Food

Unsavory: The Problem With Angry Vegans Who Push and Preach Their Ideals

It's time to stop trying to convince people that they need to follow a particular food fad or theory.

Let’s start this year right. Understand that fad diets don’t fix, and edible idealism, whether veganism or “farm to table,” is just not a reality for most. Like Michael Pollan, I agree that people should aim to “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” because this is ideal for human and habitat health.

But let’s get real. We live in a processed food nation, so for change to occur people must be met where they are if shifting food choice and better health are the end goal. We must never forget that each person’s starting point differs. But sadly, there are way too many foodies and health professionals preaching the “ideal,” and inevitably doing more harm than good.

Several years ago I attended a lecture given by Neil Barnard, a clinical researcher, author, vegan, and one of the nation’s leading advocates for health, nutrition and higher standards in research. During the Q&A, I posed this question: “If you have a patient who seeks your guidance but does not want to adapt a vegan way of life, how do you honor where they are at and guide them towards healthier food choices?”

His answer was something like this: “I would tell that patient that if they want to be healthy, then vegan is the answer.”

What the fork?

Is veganism edible idealism? Evidently Barnard and many other notable health practitioners (and animal rights activists) think so, and they preach and push their ideals, often without honoring or respecting where people actually are and where they can go. Is this healthy?

Recently, notable historian, author and vegan James McWilliams lashed out at Andrew Gunther, program director of Animal Welfare Approved, an organization that sets standards for the highest level of animal welfare in farm animal production. In his article, Three (Bad) Arguments for Killing Animals, McWilliams asked Gunther, “How do you justify caring for animal welfare and then killing the animal?” Gunther replied, “Death is not a welfare issue. Quality of life is a welfare issue.”

McWilliams continued, “Gunther is saying…if you treat an animal well you are dutifully fulfilling a moral obligation, but when you want to eat the animal, you can toss duty and moral consideration out the barn door and send the poor beast to an untimely and callous death.”

Aside from completing missing Gunther’s point—a quick glance at Animal Welfare Approved’s standards shows that the slaughter process is strictly regulated and therefore, definitely not “callous”—has McWilliams ever thought that perhaps not everyone wants to be a vegan, and that despite his best efforts (and those of Barnard), people will continue to eat animal foods? And if eating animals is a person’s choice, having a real system in place that monitors the welfare and health of the animals from birth to slaughter, as well as the environment, is absolutely a good thing.

Barnard and other like-minded medical doctors took the Hippocratic Oath, a universal vow to “abstain from doing harm,” upon graduating from medical school. While I realize that “harm” is open for interpretation, would it be fair to say that not respecting where a person is at  and not honoring what they are capable of doing is harmful? Well, yes, that is! I see it firsthand in my practice as a culinary nutritionist.

I consider Barnard and McWilliams edible evangelists (or angry vegans) seeking to convert those to live within their values and ideals without stopping for a moment to consider the fact that maybe there is a middle ground. Newsflash: There is no silver bullet for health, animal welfare and the environment. Isn’t helping people do better the truly sustainable choice, rather than venomously judging?

I am not here to argue the merits of a vegan diet, or even that of an omnivorous one. I will leave that to T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study and Loren Cordain, founder of the Paleolithic diet. I will not get into the finer details of navigating a truly healthy diet (whether plant-centric or not), how your food choice impacts the environment, and how small changes can make big everyday differences. (You can read my book for that.)

The message here is that it is time to stop trying to convince people that they need to follow a particular food fad or theory to achieve optimum health. Educating people and gently guiding them toward more health-supportive food choices are the answers. With this, people will be respected for what they can do. And with better consumer choice we can all work toward an improved food system and finer health.

As people we are constantly evolving, so I only hope that Barnard has softened his approach since our last encounter. And to James McWilliams: angry vegans are totally unsavory.

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Stefanie Sacks is a culinary nutritionist, author and educator. She is the author of What the Fork Are You Eating? (Tarcher/Penguin Random House). Her blog, What The Fork Weekly features her Stirring the Pot radio show, which airs on Hamptons NPR, WPPB 88.3FM and via podcast.