October 22nd, 2011 by Gary Smith
Vegan For Life is the most comprehensive book on vegan diets that I’ve read yet. The subtitle, “Everything you need to know to be healthy and fit on a plant-based diet” is really true. The book literally covers every possible topic: nutrient needs, pregnancy, breastfeeding, raising vegan children and teens, transitioning to a vegan diet, needs for 50+, as well as meeting the needs of vegan athletes. The book is perfect for someone curious about transitioning to a vegan diet as well as seasoned vegans. Everything you ever wanted to know about the science behind eating a vegan diet is found in this book.
I spoke to coathor Ginny Kisch Messina, whose excellent blog The Vegan RD I also recommend.
Many of the readers of The Thinking Vegan are ethical vegans. Why should they care about their health and understanding nutritional science?
The unfortunate truth is that we vegans need to prove that our diet is a healthy choice. Anyone on any type of diet can get sick if they make bad food choices, but when vegans get sick, people blame veganism.
It can be tempting to promote the “no worries” approach to vegan nutrition, which suggests that as long as you eat a variety of whole plant foods, with an occasional B12 supplement, you’ll automatically meet nutrient needs. But the evidence suggests otherwise, and if vegans have suboptimal nutrition or develop outright deficiencies, then the animals lose in the end (as do the vegans, obviously). That’s why we’re very specific in Vegan for Life with our nutrition recommendations. Staying healthy is an essential part of activism.
I was pleasantly surprised that you included an entire chapter to the ethical question of veganism. Can you talk about why you decided to include the chapter and your thoughts on the ethical issue?
I think animals should always be part of the discussion when we talk about veganism. And while we assumed that our book would appeal mostly to those who were already vegan, we hoped that some who were kind of on the fence about veganism might pick it up. So we wanted to write a book that made a compelling case for veganism while also providing the tools for making an easy and healthy transition.
Though you are a registered dietician, you have written in the past that the best argument for veganism is the ethical/animal argument. Why don’t you believe that the health argument should be the driver?
I think it’s great if people want to talk about the health benefits of eating more plant foods and fewer animal foods. Unfortunately, though, we have no data to show that you need to go 100 percent animal-free in order to be healthy. So there really isn’t a “health argument” for vegan diet, let alone vegan lifestyle.
This means that if we want to promote veganism for personal gain or health benefits, we need to overstate the findings and tweak the science. And what does it say about our movement if we’re advocating for animals by using a not-quite-honest or not-quite-scientifically-supportable message?
Some might say that we should appeal to every possible motivation in getting people to stop eating animals, and that’s a tempting argument. I’d probably buy it if I thought it would work. But I don’t see that advocacy built on a shaky factual foundation or on precepts that are ever-changing can prevail in the long run.
No one knows what the exact “ideal” diet for humans is, or if there is any single diet that fits that definition. I talk with my colleagues frequently about new research and whether we need to reassess some of our recommendations or advice based on the latest findings – because ideas about the best way to eat are forever changing. Who knows what the research will be showing 40 years from now? But an ethic of justice doesn’t change. The argument in favor of animal rights today will be the same in 40 years. So why not stick with the argument that is 100 percent unassailable, the one that we never have to scramble to defend in light of new findings?
In addition, I think there is a real problem in shifting the focus of veganism away from an ethic of justice for animals toward more anthropocentric concerns. It actually reinforces the idea that our food and lifestyle choices should be all about us – a belief that lies at the center of animal exploitation.
How long have you been vegan and how did you come to that decision?
I’ve been vegan for about 20 years. It was a gradual process for me, and I was a dietitian before I was even a vegetarian. I have always cared a great deal about animals but somehow never made the connection between those feelings/emotions and the way I lived, aside from rescuing dogs and cats, and injured birds.
I had an absolute epiphany in 1984 when I was perusing a vegetarian cookbook – Laurel’s Kitchen – and read the dedication to “a glossy black calf on his way to the slaughterhouse many years ago, whose eyes met those of someone who could understand their appeal and inspire us, and thousands of others like us, to give the gift of life.”
Wow – the little light bulb clicked on and I thought “what am I doing eating these creatures.” And this was before I knew anything about factory farming or the way animals were treated. None of that was even on my radar when I first went vegetarian. But I took a job working for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine five years later, and found myself immersed in a little community of vegans and animal rights activists. That was really the beginning of my education. I started reading about factory farming and began a transition to a vegan diet and then to other vegan choices. I also started learning more about issues regarding animal rights and a vegan ethic.
You cover some of the key nutrients that vegans should concern themselves with. You also recommend supplements for people with greater needs or who may not be able to meet their nutrient needs strictly through diet. Some of the leading medical doctors who promote a vegan diet are adamantly against the use of supplements. Can you speak to this?
This speaks to what I mentioned in response to your first question – which is that some advocates would like to portray veganism as the “perfect” way of eating, and the idea of taking supplements challenges that perception. Unfortunately, this can end up jeopardizing the health of vegans. We owe it to those we are attracting to this movement to be 100 percent honest about the potential pitfalls of a vegan diet.
Yes, it’s always best to get nutrition from whole foods, but that’s not always possible—certainly not in the cases of iodine and vitamins B12 and D. For various reasons, some vegans may fall short on other nutrients and find it difficult to meet needs from foods alone. Taking supplements to make up the difference seems way smarter to me than trying to explain the problem away.
You have a comprehensive chapter about soy in the book. There are so many misperceptions and down right lies regarding soy. Could you touch on soy briefly?
It’s hard to be brief about soy – it’s a huge topic! Not to mention a very scientifically complex one. There are literally thousands of papers published on different health aspects of soy, so it’s not surprising that people can find a few studies here and there that will support whatever viewpoint they like.
Concerns about safety of soy have generally focused on studies in rodents, which are of questionable relevance to humans,and have not been supported by human studies. They also arise from some pretty big misunderstandings about how soy isoflavones act in the body. For an in-depth discussion of these issues, I recommend Jack Norris’ article: http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/soy_harm
In terms of health benefits of soy, not everything has panned out as anticipated, though. For example, contrary to early expectations, research does not suggest that women who consume soy have a lower risk for breast cancer. And the role of soy in protecting bone health has turned out to be pretty disappointing, too.
We do have evidence that young girls who eat soy have a lower risk for breast cancer later in life, though. Isoflavones also help alleviate hot flashes and possibly reduce prostate cancer. Some preliminary research points to cosmetic benefits, too, specifically in decreasing wrinkles.
But to me, the main advantage is that soy is a nutritious food – or group of foods – that make for some pretty fantastic vegan choices. Soyfoods are among the items that make it so easy to be vegan. I eat tofu every single day and sometimes some tempeh, and soy or gluten-based veggie meats several times a week. My soy intake is at the high end of what Japanese people consume; they average about 1 to 1 ½ servings per day, but about 25 percent of older Japanese people – those who eat more traditional diets – eat 2 to 3 servings per day. I usually eat 2, but sometimes 3.
In the book, you advocate the use of healthy oils, such as olive and canola. Many medical doctors advocate against oil. Would you mind sharing your thoughts?
Actually, I don’t think it’s true at all that many medical doctors advocate against all vegetable oils. That may have been true 25 years ago, but perspectives have changed with evolving research.
The research shows that the type of fat in your diet is far more important than the amount – up to a point, of course. And, I think most medical and health experts who follow nutrition research are on board with the idea that moderate consumption of healthy oils is safe and compatible with healthy eating. It’s too bad that the vegan community has lagged behind the science in this regard. It makes us look out of touch with current nutrition research.
I’m not for pouring buckets of oil over salads or slathering heaps of Earth Balance on bread, of course. But some higher fat foods are associated with decreased risk for chronic disease; at the very least, they are harmless in moderation. And unfortunately, efforts to define veganism as a diet that shuns all added fats – and sometimes higher fat foods – can end up turning veganism into a sort of ultra-restrictive fad diet.
The impression that vegan diets are limited and difficult is a huge deterrent toward adopting this way of eating for many people. If we want to counter that perception, the last thing we want to do is layer on more restrictions that have never been shown to be beneficial. And, with 10 billion animals slaughtered for food every year, do we really want to expend energy railing against harmless plant foods like olive oil?