Once again ex-vegans are causing a stir. This time it’s Tasha of the quite popular foodie blog VoraciousEats (formerly VoraciousVegan). In a recent post she describes her health problems of depression, fatigue, dizziness, and other troubles, her subsequent abandonment of veganism, and near instantaneous recovery “My first bite of meat after 3.5 years of veganism was both the hardest and easiest thing I’ve ever done. Tears ran down my face as saliva pooled in my mouth. The world receded to a blank nothingness and I just ate, and ate, and ate. I cried in grief and anger, while moaning with pleasure and joy…I had only eaten a small piece of cow flesh, and yet I felt totally full, but light and refreshed all at once.” Excuse me if I’m a bit skeptical.
I dont wish to disparage someone with genuine health problems but given the context and tone of the post it is clear that more than just a necessary dietary shift for health reasons has taken place but a total change of philosophy. Tasha arrives at the same “epiphany” as numerous new “happy meat” advocates, that a vegan diet is destructive to personal health and the environment.
That numerous ex-vegans mention reading the likes of Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith(discussed earlier), or even the long de-bunked Secret Life of Plants just prior to their conversion makes me a bit suspicious. Especially when people sometimes appear to self-diagnose by matching their non-specific symptoms to those of a writer with lifelong chronic health problems. The symptoms described by many ex-vegans are reminiscent of “symptoms of life” experienced by imagined sufferers of chronic fatigue, Lyme disease, or gluten intolerance all of which actually do afflict some people but have in recent times become widespread self-diagnosed fads. The non-specific nature of the symptoms mean we must be very careful in ascribing them to any particular pathology. While people can have genuine vitamin deficiencies and medical issues, these things need to be confirmed with a doctor (as Tasha appeared to do) and preferably a dietitian not a nutritionist as the latter is an unregulated title. If you do have a nutrient deficiency you can usually work with a dietitian to find out how to modify your diet or what supplements you need while still remaining vegan.
Importantly we must remember to not put put too much stock into anecdotes about health on the internet. Keep in mind, the plural of anecdote is not data.
Another thing that raises a red flag for me is that many are abandoning veganism not for a traditional western diet but for raw, gluten-free, or paleo diets which are themselves on the fringe with mostly controversial evidence to support them. The attitude of these ex-vegans also does not seem to reflect an anguished anti-speciesist forced into consuming flesh, rather they revel in it as noted by Ginny Messina, The Vegan RD, “I understand that someone who believes they require meat may need to tweak their overall perspective to make it feel ethically okay to eat it. But, there is a big difference between choosing to include small amounts of meat in your diet for health reasons versus absolutely reveling in meat consumption as is reflected in Tasha’s recent twitter post: “Bacon, bacon, bacon…how did I ever live without you for so long?” Or this: “Lunch – bacon egg cheese and jalapeno quesadilla. I’m so happy to be eating food that I love.””
Tasha removed all doubt as to her bias when she dropped this hammer, “I know that the lipid hypothesis is completely fallacious, these animal foods won’t hurt me or cause me ill health in anyway, in fact, the vitamins and minerals they provide, along with the nutritious cholesterol and wholesome saturated fat, will restore my health.” Nutritious cholesterol!? Wholesome saturated fat!? Im sorry but as already stated in this vegan dietitians review of The Vegetarian Myth, “we have no dietary need for either saturated fat or cholesterol—there is no RDA for either. The liver makes all the cholesterol our bodies require. And the two essential fatty acids required by humans—both unsaturated—are found in plant foods.”
The Vegetarian Myth is likely where Tasha got this idea. In her book Keith writes mockingly, “The Lipid Hypothesis—the theory that ingested fat causes heart disease—is the stone tablet that the Prophets of Nutrition have brought down from the mountain. We have been shown the one, true way: cholesterol is the demon of the age, the dietary Black Plague, a judgment from an angry God, condemning those who stray into the Valley of Animal Products with disease.” The resources Keith sites are less than impressive being mostly non-scientific and pseudo-scientific popular sources with little reliance on the medical literature. The lipid hypothesis is the now well supported hypothesis that a major factor in heart disease is the accumulation of lipids on the arterial walls or more generally elevated blood cholesterol levels but Keith is part of a wider movement of “cholesterol skeptics” represented in part by groups such as the Weaston A Price Foundation (“butter is a superfood”) and the The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics (THINCS). In stating their *clearly* unbiased scientific opinion on their home page THINCS had this to say “For decades, enormous human and financial resources have been wasted on the cholesterol campaign, more promising research areas have been neglected, producers and manufacturers of animal food all over the world have suffered economically, and millions of healthy people have been frightened and badgered into eating a tedious and flavorless diet or into taking potentially dangerous drugs for the rest of their lives. As the scientific evidence in support of the cholesterol campaign is non-existent, we consider it important to stop it as soon as possible.”
Just like Anthropogenic Global Warming skeptics, THINCS are skeptics in name only. They place themselves at the fringe of science ignoring vast amounts of peer reviewed literature in the name of supporting or tearing down a hypothesis often seemingly with political or economic bias. Their web page is filled with emotionally charged language alleging a conspiracy to cover up the “truth”. The overreaction from the global warming alarmists or in this case health-nuts doesn’t help matters when they make unfounded health claims of their own or present flimsy evidence such as the China Study. Contrary to what the cholesterol deniers would have you believe there is plenty of evidence for the lipid hypothesis, though they do raise some reasonable concerns about over-prescription of statins and the need for much more research in nutrition, they come off as ideologues.
The debate over the evidence for the lipid hypothesis is still very complex, so we need to be careful about any health claims we make. The most rational position is to not make positive health claims but to just stick with the ADA, “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes.” What we need is a measured and rational approach to nutrition, be skeptical of health claims for particular foods and to not overstep the literature.
I highly recommend this article by Harriet Hall over on Science-Based Medicine and this follow up for an in-depth look at cholesterol skeptics by a knowledgeable doctor.
The Skeptic’s Dictionary review of Uffe Ravnskov’s The Cholesterol Myths is also well worth the read
Please go read Theo’s post on our companion blog VeganSkeptic about this incident and how it illustrates a greater need for skepticism in the animal rights and vegan community.