why being vegan can be bad for you

I had written some notes on this topic a while back, but I lost them, so here goes nothing.

You might have guessed from the topic of this post that I was going to write about why the vegan diet is not nutritionally adequate. That actually isn’t the main reason why I think being vegan can be bad for you, although I do have my doubts about its nutritional optimality. It seems that the only people who are totally confident that a vegan diet can work for everyone (or almost everyone) are practicing vegans with vested interests in other people being vegan too, for moral or environmental reasons usually. But eating vegan is surely better than the “Standard American Diet” that most people are already eating, so even it is isn’t the optimal diet, you probably will still come out ahead health-wise.

Actually, I am concerned that being vegan can be bad for you for social reasons, in three ways.

First, it can keep you from enjoying social situations as much as you should. Weddings, banquets, lunches with coworkers, pizza parties… they all start to look less fun and more stressful. You have to carry emergency snacks in case you ending up eating somewhere like a southern “home cooking”-type restaurant where everything is covered in butter and/or bacon fat, and you end up eating meals of side salads with vinaigrette and white rice while everyone else indulges. But, this problem is generally surmountable if you plan ahead, as more and more restaurants and events offer veg-friendly fare these days.

Second, being vegan can affect how other people treat you. Your friends and family might give you a hard time for interrogating a waiter about a dish’s ingredients. They might ask you if you have an eating disorder (while it’s true that eating disorders often masquerade as legitimate diets, there are many vegetarians and vegans who do not in fact have one). They might make hurtful and/or excessively many jokes about your diet. But, again, this problem is generally surmountable, assuming that your friends and family are minimally reasonable people and you do your best to deal with them in a calm and rational way.

Third and, I think, most importantly, being vegan can easily cause you to view others in a negative light to the extent that it harms your valuable relationships with them. Vegan propaganda information tends to use very violent imagery of the treatment of food-producing animals in order to motivate people to become vegan. This kind of information, to the extent that it is motivating for a person, tends to stick with her. As a result, it is easy to begin to see your non-vegan friends and family members as morally worse than they really are, and to dwell on this fact. Vegan groups sometimes emphasize the goal of bringing about a totally vegan society. This can make a vegan feel like she is part of a small, privileged group that “sees the light,” so to speak, and that everyone else is morally depraved (perhaps an analogous situation is early abolitionists in a slave owning society). But, the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of people have no desire for animals to suffer. They are just ignorant to the facts of food animal production, or think that their dietary needs outweigh the suffering inflicted on the animals. Viewing one’s friends and family as akin to Nazis, slave owners, or torturers with their victims on their plates at dinner needlessly drives a wedge between you and them. Being vegan might make a person feel morally pure, but achieving such a status within a world of unconcerned omnivores becomes alienating.

Of course, I speak only from personal experience. I don’t have excellent reason to believe that my experience has been either typical or atypical for a vegan apostate. But, personally, I found the vegan lifestyle, with its emphasis on purity from animal products, emotionally and socially taxing in a way that was incompatible with my maximal well-being in the long term. Combined with some lingering nutritional doubts, I arrived at the all things considered judgment to move back towards a vegetarian/“flexitarian” diet. Now, I firmly believe that it is possible to eat in good conscience without the vegan label and baggage. To wrap up this series on my adventures in vegetarianism, next time I’ll write a little about what I eat these days, and why.

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22 Comments

  • hippocampa wrote:

    I don’t know any vegans that I like. Maybe I do like some people that are vegan, but then I don’t know they’re vegan. It is maybe because of that thing you name, of them having seen the light whereas I not only have not seen the light, I have no intention to go looking for that light.
    I care about animals, and I think it is important that they are being treated well before being slaughtered and that this slaughtering takes place is the best possible way for the animal. But I have no intention to stop eating meat. I am more of a carnivore than an omnivore, I love meat. Rrrred meat, yum!
    However, there is not just the animal suffering that is the problem, there’s the problem of meat being very expensive to raise, and the process has a large ecological footprint. That is a bother, I admit. Can’t eat fish either, because the oceans are being emptied clean and that’s not fair to future generations either.
    So, I hope that the development of artificial meats will yield something that actually tastes and feels like meat. At Wageningen university in the Netherlands they are quite well advanced with creating meat from bugs. I don’t mind the idea, I eat shrimps too. And after all, tofu is mold, so not a nice idea in itself, but that stuff is so boring. Anyway, go, Wageningen, go.

  • another vegan wrote:

    I have been vegan for over 25 years now. I am not sure that the “nutritionally optimal” questions is, there are a lot of way to eat to get sick from poverty to overeating, but it has not killed me yet. Sure, I accept that we in the vegan movement are all lab rats in an experiment that has only been going 60 odd years.

    To be honest, at vegan for 9 months, it sounds to me that you just did not give it enough time. It is like any discipline, whether it be playing a musical instrument or learning a martial art, it takes time, commitment and sacrifices. In a sense, it is an aesthetic … as well as having the benefit of being the single most profound political and environmental stance any human can take.

    I would say it is true, we share more in common with concert pianists or bodybuilder than every day folks in terms of cutting ourselves off and becoming obsessively dedicated but within that people make happy families with other vegans and live ordinary lives.

    In a way, your commentary is not about veganism but the people and society around you, and your relationship with it.

    I think the “early abolitionist”, and indeed the Nazi analogy, is actually apt … It is not that everyone in Germany, nor even the slave owning classes, became a “bad” person (they all loved their children too). It is just that their societies became gradually distorted around some unethical proposition without the individuals within them really noticing until it became so sick it had to collapse.

    I reads as outrageous but, in a sense, the whole veggie/vegan issue is a far bigger one that both slavery and nazidom because of the all reaching environmental effects. Like hippocampa admits, they are eating the planet to death completely ignorant to the effects it will have on our eco-system.

    Will any society every become 100% vegan? I doubt it. Will the idiots keeping eating meat until the very last mammal? Of course. There is no limit to human selfishness and stupidity, and that is really what we are talking about. Commsumerist societies will eat the planet into a crisis state and then die.

    However, it is a debate which I have often had with leading vegans and the response is generally, simple mathematics make it clear that it is better to have 90% of the population 90%, or even 50% of the population 50% vegan, than 1% of the population 100% vegan is is the ratio right now.

    Actually, 90%:90% or 95%:95% is really what we need to stabilize our planet and societies and it is not something new … it is closer to the original … optimal … human or peasant diet.

    I would even agree with you that it is “healthier” … as in “easier to receive sufficient nutrition without excessive effort” … but I guess I see being vegan being the ethical fulcrum point around with society is being made to turn. Each of us being the “pain in the ass vegan” within our communities the turning mechanism.

    Tofu is coagulated not molded … although you can buy fermented tofus. I’ll add that one to my list of idiot meat head comments.

  • …having the benefit of being the single most profound political and environmental stance any human can take.”

    actually, committing suicide is the single most profound political and environmental stance any human can take. so if that’s your measuring stick…go for it.

    otherwise, you lost me in your vegan condescension.

  • Hippocampa,

    The ecological footprint thing is a good point. Even if no animals were to suffer, there is alot wrong with factory farming. Primarily the problem is with externalities, in that it imposes costs on others — those downstream, or in future generations. If companies had to bear the costs they currently avoid, meat would not be relatively cheap as it is now, and people would eat less of it.

    I am all for artificial meats! I understand that PETA has a big award for whoever can come up with it first, so I have my fingers crossed that is motivating smart scientists out there somewhere, like maybe those in the Netherlands.

    another vegan,

    It may be the case that I ought to have given it more time. But, even though I care about animal suffering, avoiding absolutely as much of it as possible does not seem to me to outweigh or override all other possible considerations, such as those of my social and nutritional well-being. Perhaps you disagree with this, or merely think that it is a stronger consideration than I do, but not actually overriding. Surely the reasons for this disagreement between us run very deep, and maybe even we have different worldviews altogether.

    My post was indeed more about people and society than about myself, but I do not see that as a criticism, because humans are inherently social creatures and a life well-lived necessarily involves continuously responding to non-ideal social conditions.

  • Oh, and another vegan, your snarky comment about the tofu just helps to confirm my observations regarding how unhealthily self-righteous vegans tend to be. You can count me out of that club.

  • It’s so comforting to find another person struggling with the same things I am. I’ve recently committed myself to some form of vegetarianism (still undecided), and I know exactly how you feel. I’ve experienced the alienation, and the stress that is now a part of the activities that I previously enjoyed (going out to dinner, etc) and it’s beginning to wear me down. Worst of all is the stress put on my relationship. My girlfriend is not a vegetarian, and although I respect her decision, there’s still a tangible awkwardness at the dinner table.

    For these reasons, I’d like to become a flexitarian, but I’m having a hard time reconciling that with the arguments for animal welfare. Consider this familiar argument: If I knew that my activities were contributing to an industry that tortured millions of sentient creatures a year, it seems as though I’d be morally obligated to boycott that industry. I shouldn’t just reduce my support by buying less of their products, I should completely and immediately stop supporting them, given that it does not significantly impact my health, etc.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but your response might be something like this: Given today’s social climate, being vegan prevents me from living a flourishing human life. The sacrifices that veganism require of me are simply too great. To flourish, I need a certain kind of relationship with my peers, family and friends and a certain place in society that the alienating power of veganism prevents me from having.

    Although I see the force of such an argument, the response, it seems to me, is that the flourishing human life begins to lose its appeal if it requires supporting an industry that tortures sentient beings. There’s also the question of whether the flourishing life could really require such a thing. Maybe the moral purity we feel from being vegan is actually part of the flourishing life (ie so the flourishing life is really a vegan life, not an omnivorous one). I don’t know what to make of all this.

    Another thought I’ve had is that maybe we have a good reason for placing greater weight on the wellbeing of the people we know, rather than strangers. So, for example, if two people were drowning, and one person was my girlfriend, and another was a stranger, it seems as though I have a good reason for saving my girlfriend rather than the stranger. It might be stretch, but, given this, maybe this sort of position could be defended: Being a vegan puts stress on my friends and family. I have good reason for being more concerned with the stress put on my family, than with the stress put on farm animals (not because they’re animals, but because they’re animals that I don’t know and don’t have a relationship with). I’m not sure if it could be done convincingly, but maybe from here flexitarianism could be defended. We might have a significant agent-centered value from this standpoint that allows us to put those that are close to us above the welfare of animals we don’t know. Once again, I have no idea what you make of this, or how convincing it really is.

    But even here the argument for animal welfare comes back to haunt us. Certainly the stress of millions of animals outweighs the stress put on my family, friends, etc even after giving more weight to the stress of my family, friends, etc. But this of course is the weakness of an empirical moral theory that gives us no way of measuring the concepts which it tells us we should measure. How can I know whether the harm done to my social life over a lifetime is better or worse than the harm done to factory farmed animals? I don’t know.

  • beala, you’re not responsible for “the stress of millions of animals”

    yes, eating factory-farmed meat contributes to that, but you single-handedly don’t cause their stress. we are all drops in a flood.

    modern humanity is incredibly alienated from our environmental and spiritual origins and connections with the rest of the natural world. we have to balance regaining that against further alienating ourselves from one-another.

  • PartTimeVegan wrote:

    I find this post and the comments very judgemental! A lifestyle is just that, a lifestyle, and the fundamentals of veganism are awesome, to have a passion for life, all life. I have found being vegan very easy. No, I am not going to find vegan options at applebees, outback, or any quickie restaurants, but I can find some exquisite dining in NY City, Philly, CA, Long Island and many other places that I frequent. My husband and I entertain a ton, and when we have guests, we cook– guess what! Vegan meals! It’s simple to cook food everyone loves if you go with a mexican inspired dish, like tacos or fajitas, and no one has a stomach afterwards because there is no dairy or heavy meats. It’s all fresh, grilled veggies and tons of them, caramelized onions, cilantro, guacamole.
    I recently went to a wedding that tons of non-vegan items, matzoh ball soup being one of them. When I asked if they could make me something with no butter or eggs, at a fancy wedding, I got plain pasta with light sauce. Needless to say, I danced all night and hardly missed the food. I had a blast.
    While food is a wonderful tradition with friends and family, it’s not everything, so enjoy everything around you. Look for what you can eat, not for what you can’t, it makes it a much more positive experience.
    My two little ones are vegan at home, also. All four of us are super healthy and feel great. And, our eco-footprint is a little lighter, too.
    Check out my blog, http://www.parttimevegan.com
    we can all do our part, just a little. It’s again, about lifestyle and choices, not judgement of others. The fundamentals are great, but you do have to trust that people believe in the fundamentals, not changing others.

  • Hi there, thanks for stopping by. Although I think you misread my post. I wasn’t engaging in vegan bashing or trying to convert anyone away from being vegan; I was explaining some reasons why I failed to thrive on a vegan diet and why others might fail to thrive, too.

    You seem to have a “live and let live” attitude towards” lifestyles and choices”, which I respect, so I’m not sure why you’re trying to offer me vegan eating tips in order to convince me back into being vegan.

    Also, there’s good reason to think that your eco-footprint is *not* a little lighter. You should read “The Vegetarian Myth” by Lierre Keith to hear the other side of the story. I reviewed it recently:
    http://thisfieldisrequired.com/2010/05/18/book-review-lierre-keiths-the-vegetarian-myth/

  • we tend to think of footprint as a descriptionless quantity — the “amount of land” that we take up. it’s useful, but by no means a complete measure of the damage we do or the space we take up.

    is 10lbs of nitrogen concentration (industrial ag) worse than .005 lbs of mercury concentration (industrial mining/technology)? i’d personally rather have a surplus of concentrated nitrogen vs a surplus of concentrated mercury.

    the single biggest thing those of us in modern industrial culture can do to limit our footprint is to reject modern technology and the massive, incredibly toxic and destructive footprint it implies: no tvs, no computers, maybe a single cell phone for several people, etc. this includes all modern industrial agriculture, not just the atrocious animal stuff.

    i don’t see iPhone vegans complaining about technology, though. in fact, EVERY vegan i’ve ever known has fit into the privileged trendy, tech-saavy stereotype, armed with the latest trendy technologies. and a self-righteous attitude, to boot. i’m sure not all vegans are like this, but i have yet to personally know any exceptions to this experience.

    http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/kenya/100118/congo-conflict-minerals-mining

  • […] is just not worth it. Ex-vegan Pamela Wilson writes on her blog: “I found the vegan lifestyle, with its emphasis on […]

  • I think all English-reading and Swedish-reading vegans would benefit from reading this book, which is out in at least those two languages:

    The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, by Lierre Keith who was vegan for twenty years; she surely didn’t give up on it too soon.

    http://www.amazon.com/Vegetarian-Myth-Food-Justice-Sustainability/dp/1604860804

  • Oops! Never mind, I just saw now that it is mentioned already, so please delete this and the earlier commment by me!

  • Ignorance is bliss wrote:

    I think it is outstanding that “vegans” think their way of eating is better for the enivronment..it’s a lie. Although we should be looking to our farmers to raise healthy animals that go to slaughter, we don’t and that is a shame. Veganism is WORSE for the environment..all of the agriculture is far more harmful than the anything we can do. There is no nutritional value left in the soil that we grow our vegetables in, we are eating vegetables that have 60% less nutrtional value than our parents and grandparents.

    The other remark that it is a healthier diet is also a lie..vegans that want to find information that support their lifestyle is easy, but when did it become okay to eliminate whole groups of food?? Vegans are lacking in Vitamins..vitamin A, D, K and coQ10 to name the few. You can not replace these with vegetables..they are only found in meat. So to be a vegan is ignorant to say the least..it is limiting yourself to a lifestyle and to nutrition that your body and mind need. Why is there so much depression in the world today, especially in North America?? It is from limiting ourselves to certain foods..low fat diets are a huge cause of this..hence veganism..no fat and no dairy..our brains are 80% fat and if we starve our bodies and brains of fat and healthy nurtients we suffer in more ways than we could ever understand..that’s why we shouldn’t limit ourselves to being a vegetarian or vegan!!

  • http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=CNG.35c2caa5efa0e183b7b38a2d0e2b7f40.71&show_article=1

    the above article is one example of vegan problems. In order to be a healthy vegan you must supplement because you are unable to get everything your body needs. Anyway, I can understand wanting to be healthy, and even not wanting to eat animal products, but quite frankly, we need some of it.

  • justin wrote:

    Mother in law is now a vegan. She constantly is belittling her daughter about not being vegan. Pressure Pressure isolation distance enjoy seeing your grandchildren less. I think many people find veganism as a form of food religion. I am better then you and more righteous.
    On the other hand I would think anti slaughterhouse vegans would be pro hunting since the animal is in its natural element and tend to be healthier.

  • Choosing to be vegan should have nothing to do with social situations or status. That is just plain ridiculous. I can can and do eat very vegan but I look at it as more whole food diet…but at any given time in any situation I will eat meat. I prefer fish or livestock that as lightly processed or treated in a way that is as close to traditional farming.
    Biggest problem I have with vegans is they’re use of tons of highly processed foods that are not particularly good for the environment and bad socially as some of the people processing these foods are practically slaves.
    I focus on nuts and whole proteins not tofu.
    Vegans who use margarine and gmo tofu are just full of it and more them likely just ignorant… Funny thing they are the first people to talk smack.
    I eat meat and believe I eat less processed food then any vegan I have known.
    But in the end it should nothing to do with thanksgiving getting ruined… Which is a bs holiday anyway

  • And furthermore I could really care less if you eat people…just that most of what is wrong with society is ignorance… Educate yourself about every avenue..
    PETA shouldn’t be getting scientists to find a substitute. When is PETA going to just be another political machine waiting to line it’s pockets?
    I say do whatever you do but do it smart and with consideration INDIVIDUALLY!!!

  • i just dont care about vegans that act like “i know everything you filthy nazi meat eater” become a vegan has to be a PERSONAL CHOICE not something that they try to force on other people or even their childrens like this folks http://sandyspider.hubpages.com/hub/Vegan-Diet-for-Babies-Good-or-Bad

  • […] something else I want to research, is to let go of the vegan anger towards others. Save that for the ex-vegans, I guess I actually believed I didn’t have any of this ‘vegan anger’. But I […]

  • Hello, always i used to check weblog posts here early in the dawn, since i enjoy to gain knowledge of more and more.

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