He certainly wasn’t the first person you would expect, so when the news hit it was all over the veggie blogosphere. “Bill Clinton goes vegan!” the headlines read, “so should you” was the unwritten subtext. Nevermind that he really wasn’t claiming veganism, admitting to eating fish and taking no stances on animal rights.
If the former Big Mac munchin’ president of the United States could go “(mostly)vegan” for heart health and receive such great benefits, why not you. By his own account Clinton after adopting “essentially a plant-based diet…[living] on beans, legumes, vegetables, fruits” he lost 24 lbs and is feeling great. But is this really the best argument for veganism?
As I’ve said before we need to be very careful about health claims, as far too often the media reports one-off, poorly controlled and designed studies while vastly overstating the implications.
By all accounts Clinton’s dietary change is a health experiment inspired by the likes of Dean Ornish whose work he references in interviews, “I did all this research, and I saw that 82 percent of the people since 1986 who have gone on a plant-based, no dairy, no meat of any kind, no chicken, no turkey — I eat very little fish, once in a while I’ll have a little fish — if you can do it, 82 percent of people have begun to heal themselves.”
In a post over on Science-Based Medicine Dr. Harriet Hall explains the study that is the source of this statement:
“He started with 48 patients with angiographically documented coronary artery disease and randomized 28 of them to an experimental group (a 10% fat vegetarian diet, stopping smoking, stress management training, and moderate exercise) and 20 to a usual-care group. Only 20 experimental and 15 control patients completed the 5 year study. The diameter of the coronary arterial stenoses improved by 3.1 percent in the experimental group and worsened by 11.8 percent in the usual care group. Overall, 82% of experimental-group patients had an average change towards regression. They had about half as many cardiac events: 25 in the experimental group versus 45 in the usual care group. None of the experimental subjects were on any cholesterol-lowering medication, but the usual care group allowed cholesterol-lowering prescriptions, and after 5 years the LDL levels of both groups were the same. In short, only 20 patients were on the diet, and it was not a trial of diet alone, but of intensive lifestyle management involving several other interventions. The study has not been replicated.”
Studies like this might point the direction for further research but with such a small sample size and poor controls its nothing to hang your hat on. While the nutritional adequacy and some benefits of a vegan diet are well accepted, many of the specific and sometimes extreme health benefits claimed by advocates have yet to be irrefutably established in the medical literature. Long term diet and nutrition can be a complex issue for study with many confounding variables, more rigorous studies and much more data will be required to establish any real positive (or negative) effects of a vegan diet.
Clinton also cites Caldwell Esselstyn and authors of The China Study, T. Colin Campbell and his son, Tom Campbell as inspiration. Ive previously mentioned the China Study as an example of poor evidence for the nutrition argument and it has been thoroughly torn apart so I will not directly address that book for now. In Dr. Esselstyn’s book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, he oversteps the evidence to conclude that following his restricted vegan-type diet can prevent “strokes, hypertension, obesity, osteoporosis, adult-onset diabetes, and possibly senile mental impairment, as well … impotence and cancers of the breast, prostate, colon, rectum, uterus, and ovaries.”
Such grandiose promises may appeal to an unskeptical segment of the population already obsessed with health and fad diets, but the claims just are not rational or well supported. Poor reasoning and fallacious arguments in the long run distract from the central cause of animal rights. Once the weight is off or health benefits don’t materialize folks are likely to abandon the diet and be the next poster child of the ex-vegans. As noted by Ginny Messina, The Vegan RD, in a recent must-read-post on supplements, “There are many reasons why people abandon vegan diets, and bad nutrition advice from within the vegan community is probably one of them. “
When promoting veganism our reasons should be clear, it isnt the newest weight loss fad, nor a panacea. It’s a stance that rejects the anthropocentric and speciesist bias of our culture, an ethical choice aimed at reducing suffering and ultimately achieving animal liberation. As Matt Ball of Vegan Outreach had to say, “Ultimately, the bottom line is: Reduce Suffering. Everything has to answer to this. I can’t emphasize this enough: the only thing that matters is to reduce suffering. If you accept this as the What, the next question is, How? At this time, in this country, we choose to promote veganism. However, veganism is not an end in and of itself. We don’t promote veganism because ‘veganism is good.’ Veganism is merely a tool to reduce suffering.”
UPDATE:For more on this topic I highly recommend this new post titled How the Health Argument Fails Veganism by Ginny Messina, the Vegan RD. She pulls no punches in getting to the point,“here is the problem with using the health argument in this way—it’s that there isn’t any health argument for veganism. There is, of course, a pretty good argument for eating more plants (lots more plants) and less animal food, but no one has shown that you must eat a 100 percent plant diet in order to be healthy. So to make an argument for a 100% vegan diet based on health benefits alone, we have no choice but to stretch the truth. We have to overstate the benefits of vegan diets, and sometimes minimize or dismiss the risks. And as soon as we stray from the actual facts, our advocacy is on shaky ground. “