Why Not Use Health as an Argument for Veganism?

At Compassionate Action for Animals, we explicitly do not promote veganism using arguments about human health. We are happy to talk about how to be a healthy vegan, but we don’t try to convince people to go vegan for their own health.

Some people find this odd. Isn’t veganism obviously the healthiest diet? Why wouldn’t we use such a powerful argument? Shouldn’t we make the best case we can for veganism?

I came across a blog post titled “The China Study: Fact or Fallacy?” that reminded me so well why we don’t engage in this argument.

Go ahead, take a moment to read (or at least skim) that blog post.

Are you back? Great.

The China Study was big news in the animal rights world when the book first came out. I haven’t read it, but from what I’ve heard it basically says “go (mostly?) vegan”. Wow, a whole book backed by lots of data telling people that veganism is the way to go! How exciting!

That blog post a perfect illustration of why this isn’t exciting. The blog post contains 9,000 words of statistical analysis, complete with tables, charts, and more. In the end, the author of the post concludes that The China Study is extremely flawed.

Is she right? Who the f*ck knows?

And that’s the real problem. It is incredibly difficult for someone without expertise to assess claims about health. How do I know if the blog post author has any credibility? For that matter, how do I know if T. Colin Campbell (author of The China Study) has any credibility? I am not a biologist, epidemiologist, statistician, or dietitian. That blog post sure has a lot of numbers and charts, though! I bet The China Study has some too.

It’s trivial to find health arguments for dozens of radically different diets (vegan, Atkins, paleo, raw, and more). If I, as an animal rights activist, start making claims about human health, why should anyone listen to me? There are lots of people with better credentials ready to disagree with me. I can cite sources, but so can others. Without a lot of independent research, it’s very difficult for a layperson to figure out the truth, and that assumes there is one truth to figure out. Scientific research is full of contradictions, especially in a field as complex as diet and human health.

Health arguments are a distraction from the real key issue, animal suffering. Animal suffering in factory farms is undeniable and easily proved. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to understand that being crammed in a tiny cage unable to move is torture. Few people in the general public will argue the opposite. An argument based on animal suffering appeals to the fundamental empathy all of us possess, and doesn’t require statistics or studies to suport it.


Sawyer, on 2010-07-09 13:56, said:
The ADA (American Dietetic Association) and the association of DoC (Dietitians of Canada) support veganism - if done properly - as a viable healthy diet. These sources are considered highly regarded and give credit to the notion of going vegan for people who are concerned about their health and consider the ADA and DoC as accredited institutions. Most people do.

I think promoting only the “suffering argument” of veganism isn’t the way to “fix the situation” of contradicting citations. The problem is much bigger than that.

First of all, to any argument you will give, you will find someone to contradict you. That includes the notion of animal suffering, for example, which Descartes was against - saying that animals only respond to pain instead of feeling it the way people do. I deal with a lot of people here that try to assert that animals don’t suffer in the industry. There is no bullet-proof argument someone won’t try to contradict and bring up some “citation” that support their claim.

Secondly, “animal suffering” is not equal to “animal rights” necessarily. That is why welfare is picking up, even though it’s detrimental to rights. It says “deal with the suffering”. It’s an elastic science and you usually opt for “inflicting less pain” instead of “not inflicting pain at all”.

The actual subject animal rights groups are dealing with is rights, not suffering or health or environment issues or anything else. We take different approaches depending on the person we’re speaking to and what they care about specifically most.

I used to be against people going vegan for anything other than out of respect for animal rights but the fact is that most people don’t comprehend rights. Failing passing on that notion to everyone, I’ve settled on trying it and if it doesn’t work, taking whatever approach aids them in making sure less animal die and suffer.

Dave Rolsky, on 2010-07-09 14:31, said:

The ADA (American Dietetic Association) and the association of DoC (Dietitians of Canada) support veganism - if done properly - as a viable healthy diet.

Yes, it’s a viable diet, I agree. Viable is not the same as optimal. If I’m trying to get someone to go vegan and they’re worried about their health, then citing the ADA position is useful. I’ve done it myself.

You seem to want to get me started on the whole abolitionist vs (so-called) welfarist argument, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

For now, I’ll simply say that I don’t care about rights per se, just effectiveness.

Sawyer, on 2010-07-10 15:06, said:
Actually, I’m not trying to “get you started” on anything. Welfare was just an example for what I wanted to express, which is that human health - at least for me - is just another way to approach people and market veganism - pretty much like animal suffering is a way to approach people and market veganism.

Apparently we regard the issue differently.

At least those were my 0.00000002.