Tag Archives: Health

A Month of Vegan Research: The China Study

the-china-study

The following literature review is part of a series for World Vegan Month. Other essays can be accessed by visiting the essays catalog.


 

T. Colin Campbell.  2006.  The China Study:  The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-term Health.  Dallas, TX:  BenBella Books.

While most people go vegan and stay vegan for ethical reasons, a common stereotype is that advocates face is the belief that humans need to consume Nonhuman Animal products for optimal health.  Research, however, warns that this simply isn’t true.

The China Study relies on decades of research conducted by Dr. Campbell that compares the diet and health of preindustrial China to Western nations.  What he finds is that Chinese people (usually rural inhabitants) who consume a plant-based diet have much better health.  As people migrate to bigger cities in China or to the West (where animal-based diets are more common), they start to accrue illnesses quickly.

the-china-study

He also explores hundreds of other scientific studies that support this dietary link.  Plant protein and animal protein are broken down very differently in human bodies.  Animal products are linked to a litany of debilitating and life threatening diseases including heart disease, cancer, auto-immune diseases (like diabetes), mental diseases (like Alzheimer’s), eye diseases, kidney diseases, and even osteoporosis.  This book is worth reading so that we can have a basic understanding of the health consequences of non-vegan lifestyles.

The immense suffering of speciesism impacts humans as well as nonhumans and the environment.  In this way, ethical veganism is as much about human rights as it is about Nonhuman Animal rights. Campbell considers the political reasons for obscuring this life-saving information and provides practical solutions for changing diet.

A glaring flaw with the piece is the overwhelming reliance on data obtained from Nonhuman Animal testing, which is counterintuitive to a vegan ethic and is usually indicative of bad science.  Considerable research demonstrates that tests on other species do little to inform human biology and can often present misleading results.

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

 

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism and its potential benefit to human society in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on November 22, 2013.

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Could Fat-Shaming and Health-Shaming Encourage Veganism?

Pink striped socks standing on pink scale

 
Fat-shaming and health-shaming, two popular tactics in the vegan movement. Want to get that beach body? Go vegan. Want to cure yourself of depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, or heart disease? Go vegan. Remain nonvegan at your own risk.

The majority of activists and organizations regularly tout the wonders of veganism for curing humanity’s many ailments, and, in doing so, they create a vegan-as-healthful / nonvegan-as-unhealthful dichotomy which invites shaming. Shaming nonvegans does not work because stigmatizing health behaviors in general does not work.

Stigma strategies have been employed against fat people, people with HIV/AIDS, people who abuse heroin, and more. The thinking is that the facilitation of a culture of stigma will facilitate social control. I have been teaching deviance and stigma with Colorado State University for several years, and I frequently emphasize to my students that these approaches are not based in evidence, but rather in discrimination.

Shaming strategies individualize what are essentially structural issues. That is, instead of focusing on food production, food access, poverty, racism, or classism, shaming focuses on each person’s presumably good or bad choices within that system. There is a false assumption of equal access in opportunities and choices. There is also a failure to acknowledge painful oppressions faced by those who are cut off from privileged pathways.

Many scholars and activists who specialize in the critical study of age, ability, and size emphasize that what is considered healthy is often more subjective than we, as a society, are willing to acknowledge. Healthfulness as a social construction depends upon a number of ascribed advantages that grant the privileged class the ability to define “normal” and “healthy” for everyone else.

Unfortunately, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement regularly pulls on established stigmas in hopes of shaming its audience into veganism. This tactic, however, is unsupported. More importantly, evidence demonstrates that stigma strategies only aggravate oppression. Anthropocentric approaches also incorrectly present veganism as a diet and invisibilize Nonhuman Animals, whose injustice should be centralized.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.Readers can learn more about the problems with stigma strategies in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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You Won’t Believe This Shocking Whole Foods “Healthcare” Policy

Photo by Jay Janner

Photo by Jay Janner

Cooperation with speciesist industry is a primary tactic for professionalized organizations in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, despite its dangerous consequences for normalizing a post-speciesist ideology. This strategy concerns me as it normalizes capitalism, despite capitalism’s inherent need to exploit social inequality.

“Father” of Nonhuman Animal rights and elite philosopher Peter Singer supports this pro-capitalist route, insisting that those with the privilege to do so should financially support the world’s poor, generally by funneling wealth through carefully selected, elite-operated charities. From this perspective, it is not necessarily the unequal system that is the problem, but rather the failure for more privileged parties to take care of those underneath them.

Altruism and corporate success are fundamentally incongruent. Consider Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s 2009 editorial piece published in the Wall Street Journal warning of the perils of Obamacare (President Obama’s attempt to provide healthcare to the millions of Americans who were vulnerable and unprotected, myself included at the time). Mackey insists that each person is responsible for their own health, and placing this burden on corporations is inappropriate:

“Rather than increase government spending and control, we need to address the root causes of poor health. This begins with the realization that every American adult is responsible for his or her own health.”

Not surprisingly Mackey’s prescription for personal responsibility and better health entails consuming more whole foods (conveniently on offer in his stores).

While activists believe that elites are the gatekeepers to to a more altruistic society, the pressures of capitalism will ensure that their cooperation with industry will entail serious compromise. Like many grocery chains, Whole Foods amassed its wealth through the exploitation of Nonhuman Animals, prison laborers, and immigrants producing product and the lower classes pushing the product on shop floors. What Mackey fails to acknowledge is that social services such as Obamacare are funded in part by corporations because it is considered a means of redistributing the wealth extracted through these inequalities.

Whole Foods Vegan
 
Mackey, like many wealthy elites, resent this government intervention, promoting instead a neo-paternalist charity system which would keep this redistribution process within in his control. In doing so, corporations are able to feed or starve particular programs or issues  according to the economic and political interests of the corporation.Revising tax laws, he insists, will, “make it easier for individuals to make a voluntary, tax-deductible donation to help the millions of people who have no insurance…” The celebration of individualistic solutions to social problems created by capitalism redirects blame to the most vulnerable in our society and absconds corporations of their responsibility to redistribute the wealth accrued through the exploitation of the vulnerable.

Mackey advocates “capitalism with a conscience,” supposing that a system built on inequality need not be devoid of altruism or compassion for others. But this conscience is conditional on the protection of a system of haves, have nots, and “personal responsibility” for successfully navigating a fundamentally unequal  society.

This is not a game that social justice movements ought to be playing. Capitalist corporations require exploitation and prioritize profit. This incompatibility with egalitarianism should be a warning to activists that corporations will hold very little genuine support for social justice. Indeed, when activists offer their movement’s seal of approval to these “conscientious capitalists” as the Nonhuman Animal rights movement frequently does, corporations such as Whole Foods will happily apply these commendations to their products. Undoubtedly, this will also justify dramatically increasing the profitability of their value-added products.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.Readers can learn more about the dangers of corporate welfare and pro-capitalist approaches to anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Can Veganism Save Your Life? I’m Skeptical

Engine 2 Diet founder pictured holding an axe wearing a shirt that reads "KALE"
Rip Esselstyn, founder of the Engine 2 Diet

Perhaps one of the most dangerous trends in Nonhuman Animal rights activism is the relentlessness of bogus health claims made in the name of veganism.  Plant-based eating1  is often marketed as the secret solution to every health crisis under the sun.  Want to reverse heart disease?  Go vegan.  Want to fight depression?  Go vegan.  Want better skin?  Go vegan.  Want a better sex life?  Go vegan.  And the list goes on.  Encouraging healthful and ethical eating is not in of itself a bad thing (so long as it does not include body-shaming or concern-trolling), but encouraging others to expect miracles is disingenuous.

In many cases, veganism becomes a mask for capitalizing on the vulnerable. Blatant marketing schemes adulterate the nonviolent message of veganism, repackaging it into profitable fad diets in order to sell programs, books, videos, and membership access.

Unsubstantiated or inflated claims inevitably undermine the vegan movement’s legitimacy. They could possibly endanger individuals who ascribe to them as well.  Vegans committed to nonviolence and justice have an ethical obligation to take issue with those who misguide and exploit the sick or dupe the worried with fear-mongering.

Take, for instance, VegNews, which launched a “Veganism Saved My Life” column in 2013. It features seriously ill people who are supposedly pulled from the edge of the grave by the power of fruits and vegetables.  In the first installment, a woman with Stage IV Breast Cancer is approached by a Seventh Day Evangelist who encourages her to try plant-based eating.  After forgoing her medications and going vegan, the patient reports:

I felt results within the first few weeks of changing my eating. I felt lighter, and even though I was still very ill, I began to have more energy. My immune system grew stronger and stronger—it’s why I am here today.

Extraordinary claims might be expected from vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists, as faith-based claimsmaking is customary in the religious community, but when a respected authority in the vegan community such as VegNews lends platform to these questionable claims under the guise of science, it then becomes necessary to consider how the vegan movement could be engaging human exploitation and endangerment.

Engine 2 Diet founder poses with a bounty of vegetables

Can veganism cure cancer?  Diabetes?  Heart disease?  Perhaps so in some cases.  Nevertheless, activists  should keep in mind that there are a litany of other variables impacting life quality and longevity including genetics, environment, socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, sex and gender, exercise, and stress levels.  Of course consuming processed foods, “meats,” dairy, and birds’ eggs is not helping much, but it isn’t entirely accurate to claim that plant-based eating is the mysterious key to recovery and long life.

Many studies have been conducted that do suggest that plant-based consumption improves health and lifespan, but to exalt the practice as a magical cure-all is potentially very dangerous.  Anyone who is considering shifting to plant-based eating with high expectations of Oprah-worthy medical turnarounds is advised to do their research.  Buyer beware: look beyond the shiny claims endorsed by celebrity doctors, manufacturers, and authors.  Actually take a look at the original medical research.  This information is available to anyone (Google Scholar is a great place to start). Many mainstream medical journals ensure that the main findings of their published research are free from jargon and easily located in abstracts.

Plant-based eating has potential to improve quality of life and reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, but, no, veganism can’t exactly “save your life.”  What it can do, however, is save the lives of Nonhuman Animals.  Going vegan means refusing to support the exploitation and killing of others.  Indeed, while I have argued thus far that a health-scare approach to vegan outreach is risky for public well-being, it also disempowers the vegan movement.  Activists can’t reasonably hope to create meaningful social change for other animals by enticing new members with fear, quackery, and anthropocentrism. Furthermore, only a few privileged humans have access to pricier plant-based eating of the “life-saving” kind.

An honest approach to veganism will acknowledge that Nonhuman Animals must be included in the message as a matter of coherency. An honest approach will also acknowledge that health claims are limited both in efficacy and in accessibility.

 

You can read more about the problems of health-centic vegan outreach in A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave 2016).

Note: I use the phrase “plant-based eating” in lieu of a veganism, as I am careful not to conflate a vegan diet with veganism as a political position.


A version of this essay first appeared on The Academic Activist Vegan on January 7, 2013.

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Derren Does Dairy: When Skepticism Fails Veganism

Milk ad showing Derren Brown with a milk mustache; reads, "Unlock the power within"

Derren Brown is a British illusionist, mentalist, and skeptic known for divulging the secrets of magicians, psychics, and new age charlatans.  Folks in Brown’s line of work spend a great deal of effort debunking bogus scientific and medical claims in particular.  In one program, for instance, Brown trained an actor to play a faith healer and effectively tricked a community into believing the man had special divine powers to cure ill and disabled persons.  The danger with faith healers is that children and adults alike are encouraged to forgo medical treatments and medication in the expectation that a god or gods will cure them. As a result, faith-healing has been responsible for the premature or unnecessary death of many vulnerable persons.  Brown’s intentions, in this sense, are fundamentally humanitarian. This is more than putting on a good show; he seeks to put skepticism in the service of social justice.

Unfortunately, many skeptics seem to be unable to see through similarly unfounded health claims when it comes to nonvegan diets.  In the mid-2000s, Brown appeared in a “Healthy Living” dairy campaign, joining the ranks of countless other musicians, athletes, and other non-nutritionists whose celebrity is used to persuade consumers in lieu of scientific evidence. Bathed in the warm glow of celebrity endorsement, these advertisements state that cows’ milk is good for skin, teeth, hair, bones, and energy (“facts” as they are called). With our trusted celebrities telling us so, who are we to question it?

Hardly facts at all, these statements are promulgated by a dairy industry that pushes unhealthy, dangerous products onto unsuspecting and trusting consumers.  As with other Nonhuman Animal products, dairy is linked to obesity, atherosclerosis, cancer, diabetes, resistance to antibiotics, and even osteoporosis.  These dubious claims to healthfulness earn legitimacy when promoted by state, medical, and educational institutions that are regularly bombarded with political pressure, free “educational” material, donations, and funding from immensely wealthy speciesist corporations.  Brown may as well sport a Coca-Cola mustache while touting the health benefits of soda. That wouldn’t be much of a stretch. Coca-Cola attempts to health-wash its products as well.  At the turn of the century, this carbonated sugar product was originally marketed as a wellness product.  Even today, boxes of canned soda proudly state that Coke is good for hydration!

 

Milk ad showing Derren Brown with a milk mustache; reads: "Powerful stuff"

Worryingly, Brown is not the only skeptic overlooking the industry’s misrepresentation of Nonhuman Animal products as “health food.”  In one interview with atheism advocate Sam Harris, Harris states that he is certainly supportive of extending moral consideration to other animals.  In fact, he claims to have been a vegetarian once, but gave it up because he felt he “wasn’t getting enough protein.”

I not only find this response to be disheartening, but also rather suspicious. The ubiquitousness of protein is no medical mystery. Protein is present in just about anything that is edible, from popcorn to kale, mushrooms to pumpkin.  For that matter, protein is especially plentiful in the beans, lentils, pasta, grains, and tofu that comprise much of the vegan diet.  In fact, one would have to work quite hard to become protein-deficient on the typical American vegan diet. Indeed, most Americans consume double or more the recommended amount of protein, which leads to a number of health problems such as gout and renal complications.

It is strange that leaders in the skeptic community can’t see through nonveganism as one of the greatest scams to date, endangering both human and nonhuman lives alike.  What becomes painfully clear is that science and rationality are products of cultural norms in much the same way as religion, spiritualism, and mysticism are. Skeptics are susceptible to the blinders of privilege, too. Subsequently, until the skeptic community begins to take seriously the injustice of speciesism and the health risks of nonveganism, I suggest we maintain a healthy skepticism about skeptics.

 


A version of this essay first appeared on The Academic Activist Vegan on January 3, 2013.

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