Making Veganism about “Health” Is a Distraction from the Ethics

Well I say that I am vegan, I often get reactions like:

“But you look so healthy, how can you be vegan?”

“People need meat to stay alive”

“People need to eat meat to do athletic things”

And I often get reactions like:

“So that is why you are so healthy/thin” (many people conflate health and thinness)

“Oh, so you do it for health reasons

“Wow, your diet must be so healthy”

So there are people who are under the impression that veganism is inherently unhealthy and that all vegans must be sick or dying or dead (I have asked people to explain the last one since I am a living vegan, and they have no choice but to acknowledge that their argument is absurd), and there are people who think veganism is inherently healthy.

The thing is … I do not think veganism is inherently unhealthy or healthy.

Obviously, it is possible to be healthy and vegan – every vegan who is in good health proves that it is possible. It is even more obvious that it is possible that is possible to eat meat/dairy/eggs/animal products and be healthy, since there are even more examples of very healthy people who eat animal products. There is so much variety in both vegan diets and omnivorous diets that I do not think it is even possible to judge that one is healthier than the other.

I think it is possible that vegans in the United States, Europe, and Asia are healthier than their omnivorous counterparts, but that would be because vegans have to be more careful about their food. It is being careful about food, not the veganism itself, which might lead to better health.

However, I think people want to make veganism about health or religion (the religion part comes up a lot in Taiwan), because if it is not about health or religion, then it must be about ethics.

I have spent all of my life in parts of the world where animals suffer horrible abuse. The vast majority of people are a) ignorant b) in deep denial or c) both with regards to the horrors they support by eating animal products. Either way, they are uncomfortable talking about it – people generally do not like having their ignorance pointed out, and are even more touchy about denial. If I am being vegan just for health, then it means that I am not challenging their (un)ethical stance on eating animals. If I am doing it for ethical reasons, and say so, even if I am super polite and never directly comment on the fact that they eat animals, they understand that I am challenging them on ethical grounds.


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5 thoughts on “Making Veganism about “Health” Is a Distraction from the Ethics

  1. When people ask me why I’m vegan, I usually try to be as brief as possible. It makes me feel bad to say that, but it’s like people ask, but don’t really want to know. I don’t understand that at all. Maybe they’re expecting me to say “health”, since plant based diets as a health thing are kinda trendy now? I know that even if I politely touch on the ethical reasons, I will get bizarre arguments like “plants have feelings too!” Or justifications like “well, I don’t eat red meat” or “I admire you, but i could never be vegan.” Unless the other person is vegan or vegetarian, in my experience there is no exception to this.

    • Some people have never even heard of veganism, so I cannot blame them for being unprepared for complex answers to the “why” question. Among the people who at least know what a vegan is, I think many people want a reassurance that you are OK with what they are doing, and that is why I think some people angle for the “health” response (i.e. you are claiming that they are doing something wrong).

      I also think that American culture emphasizes doing things for yourself – such as improving your health – more than doing what is right within the world at large, which is what ethics-based veganism represents, which I think is why Americans tend to expect the “health” answer. In Taiwan, the question I usually get asked is “so you are doing it because of your religion?” and when I say no, they get puzzled because, for many people, that is the only reason they know of for becoming a vegetarian.

  2. There’s that famous scene in “The Green Ray” by Eric Rohmer

    (sorry no subtitles) which is all too familiar for any ethical vegetarian/vegan.
    Another annoying occurrence I experienced in France was, when I’d say “Je suis végétarien”, people would immediately ask “‘végétaRien’ ou ‘végétaLien?'” (in a reflexive way similar to how people often dumbly ask “North or South?” when you say “Korea”). One means vegan diet, but I didn’t really know which one, nor did I care to have a terminological discussion. But people like to have something to say.
    And yeah, if you’re not doing it for personal reasons, but for moral reasons, there is the suggestion that this could well apply to everyone and be a permanent change to what is felt to be a long and intimate tradition. That’s pretty scary.

    • I delayed replying to this until I had a chance to see the video (I am travelling without any device which connects to the internet).

      Even if I did not know any French (and I understand some) I think I would have understood what is going on in this scene. It certainly is familiar.

  3. Pingback: This Blog’s 3rd Anniversary! | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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