My husband and I take very different approaches to activism. While I'm more rescue and writing focused, he's an advocate and excellent vegan cook. Together, we make a fairly well-rounded team, but until now you've only heard from one of us. That changes with this guest entry, which will hopefully be one of many going forward.
I asked him to write something about our love for human animals, since vegans are often accused of sacrificing them in favor of the non-human variety. What he gave me was the following excellent discussion of the physical and psychological benefits of the vegan diet. So without further preamble, I give you my husband and fellow activist, Sean P.O. MacCath-Moran.
Vegans are often viewed as being people who are over-concerned about the plight of helpless creatures, driving themselves to deny the sweetest pleasures of life in vain efforts to help the fuzzy-wuzzies. To some small extent, there is some truth in this view, since many who are vegan choose to be so for ethical reasons. However, whatever the underlying motivation, it's interesting to look at how thoroughly beneficial the lifestyle is to human health. In fact, in addition to the amazing diversity of foods they get exposed to, those who follow a balanced vegan diet are significantly less likely to contract a slew of major diseases plaguing the Western World from cancers to diabetes to blood pressure problems.
I recognize that there are a metric whack of interesting issues that might be covered by a discourse on veganism, including broad topics such as the environment, societal well-being, et al., as well as more granular examinations of particular issues, but these will have to wait for future write-ups. For this piece, I'll concentrate on providing some broad-strokes coverage of how veganism effects human health from two perspectives: physical and psychological.
Although certain groups would have one believe otherwise (perhaps particularly proponents of Paleoism), it's fairly difficult to effectively argue against the healthfulness of veganism from a scientific basis. One of the huge and immediate health benefits of switching from an omnivorous or vegetarian diet to veganism is the near elimination of saturated fats, dramatically increasing ones immediate and long-term health1. It also provides more and steadier fiber (increasing bowel health and cancer resistance)2. Eating a balanced diet as a vegan naturally provides a steady supply of necessary nutrients, many of which are less prevalent or even rare when one is consuming animal proteins instead; these include magnesium (increased calcium absorption), potassium (water/acidity balancer and kidney regulator), folate (increased blood health), a slew of antioxidants (cellular health and cancer prevention), vitamin C (immune system booster), vitamin E (general tissue health, including brain, eyes, skin, and heart), phytochemicals (health restoration/booster and antioxidant aid), and a metric whack of others. It's ironic, when you think about it, that so many are quick to suggest that new vegans need to closely monitor their nutritional intake, as though they weren't switching to food sources with much higher nutritional values!
It's also noteworthy that, unlike omnivores, vegans generally get to eat until completely full without inundating the body with too much protein. If that statement seems surprising to you, it may be because you've been inundated since your youth with messages about how important protein is, and how animals and their secretions are the best sources for these. What this leaves off is that the majority of omnivores are taking in around 200% of their RDA of protein, and many scientists feel that those RDA levels are higher than appropriate to begin with3! Vegans, on the other hand, receive the benefit of spreading their protein intake around all their food groups, generally taking in just over 100% of their RDA (when following a balanced diet)4. Besides being accompanied by so many unneeded calories, saturated fats, etc., the down-side to taking in all that extra animal-based-protein is that this over-intake has been identified as a cause of bone loss (i.e. osteoporosis)5.
But the list of healthsome benefits goes on and on6 -- longer than I have space to fill or you have patience to read, I'm sure! My primary point in bringing up the physical benefits is dispel the notion that veganism is a nutritionally insufficient life-way.
Psychology is a fairly subjective science, requiring much setting of context and conditions before diving into any particular topic. To properly and fully address the issue of psychological health as it applies to vegans, one would likely need to start by establishing the difference between "the right" school of thought (e.g. Kantian morality) and how it corresponds with Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development against "the good" school of thought (e.g. utilitarianism) and how it corresponds with Hoffman's Theory of Empathy Development... But that would a dry and *boring* bit of scholastic navel-gazing that few would be interested in sifting through, don't you think?
Instead, I'll address something more more down-to-earth, tangible, and particular: the liberation one feels when no longer being required to believe that living beings should treated humanely while simultaneously holding onto the idea that it is somehow humane to kill those same beings. For any objective observer, these are contradictory ideas that cannot coexist; it is simply and obviously not compatible to be concerned about the welfare an individual being but to also be okay with killing that same individual being, and yet many upon many manage exactly that. In fact, they've been living with the resulting cognitive dissonance for so long that most cannot readily identify with it as being a conflict at all, yet there it is.
Anecdotally, as someone who grew up on a working farm raising, killing, butchering and eating various "food animals" (e.g. cows, pigs, chickens, goats, etc.) while also raising and caring for various "non-food animals" (e.g. horses, dogs, cats, etc.), I can attest to how deeply ingrained the acceptance of these conflicting notions can be. It wasn't until I was a decade away from the ranch, and being married to a vegetarian for a couple of years, and after consciously deciding to use a course on environmental ethics as an opportunity to prove that eating animals was a morally acceptable act, that I finally realized the plain truth: you cannot really care that a living being is treated well and also believe that it's okay to kill it.
The happy ending to all of this is that when people do make the connection that you cannot have one without having the other, then they release a burden they didn't know was being carried. For myself, it was like how I imagine it would be to have tinnitus my whole life, all the while not really noticing the constant background whine, and to one day have the noise removed. Once its presence and absence are identified, its return is not easily tolerated. It was a dividing moment in my life; there was a before and an after, and I can clearly see how my psychological health has benefited for the absence of the conflicting ideas.
Healthy For Life
So, where does this leave the enlightened reader? It's true that becoming vegan requires a significant lifestyle change, but as one who is on the other side of that transition, I can tell you that it looks a lot bigger than it actually is. My standard advice to folks looking to make the change is two-fold whether their motivation is based in better health, stronger ethics, or environmental respect.
First, it really is important to keep informed about the issues. Talk to others when you can (be it in person or online), since doing so provides support as well as knowledge. If you're a reader, then there are a metric whack of useful texts on the subject. Pick up some vegan-centric cook-books and experiment with new ingredients. Explore. Discover. Be better.
Second, trying to make every possible change all at once is usually the road to failure. Instead, make small changes, perhaps a couple per week, and as it suits your lifestyle. My quick-and-easy recommendation would be to begin with the big offenders currently in your kitchen: dairy! The next time you go to by milk, think about getting almond milk instead. Likewise with butter, replacing it with something like Earth Balance. Instead of eggs, make a tofu scramble (it's the same amount of work to cook, but requires different spicing is all). When baking, instead of eggs try using 1/4 cup applesauce per egg, or try blending 3 tbsp. hot water with 1 tbsp. flax seed (which works GREAT and is amazingly good for you).
Finally, whatever you do, do it with joy, and know that I for one wish you all the strength you need to live life truly in accordance with your values.
- 1. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/PreventionTreatmentofHighCholesterol/Know-Your-Fats_UCM_305628_Article.jsp
- 2. http://scholar.google.ca/scholar?q=fiber+bowels+cancer&hl=en&btnG=Search&as_sdt=1%2C5&as_sdtp=on
- 3. Just Ecological Integrity: The Ethics of Maintaining Planetary Life (page 145)
- 4. The Dietitian's Guide to Vegetarian Diets (page 67)
- 5. http://www.annieappleseedproject.org/higanprotbon.html
- 6. http://www.nursingdegree.net/blog/19/57-health-benefits-of-going-vegan