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.

Best advice for animal activists – part one

July 30, 2012

Farm Sanctuary’s Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives Bruce Friedrich was recently asked to share his “top three pieces of advice for aspiring and fellow activists to become more effective.” His response will appear in the forthcoming book Strategic Compassion by Ben Davidow.

Matt Ball and I wrote a book about how advocates can be maximally effective for animals, The Animal Activist’s Handbook. Peter Singer says about the book: “Rarely have so few pages contained so much intelligence and good advice. Get it, read it, and act on it. Now.” Taken from our book, my top three recommendations are:

1. Remember the multiplier

If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you’re saving dozens of land animals and even more sea animals every single year. That’s something to be proud of, and it’s a deeply powerful statement in support of compassion and mercy and against cruelty and misery. Amazingly, if you convince one more person to adopt a vegetarian diet, in that moment you’ve doubled your lifetime effect as a vegetarian. So we should all be doing what we can to influence others to adopt a vegetarian diet, including little things like wearing vegetarian T-shirts and putting “Happy Vegetarian” bumper stickers on our cars and laptops, and bigger things like getting active through Vegan Outreach’s Adopt a College campaign or Farm Sanctuary’s Compassionate Communities Campaign.

2. Pretend you’re Socrates

Socrates asked questions of those with whom he was engaged to help others see that their current moral paradigms supported his position. We should also do precisely that. No one wants to support cruelty to animals, and yet anyone who is eating meat is supporting egregious abuse. So our best way of engaging with people is to help them question how, when eating meat, their values and actions are not in alignment. All other arguments are a diversion from this central and winning argument—which should be framed as a discussion, not a diatribe.

3. Don’t get discouraged

As Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s remarkable to think that for most of human history, humans have considered it acceptable for some humans to hold others as slaves, and for women to be—for all intents and purposes—the property of their husbands. Think for a moment about how quickly that understanding has completely changed in the developed world—in just a few generations. There’s so much animal suffering that it’s easy to get discouraged, but we shouldn’t: We have science, logic, and morality on our side; it’s only a matter of time before we win.


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