Veganism Needs More Science, Less Sentiment

CC BY 2.0. Max Kiesler

The Angry Chef is worried that young vegan bloggers oversimplify what it takes to be a healthy vegan.

I have tried, on several occasions, to cut meat out of my diet. Every time, after months of eating mostly plant-based, blood test results have revealed extremely low iron, pernicious anemia, and vitamin B12 levels that my doctor has said make me eligible for IV iron transfusions. I take supplements religiously, but have gone back to eating meat with more frequency because (for health reasons) I'd rather get nutrients from natural sources than rely on a lab-synthesized pill. This makes me sad, because going entirely meat-free would fit in well with my environmental views, but it really seems my body cannot support it.

So, it was with great interest that I came across Anthony Warner's article in the Sunday Times, "The Dangers of a Vegan Diet." Warner is better known by his nickname, The Angry Chef, and the passionate diatribes in which he shreds modern 'wellness' culture and health bloggers for shoddy science and Instagram-driven food cults that are not based in evidence. This article was, of course, classic Angry Chef.

Warner makes the argument that modern veganism, as portrayed by trendy, photogenic millennial food bloggers, is more about virtue-signalling than it is about true health or welfare concerns (something I'm sure many vegans would contest vehemently).

"Veganism shouts purity, superiority and virtuousness. The ability to refrain from messy, animalistic pleasures of eating meat and dairy implies to vegans that they’re more civilised than the rest of us... Regrettably, this strength of feeling leaves them susceptible to false beliefs. Prominent vegans are prone to sharing vile, baseless pseudoscience concerning diseases such as Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis and cancer."

Warner challenges the basic assumption that veganism is the healthiest way to eat. He points out that studies linking meat and dairy to cancer deal show only small increases in risk for unusually high rates of consumption, and that the side effects of not doing veganism properly can be very serious. Few young vegans talk about this today, however, unlike previous generations of vegans who took care to formulate their diets very carefully, and this could have serious repercussions:

"Long-term neurological degeneration does not show up on magazine cover shoots. The early stages of pernicious anaemia cannot be seen in swimwear selfies."

Warner is also concerned about some vegan bloggers claiming vitamin B12 can be sourced entirely from plants, challenging this view with typical scathing wit:

"[They] have persistently eschewed supplements and fortified foods, wrongly claiming that adequate B12 can be obtained from ingredients such as spirulina, maca root and bee pollen. Spirulina is essentially dried pond scum and maca is a Peruvian root vegetable used to extract money from rich tourists. Given the prices charged for bee pollen, I can only assume it is scraped from bees’ wings by tiny angels riding unicorns."

The funny thing about diets -- and this is a logical assessment made in Warner's recently published book, "The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating," that I'm currently reading -- is that, no matter how you choose to eat, whether it's paleo, kept, alkaline, vegan, or other, the good results come more from what's added to a diet than what's excluded. Anyone embracing any new health-focused diet will eat more fruits and vegetables, and cut out sugars and fats -- and reap the benefits.

No doubt Warner's words will raise the ire of many TreeHugger readers, but analyzing the basis for Instagram-happy bloggers' decisions to go vegan is an important conversation. Those who decide to go that route deserve detailed, scientifically-based research and, if Warner's right, then it seems they're not getting that from the most popular vegan lifestyle proponents these days.