Why vegans’ health matters

As a health practitioner, I see two broad groupings of people: those who adopted a vegan diet for ethical reasons, and those who are eating (or would do well to adopt) a plant-based diet for health reasons.

Full disclosure: Personally, I have a foot in both camps. I went vegetarian at the age of 15 for ethical reasons, and subsequently went vegan as I gained awareness of dairy and egg industry practices; and I choose to eat a wholefood plant-based diet because of my terrible family history of diabetes and heart disease, and also because quite frankly I feel so much better when I eat healthfully.

Unfortunately, many vegans seem to see concern for animals and concern for one’s one health as mutually incompatible. I once read a post in a vegan Facebook group by an ethical vegan who wrote that she “hated plant-based eaters [i.e. people who adopted a plant-based diet for its health benefits]”.

Other posts I’ve read convey the general sense that ethical considerations are the only ‘correct’ motivation for choosing a plant-based diet, and anyone who has any motivations other than this one is morally inferior to those who are only motivated by concern for the rights and well-being of non-human animals. “I went vegan for the animals’ health, not for my own” is a common refrain.

Here are my top 5 reasons why vegans might like to give their own health a little more consideration:

  1. Vegans deserve good health… and good health helps you stay vegan.
    They’ve shown moral courage and leadership in going against the social norm to adopt a way of life that aims to minimise harm and suffering to non-human animals, not to mention our fragile planet which is threatened in multiple ways by animal agriculture. Having good health enables you to enjoy life a whole lot more!
    One of the most common reasons why people abandon veganism is because they believe it harmed their health. You might think “Not me! I would never go back to eating animals, even if my health was suffering”, but that’s probably what a lot of the 84% of people who try out plant-based eating and then go back to eating animal products thought too… before they experienced fatigue, lightheadedness, weight gain or excessive weight loss, skin problems, nutrient deficiencies, and other health issues that can result from a poorly-planned vegan diet.
  2. Vegans who wish to pursue activism in any of its many forms, can do so far more effectively if they are healthy.
    It’s not selfish to put a priority on caring for your own health, it’s simply a wise allocation of resources. If you never set aside time to prepare healthy food, exercise and get enough sleep, sooner or later you’ll experience poor health which will sap your energy and reduce your physical capacity, impacting on your ability to carry out activism.
  3. Healthy vegans are far more effective advocates for the cause.
    A great many people are open to the idea of cutting down on their animal product consumption, or cutting it out altogether, but have some concerns that their own health might suffer if they did. There’s a reason why vegan advocacy groups love to recruit vegan athletes like Rich Roll, Tia Blanco, David Carter and Scott Jurek as ambassadors for the cause: they really cut through all the rusted-on beliefs that a vegan diet can’t support health and physical activity. After all, if Rich Roll can run an ultramarathon on plants, all us ‘regular’ people should be able to get through our day just fine ;-).
  4. A lot of people who aren’t vegan but could potentially be open to it, get turned off by the ‘holier than thou’ emphasis on self-sacrifice that characterises a lot of vegan discourse.
    Like it or not, the WIIFM factor (What’s In It For Me?) is the primary influencer of most people’s decision-making. This is frustrating to many vegans, whose behaviour tends to be guided by their strong moral principles. Well, in case you hadn’t noticed this already, most human beings aren’t like that, and there’s not much you can do about it. If you want to open the average Joe or Josephine’s mind to the notion of a vegan diet, tell them what’s in it for them.
    The funny thing is, most people who adopt a plant-based diet for health reasons go on to develop ethical and environmental motivations for not eating animals too. It’s like they have to be reassured that their own well-being won’t be adversely affected, before they can open their minds to considering the well-being of other species. My advice is, don’t fight this by trying to persuade them with moral arguments; address their concerns first and let them develop moral insight in their own good time. That’s how it worked for my husband, who went plant-based solely for his own health, and now proudly wears his vegan t-shirt to the gym and animal rights bumper stickers on the car.
  5. Vegans who shame those who adopt a plant-based diet for their health are harming the cause.
    Several clients have confided to me that they don’t call themselves ‘vegan’ because they have encountered so many vegans who are preachy and judgmental, and look down upon them for having even the slightest concern about their own well-being. Way to turn people off, guys.
    As far as I’m concerned, there are simply no bad reasons for adopting a plant-based diet. Whether you don’t eat animals for health reasons, or you don’t eat animals because you care about their welfare, the fact is, you’re not eating animals, and I don’t imagine that the animals in question would care much about your motivation for not eating them.
    And frankly, persuading 100 people to halve their animal product intake to improve their health, saves a lot more animals than persuading 5 people to go vegan. We need a ‘big tent’ approach in which everyone who has even the slightest interest in eating fewer animals, for whatever reason, is welcome to come in, mingle, learn, have conversations, try the food, and figure out their own path.

Let me make one thing clear here: I don’t support body shaming or ‘health shaming’ of vegans, or anyone else for that matter. Many people had weight or health problems before they adopted a vegan diet, and haven’t been able to resolve them yet. And even vegans who eat healthfully can get sick; our food choices are not the only causes of illness, after all! Vegans who struggle with their weight or have chronic health issues deserve the same compassion as anyone else in their situation, not judgment for being a ‘bad vegan’.

What I am saying is that when you radiate health and vitality, other people notice, and some of them, at least, might be curious to know your secret.

Here’s a fun example: a kid in my Primary Ethics class noticed my Edgar’s Mission t-shirt, and asked me if I was vegetarian. “Actually,” I replied, “I’m vegan.” Another kid looked me up and down, and said, in evident confusion, “But you look healthy!” I can only imagine the stereotypes of sickly, anaemic vegans he’s been presented with in his family and social setting. Just encountering someone who defies those stereotypes opened his mind to new possibilities.

Unfortunately, some vegans resist the idea of eating healthfully because they think it won’t be enjoyable. But eating a health-promoting diet doesn’t involve any sacrifice at all – healthy plant-based food is incomparably delicious, and after eating it for a while you’ll find vegan junk food unpleasantly oily, salty and sweet.

Don’t believe me? Try a simple experiment. For 10 days, eat only fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes – as much as you like, of whatever varieties you like. Add a tablespoon of linseed, chia, hemp or walnuts to meet your need for omega 3 fats. Stay away from salt, sugar or oil, and condiments containing them.

Rate your health, vitality, mood and sleep quality before your 10 day wholefood plant-based challenge, and check in again when you finish. Most people notice they have significantly greater energy and stamina, better digestion, brighter mood and better concentration, and improved sleep quality, by the end of just 10 days on a really healthy diet. (Although bear in mind, you may have some ‘withdrawal symptoms’ from highly processed food in the first few days, such as headaches and fatigue, but stick with it – the worst is usually over by about Day 5.)

The great thing about choosing a healthy plant-based diet as opposed to just opting for a vegan diet, is that everyone wins. Your health will be better, you’ll reduce your environmental footprint even further by minimising your processed food intake, and you’ll save even more animals because you’ll be far more likely to inspire those around you to try out animal-free eating.

Does the thought of giving up vegan junk food make you panicky? Don’t know how to make whole plant foods taste good? I’ve got you covered :). My EmpowerEd health and nutrition education program is packed with resources on how to implement this way of eating, including video recordings of my full-day Empowered Eating seminar and Plant-Powered Oil-Free Cooking workshop; Healthy Eating 101 which covers kitchen set-up, meal planning and batch cooking; and 2 live webinars per month – an open Q&A session and an in-depth exploration of an important health topic. Your first month of membership is 100% free. Register here and get EmpowerEd to live your best life!

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