Updating My Views on Health and Veganism

Early on here at The Reasoned Vegan, and in many instances since, I’ve cautioned against promoting veganism on the basis of health. Many people go vegan because they become convinced that it’s the healthiest — or “cleanest” — diet and lifestyle out there. Nutrition science is poor, I said, and we run the risk of being wrong about health when we know we’re right about ethics, detracting from the bulletproof case for veganism.

My views are changing somewhat. I’ve largely ignored the topic of health since going vegan — we can be perfectly healthy without meat and animal products, and that’s all that really matters. I still feel this way, for the most part. But I am starting to think there is something to the idea that veganism is healthier than I’ve let on. It may not just be “good enough” — it could be great.

Let me back up. I was never too concerned about health. However, I do recall one of the reasons I went vegan was because of what I understood to be the health benefits. Zero dietary cholesterol meant to me little to no risk of heart problems later in life. Of course, that’s an oversimplification, but I was 19 at the time, so cut me some slack.

I had not thought much about health until I was given the book “Why We Get Fat” by Gary Taubes a couple years ago. I found this book fascinating, and I bought the narrative hook, line and sinker. Insulin spikes caused by carbs, sugar in particular, are a major cause of diseases like obesity, diabetes, and so on. If we control our insulin by limiting carbs, especially sugar, we’ll remain healthy. That’s an oversimplification, too, but you get the idea.

I began to wonder if there was something to the notion that veganism is unhealthy. Vegan diets tend to be higher in carbs, and sugar is vegan (except when bleached with bone char), meaning people could get the idea that they’re healthy all the while consuming copious amounts of carbs and sugar. I thought there may be something to the keto diet — typically a heavy meat and animal products diet — and that we’d be running a risk by making claims that veganism is healthier by comparison (not that vegan keto is impossible).

I’m starting to learn that Taubes is wrong, not about the fact that a low-carb diet is beneficial for many people, but that carbs per se are the enemy. I was first alerted to this by Kevin Bass, who does a great job of summarizing nutrition science on his website. In a post earlier this year prior to a debate between Taubes and an obesity researcher on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Bass summarizes the differences between Taubes and the consensus among obesity scientists. It turns out that nutrition science is in a better state than I thought, and researchers have not been ignoring insulin like Taubes and others like him claim.

This is how I learned of Stephan Guyenet, Taubes’ opponent in the debate. He takes a much more nuanced view than demonizing carbs and sugar: obesity is a result of the availability of highly palatable foods containing high amounts of fat and, yes, carbs. These highly palatable foods cause us to consume more calories than we otherwise would. Pair this with poor sleeping habits, genetic factors, and a sedentary lifestyle, and obesity is all but inevitable.

Guyenet has also decimated nearly every one of Taubes’ arguments. I recommend listening to or watching the debate and reading Guyenet’s references. Taubes’ claims are very much testable and falsifiable, and many of them have been falsified, including by his own organization.

While this debate doesn’t have anything directly to do with veganism, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Taubes’ point of view favors a very-much-non-vegan diet, while Guyenet’s is more compatible with veganism. Learning that current research does not actually favor Taubes’ perspective re-opened my eyes to the possibility that veganism may be healthier than I previously gave it credit for.

Back to Kevin Bass. He’s got some really excellent and informative posts that delve into what the research says about a plant-based diet. Not only does he summarize the research that favors plant-based diets, he also doesn’t avoid the studies that may appear to show the opposite. Nutrition science — and any scientific field, for that matter — is vulnerable to somebody conveying to the public only the findings that favor their point of view, ignoring the rest. This is what Taubes seems to have done, and others repeatedly do, so to see someone vacuum up all the research and walk the reader through it, acknowledging uncertainties where they exist, is refreshing.

I am cautiously proceeding with my slow venture in learning more about what the science says about a vegan diet versus an omnivorous one. I still don’t know that we can say with certainty that, all else being equal, a plant-based diet is preferable to an animal-based one, but I suspect that we can be more certain about such a claim as the studies continue to come out — and as people like Kevin Bass and Stephan Guyenet digest them, so to speak. And of course, we shouldn’t flat out ignore the criticisms of folks like Taubes; to the contrary, we should observe the back and forth and ask ourselves who has a better handle on the evidence.

This has taught me another lesson, one that I definitely should have learned before: if someone is offering a simple, one-size-fits-all type solution to a major problem, and one that many people like to hear, it’s almost certainly wrong. Reality is far more nuanced, more complicated, and, yes, more confusing than we’d like it to be.

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