Those who are vegan — a dietary practice which excludes all animal or animal by products — are growing in number. According to the Toronto Vegetarian Association, vegans and vegetarians make up approximately four per cent of the Canadian population. There are many misconceptions about these practices that are constantly reinforced and are simply not true. If you find it important to act on accurate information in order to make better informed decisions, please read on.
Myth #1: Being vegan is extremely unhealthy
Unfortunately most of our nutrition education comes in the form of “the four food groups” and ends there. You have fruits and vegetables in one category, grain products, meats and also dairy. The myth that excluding meat and other animal by-products from your diet will make you unhealthy is a serious deterrent to anyone thinking about going vegan, vegetarian or just reducing their amount of consumption.
To eliminate confusion, what we all should know about nutrition is the following. It is not common knowledge that eating well is the most important variable determining long-term health. At best, lacking proper nutrition will make you feel tired, constipated and starved; at worst, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke and arthritis are possible outcomes of not eating right. Colin and Thomas Campbell in The China Study, the most comprehensive cumulative research on nutrition, write that the answer to the health crisis is the food that each of us chooses to put in our mouths each day.
We are often confused because we are bombarded by advertising with shallow solutions. Fad dieting (Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, juice cleanses, Protein Power and The South Beach Diet), supplements, surgery and other quick fixes dilute the real power of long-term changes in nutrition.
“Impressive evidence now exists to show that advanced heart disease, relatively advanced cancers of certain types, diabetes and a few other degenerative diseases can be reversed by diet,” stated in The China Study.
What you need to know about eating vegan nutrition wise is the following: eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day; eat six or more servings of bread, pasta and cereal every day, eat high-fat foods sparingly, keep intake of sugars to a minimum and drink plenty of water. These are all nutrition facts based on the traditional four food group model, with the difference of eliminating or replacing animal products. However, being vegan or vegetarian does not automatically gives you super powers or make you healthier than people who consume animal products, but it does reduce risk of some diseases.
According to the British Journal of Cancer, people who eat vegan meals are 45 per cent less likely to develop cancer of the blood and 12 per cent less likely to develop cancer overall.
To keep your health intact, it requires constant attention and adequate information so you can make the best decisions.
Animals vs. plant proteins
“The story of protein is part science, part culture and a good dose of mythology,” writes Campbell.
This means that protein has become synonymous with meat and constructed as the most important thing we put into our bodies. This is the main concern people tend to have with vegan/vegetarian diets: where do you get your protein? The truth is that not even doctors know the correct answer to that question. I once went to get my blood checked to see if I was lacking any important vitamins. I found out I was iron deficient, a reason to suggest that my vegan diet was hurting me. The quick fix prescribed by the doctor would be to take supplements or start consuming flesh again (unthinkable to me). He had the misconception that to get the same amount of protein as a steak, I would have to eat buckets and buckets of spinach. Authority figures who spread misinformation are doing a terrible disservice. Most people don’t have the time to learn about all the details on nutrition, therefore they rely on professionals, who often reinforce outdated myths. While my iron deficiency is a problem, I hope to address it by eating right. This has led me to figure out what other sources of protein are out there and how much is needed.
You can get protein from all whole plant foods. High protein foods like legumes, tofu, and veggie “meats” have comparable or even higher levels of protein. For comparison, two oz. of chicken has 15.3 grams of protein whereas ½ cup of tofu has 19.9; two oz. of ground beef has 10.6, where one cup of kidney beans has 15.4; 2 oz. of salmon has 15.5, where one cup of lentils has 17.9. Other traditional forms of protein said to be important to consume are milks, cheeses and eggs. ½ cup of two per cent milk has 4.0 grams of protein, where ½ cup of brown rice has 4.5; ¾ oz. of cheese has 5.3, where ¼ cup of almonds has 7.4; one egg has 5.5, where ¼ cup of pumpkin seeds have 8.5, or 3 tablespoons of sesame tahini has 8.1.
It is also a misconception that protein-rich foods are the most important thing in your diet. Other important nutrients are calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and B12 and whole grains.
“Questioning protein and animal-based foods in general ran the risk of my being labelled a heretic, even if it passed the test of ‘good science’,” writes Campbell. In The China Study, one of the main findings was that people who ate the most animal-based foods developed the most chronic disease. Even relatively small intakes of animal-based food were associated with adverse effects.
“Casein, which makes up 87 per cent of cow’s milk protein, promoted all stages of the cancer process. What type of protein did not promote cancer, even at high levels of intake? The safe proteins were from plants, including wheat and soy. As this picture came into view, it began to challenge and then to shatter some of my most cherished assumptions.”
If we take a deeper look at the dairy industry, we find that milk is advocated by various agencies of the U.S. and Canadian government, doctors and the advertising industry. Common knowledge is that milk is healthy for us – even garnering its own food group. Soy, almond, hemp, rice and coconut milks are all healthy alternatives that are easily accessible; very much the same with alternatives to meats. Unfortunately another misconception is that these products are more expensive and therefore inaccessible.
Myth #2: Having a vegan diet is expensive and for certain people
If we take seriously the health implications of consuming animal products, it is clear that down the road, it is actually more expensive for individuals, companies or governments to fund healthcare which could have been prevented with proper nutrition.
However, the foods that are most important to our health are often inaccessible.
While it is more expensive to buy the speciality items in health food stores — Tofutti cream cheese, almond ice cream, vegan sausages and frozen vegetarian burgers — these items are just that – speciality items; they are a fraction of what vegans consume. This also goes for restaurants: eating out every night is obviously going to cost you a lot and prices are usually the same for vegan or vegetarian options. Vegan meals are easier and cheaper to prepare, on an individual and mass scale. In my own experience as a student trying to save a much money as possible, buying vegetables from clearing shelves and dried legumes is always cheaper. It never crossed my mind how much cheaper this was when compared to a McDonalds meal or a carton of eggs. My experiences with the group Food Not Bombs has also allowed me to see how cooking mass amounts of food is much cheaper when you cut out the animal products.
There is also the fact that food prices are political in nature. The dairy, egg and meat industries are heavily subsidized by the government; our tax dollars are paying for these industries so we can afford them and they can continue to grow. Why do you think a gallon of milk across the border is pure gold for Canadians? In the U.S, around $200 billion was spent to subsidize commodity crops from 1995 to 2010. Two-thirds of this went to animal-feed crops, tobacco and cotton. Farmers who grow fruits, vegetables and tree nuts receive no regular direct subsidies. Although in Ontario where we pride ourselves on these farms, farmers may have it easier.
Organic foods are much more expensive because of this, even though the amount of labour and energy going into slaughterhouses, egg farms and processing plants for animal products is much higher than an organic vegetable farm.
The price of canned goods is also more expensive because of the labour and raw material used to produce the actual aluminium can.
There is also an undeniable connection with health and poverty. Those who live below the poverty line have a harder time accessing foods that would improve their health. In Ontario, those who could pay their rent and still eat properly used the Special Diet Allowance, an additional payment of up to $250 per month, which was cut in 2012. In 2003, poor people were receiving six million dollars a year through the Special Diet Allowance. By 2009, that figure had climbed to more than $200 million dollars.
Michael Hurley of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) said that nutrition is key to keeping people well, especially for people with medical conditions who need a special diet. “To cancel that diet is cruel and will send them into hospitals at cost of $1,000 a day,” said Hurley.
By equating a lifestyle of health and nonviolence to those who can afford it, we misrepresent veganism/vegetarianism and reinforce negative stereotypes that those in poverty are unhealthy by choice. Labelling vegans as elite also misses a huge intersection between food accessibility and class, and how it is largely a political issue instead of an individual one.
Only white people are vegan
Veganism is not only a dietary practice but it is an identity marker for some.
While veganism/vegetarianism is seemingly becoming more widespread, it is dominating Western culture, which has become constructed as white. Even though there may be good intentions behind them, things like cookbooks, television shows, web sites, social media, restaurants and non-profits disproportionately exclude people of colour and Indigenous folk. Vegan foods and products are also marketed towards white people.
What is often lost in these representations is that people of colour and Indigenous people practice nutrition that is plant-based and have been doing so before colonization.
The Sistah Vegan Project has done a great job attempting to deal with these complex intersections. The project focuses on how plant-based lifestyles are affected by race, racisms, sexism, heterosexism, classism and other social injustices.
Breeze Harper, who has developed this project, writes that it comes from her want to raise questions about westernized middle-class foundations of mainstream veganism and ethical eating philosophy.
“How are black female vegans using veganism and other holistic health practices to decolonize their bodies and engage in health activism that resists institutionalized and systemic racism?” she asks.
“If a majority of Blacks have a negative perception of Whiteness, because of racism/classism that they have experienced for 400 years, and they have come to believe that veganism or ethical eating philosophy is a “White thing” and in no way connected to deconstructing systemic racism/classism, how can one create and present a model that presents veg-[etari]anism as a tool that simultaneously resists 1) legacies of slavery such as institutionalized racism/classism 2) environmental degradation and 3) high rates of health diseases plaguing the Black community?”
Myth #3: Vegans only care about animals
Saying that vegans ONLY care about animals is a very narrow-minded argument. Although there are many reasons to go vegan, each person who decides to participate in such a practice or have it as a foundation for activism, has their own reasons. However, every reason is a positive one. Health is a large motivation for people to choose to go vegan: when you are healthy, think of the things you could do in life. Going vegan for the ethics is also an important motivation for many people. The largest argument against meat consumption and for a vegan diet is its impact on the environment.
According to the United Nations, meat production and factory farming are responsible for 70 per cent of freshwater consumption, 38 per cent of land use and 19 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Methane from livestock is also 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a global warming gas.
“A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel, poverty and the worst impacts of climate change,” says the 2010 U.N report.
It is therefore misguided to say that those who choose to lessen the suffering of animals have a narrow focus. In my own life, many of the vegans I know are involved with many other social justice projects and campaigns; the intersections between human and animal liberation are undeniable.
Saying that people should only focus on humans is speciesist and awfully dogmatic. Who is to say what a person should focus their energy on? Thinking more broadly, both humans and non-humans would mutually benefit from a world where there is less domination and suffering.