I’ve been vegan for almost 13 years. I love being vegan, and I believe in it. That said—I don’t buy into all the vegan propaganda out there.
In this post, I’m covering 8 pieces of vegan propaganda that I commonly hear, and why they each fall short of the truth.
Most of these contain a kernel of truth—so I’ll be sharing some positive things about veganism, too. But ultimately, this post is about the vegan arguments I find to be annoyingly incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading.
Let’s get started!
1. Conflating Meat with Processed Meat.
One of the annoying things about low-carb diet gurus is when they equate all carbohydrates with processed sugar. They refer to studies about how unhealthy sugar is, and they apply it to all carbs, saying you must go low-carb to be healthy. It’s really annoying.
But many vegans do the same thing with meat.
One of the common facts that vegans love to share is that processed meat has been classified as a class-1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization. This means it is pretty much known to cause cancer, with the same degree of certainty as cigarettes or asbestos.
That does sound compelling when stated like that.
But one of the details that vegans leave out of this “class 1 carcinogen” conversation is that sunlight is also a class-1 carcinogen. Yeah. Sunlight. And it makes sense, too. Think about it: We know with high certainty that sunlight (UV light) causes cancer when present in excess.
Being a class-1 carcinogen does not tell you how dangerous a substance is. It only says there is a high degree of evidence that it is a cancer-causing agent. The dose and severity of the risk is another matter.
Furthermore, this class-1 carcinogen classification only applies to processed meats. It does not apply to all kinds of meat, poultry, fish, etc.
And this matters because most of the serious advocates for diets containing meat are not telling people to go eat processed meats! I mean, it’s kind of obvious that anything processed is less than totally healthy.
So many over-generalizations like this are thrown around in nutrition debates, and it’s exhausting. But the truth is:
- All meat is not as unhealthy as the worst meat.
- All carbs are not as unhealthy as the worst carbs.
- All oils are not as unhealthy as the worst oils.
- And so on.
Respect the nuances, people!
2. Conflating Vegan with Whole-Food Plant-Based.
This is an issue you’ll run into all the time if you listen to arguments about why you should go vegan. People will say:
- “A vegan diet reverses heart disease”
- “A vegan diet reduces cancer risk”
- “A vegan diet improves gut health”
- “A vegan diet reduces inflammation”
- And so on…
But if you look at the research they’re citing, often it’s not studying a random group of “vegans.” It’s studying people on a specific kind of healthy vegan diet.
Take the most famous example: Research by Dr. Dean Ornish showing that a vegan diet can reverse heart disease. Well, it wasn’t just “a vegan diet.” The actual intervention was “low-fat vegetarian diet, stopping smoking, stress management training, and moderate exercise.” (source)
To be fair, many vegans do make this point willingly: A “vegan” diet isn’t automatically healthy. Technically, a diet of solely french fries and beer would be vegan, and that does get acknowledged.
But if you watch vegan documentaries or read vegan pamphlets, you’ll often notice them claiming the health benefits of a “whole foods plant-based diet” as their own, as if those benefits apply to any and all vegans.
But to get the full health benefits of a “whole foods plant-based diet,” you have to actually stop eating refined oils and refined sugars.
In practice, that means you can’t hardly ever eat at restaurants, and you can’t eat hardly any processed foods that many vegans love: No Beyond Burgers. No Daiya cheese.
And in practice, most vegans do indulge in these refined foods, at least occasionally. Realistically, most vegans indulge in plenty of processed grains and flours, they use cooking oils, they go out to eat regularly, and occasionally, they bake some vegan sweets, too.
All of that is fine—and the average vegan may still enjoy health benefits.
But if you’re not actually eating a whole-food plant-based diet, then don’t expect to get the full-blown results of a whole-food plant-based diet. Just going vegan isn’t the same thing.
3. Shrugging Off Concerns About Protein.
Vegans are defensive about protein. And I get it. As a vegan, the #1 question you get is “Where do you get your protein?” It’s extremely annoying. Extremely.
But I’m not a fan of the dismissive way many vegans deal respond to this.
The truth of the matter is this: Vegans do typically get enough protein to be healthy at a baseline. We get it from beans and mock meats, with some from grains, nuts, and veggies, too.
But “enough to be healthy” isn’t the same as “optimal for building muscle.”
And that’s where the propaganda kicks in. If you’re a new vegan trying to build muscle, you’ll probably hear that you can just have some occasional beans and you’ll be set.
As someone who’s done strength training as a vegan, I can say this is not true. It takes effort to reach optimal protein levels as a vegan.
How Much Protein to Maximize Muscle Growth?
It’s pretty widely accepted in sports nutrition that, if you want to maximize muscle and strength gains, you should consume at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. (And many recommendations are higher.)
So I tracked my own protein intake with the Cronometer app (easily the best app for tracking your nutrients).
I found that I usually only got about half that recommended protein amount on my normal vegan diet. And I was already eating a whole can of beans per day!
To get up to the levels of protein recommended, I need to add big, concentrated protein servings (tofu, seitan, tempeh, protein powder, or mock meats).
After I added a full block of tofu to my daily diet (usually eaten as scrambled tofu), my lifts finally started increasing. Before that, I had been stalled out, not making any progress from one workout to the next. The extra protein made a noticeable difference.
You can definitely build muscle as a vegan—there are many vegan bodybuilders who prove this. But the propaganda comes when people claim that it doesn’t even take any extra attention to protein to do so.
4. The Vilification of Dietary Fat.
“The fat you eat is the fat you wear.” – Dr. John McDougall, author of The Starch Solution
Now, there is a sense in which that quote is true: Dietary fat is much easier for your body to store as fat—because it’s already fat. It doesn’t need to be converted to a different kind of molecule.
In fact, if you take a biopsy of peoples’ body-fat, you can actually tell which food source it came from. The molecules are still that much intact. So there’s some truth here.
But the way this information is packaged is often misleading.
I became really interested in “high-carb low-fat” (HCLF) veganism a few years ago. So I’ve heard all the talking points about dietary thermogenesis and de novo lipogenesis.
And a very-low-fat vegan diet has some clinical utility, too. Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. have used it to great effect in reversing heart disease. And if you’re at high risk of heart disease, I think it makes sense to take a low-fat approach to veganism seriously.
But I’ve found that some of the fear of dietary fats in the HCLF community are just unfounded.
Healthy Fats Are Healthy.
Avocados are also incredible. The fat is mostly monounsaturated, which is one of the healthiest forms. Even the paleo and keto folks can agree: Avocados are a fantastic, healthy food.
Will high-fat foods cause weight gain? Not inherently. Fat is more calorically dense than carbs or protein, but it’s also very satiating. As I explained in my “keto vs vegan” post, most people do lose weight on keto because the fats are very filling.
I do think there are risks with certain high-fat foods. For me, peanut butter can become a run-away train, where I just eat more and more.
But for most of us, there’s no reason to cut our healthy fats so low. I think it’s sensible to include nuts, avocados, seeds, and even some extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil in your diet (these oils don’t have the inflammatory omega-6 load of many vegetable oils).
As I’ll cover in the point below about acne, for me personally, it turned out that certain carbs seem to be far more harmful than fats for me.
5. Veganism and Acne: A Miracle Cure?
Is a vegan diet good for acne? It can be.
One of the worst food groups for acne is dairy. (An acne researcher once referred to dairy as “nature’s perfect food for the creation of acne.”) So yes, for some people, going vegan will clear up your acne because you’re cutting out dairy.
But again—this isn’t the full story.
If you look around, you’ll also find some people who have reported that switching to a vegan diet made their acne worse!
And you’ll find people like me, who always had acne and still continued to have it on a vegan diet for years.
I spent years troubleshooting my acne before I was able to pretty much clear things up entirely. I share everything I’ve learned in my guide to clearing acne as a vegan. But I’ll share a short version here…
Problematic Vegan Carbs for Acne
One of the biggest reasons why vegan diets can cause acne—or at least fail to cure it—is that the vegan community is largely unsuspicious of carbs and their impact on blood sugar and insulin.
Vegans often celebrate carbs, eating up to 70% or even 90% of their calories from carbs (particularly in HCLF vegan circles).
Sure, healthier vegans will tell you to limit refined sugars. And some will advise you to eat whole grains instead of processed grains.
But after several painful years of testing what causes my acne, I can tell you that basic advice was not enough for me.
Here’s an example: One of the worst things for my acne has been cereal. And what I found was that even shredded wheat, puffed rice, and other “healthy,” whole grain, and sugar-free cereals still caused me acne.
Another one of the worst foods for my acne? Dates and bananas. Seriously. And I’ve heard from other vegans who experience the same issue.
Now, why do these apparently very healthy vegan foods still cause acne for people like me? Two words: Glycemic load.
Glycemic Load and Acne
It’s pretty well known that refined sugar can cause acne. But people don’t realize that other kinds of carbs can sometimes be just as bad.
Although my healthy cereals were made from “whole grains” and didn’t contain refined sugar, they still converted to sugar quickly in my body due to the shredded or puffed nature of the grains.
If you look up the glycemic index score for shredded wheat, it’s actually just about as high as other cereals that are known to be sugary and unhealthy.
And the same goes for bananas and dates causing my acne. They’re some of the most high-glycemic fruits.
And this isn’t mentioned by hardly any vegan advocates who talk about clearing your skin. The Clear Skin Diet is a book that recommends a low-fat vegan diet for clearing acne… But they fail to mention high-glycemic fruits or grains as a risk at all!
While I believe in veganism ethically, I’ve found that the paleo folks actually give better advice when it comes to avoiding acne. (Paleo removes dairy and these higher-glycemic fruits and grain products.)
If you personally struggle with acne, seriously, go read my full post about how I cleared up my acne. It took me years of studying and experimenting on myself to learn what I share in that post.
6. The Only Way to Reverse Type-2 Diabetes?
First, it’s worth acknowledging that a healthy plant-based diet can reverse type-2 diabetes, and that’s pretty legit.
So, credit where credit is due.
But vegans should realize: This is not the only way people have reversed their type-2 diabetes with diet.
I still remember a specific scene from the vegan documentary What the Health... Kip, the filmmaker, is interviewing someone from a prominent diabetes organization.
Kip is questioning why the organization doesn’t promote a vegan diet. He points out that research has shown that a vegan diet can reverse type-2 diabetes. But this diabetes organization still includes meat in their recommended meals on their website. Why?
The representative from the organization pushes back, saying “Any diet works—if people follow it!”
And the thing is—he’s not wrong.
Many people experience relief in their type-2 diabetes when they lose significant amounts of weight by any means. It doesn’t need to be lost with veganism. Fasting works, and low-calorie diets work, too. (source)
Vegan documentaries often emphasize how insulin resistance is caused by a build up of “intramyocellular lipids”—fat inside the muscle cells.
And a low-fat, plant-based diet may be one way to fix this issue. But another way is simply to decrease your body-fat stores.
If you can lose weight just through portion control, bariatric surgery, or some other means—and actually keep it off—then more power to you. You don’t need to go vegan to reverse your diabetes.
Now, there is some interesting evidence that a plant-based diet can reverse type-2 diabetes even without weight-loss. So I do think a healthy plant-based diet may be a doubly good idea for type-2 diabetics.
But please… just don’t talk like going plant-based is someone’s only hope. If people want to count calories instead, they can count calories. That can work, too!
7. “Humans Are Designed to Eat Mainly Fruit.”
I just wrote a full blog post about this. And while there are some interesting points to be made, for sure, I think this claim is overblown.
It’s worth noting that chimps and bonobos are frugivores. They’re our closest relatives, and we mostly have the same digestive system as them. So it’d make sense that our ideal diet may be somewhat similar to theirs.
But the fact is, we’ve evolved since we branched off from the other primates.
And the incorporation of more starch and meat in the human diet—richer calorie sources—may have actually been part of what allowed us to evolve and spread across the planet like we did.
I do think that nutritionally, humans are best-suited to a mostly plant-based diet. But there’s less evidence that our diet needs to be 100% vegan to achieve peak health.
And there’s even far less evidence that a fruit-based diet is the specific solution.
If you look at fruitarians, there are some shining success stories… but there are also many examples of people struggling.
A high-fruit diet can potentially lead to dental problems, low muscle mass, hair loss, and more. (Covered more in my full post on this issue.)
Overall, the human diet is characterized by being flexible. There is not one “ancestral diet.”
Our ancestors lived in many different environments, and it was their ability to adapt to all of them that made us the successful species we are. Fruit is healthy in moderation—very healthy—but are we truly frugivores? I don’t really buy it.
8. “Veganism Can End World Hunger.”
This claim, like many of the others in this list, has a kernal of truth behind it. But overall, I think it’s uninformed and unrealistic.
The argument is based on the fact that animal agriculture is very inefficient.
Right now, one-third to one-half of the world’s grain is fed to farm animals. And the conversion ratios going from grain to meat are pitiful.
It takes 5 to 9 pounds of grain feed to make a pig gain 1 pound of bodyweight. It takes 6 to 27 pounds of grain to make a cow to gain 1 pound of weight (estimates vary).
We would have a lot more calories available to feed people if we could just feed that grain directly to starving people. And it’s often pointed out that we could end world hunger if this was done. Which is true. We do have enough grain to feed everyone.
But that’s not the real issue.
Capitalism and World Hunger
In a capitalist system, food is not distributed based on need. It’s distributed based on a marker for need: People who are able and willing to pay for it.
And that marker for need breaks down when the people who are most in need don’t actually have any money to enter into transactions with.
Think about it. If you were a grain farmer, who would you rather send your grain to?
- Would you give it to starving people who can’t pay you? Take note: If you give them the food, you won’t make any money. This means you’ll be losing money. And that means, if you do this regularly, you’ll eventually go out of business and won’t even be able to farm anymore.
(Even if you just gave a portion of the grains to feed the hungry, it may cut your profit margin enough that you become uncompetitive in the market with other farmers who don’t. As a result, you’ll be able to expand your operations, and you’ll lose market share.)
- Or would you sell it to pig farmers who can pay you because they’re using the grain to raise pigs and then sell the pork to people who do have money? Take note: If you do sell your grains to these pig farmers, you can make money and continue growing your business, paying for farm expenses, etc.
The choice is obvious from a business perspective—and it’s not to feed the hungry broke people, no matter how much grain you have.
Also take note: The issue isn’t that the grain farmers are evil, bad people for not giving away their grains to alleviate hunger. The system is forcing their hand.
In this system, being charitable is self-defeating because it leaves you with less profit, which means less capital to reinvest into building your business. Which leaves you at a competitive disadvantage.
When you see the way this all works, it casts a lot of doubt onto the idea that “We can just take the animal feed and give it to hungry humans instead!” Yeah… Not under capitalism you won’t.
I’ve heard claims that there’s already enough food waste in our current system that we could already solve world hunger if that existing waste was just redirected to feeding the hungry.
But that doesn’t happen.
For these reasons, I’m personally not convinced by the “world hunger” arguments for veganism.
But Going Vegan May Still Help? … Maybe?
However, having said all that—it’s possible that the shifting of supply and demand in a newly vegan world could impact grain prices significantly.
And it’s possible this could change the math when it comes to the feasibility of feeding the hungry with government programs, non-profits, etc. I’ll explain.
It’s commonly noted that more productivity (higher crop yields) could help us meet global hunger needs by increasing the supply of grain and therefore lowering the price per bushel.
Well, maybe the same effect could be achieved if everyone went vegan.
If everyone went vegan overnight, for example, it’d quickly become unprofitable for animal farmers to feed all that grain to cows and pigs… So they’d stop buying up the grain. Then there’d be a ton of extra grain supply, so the price per bushel would go down.
And then grain may be cheap enough for non-profits or government programs to more realistically buy that extra grain and feed it to the hungry.
… But who knows if this would happen in real life.
Would grain prices actually go down that much in a realistic scenario where the world gradually goes vegan? Wouldn’t the grain supply and prices just adjust gradually to the new market conditions?
And once the grain prices had dropped, wouldn’t farmers be less incentivized to grow as much? So then, wouldn’t the supply come back down to meet demand, leaving us without any cheap surplus of grain?
But my point is this: World hunger is a complex problem. And to me, it seems our political and economic systems are likely bigger hurdles than the diet choices of non-vegans when it comes to solving it.
If this issue interests you, check out A Well-Fed World. The vegans I know who care the most about world hunger often cite them as the leading organization in this space.
There are lots of great reasons to be vegan—so there’s no need to make up fake reasons, over-generalize research findings, or pretend that a vegan diet has no possible shortcomings.
If you’re a vegan who makes any of the above arguments, I hope I’ve convinced you to add some more nuance to how you discuss these things.
Ultimately, by acknowledging weak points in your arguments, you’ll become an even better vegan advocate.
Your message will be much more convincing if you drop the weakest points and account for the caveats and nuances I’ve pointed out.
In the end, I still believe in veganism. I think it’s a compassionate diet, and I think it makes nutritional sense for pretty much everyone to at least be mostly plant-based. So yes, I say go vegan (!)—but don’t believe everything you hear about how great it is.
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