Debunking the vegan superiority complex
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, more commonly referred to as PETA, has a long history of pulling obnoxious, often sexist, stunts in order to campaign for going vegan. In 1991, PETA paid the Des Moines Register $11,214 to run an ad comparing the gruesome crimes of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer to practices of the meatpacking industry. In 2003, the group launched a campaign called “Holocaust on Your Plate,” juxtaposing pictures from Nazi death camps with images from factory farms. Last but not least, the ongoing “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign objectifies women to further the rights of animals. Because these stunts make headlines, PETA and its image are what many people associate with the vegan lifestyle.
But not everyone who calls themself a vegan identifies with, or even likes PETA. Its tactics are often off-putting and insulting, and it furthers the negative stereotype that vegans are obnoxious, combative and can only talk about being vegan.
But for some people, vegan simply means changing your diet to be entirely plant-based. Cameron Wells, a dietitian with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group focused on preventative medicine and ethical research that doesn’t use animals, has been vegan for several years. She started as a vegetarian in high school, but the research she conducted while becoming a dietitian led her to cut out all other animal products as well.
“When I say plant-based, or vegan, I’m really emphasizing more of that whole foods, low-fat, not a whole lot of added oils or processed and fast foods being the real template of what you’re taking in,” Wells said.
When speaking with other people about being a vegan, Wells said she likes to emphasize they’re not simply missing out on meat; they’re adding to their plate, too.
“Look at all the veggies and beans and this and that that you can put on, rather than take these things away,” Wells said. “I think to be more encouraging is far more effective, at least in my experience.”
Wells said the stereotype has affected her personal life, too.
“I often hear, ‘You’re the first vegan we’ve met who didn’t have that be the first thing that came out of your mouth,’” she said.
To counter this negative view, she said she tries to be open-minded and ready to discuss the benefits she believes come from being vegan.
“Whichever side you’re on, better to be the friendly advocate for whatever you’re pushing,” Wells said.
But some people aren’t convinced a plant-based diet is any healthier than one that includes meat and dairy. In her book, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, investigative journalist Nina Teicholz said she found much of what we believe about nutrition today is based on questionable studies.
“What I was shocked to find were egregious flaws in the science that has served as the foundation of our national nutrition policy, which for more than 50 years has all but forbidden these delicious and healthy foods,” Teicholz said in an interview with Dr. Frank Lipman, an expert in Integrative and Functional Medicine.
Teicholz herself used to be a near-vegetarian, but then she started writing a restaurant review column and began eating things she had previously sworn off, believing them to be unhealthy. This began a decade’s worth of research into nutrition, she said.
“The most rigorous diet trials clearly show that a high-fat, low-carb diet is better for fighting obesity, diabetes and heart disease,” she said in an email.
On vegan diets specifically, Teicholz said there isn’t enough research to determine how good they are for us.
“Vegan diets haven’t been studied in rigorous, randomized, controlled clinical trials, so we really don’t know if they are healthy or safe,” she said.
Trials of a near-vegan diet created by Dr. Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California, show these diets may be good for weight loss, but they have other concerning health effects, Teicholz said. These diets reliably lowered good cholesterol which could increase the risk of heart disease, she said.
Other researchers have attempted to replicate Ornish’s findings but have been unable to.
“Replication is the hallmark of good science; findings that cannot be replicated are considered highly questionable,” Teicholz said.
But she said she understands there are reasons other than health that someone might go vegan.
“Of course there are ethical and other reasons that people become vegans, but if they are eating that way for better health, then this is mistaken,” she said.
Taking on a vegan diet is very different from taking on a vegan lifestyle. Gary Francione is a professor at Rutgers University, a vegan for almost 33 years and a long-time animal rights activist. He said he doesn’t believe people can stick to a vegan lifestyle unless they hold it as a moral necessity.
“The reality is, do I think that a vegan diet is better for your health? Yes. Could I also be eating some meat and some dairy and still be as healthy as I am? The answer is probably,” Francione said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve never met a vegan who was a consistent vegan on health grounds or environmental grounds. It’s the moral ground or else you just lapse.”
As for the negative stereotype about vegans, he said it stems from two things: obnoxious vegan groups like PETA and the discomfort people feel when they are confronted with the idea that not living a vegan lifestyle is wrong.
“I think the primary problem is that people feel guilty about not being vegan. They feel guilty about not having a good explanation,” Francione said.
Francione said he doesn’t associate himself with any particular vegan group, PETA included. He said he finds its tactics to be misogynistic, sometimes racist and counter-productive. To avoid the negative vegan stereotype when discussing veganism with others, he said he makes sure not to bring it up if people are eating, but he will discuss it with anyone who asks him about it. He said he continues to be an outspoken vegan and animal rights activist and still teaches law classes about animal welfare at Rutgers.
Unlike Francione, vegan writer Gary Smith’s activism happens predominantly online. Through his blog, The Thinking Vegan, he engages predominantly with the vegan community on internal issues and ideas. Smith has been a consistent vegan for the last eight years and has run the blog for the last three.
“It’s kind of a mix of trying to inspire vegans to become more active, as well as some of the problems I see within the community. Things like fat shaming, things like vegans confusing non-vegans with the idea that it’s about health when it’s really about ethics,” Smith said.
Through The Thinking Vegan, he started a mentorship program for anyone interested in becoming a vegan themselves. He said the response he received from people looking to go vegan surprised him. Most people wanted answers to questions about the social aspect of being a vegan, Smith said. For example: “I have to go out to lunch with co-workers, now I’m the weird vegan; how do I handle that?” and “I want to go vegan, but my husband eats meat and pressures me to as well; how do I handle that?”
Smith said he believes the negative stereotype around vegans, that they are prideful and can’t stop talking about being vegan, stems from passion. He said he became vegan after seeing disturbing pictures of what happens to farm animals before they are sold to the public. Once an image like that finds its way into people’s consciences, Smith said they just want to tell everybody about it because it disturbed them so much.
“You want to tell someone about it, because it just changed your life,” Smith said. “You’re like, ‘Holy crap, I can’t believe this is happening. I need to tell people about this.’”
The vegan community, like any community, is not of one cohesive mind. Smith said the reason there’s a stigma surrounding veganism is because people don’t like it when it is pointed out to them eating animal products is wrong.
“I think a lot of people saying, ‘Vegans have an attitude,’ is really just the fact that someone is holding up a mirror to you and saying, ‘You eat animals and you don’t really need to,’” Smith said. “‘You’re part of this system of exploitation and it makes you really uncomfortable.’”
Jamie Swinnerton is a senior journalism major who likes her veggies with a side of humility. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.