I recently saw a tweet about Ginny Messina pop up on the RVGN feed from Meghan O’Day:
@TheVeganRD Animal rights made me vegan. Evidence-based RDs help me be a healthy, happy one. Thanks!
Many vegans could say the same. Ginny adopts a rigorous, evidence-based approach and delivers nutritional advice in a straightforward accessible manner. Her book Vegan for Life (co-authored by vegan registered dietitian Jack Norris*) is an indispensable guide for maintaining a healthy vegan diet. It also, along with her other titles*, serves as a useful reference when faced with tricky nutritional questions from concerned non-vegans!
Her blog The Vegan RD focuses on specific nutritional issues of interest to vegans. It dispenses reliable advice and often debunks the hyperbolic claims about vegan diets made by non-vegans — and vegans themselves.
As well as making us ‘healthy and happy’, Ginny has doubtlessly raised the awareness of many people who have adopted a plant based diet for health reasons. Though her blog is focused on nutrition, the driving force of her work is an ethical commitment to reducing animal suffering. This motivation is apparent in the way she always returns to the message animals matter.
We are very grateful to Ginny for answering a few questions for RVGN.
What came first, your veganism or your interest in nutrition science?
Definitely my interest in nutrition science. My interest was in public health nutrition and in improving access to food and nutrition education for low-income families. My interest in animal rights came very early in my career, though, and I became a vegetarian right after I became a dietitian. It was another 5 years or so before I began exploring the ethics of veganism and that’s when I decided that it was where I wanted to focus my work.
You are a registered dietitian (RD) who advises people about nutrition. I also often see nutritionists offering (sometimes dubious) dietary advice. What is the difference between the title ‘RD’ and the title ‘Nutritionist’?
A registered dietitian has to complete a curriculum that includes courses like biochemistry and physiology as well as courses in nutrition and diet therapy at an accredited college. Getting RD credentials also requires a practical internship and then passing a national exam. To call yourself a nutritionist requires—well, basically that you call yourself a nutritionist. Anybody can do so whether they have training or not. This explains the dubious advice often coming from self-proclaimed nutrition experts.
Apparently humans have been eating to sustain ourselves for quite some time. So why does there still seem to be so much confusion about what the ideal diet for human health is?
Within mainstream nutrition, there actually is some consensus about healthy diets. I think most experts agree that eating a variety of minimally processed foods with an emphasis on plant foods is important for health.
But we also have lots of new information about how diet affects health and also about how to meet nutrient needs. And these are things that are not necessarily intuitive. Our ancestors may not have always met nutrient needs, for example, so it’s information that can serve us well.
But definitive answers about nutrition can be hard to come by. And new questions seem to follow closely on the heels of new knowledge. For example, nutritionists have long known that calcium is important for bones, but as more research is done in this area, we have less clarity on how much calcium is needed. As people live longer, issues like calcium needs become more important.
Since studies on any particular aspect of nutrition are often conflicting, we have to wait for more research so that we can see where the bulk of the evidence lies. It takes time to gather all of that information—and in the meantime, we’re dealing with confusing and incomplete knowledge. This is why I tell vegans to be wary of “experts” who insist that they know the one and only healthy way to eat. No one who is looking at the scientific research honestly and critically would claim to know that.
When we see an article that touts the health benefits of a vegan diet we tend to accept and celebrate the findings with little skepticism; conversely any article that suggests there are health risks associated with veganism is scrutinized for inaccuracies. How does our confirmation bias affect the way we think about, promote and eat plant-based food?
Some vegans find it impossible to believe that a vegan diet is not the only healthy way to eat. Or that you can actually eat small amounts of animal foods and be healthy. It may be because they have chosen a vegan diet for health reasons, and information that challenges that is a threat to what they believe about food. Or it might be because they are ethical vegans and promoting veganism as the ideal health-promoting diet is part of their advocacy. Whatever the reason, it’s a strong bias that can cause vegans to view all pro-vegan research favorably (even when it’s not especially good research) and all pro-meat or dairy research as “biased” or faulty for one reason or another.
The fact is that most research is faulty to some degree; all studies have weaknesses. And much research is biased even when it’s not funded by a group with monetary interests in the outcome. Individual researchers can be (understandably) biased if they’ve built a career around a particular dietary theory or if they simply have an ethical or philosophical perspective that makes them favor a particular outcome. There are people doing research on vegan and vegetarian diets who have strong biases in favor of these diets for one reason or another. It doesn’t mean their research is bad, but it’s naïve of vegans to believe that biases exist on only one side. We have to look closely at how the research was conducted to determine its value, not just at who is doing or paying for the research. Vegans have to be willing to do this if we want our movement to be viewed as credible.
There seems to be a reluctance among vegans to eat anything we deem ‘unnatural’. This may mean more vegan sausages for us at barbecues but it can also lead to vegans neglecting their health by avoiding B12 fortified foods or supplements. Why do you think some vegans are so adverse to ‘unnatural’ foods and how can we convince them to give processed food a chance?
Among health-oriented people in general, there is this idea that “natural” means “better.” But this is based on beliefs rather than actual evidence. In fact, evidence sometimes suggests otherwise. For example, we know that for many people over the age of 50, synthetic vitamin B12 supplements are more effective than natural sources of B12 like meat and milk. For young children whose stomachs fill up quickly, including some refined grains in the diet can make it easier to meet calorie needs. Foods like tofu and soymilk are processed products that use only part of the soybean, but they are foods that can be extremely important sources of protein in some diets.
And we have to realize that this whole idea of “natural diet” is faulty and potentially problematic for vegans. What does it mean to eat the natural diet of humans? It probably means eating some animal foods—at the very least, insects and lizards and eggs. So I don’t think vegans should worry too much about whether all of their food choices are natural. We should just worry about eating a diet that causes no harm to others and that protects our health. There is no evidence that such a diet can’t include vegetable oils, veggie meats and fortified foods.
Similarly, there is a large anti-GMO sentiment in the vegan community, which makes veganism seem harder, and vegans seem irrational*. How do you suggest we convince these people of the scientific consensus that GMO crops are not only safe to consume but have huge benefits in getting adequate nutrition to people in the third world* ?
I think vegans need to consider the broad range of possible outcomes of genetic engineering, some of which can clearly reduce animal use. Genetic engineering allowed us to stop using insulin from slaughtered animals to manage diabetes. It has given us a vegan flu vaccine. These may be small examples, but they speak to the potential for alternatives to animal use. And of course, there are other exciting possibilities like the Real Vegan Cheese project*.
I know that’s a little bit different from what you asked about. I can’t argue very well for or against the safety or benefits of GMO crops because I have no expertise in this area (although, based on what I know, I don’t feel at all compelled to seek out non-GMO foods). My concern really is that a flat-out rejection of this technology closes the door on a tool that will very likely help us further veganism more quickly. We have to at least stay open to the possibilities.
A lot of vegans are healthy active people who eat balanced diets and they make great adverts for veganism. Those of us who are not quite as health focused can feel as though we are not good advocates because we do not match the ideal healthy aesthetic. Do you think vegans who enjoy sitting around reading and eating chips rather than jogging and eating kale can contribute to animal advocacy?
Making lifestyle choices to optimize health is definitely a good thing. But it has nothing to do with veganism, which is a stance against the use and exploitation of animals. We really need to stop conflating the two. For better or worse, a lot of people don’t care about their health or maybe they do, but they just like junk food too much to do anything about it. Do I want those people to be vegan? Absolutely yes, because I want everyone to be vegan. I also want everyone to have access to information that will allow them to optimize their health. But if someone doesn’t want that information or has no intention of using it, then I want them to know that they don’t have to give up potato chips and French fries in order to be vegan.
So I don’t think you have to be in perfect health or that you have to engage in healthy behavior in order to advocate for animals. On the other hand, choosing a vegan diet that doesn’t meet nutrient needs is poor animal advocacy. Meat-eaters don’t worry that they’re going to get cancer or heart disease if they go vegan. They worry that they will get osteoporosis or anemia. Those are the concerns we need to disprove, so I think that vegans do need to pay attention to meeting nutrient needs even if they prefer potato chips to kale.
To get to the vegan cheese in my local health food shop I have to wade through a torrent of pseudo scientific remedies and trinkets. Why do you think veganism and ‘healthy eating’ more broadly has formed such a close association with woo?
When people who don’t know me find out that I’m vegan they almost always assume that it’s for my health and that I’m interested in all kinds of natural health remedies and dietary theories. They think I’m gluten-free and eat only organic foods. Many people don’t understand what veganism is and they reduce it to some dietary health fad. Unfortunately, the vegan community sometimes aids in this perception. I’ve seen a lot of questionable supplements and treatments being advocated at veg fests.
And there is this idea—which probably has some truth to it—that when someone believes you need to give up entire categories of food in order to be healthy, they are going to be open to other unfounded theories about diet and health. And, so veganism just kind of gets tossed into the pile of dietary theories along with Paleolithic and gluten-free diets and with pseudoscience like homeopathy and colon cleansing.
You’ve said that the ‘health argument’ for veganism fails:
“There is, of course, a pretty good argument for eating more plants (lots more plants) and less animal food, but no one has shown that you must eat a 100 percent plant diet in order to be healthy”*
As an RD if you are not promoting veganism for its alleged health benefits, based on your knowledge of nutrition what do you see as your role within the vegan community?
My focus is on countering misinformation about alleged “dangers” of veganism (like a lot of the things coming out of the paleo and low-carb communities) and on providing information to ensure that vegans will meet nutrient needs in ways that also reduce chronic disease risk. My view is that veganism is a moral imperative—so the only thing we really need to show is that it is possible to be a healthy vegan. There is no need to try to prove the unprovable—that a vegan diet is the only healthy way to eat.
Thanks again to Ginny for answering our questions. If you haven’t already we would highly recommend checking out her books* and blog. For any new vegans or those considering the transition, Ginny’s blog has an excellent simple presentation The Seven habits of Healthy Happy Vegans on how to construct a healthy vegan diet.
In the vegan community there is an unfortunate amount of misleading and sometimes dangerous dietary advice. It is important that we support and promote the work of evidence based dietitians like Ginny because we want her good advice to keep us healthy and her honest and straightforward manner to characterise our movement.
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