Unfortunately, there’s a lot of hyperbole and misinformation circulating in the vegan community about the dramatic health benefits of plant-based diets. Many compassionate, committed activists want to reassure new vegans that plant-based eating is not only nutritionally sound but also uniquely capable of curing every ailment imaginable. Their good intentions, however, are both misplaced and unfounded.
There currently is no body of evidence to support the notion that vegan diets are the only way to achieve good health. There also isn’t any scientific data to suggest that low-fat, plant-based diets can prevent or reverse every disease on the planet. A nutrient-rich diet –– whether or not it’s totally plant-based or oil-free or sugar-free or salt-free –– may be a step in the right direction toward better health, especially if a person had previously been consuming a high percentage of meat, other animal products, or highly processed foods. If health problems were provoked by poor diet, as is often the case with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, then it logically follows that a dietary change might help. But not every illness has a dietary cause, and while a strong, healthy body can help improve our resistance, even a well-planned vegan diet doesn’t guarantee immunity.
We live in a polluted environment, where our food and essential life-support systems –– land, air, and water –– are laden with contaminants. There are also undeniable genetic factors that influence health and precipitate disease. Some well-meaning activists contend that even genetically predisposed conditions can be thwarted by a vegan diet, but that’s not the case for many disorders, such as sickle cell disease, Tay-Sachs disease, Down syndrome, hemophilia, Huntington’s disease, or cystic fibrosis, just to name a few. If we can acknowledge that disorders exist irrespective of the type of diet a person follows, then we also have to acknowledge that diet may have little effect on reversing those disorders. Poor health isn’t always caused by poor choices.
I have personally known outspoken vegan nutrition and animal advocates who strictly adhered to exemplary plant-based regimens for decades, and yet they contracted and eventually succumbed to life-threatening illnesses. Contrarily, we often read in the news about the oldest living humans who smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, shun vegetables, and eat meat every day of their lives.
When we advise people who are ill about what they should or shouldn’t eat, we are in essence saying that we know better than they do, and that may not necessarily be the case. Indeed, there are some conditions that could be exacerbated by certain dietary changes, and our half-informed advice might actually end up doing more harm than good. Activists who admonish ill people for what they eat promote shame, blame, and guilt because they’re in essence telling them they’re responsible for getting sick, when that may be the furthest thing from the truth. Arm twisting and fear mongering are often more self-serving than selfless and do nothing to help a person heal or feel better.
There are billions of rational, irrefutable reasons to follow a vegan diet -- the animals killed every day for food. Activism that centers around unsupported claims undermines our credibility and can encourage vegans to ignore important health problems and avoid seeking beneficial medical treatments. The fact is that not everyone who eats a wholesome, plant-based diet is in perfect health, and despite what well-meaning advocates (including some with impressive credentials) might promote, nutrition science doesn’t yet have all the answers. To think otherwise is dangerously naive, insensitive, and marginalizing, and it does a disservice to both fellow activists and prospective vegans.