets a break, and people feel better health-wise. Unfortunately, what the HRC study now shows is that this just isn’t the case: the impact of people motivated only by health is likely not comparable to the impact of ethical vegans because the vast majority of them give up their diet after just a few short months or even weeks. (And let’s not forget that plant-based dieters do nothing to address the usage of animals in other industries such as clothing, experimentation, and entertainment).
The HRC study makes clear that presenting veganism as a means to health just doesn’t effect lasting theoretical or even just practical change in people. And this makes sense, particularly when we consider the methods which a lot of plant-based dietary “activism” by necessity employs: emphasising and overemphasising the health benefits of plant-based diets (either alone or in combination with other types of dietary regime). How often does plant-based literature describe the “life-changing” health benefits of ditching meat, dairy, and eggs? And how often do people really experience such changes? I think it’s important to emphasise that yes, while many people do experience significant improvement in their health when they go plant-based, many experience no big difference. For others, the switch to plants actually presents a challenge, if lacking the resources and culinary and nutritional knowledge for a healthy transition. Feeling normal on a plant-based diet and not superhuman is, well, normal. But if you’ve gone plant-based just because you expect amazing health benefits, and then don’t experience these benefits, isn’t it understandable that you’d give it up?
The collusion of veganism with certain health trends no doubt also contributes to the level of health “vegan” fallout. Unlike a balanced vegan diet (which the American Dietetic Association agrees is “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases”), many of the additional dietary rules wrongly associated with vegan diets have no scientific support. It’s no wonder that people quit veganism if, to them, “veganism” also means gluten-free and fasting and raw and paleo and whatever else; diets like this, especially in combination with one another, can be nutritionally lacking and extremely restricting, both physically and mentally.
This is not to say that vegans shouldn’t talk about health; on the contrary, we do need to make it known that a balanced vegan diet is a safe, viable, healthy way of eating. We do need to rebut the many misconceptions about vegan diets, to share the knowledge that yes, you can get all the calories, iron, protein, calcium, and B12 you need from a vegan diet. It is important to spread the cooking skills, nutritional knowledge, and other information that make transitioning easier. But we need to do all of this only insofar as it supports our wider aim as vegan activists: promoting the ethical stance and lifestyle choice that is veganism.
The results of the HRC study confirm what many have said for a long time: that, as vegans, we need to be vegan activists rather than health activists. We need to always keep in mind the true meaning of veganism, because it’s the only way to effect lasting change for the animals, for the planet, and indeed for our health. Focusing on the health effects of veganism is not as effective because personal health benefits are unpredictable. Certainly, aiming to have a healthier vegan diet is a good thing, and most people would be better off eating more whole, fresh plant foods over processed foods. But heath, and the extent to which someone pursues it, is personal; so long as someone’s lifestyle gives them everything they need, and avoids exploiting animals, it should not be a concern to vegans. The HRC study confirms that by focussing on the ethical message of veganism, we not only represent the movement for what it is, but also encourage people to make a lasting mental connection. By highlighting the ethical impact of their actions, we give them a true and valid reason to maintain their veganism for life.
Until next time...
(This article was originally published on Peaceful Dumpling.)