Virginia Messina put out a post last week (or so) about getting reliable nutrition information about veganism that I think you need to take a look at.
You may have noticed that I tend towards disclaimers whenever I go near nutritional information here, and as I think I’ve noted in some of them, it’s not because I’m scared of lawsuit threats; it’s more that I don’t think some things should be learned by Some Guy On The Internet (using the gender neutral form of “guy” here, of course.)
Virginia is an accredited dietitian, which means she gets to put the initials R.D. at the end of her name, as do the people she refers to in her post for further information. Me? I get to put J.A.G. at the end of my name, which is short for Just A Guy. There are a lot of JAGs out there, and their information is certainly useful, but I’d caution against using it as your sole source of guidance and instead use it as a basis for your own education.
But enough about certifications and disclaimers – what I want to talk about today is why the JAG continues to dominate the discussion. Sure, many of them make money by putting forth health advice (which may of course be perfectly valid,) but I think there’s an even more dangerous JAG out there.
As Pogo put it, we have met the enemy, and he is us.
There’s a longer topic I want to get into someday about the 5 stages of veganism, but for now let’s focus on one of the early phases (which doesn’t always go away) – the “I never met a pro-veg factoid I didn’t like” phase, which I’m going to call Scientific Cheerleading.
When you first go vegan, it’s totally natural to want to believe that it’s the best thing for you, and to be clear, I think it’s the best thing for me too, but one of the ways we tend to validate our beliefs is to look for information (mostly online, these days) that says we’re right, to the exclusion of all other evidence.
If a stat says as vegans, we tend to live, say, 7 years longer (and I’ve seen reports of as long as 14, but I’ve no idea if they’re valid,) then that’s what we as Scientific Cheerleaders trumpet to the world. What’s this? A vegan diet might reduce the chance of cancer? Dude, I want to get cancer just so I can beat it with my vegan diet! And so on.
And within reason, as long as nothing harmful is being prescribed, these beliefs are generally safe, at least at first. But there are two issues I want to discuss today that I think are big red flags that you need to know about, because in the long term, Scientific Cheerleading can be a real problem.
A danger to yourselves
OK, first off, there are definitely some beliefs out there that need to be challenged, like the idea that you can absolutely get enough nutrition from your food, regardless of your circumstances (personally, I think it’s possible, but not necessarily true for the average vegan, which is one reason I take vitamin supplements.) And yet, if we Google around enough, our brains, which want to be right, will find something, somewhere that validates our plan.
These beliefs can lead to physical harm, but I’m more concerned about damage to your resolve to stay vegan for the long haul.
What happens if you start to gain weight on a vegan diet? Wasn’t that supposed to be impossible? What if, and I obviously hope this doesn’t happen, but what if you get diagnosed with high blood pressure, heart disease or cancer while on a vegan diet? Those studies you heard about pretty much said that you had a vegan force field, didn’t they?
And what about meat eaters who seem totally healthy at the age of 95? Weren’t they supposed to have a million health problems by now? Why did they get a “free ride”?
These observations are going to come to you eventually, and when they do, you’re going to be put in a spot where you might question what you’re doing, at least on the health side of things. By this time, many of you have picked up a lot of compassion for animals and couldn’t imagine killing one, but it’s a stress point that, if it doesn’t stop you from being vegan, might make you think veganism sucks a little bit. And that makes things harder than they have to be.
One of the problems here is a misconception I’ve seen while talking with all kinds of people about what a “reduced chance” means. Well, it means the chances are reduced. For many diseases and ailments, the chances are pretty low already, from a big picture perspective, but even with the potential benefits of a vegan diet, they’re still far above the odds of you getting struck by lightning or winning the lottery (and no, I’m not aware of any studies linking diet to these two events in any form.)
I can’t prove that you’ll live longer, avoid all disease, or never stub your toes while on a vegan diet, but I honestly believe that, for me, my quality of life will be better because of how I choose to eat and live. I don’t need a study for that; I just know I feel amazing, and I think that should be enough. If you don’t feel amazing right now, find out why as soon as possible!
A danger to others
Information spreads like a virus. Bad information, somehow, seems to spread much, much faster, especially when it’s about nutrition, which I believe is outside of the realm of average people – that’s why R.D.s go to school for so long to figure it out and then spend the rest of their lives keeping up on the research.
When someone, vegan or not, asks you why you’re vegan, of course you want to share. When someone asks you about a specific nutrient, you don’t want to look dumb, so you’re going to say something, and so nutrition myths tend to spread. I think this propagation of bad information is harmful, for both of the reasons we’ve gone over today.
So what’s to be done?
First of all, I’m not in any way saying to stop reading about nutrition, either online or in books or videos. We all need to take care of ourselves, and proper diet is a big part of that. Simply be aware of our natural tendencies to seek out only validation, and as part of your research, try to find some counterpoints that oppose the theories you’re looking for. They’re not hard to find, which is part of why this is so tricky, but getting tested by your doctor from time to time can be a great way to check on how you’re doing and whether everything’s working out like you thought.
For dealing with others, I still think we need to put forth the health arguments for veganism, because it’s one of the Big Three with animal care and the environment, and it’s one of the easiest to talk about (for example, for guys it’s the one where manliness isn’t threatened.) That said, unless you’ve got the R.D. initials, I’d recommend talking in terms of your own experiences. Talk about what you’re doing, how it’s working, and how you’re feeling. This might even be the best strategy anyway: in this era of instant gratification, how we feel today might be better at convincing someone than talking about making Big Life Changes to prepare for an event that might not even happen 40 years from now.
Pick your myth
What about you? Is there a vegan myth that you keep hearing that drives you crazy? Is there something you try not to tell people about, or are there arguments that you feel totally safe in mentioning? Let us know in the comments!