Though former president Bill Clinton isn’t technically a vegan, his embrace last year of a “plant-based” diet with “no meat” and “no dairy” — and his accompanying 24-pound weight loss — made headlines for a small but growing movement. After all, only 3.2 percent of Americans are vegetarian, and just .5 percent fly the vegan flag, eschewing all animal products and byproducts in their kitchens and closets.
But is veganism healthy? Emasculating? Difficult? Let’s get the skinny on this unusual lifestyle.
1. Vegans have trouble getting enough protein.
“Where do you get your protein?” is probably the top question vegans get. But protein doesn’t have to come from animals. Plant protein is neither incomplete nor inadequate — and it’s high-fiber, low-fat and cholesterol-free. Animal protein, which does not contain fiber, is high in fat and cholesterol, and it is associated with increased risk of heart disease, loss of calcium from bones and poorer kidney function.
Nutritionists agree that adults who consume about 2,000 calories per day should get about 50 grams of protein. What’s a vegan to do? Well, a half-cup of chickpeas contains 6 grams of protein. A half-cup of firm tofu contains 20 grams. A veggie burger has about 15 grams. We can get to 50 grams pretty quickly without meatloaf or bacon.
Any vegan diet that includes a variety of plant foods provides all the protein an individual needs. This is true for adults, teens and, according to pediatrician Benjamin Spock, even children. As nutritionists Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina explain in “Becoming Vegan,” the answer to that often-asked question is: “from all of the whole plants I eat.”
2. Vegans have countless rules about what can be eaten.
To vegans, it appears that meat-eaters are the ones with lots of rules. In the United States, people eat cows but not horses, and chickens but not cats. But among Hindus in India, cows are verboten, and in the Philippines and Korea, Lassie is on the menu. Some religions forbid eating pigs, while others don’t. In the face of these varying, often contradictory norms, vegans have only one rule: We don’t intentionally eat, use or wear anything from an animal — whether meat, leather, eggs, milk, wool, silk or honey.
If veganism seems to need an instruction manual, it’s because dead animals turn up in unexpected places. Most marshmallows contain gelatin, derived from animal bones. So do gelcaps and photographic film. Hostess fruit pies (but not Little Debbie’s) are made with beef fat. Dryer sheets have animal fat, too. Toothpaste may contain bone meal. And shampoo may have egg protein.
Sure, the list seems to go on and on. But at your chain supermarket, more products than ever are vegan-friendly. In 2011, it’s not hard to live up to veganism’s one simple ideal: trying to do the least harm possible.
3. Veganism is emasculating — real men eat meat.
In 1990, I wrote a book called “The Sexual Politics of Meat” to dissect the idea that eating animal flesh makes someone strong and virile. The myth gained steam in the 1960s when anthropologists Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey attributed the advancement of civilization to “man the hunter.” Today, cultural messages — from Burger King’s “I am Man” ad campaign to a Hummer commercial implying that a guy who buys tofu must “restore the balance” by buying a huge car — reinforce this myth. Even Michael Pollan, who details a boar hunt in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” falls prey to the idea that men must fell prey: “Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling.” For vegans, this cartoonish hunter porn is ridiculous. What Pollan sees as a dilemma, we welcome as a decision.
But if real men once ate meat, it’s not so any longer. Olympic track legend (and New Jersey state Senate hopeful) Carl Lewis is a vegan. Former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson is a vegan. Outkast’s Andre 3000 is a vegan. In Austin, a group of firefighters went vegan. But beyond the famous names who have embraced veganism for ethical or health reasons is the incontrovertible fact that eating meat doesn’t increase libido or fertility — and a vegan diet doesn’t diminish them.
4. Vegans care more about animals than humans.
Veganism is a social-justice movement that includes concern for animals but also many issues that affect humans. The food choices vegans make address the environmental costs of meat and dairy production, heart disease, public health crises tied to obesity, and, as Eric Schlosser pointed out in “Fast Food Nation,” poor conditions in slaughterhouses, where workers suffer more injuries than in any other industry. In fact, eating vegan one day a week lowers your carbon footprint more than eating local every day of the week.
The economic cost of systemic animal cruelty transcends shocking undercover footage taken at factory farms. Eating grain-fed cattle helps push corn prices up; high prices contributed to 2008’s food riots in Haiti, Bangladesh, Egypt and elsewhere around the world. Industrialized meat production allows infectious bacteria such as salmonella to sneak into our food supply. And treating a generation raised on cheap Big Macs will prove a fiscal challenge to Medicaid.
Caring about animals means caring about people, too.
5. It’s expensive and inconvenient to be a vegan.
Try veganism for a day and see what happens. Is it so difficult to substitute marinara sauce for meat sauce? To get a pizza loaded with veggies instead of cheese and meat? To fix a big salad and add garbanzo beans to it instead of turkey? To order a vegan dish at any of the ethnic restaurants rich with vegan foods — Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Italian?
One reason Patti Breitman and I wrote “How to Eat Like a Vegetarian Even if You Never Want to Be One” was to show people how easy it is to be a vegan. If you’re used to a steady diet of beef, chicken and pork, veganism can expand your options. You’ll start discovering the variety of ways to prepare tofu, seitan, tempeh and textured vegetable protein — along with more greens, grains and beans. In some parts of the country, some of these products might be harder to find than hamburger patties or sirloin steak, but they’re not necessarily more expensive. And if they are, they may save medical costs in the long run.
Non-vegans think change is hard. Not changing is even harder.
Originally published in The Washington Post, April 18, 2011