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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21 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 […]

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