Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hidden Risks to a Vegan Diet

Recently, I wrote a post about the risks associated with a vegan diet, and compared these with the risks of eating the standard American diet. One of my readers left a very thoughtful comment which brought to my attention a few risks I had not addressed—some, in fact, that I had not even considered. She also pointed out that in comparing a vegan diet to the standard American diet, I had in effect lumped together everyone who is not eating a vegan diet—painting close to seven billion people worldwide in monochrome, with a ridiculously broad brush.

Clearly, nonvegans represent a wide array of approaches and choices, from utterly unhealthy, unconscious eating, to very conscious eating, with close attention to detail. Many people are, and have been for some time, trying to do right by their health and the environment, and I am certainly not in a position to criticize their choices, especially since their diets may be working very well for them. Some have had few health problems—or none—so they’ve never had cause to question their dietary choices. Others have run into trouble and may have only recently begun considering the diet-disease link. Many, I think, would agree wholeheartedly with my dismal assessment of the standard American diet, yet regard a strictly plant-based diet as somewhat extreme, and possibly even dangerous. I see a bit of myself in all of these people, and have no wish to criticize any of them.

But what really hit home about the comment that reader left me was the fact that I had obviously fallen prey to the most dangerous risk of a vegan diet—indeed any diet, but especially this one. The hidden risk that has nothing to do with what we eat or don’t eat, nor any aspect of nutrition itself.

The risk I’m referring to is the possibility of becoming arrogant. We’re very often under its spell without the slightest inkling that anything is amiss. It can creep into any of us at any time, and no one is immune to this affliction. So why do I suggest that among diets, a vegan diet especially presents this risk?

Unlike other diets, which are primarily about health and pleasure, the vegan diet is primarily about an ethos, an ideology that rejects the exploitation and cruel treatment of animals. Diet is only one component of veganism. Whereas vegetarians may feel comfortable consuming honey or dairy products, for example, since no animals are purposely harmed or killed in the process, vegans are vehemently opposed to this. I have no argument with them, because I understand—even admire—their commitment.

However, that risk is slippery.  Impassioned by the plight of helpless animals, some vegans are vulnerable to judging people who don’t share their perspective, and often appear to deny nonvegans the praiseworthy compassion they feel and express for nonhuman creatures.  I’m sure that all of these people are sincere and mean well, but to nonvegans, animal rights activism can be confusing. Why all this love for other species, and such disdain for carnivorous members of their own?

Most of the vegans I’ve met are very kindhearted people, doing their best to live well and do no harm. But ideology has an insidious way of creating divisions between people. That tribal “us and them” syndrome doesn’t generally lead to compassion and cooperation. 

This is the hidden risk I see. I have no wish to judge anyone—myself or others—but I can’t deny that I have at times, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, felt superior to people who eat unconsciously, daily gorging on highly refined, degraded, process-damaged food that is actively sickening them, fattening them, hardening their arteries, indeed killing them. I may be right in my observations, but my arrogance is self-defeating because it makes me believe the lie that I am in some way better than someone else. I’m not, and I cannot afford this delusion. I need truth in my life. So here’s a sobering, important bit of truth: I’m not a vegan. I’m a human being like every other human being, trying to live well and be happy, just like every single other creature on Earth.

Thank you, Siri, for your insightful comments that made me stop and reflect.


  1. Thank you!! This post is so timely! Especially after reading many of the posts left for Bob Harper after he posted that he woke up craving egg whites and decided to have them. They were rude, arrogant and extremely judgmental. I grew up hearing, "if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all" so I would never dream of saying those things. I admit I was more disappointed in him than anything else but no one is perfect and most certainly no one is "better" than anyone else either. I don't know how many Subway sandwiches I ate with the flatbread before finding out it had milk in it. *sigh* Anyway....thank you again! :-)

  2. My pleasure. There are few things so personal (i.e. nobody else's business) as what we choose to eat. Why would people be threatened by one guy making the personal choice to eat eggs (or a steak, for that matter) one time? I think it says more about them than his eating eggs says about him. Compassion is about feeling what other beings feel, and caring about their wellbeing.

  3. Thank you for this follow up post; I'm glad that what I said clicked with you. I was a bit worried after posting that I came off too harsh. *g* Food is such an intensely personal issue — not merely in what we prefer to eat, but also in how our bodies respond to what we eat and how we acquire and consume food — that it's so easy to get tunnel vision and assume that our way of doing things is always the best. I'm lucky in that the people around me are all thoughtful about food, but all have, by necessity, very different approaches to it, so much of what I said before was a reaction to watching them and learning from their diets and habits.

    One thing that strikes me now, as I think further on the subject, is how different two people with the same "diet" can be. Two people who eat vegan can have incredibly different eating habits. I know you've written on this site before about leaving what you don't eat behind — how you avoid fake meat products as you abstain from eating real meat, etc — and that just scratches the surface of how your diet might be different from, for example, a friend of mine who LOVES tofurkey. Making choices doesn't end once you've cut out meat and dairy and the rest — you still have to make choices about what you include. So there's this continuous process, every time you sit down to eat, of feeling your way through it and trying to make the right choices.

    The other thing, and it's a thing I think about a fair amount, is how most of us are caught up in the system that fuels the Standard American Diet, and how difficult it can be to extract yourself from it. Even if you go vegan you're not free from the system — it will still try to sell you processed fake meat and convince you to buy ALL the oreos and skittles. There's this great post by Ta Nehisi Coates called "The Big Machine" — — which I think presents a way of looking at the food we eat as being larger than personal choice. The ability to choose what you eat — and more importantly what you don't eat — is a huge privilege that many people don't have, or don't fully appreciate. The fact that I have it is something that I always try to not abuse.

    Anyway, thanks again for posting — not just this post but the first one as well. Even though I ultimately disagreed with parts of the initial post, it made me think deeper about my own relationship with food and where I am on the spectrum of eating habits vs where I would like to be.

  4. You're quite welcome, and thank YOU again for taking the time to point out my blind spots. I'm finding that it's people's comments that make blogging most rewarding.