We all know that there is such a thing as an annoying vegan. An annoying vegan is an evangelical vegan, one who considers your food choices to be at least a venial sin. The really annoying vegans claim that your consumption of ribs near them is disruptive of their ability to consume their arugula spout parfait with the proper zenlike yogic breaths.
But in a recent New York Times article, Jane Brody tries to make the case for an unhealthy veganism. She cites the reality that vegans now have a wide choice of vegan junk food, and creates a fictional vegan who abhors meat but consumes nothing but chips and soda. Such a creature may exist, but I’ve never met her.
The rest of Brody’s article feels like backsliding. First, she backslides to the reality that we all should be eating a plant-based diet. Then she’s citing several recent studies that found, shockingly, that a plant-based diet leads to less heart disease. So we don’t really have a sense of those bad vegans, just those bad meat eaters.
Brody also discusses the vegans’ need for full proteins at meals, a concept generated by Francis Moore Lappe’s first edition of Diet For A Small Planet and which has been debunked for decades. Lappe herself has worked hard to undo the myth she created. It turns out that the studies Lappe was using about complementary plant protein combining were based on the need to recreate the egg protein content at every meal. We now know that the body can actually store different parts of protein and you don’t need to constantly think about eating complementary plant protein sources three meals a day. The studies the Lappe had access to were in part based on using chickens as a model for what we humans need to eat every day. And yes, for a chicken the egg protein is ideal. Not so much for humans.
The other concern for vegans is getting enough B12, which is simply a matter of getting sublingual tablets. Yes, having no B12 in your body will do very bad things to you, including making you crazy. But you don’t need to be a vegan to get deficient. You can have low stomach acid (from heartburn medications) or an infection of your stomach that blocks the intrinsic factor you need to absorb the B12. Medical researchers note that B12 deficiency is extremely rare in vegans and is much more common in people with abdominal illnesses that block absorption. So the argument for vegans lacking nutrients lacks substance.
But the vegan/non-vegan split is an artificial one. Those of us who live in the food wars know that a locally grown, grass-fed cow has as much in common with something you pick up through a fast food window as Venus does to Mars. Technically, they’re both meat, but that’s where the comparison ends. The same would be true of a locally grown, farmer’s market salad and one that requires your sub-Saharan superfruit be flown to you from some dictatorship. There are good food choices and poor foods choices, and they have more to do with a larger, much more complex situation than with the dairy council’s ancient four food group teachings (they still fund nutritional education right up through medical school, and only a quarter of doctors get any required training in nutrition.)
If you’re eating antioxidant capsules brought to you by slave labor from another country, you’re missing the point. Just as you are when you’ve stared down the poor man with his ribs halfway across the restaurant. In a world where we just live and let live, compassion needs to replace condemnation.
A bad vegan is not unhealthy from a lack of nutrients but from a lack of common courtesy. In these trying times, we need to be as aware of our contempt footprint as much as our carbon footprint. So let’s all keep our self-righteousness in check out there.
Disclosure: Christopher Maloney, N.D., is a 95% vegan with an affection for occasional fish. He’s also gluten-free and sugar-free. Currently, he is working on a (very short) cookbook. For people with abdominal problems, he wrote a book: Tending Your Internal Garden.