From the beginning, here at the Reasoned Vegan, we’ve been a little uncomfortable with the health argument for veganism. We wholeheartedly agree that the ethical and environmental arguments are a slam dunk. Health represents an unsteady third pillar. This surprises many non-vegans, who view veganism and health as inextricably bound. There are many restaurants where I eat very healthfully, not by choice, but because veganism is associated with the health movement.
There are three problems that I allude to:
1) ethical vegans are not necessarily committed to health and eating highly palatable junk food may provide encouragement to maintain what can be a difficult lifestyle
2) Veganism is not necessarily healthy if you don’t know what you’re doing.
3) We’re not committed to the idea that the healthiest vegan is the healthiest person alive. There are many healthy diets. We have a hard time telling someone who eats skinless chicken breast 3 times a week that they are worse off than a vegan, all other factors being equal.
The way we’ve resolved this is to stake out the claim that you can be healthy as a vegan, but not go much further than this. You shouldn’t be missing any micronutrients or amino acids. Legumes should be well represented. Don’t go crazy with processed foods and sugar. I consider Vegan for Life, which systematically goes through the important micronutrient needs, my health bible. We’re cautious about making further restrictions to an already restrictive diet (e.g. whole foods or raw diets). We’re also cautious of making claims of curing any disease. Many of the most fantastic claims about veganism’s effect on health are spurious; for the more modest claims, it’s hard to say that veganism is the only path to the outcome. The bottom line for us is that health is complicated and we’re not scientists.
However, many vegans do see improvements to their health and find this to be compelling. It may be that being thoughtful about your diet (whatever your motivation) leads you to make healthier choices. It may be that many vegans find themselves nearly forced to order steamed vegetables at Chinese food restaurants, salads at steakhouses, and oatmeal at diners. Veganism does promote a kind of health by omission—obliging you to stay away from the richest foods (steaks, fried chicken, hot dogs, burgers, french toast, etc.). As a practical matter, becoming veganism does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of allowing you to make more health-conscious choices.
Evan has recently pointed out that the number of new and highly palatable options for vegans are growing—gone are the days of being stuck in the salad menu. Will this make vegans less healthy? Perhaps, but that’s okay. To bemoan the influx of mock meats and veggie burgers is to try to tackle too many problems at once. I recognize the import of tackling public health issues like obesity, heart disease and diabetes. However, if we can turn unhealthy omnivores into unhealthy vegans, we need to prioritize that before we encourage any further dietary restrictions. The planet and animals demand that change before we negotiate the borders between the agency to be unhealthy and the demands of public health. I’m happy for people that pursue a whole foods vegan diet and feel it enhances their lives. Unfortunately, it’s hard enough getting people to be vegan.