Lies, damn lies, and nutrition info

May 14, 2010


This scientitian can answer all your problems!

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!

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Angela May 14, 2010 at 7:05 pm

I like to tell people how it takes conscious effort for me to add enough fat to my diet. People always worry about protein and when I started feeling low on energy that was the first place I looked. When I did a macro-nutrient analysis, I saw that I was good on protein (like 30% of my calories easily) but my fat intake was low (like 5% of my calories). Upping the fat made me feel so much better, and replacing some of the carbo calories helped me lose a couple of pounds too.

I always try to give accurate (to the best of my knowledge) information though. I talk to a lot of people who know unhealthy vegans/vegetarians so I try to be honest that you need to know some things about nutrition to do it right. But that once you learn enough, you will probably eat a lot more healthfully than when you were eating meat and thinking you didn’t need to think about food.

Molly May 15, 2010 at 12:30 am

Excellent points, Angela. I think it’s really important to draw a distinction between a truly healthy vegan or vegetarian and a “french fry vegetarian.” Most people I know are the french-fry variety, and they’re overweight and in poor health, yet they claim vegetarianism. It’s a shame. I’m new to this, so my arguments are still being formed – I don’t have much to work with yet, but I’m getting there.

Iam May 15, 2010 at 2:31 am

Mmmm…french fries!
I’ll have mine with a half gallon of vegetarian Diet Pepsi and live forever. Yay!

Liam May 15, 2010 at 7:13 am

Great read!
My go-to source for things nutrition is
Did you know 1 cup of Lentils has over 1/3 of your RDI of Iron?
You can do searches based on specific nutrients you are looking for and narrow it down to food types (fruit, vegetables etc) and in addition to having whole foods, they also have the data for some packaged foods.

If I were a burlesque entertainer, I would be a sexy-scientist cheerleader.

Zack May 15, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Hey I just thought I would share a couple links to some nifty sites.

Worlds Healthiest Foods – lots of awesome nutrition info, seasonal produce info, food of the week, all sorts of nifty info

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine – good info, best veggie starter guide, they have real research that they do, animal rights advocacy, school lunch “report card” rewarding schools with good healthy lunches, all sorts of good stuff

also check out nutrition info in
which is a weightlifting site with very interesting stuff like this –

also check out the annoying people at to hear about their so called research on the paleo diet

Sayward May 17, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Thank you! This is brilliant, such an important point. The nutritional misinformation myths are the ones that worry me most. I feel like I’m constantly running around the internet correcting people that no, you can’t get significant B12 from algae or greens or wheat germ or any other natural vegan source for that matter. Just eat fortified food or supplement please, it doesn’t mean veganism is *wrong*!

It’s so important to be honest and realistic about veganism, and to be informed. We can only promote the movement if we are healthy, intelligent vegans!

Also, I’d love to hear more about these 5 stages of veganism. =)

Iyabo May 17, 2010 at 3:06 pm


What Sayward said made me think about something I read in a book. We often compare the best part of veganism/vegetarianism to the worst part of omnivorism and that isn’t fair. It’d be more fair to compare our best to their best and our worst to their worst.

I’m not sure what my favorite bit of info is, but there is something that my dad loves saying to me but gets on my nerves. He claims that he read in some scientific article that the reason that humans were able to develop higher brain functions is because out bodies figured out how to assimilate nutrition from meat that wasn’t available in our previously vegan diet. So he tells me that it’s nice that I’m vegetarian, I have meat-eaters to thank for my higher intelligence.

Jason May 17, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Iyabo, I haven’t heard that particular theory, but I heard a variant that might make you feel better: no source, total JAG-attributed info, but basically I’d heard that the mysterious nutrition element that was in meat was… calories! Which makes sense if you think about it, meat being calorie-dense compared to what one could forage for, but in modern times, calories aren’t exactly hard to come by. Sure, that still gives meat credit of some sort, but it’s possible we would have found some other way over time.

Again, that’s a Some Guy quote, but it’s worth as much as the “Some Scientific Article” your dad’s citing, I reckon.

tomb7890 May 18, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Jason, Iyabo–meat has no essential nutrients that played an important evolutionary role. However, there is an important book that came out last year by Harvard’s Richard Wrangham that I can’t recommend highly enough: “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.” Wrangham’s very persuasive argument is that cooked meat and plant food (especially starchy tubers) is what provided the high calories our ancestors needed to evolve into what we have become. It’s really an exciting idea: cooking as literally human nature.

He opens the book by undermining the notion that raw diets are natural. As he shows, raw is a lifestyle choice that can only really be followed if you live in an industrial society with grocery stores with refrigerated produce sections. On the other hand, he does allow that eating raw as a good way to lose weight. Which is an interest of a growing number of us who living in what is sometimes called our Toxic Food Environment.

This may be a bummer to some of us or our friends who have committed to raw. But isn’t doesn’t this go direct to the topic of Scientific Cheerleading? We always need to be ready to reassess our positions and arguments, especially if we hope to peruade others of our intellectual and moral legitimacy. Raw still has a lot going for it, especially phytochemicals and micronutrients. But arguing that an exclusively raw diet is somehow our nature is looking increasingly dubious.

Sayward May 18, 2010 at 12:56 pm

tomb7890 – I was just about to say the same thing, even including the book reference! =D I haven’t read the book myself, but NPRs Science Friday had a very interesting segment with the author.

It totally makes sense to me, much more so than meat = big brains. I mean, lions and domestic dogs eat plenty of meat, and they’re not out driving cars or surfing the net. Cooking however is uniquely human, it’s the thing that sets us apart. A fascinating theory!

Jason May 18, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Tom, it’s like I said – calories. Thanks for a more credible source than mine though; let this be a further lesson about JAG advice: my “source” for my calorie/nutrient information was the latest issue of Iron Man (#25, by Matt Fraction, recommended.) That was a little inside joke for me, mostly, but for this context and level of detail required, it seemed appropriate 🙂

Lately I’ve been pushing back against any “in our nature, historically” arguments in favour of optimal nutrition for our individual circumstances. I’m still pushing vegan all the way, but if we live in a world where we can eat raw all the time, then I think it’s worth considering if that’s something you believe would be good for you. I’m not convinced that, for example, we should focus our eating on seasonal foods specifically because it’s often claimed that our bodies digest different things better at different times of the year. I’ve no idea if that’s true, but it’s a Cheerleading tidbit I’ve heard many times. That said, there are environmental considerations with food that isn’t local which might mean more than any health pros or cons, again, depending on your circumstances…

Dan from Southampton, UK May 19, 2010 at 10:25 am

Yes, finally I have an answer to the “Meat = Brains” argument that I shall use next time it comes up so thanks Sayward and tomb7890!

I don’t know why people need to argue about what I choose to eat but people always seem to want to point out that I am *wrong* because I have a different lifestyle to them.

I’d also like to know about the other stages in the 5 Stages of Veganism. I think I’m at the “I totally want to be a Vegan but sometimes get so fed up with people criticising/commenting/judging/asking about *everything* I eat that I want to give up” stage.

Q: What’s that you’re eating?
A: Salad.
Q: Can vegans eat salad then?
A: Sigh…

Hilary August 1, 2010 at 8:50 pm

One of the best books I’ve ever read when it comes to diet/nutrition and “myths” is “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell. It’s an accumulation of over 30 years of research (but not just his but other top scientists) and gives a quite good evidence that a wholefoods, plant based diet “strongly reduces” the chance of the main diseases that plague western society. I found it really enlightening because one thing i struggled with is that if Veganism is such a healthy lifestyle – why is there all this misinformation out there about what is healthy and what is not. Why are there ads on TV telling me I need milk/cheese/red meat three times a week to be a healthy individual? And the book answered that question for me too.

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