(Sorry for the haphazard posting this week… it turned out to be a busier one than I expected. I’ll continue the series through the weekend.)
Veg Blog reader Charles sent this question:
I’m a fairly new vegan. I’m sure other new vegetarians or vegans are likely to encounter long time vegetarians who went back to eating meat “for health reasons.” They realize, sometimes after 10 or more years, that they are not getting enough protein or iron or whatever.
As a new vegan, I have no response to them because I figure they’ve been a vegetarian (for many years). Who am I – a new vegan – to question their conclusion?
How do new vegans handle ex-vegans who think the vegan diet is unhealthy?
This is an interesting question and I’m curious what other readers have to say about it. Here’s my take on it.
Whenever I hear from an ex-vegan or vegetarian, my gut reaction is probably a bit judgemental. After all, maybe there are some legitimate health reasons that certain people need to go back to meat, fish, dairy, or eggs. I’m not a nutritionist, so how would I know for sure?
But here’s the thing: most of the ex’s I’ve encountered that stopped being veg for health reasons were told to do so by their primary care physician. We all know that doctors don’t receive adequate nutrition educaton* (I’ve gotten the “how do you get your protein?” question from doctors a few too many times, myself), so I don’t know that I’d necessarily take their advice without consulting a knowledgeable nutritionist first.
If you’re comfortable enough in the situation, probe the ex-veg for more information. If they say they had to start eating meat again for the protein, ask them how much protein they need to eat in a day (the average man only needs 55-60 grams a day). I’m willing to bet that most don’t know. Then point out that it’s really easy to get enough protein if you’re eating a diet with varied beans, nuts whole grains, etc. When my wife was pregnant, she regularly got 80-90 grams of protein a day.
If iron is their thing, ask them about supplementing, fortified foods, or whether they tried eating iron rich foods with vitamin C (while avoiding tea and coffee) to increase absorption.
The point is, in most cases it’s not a lack of meat that’s the problem, but a lack of nutrients or a poorly planned diet. Look at Donald Watson. Dude was a vegan before there was even the word “vegan.” (Literally. He invented it.) Watson died in 2005 at 95 years old. If you can find some interviews he did in the last few years, you’ll be amazed at how sharp and insightful he was, right up until the end. In the last decade of his life, he “climbed many of the major peaks of the Lake District” in northwest England. If someone can be vegan for over 60 years, most of it during a time when there were no vegan convenience foods and less was known about vegan nutrition, I find it very hard to believe that a vegan diet can rationally be considered “unhealthy.”
Of course, this only handles the reasons behind health-related switches back to the dark side. How to handle this in a socially acceptible manner is a whole ‘nother problem. As with any time you’re trying to make a point that may be taken as a criticism, it’s all in the tone of your voice and how you present yourself. Gently try and get them to open up about not only why they started eating meat again, but whether it bothers them that they had to do so. Ask them whether they would give up meat/dairy/eggs again if they could do so without risking their health. Perhaps they’ll say yes, particularly if they were veg for ethical reasons. At this point, let it go.
Give it a few hours or a day and do a little research online. Then, drop them an e-mail saying, “I was thinking about our conversation earlier and came across a few articles that you might want to check out…” Enlist the help of the PCRM or a vegan forum. Get the idea in their head that, hey, maybe being veg again is possible.
Who I find really difficult to deal with are militant ex-vegans. They are far worse than any so called “militant vegans” I’ve ever met. These are the people who feel they have the experience and, therefore, the right to disparage veganism or vegetarianism because they “used to be one of those.” I don’t know about you, but I can never imagine giving up veganism and I can’t imagine any truly committed vegan ever going back to animal products and disparaging their former lifestyle at the same time. These militant ex-vegans with a chip on their shoulder may not be worth engaging in an argument. Let them blow off their steam and, in turn, look like blowhards to everyone else. Lead by example and just leave them with a simple phrase like, “Huh. That’s weird. I’ve always thought it’s pretty easy/healthy/fun being vegan.” There aren’t many ways they can come back against that without sounding like a fool.
To summarize… for those that are regretfully ex-veg: discuss, question, research, inform. For antagonistic ex-vegans: don’t get dragged into arguments. They’re not worth the trouble.
* Did I really just link to an article by the California Table Grape Commission as a source? Yikes. How about this one instead.