No, Veganism is not a Cure-all Diet
Guest Essay by April-Tui Buckley
I’m not the first person to raise this issue, but a recent altercation I had with a fairly prominent vegan recipe blogger made me realise what a problem this was. Veganism is about animal rights, first and foremost. It’s not a diet, as much as that seems to be the main focus on social media, and it’s important I stress that before I delve into this topic. I don’t want to contribute to the diet obsession we have within vegan circles, it is about so much more than that. However, when it comes to diet and nutrition I see a recurring theme that serves no purpose, either to animals or to people.
Health-shaming has become a serious problem in our community. Anyone who is not a super healthy, super-skinny vegan is accused of either cheating, secretly eating animals, or of not eating the right vegan diet. I see this most amongst the ‘McDougaller’s,’ those that follow the Dr. McDougall diet plan, a starch based, no-oil diet. It’s actually a diet I personally like. Plenty of people have transformed their health following it, or close versions of it. That is excellent, who wouldn’t want that? The problem is that a lot of vegans believe their particular way of eating makes them immune to illness, and that any vegan who does get sick has only themselves to blame because they are ‘not being honest.’ Unfortunately this kind of attitude comes from Dr. McDougall himself, he has created a community that thinks this way too. Indeed, in this brief but alarming online discussion I had, where I tried to explain the complexities of thyroid disease and that simply popping pills and following a McDougall diet would not necessarily control it, this person said that most people were not honest and had to realise that continuing to ‘eat chocolate cupcakes and forget your medication’ was the reason for their weight and illness struggles. This is a common and unfair perception of thyroid patients. That it is the fault of the person suffering it. They are lazy and greedy. We are actually incredibly careful about our life-saving medication and just as careful about diet and lifestyle, almost too much if I’m honest.
This kind of ill-informed and ableist attitude is not just reserved for thyroid patients. I have seen what can only be described as seriously disturbing conversations amongst McDougaller’s and raw foodies about autism; that it is caused by poor diet. These people think it is a curable ‘disease’ or ‘disorder.’They are almost hysterical at the idea that we are seeing more and more ‘autistics’ as they refer to them, and that it is reaching ‘crisis point.’ When will someone do something to stop it. One person even shared an ‘article’ that suggested obese people who also had diabetes had a significant increased risk of having a child on the autistic spectrum. The conversation that followed actually discussed whether or not ‘these people’ should be allowed to have children, so great was the risk (the article was poor and unscientific, there is no science that autism is caused by either obesity or diabetes, or both). I don’t know what shocked me more, the idea that people were so ignorant to what autism actually is, the idea they wanted to prevent it, or that they discussed who could or could not have children based on a perceived increased risk of birthing a child on the spectrum. Many times I have seen discussions about how dairy and other animal products are a contributing factor to autism. I know I am not the only one amazed that people think this way. My husband and daughter are on the spectrum, as are many of my friends. I cannot understand anyone wanting to prevent their existence or the existence of what is essentially just a different way of perceiving the world. What shocks me still is how prevalent this attitude is in the vegan community. It is dangerous, it is discriminatory and it has no place in our community.
Part of the reason we see so much health-shaming is that a lot of vegans think they are health experts now. You know, they follow Nutrition Facts, they buy loads of plant based nutrition books, they may have even been to a few of Dr. McDougall’s ‘intensive weekends.’ Great. Wonderful. Take control of your health. Awesome. But stay the fuck out of my body, please. You don’t know enough to advise other people about their health. You don’t know enough about medicine to understand diseases, even obesity. You really don’t. Stop blaming other people for having a human experience, we are not immune to it just because we are vegan. Stop seeing people who think differently to you as something that should be prevented, a disease we must stop by eating a restrictive diet. The world is full of people who have extra challenges, who have imperfect health, who have bodies that work differently to yours. Just because your sister pops a pill and controls her thyroid, doesn’t mean it’s that easy for everyone else. Just because someone at your daughters school has autism, doesn’t mean you understand it or get to speak about it on their behalf. We are different. We are human. We get sick. We maybe don’t live on potatoes and beans like McDougall says we should. That does not mean you get to lecture us about how our completely unrelated illness is caused by our secret late-night binges on oil that don’t actually happen. You don’t get to tell people their child is a mistake that needs to be erased by eating more potatoes, okay. You hurt people when you talk like that and you also make yourself look bloody ignorant.
Overstating the benefits of veganism as it relates to diet, is not helping animals. Please, let’s refrain from saying eating only plants is going to make you disease-proof. It’s not. It’s going to give you a much better chance at avoiding certain diseases, but not all. We might alleviate some of the severity of symptoms, we might reduce some of our medication even, but please don’t fool yourself or others into thinking vegan’s are immune to illness. If you want to follow a health guru, and you really love potatoes (I do too) then go for it! But the one thing you don’t want to follow is adopting ableist attitudes towards sick people, those on the autistic spectrum, those with mental illness and anyone who isn’t thin. It has nothing to do with veganism. It is very easy to talk about things from the privileged position of someone who has never had a health challenge to overcome, or as someone who could afford the medical care many others are not so fortunate to have. None of that makes you a health expert, a better vegan or a better representative for animals. Please stop.