Recidivism Part 3: Be Honest and Thorough about Nutrition

We are reprinting some of Ginny Messina’s insights from her research on veg recidivism. This week, we feature “Why Nutrition and Nutritionism Matter.” Thanks to Ginny for all her research and permission to reprint.

Eating healthy whole foods is important—and so is paying attention to individual nutrients. Lately, though, that’s become an unpopular thing to say. It’s what food activists like Michael Pollan refer to as “nutritionism.” That is, he and others say we should stop worrying so much about nutrients and just eat food (or “real” food as they refer to it). As celebrity nutritionist Dr. David Katz says “If you eat whole foods, the nutrients sort themselves out.”

But this is not exactly a science-based observation; it’s an opinion or at best a hunch or casual observation of the world. Pithy observations like this make for engaging writing and perky sound bites, but not always great advice. It’s one of the reasons I’m not on the food celebrity bandwagon. After all, even Dr. Katz has been called out for defending quackery and for sharing a perspective that is not always evidence-based.

To be fair, though, unlike Pollan whose understanding of nutrition is practically non-existent and whose advice is sometimes complete nonsense, Dr. Katz frequently brings a balanced perspective to hot button nutrition issues. And it’s probably not entirely wrong that people should worry more about eating whole, nutritious foods and less about micromanaging their diets.

Or at least this is probably not wrong in the world that Michael Pollan and Dr. Katz inhabit. It might be wrong in mine, though. Because the plant-based, whole-food diet that Katz, Pollan and others are talking about includes a bunch of foods that you and I don’t eat. It includes—in moderate amounts—cheese and eggs and chicken and fish. So they aren’t really thinking about how we can achieve optimal intakes of omega-3s, calcium, vitamin B12 and iron on the kind of diet that I promote. The idea that the nutrients will “sort themselves out” doesn’t always hold up for vegans.

The diets that have long protected the health of people in Asia and southern Europe are based on whole plant foods, but they aren’t vegan. A vegan diet omits foods that are traditional sources of nutrients in cultural plant-based diets. And, when people stop eating animal foods they need to know a few things about nutrients. For example, they need to know that it is important to include legumes—at least 3 servings—in vegan diets to get adequate amounts of all amino acids. They need to know which leafy greens provide calcium that is actually absorbed by the body. They need to know which type of vitamin B12 supplement is the best and how much is required.

We vegans are sort of pioneers when it comes to ethical eating because a world that honors justice for animals is very different from the world that has existed up to now. We don’t have the history, so we must be guided by the science. Does it make it look like being vegan is hard? Does it sound like nutritionism? It doesn’t matter. Our job is to ensure that vegan diets can be a viable long-term choice for anyone who wants to be vegan. That requires solid, evidence-based vegan nutrition information. Attention to nutrients is critical for preventing ex-vegans. The animals can’t afford for us to take risks with fuzzy, unsupported advice about how whole foods automatically meet nutrient needs.

Recidivism Part 2: Why Feeling “Normal” Matters

We are reprinting some of Ginny Messina’s insights from her research on veg recidivism. This week, we feature “Why Feeling ‘Normal’ Matters.” Thanks to Ginny for all her research and permission to reprint.

There are other important issues that we all know about—giving support, and especially sympathetic support when people are struggling with their veganism. Our community needs to provide a safe place for people to admit when they have made a mistake or a non-vegan choice. We need to honor effort and intention even when perfection (whatever that means) is elusive, to respect the challenges that some people face, and to let them proceed at their own pace.

But the last thing that I want to talk about actually covers a lot of ground in terms of encouraging a commitment to veganism. It’s the importance of making veganism feel “normal.”

A study from Cornell University titled “Who We Are and How We Eat: A Qualitative Study of Identities in Food Choice,” looked at this issue. The researchers found that many people (these were non-vegetarians) expressed a desire to view their food habits as “normal,” rather than “extreme.” This is important for our advocacy because surveys of ex-vegetarians found that many did not like feeling “conspicuous.”

We vegans eat (and live) in a way that is very different from the rest of the population. For some of us, it’s not a big deal. For those who value feeling normal, it might bring considerable discomfort regarding their vegan lifestyle. We can’t change the desire to be normal, but we can take steps to “normalize” veganism.

One way is to provide more vegan options that mimic usual eating patterns. The food industry has done a remarkable job of this and the choices are getting better and more diverse all of the time. Veggie cheeses and meats are much better today than they were ten years ago. It’s easier to find vegan options in mainstream eateries, too, and this is something that vegan activists should support.

I am frequently chastised for my stance on veggie meats—which is that it’s okay to eat them. Recently, a blog reader told me that they are “junk foods” that are “worse than meat” (as she had learned in an online course on plant-based nutrition).

I understand that avoiding these foods is an important part of some plant-based dietary philosophies. But nutrition isn’t a philosophy; it’s a science. I know of no evidence that a few servings of veggie meats per week will harm your health.

And it’s not just about convenience—although that is a big part of the benefit they bring to vegan diets. Just as importantly, these foods and others may make veganism more socially and psychologically comfortable for some people. They make it feel a little bit more like what some of us grew up with. They allow vegans to eat at restaurants with friends without having to ask the server to create something special for them—something that perhaps makes them feel conspicuous and uncomfortable.

We know that veganism isn’t about us. And a little discomfort on our part shouldn’t be a big deal given what the animals endure every day. But we also need to be realistic. Going vegan presents a huge challenge for many people. It’s not just about learning to like new foods and giving up old favorites. It’s about choosing a path that puts us out of step with much of society. Depending on who you are, where you live, and what your social circles are like, it can be alienating.

What we really want, of course, is for vegan to become the norm, not the fringe. But until that happens, making it look normal might be what is needed to help some people go and stay vegan.

Former vegetarians: Who they are and why we lost them

By Nick Cooney

May 1, 2012

Why do many vegans and vegetarians go back to eating meat? When I was in college, one of the most active members of our campus animal rights group went from dedicated vegan activist to dedicated chicken eater in a matter of months. If you’re like me, you’ve probably scratched your head wondering why some people stick with veg eating and others don’t.

Academic studies published over the past 10 years, as well as an informal survey by Psychology Today columnist Hal Herzog, give us some insight. According to former vegetarians, they’ve typically put meat back on their plates for the following reasons:

Taste – Many craved meat and were bored with vegetarian food

Health – Some had less energy, were anemic, or had other health issues

Inconvenience – A number felt eating vegetarian took too much time, they didn’t know how to prepare veg food, or it was annoying to be vegetarian when eating with friends.

We need to keep these issues in mind when encouraging individuals to eat vegetarian. Aside from just telling people why they should change their diet, we need to tell them how: how to make or buy quick, delicious, meat-like meals, and how to eat healthy.

Of course, those of us who stayed vegetarian or vegan encountered the same problems. We just had the resources and dedication to work through them. So what gives? Are there simply fundamental differences between people who stay vegetarian and people who don’t? A new study published in the journal Appetite suggests there are. The study found four key differences:

Motivation – Both current and former vegetarians care about animal welfare, health, and the environment. But those who stick with veg eating care more about these issues, especially animal welfare. Concern for animals represents, by far, the biggest difference in beliefs between current and former vegetarians. Therefore, regardless of why people initially went veg, after they’ve made the switch we need to inspire them to care about farm animals. The more they start to care about farm animals the more likely they’ll stick with vegetarian eating. Since their behavior is now animal-friendly, it will be easier for them to adopt an animal-friendly attitude if we encourage them to do so.

Identity – People who stay vegetarian think their food choices are an important part of who they are. This was never the case for former vegetarians, even when they first went veg. Why is this the case? Well, it’s a fact of human psychology that we don’t like to change our sense of self-identity. The more we see veg eating as part of our self-identity, the harder it is to go back to eating meat. Therefore, after someone becomes vegetarian we should encourage him or her to see vegetarian eating as an important part of who they are. For example we might give them vegetarian bumper stickers or t-shirts, encourage them to talk to their friends about why they’re vegetarian, or sign them up for Veg News magazine or a vegetarian email list.

The Switch – People who stay vegetarian are more likely to have made a gradual switch. Maybe that’s because a gradual switch is easier, both for the person going vegetarian and also for family members with whom they eat. In contrast, former vegetarians were more likely to have made an abrupt switch when they first went veg. With this in mind, we should encourage people to take the first steps towards vegetarian eating rather than encouraging them to go from zero to vegan in sixty seconds.

Support – Those who stay veg are more likely to have joined a vegetarian potluck group, message board, or other social circle. These support systems provide both encouragement and practical advice on veg eating. Of course, people who see vegetarianism as part of their self-identity (in other words, those who are already more likely to stay vegetarian) are also more likely to seek out vegetarian social groups. So it’s possible that, for many people, social support is just icing on the cake and not the reason they stay veg. Still, social support can only help, especially if we can get less-enthusiastic vegetarians to join.

Whew! That’s a lot of information to take in. Who knew that helping people eat vegetarian could be so complicated?

To boil it down, if we want to help more people stay veg, we should help current vegetarians: a) learn how to cook or buy quick, delicious, meat-like meals; b) learn how to eat healthy; c) care a lot about farm animals; and d) see vegetarianism as an important part of who they are.

Any time we do one of these things, we will help current vegetarians stay the course. As Ben Franklin wrote, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Helping someone stay vegetarian can be just as good for animals as inspiring someone else to go vegetarian.


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