Veganism, Fat Shaming, Health and Why I am Vegan

After several readers asked me to do this, I translated (also changed and added some things) a German entry I wrote on this topic here.

“Fat Shaming”

Until recently I had never heard of the English expressions “fat shaming” or “body shaming”. But then I read about both on several websites. I learned that they describe a kind of discrimination which is very common and as opposed to other discriminations, it is very socially acceptable. (It’s also nothing new. But the expression was new to me.)

Often it comes under the guise of prevention. A very recent example of how to do this came from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a nonprofit organization many vegans are familiar with because they promote a vegan diet.

PCRM focuses on the health aspects of a vegan diet. I always thought this was a good thing, not because a healthy diet is super important to me but because non-vegans keep  telling me how unhealthy veganism must be. I always thought I could tell them about the great work PCRM does. Well, I am not doing that anymore. Because it seems that PCRM kind of turned into PeTA. They are now promoting a vegan diet with the help of embarrassing, discriminating, and insulting ads. They all have one message: Fat people are unhealthy and their bodies are ugly. Because they are fat, they get all kinds of diseases like diabetes and heart attacks. Oh and of course fat people are not vegan. (I don’t want to link to those ads. Instead I’d like you to read Ginny Messina’s reply to these ads.)

Veganism and Health

It seems that their message is “Go vegan and get slim.” Last month I celebrated my 5 year vegan anniversary. It was also my blog anniversary. I feel like the vegan blog world was a completely different one when I started. Maybe I am making this up, maybe this is my wishful thinking, but I feel like I have never before been bombarded with so many book advertisements or blog entries that focus on the connection of health and veganism. Going vegan or “plant based” as the new term seems to be, will help me become full of energy, detoxed, slim and all together beautiful.

I went vegan for ethical reasons. I am still vegan for ethical reasons. Five years ago it didn’t occur to me that veganism could have particular health benefits. As I said, I often had to defend my diet. I also didn’t think my diet was unhealthy. I knew that I would thrive on it. I read a lot about nutrition and was very confident that I wouldn’t die of meat and dairy deficiency. But my diet wasn’t super important to me. And I still feel that way. (That doesn’t mean that I don’t care what I put into my body. But I try to follow a relaxed and everything-in-moderation approach.)

At some point veganism was seen in a different light. I don’t know when it started but I noticed more and more vegan food blogs focussing on health by improving their diet. I started getting comments by people who told me they couldn’t make my recipes because they had too much fat, sugar, gluten, etc. Many books which described a whole foods, low-fat vegan or near vegan diet as a way to cure certain diseases like diabetes also popped up.  Suddenly it seemed that veganism was stronger connected to the positive health aspects it could have (if done in a very certain way) than to its ethical aspects. It also seemed that more and more people not only went vegan, but also fat-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, soy-free, and sometimes even salt-free.

I don’t want to ridicule or judge this. I am sure that everyone has good reasons for their food choices. I am sure many people want to and can improve their health by avoiding or adding certain foods to their diet. I don’t want to criticize them. But it makes me sad when people who seem to be perfectly healthy post “healthy” cookie recipes or apologize for posting those that aren’t “quite that healthy” and swear they almost never eat sugar. I hate it when people mention the words guilt and food in the same sentence. I hate it that vegans who are not a certain size feel they are setting a bad example and therefore try to lose weight. I hate it when people go on restrictive diets because they are afraid of gaining weight. I hate it when people buy into health claims that are none or cut out foods for heath reasons when in fact these foods aren’t bad for them. And I hate it that most of these people are women. So my question is: What the hell happened here? Are vegan blogs the new women’s magazines? Sure, many food blogs are written by women but does that mean we have to reinforce stereotypes of how we as women are seen in this society? Why can’t we indulge in cupcakes or eat fried food without making sure to inform our readers about the next detox regimen we have already planned?

Why are people stigmatized, who do not fit into our frames of what we consider healthy and beautiful?  And worst of all, why do we stigmatize ourselves because we made so called bad food choices? And why do so many people still think that being thin means being healthy? Why do we work so hard to match a often very biased and repressive ideal of beauty – when in so many other areas we (as vegans) try to fight oppression and be compassionate?

Body Images

Everybody is hassled to be slim, not only us vegans. In a society where being slim is what you should always strive for, especially as a woman, being fat means you are violating moral values. (At first this seems like an awful exaggeration, but I think this argument is interesting because fat people seem to violate many rules our society lives by: they are seen as lazy and undisciplined and egoistic, costing the health system boatloads of money, etc.)

But it’s not that easy. Being overweight isn’t the same as being unhealthy. Thin people can be unhealthy, too, especially those who diet all the time. (This is also addressed in the post I just linked to.) In fact fat people can be as healthy as thin people. And yes, there are overweight vegans. So what? Vegans come in all sizes, too.

I know that the number of “health vegans” is growing, and again, I don’t want to say it’s a bad thing. Everybody should do what they think is best for them. But as I said, I don’t like the fact that people feel pressured into healthy eating for example because of their body weight. I don’t want people to feel guilty about a cookie. (And I don’t want them telling me the cookie was healthy because they used whole wheat flour and agave, or whatever the newest trendy “healthy” sugar is.)  I don’t want women (and men, too) to be ashamed of their bodies. And personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go vegan for health reasons only. I saw many vegan health bloggers come and go. And quite a number stopped being vegan for the same health reasons they went vegan for in the first place.

Yes, health is important, and yes, you should try to read up on vegan nutrition because it will benefit you. But I think it is even more important to keep in mind you should be kind and compassionate to others and to yourself. Please stop beating yourself up about your weight or your eating habits. Please stop hating your body and abusing it by dieting, fasting, or detoxing.  Please stop counting calories and fat grams.  Please stop cutting out fat/sugar/gluten, etc. just because. Please stop chasing a crazy body and beauty ideal, especially if you are a women. (Because this beauty ideal ist just another lame  patriarchal tool to keep women quiet. And I am sick of it.)

Personally I stopped telling people about the health benefits of veganism. The reason is that I don’t believe a little milk and meat in your diet will kill you. Instead I try to tell people about the ethical reasons that made me go vegan. And I brag about vegan food all the time. I tell people about the kick-ass stuff I made or about the wonderful vegan food I had at a restaurant or a friend’s place. Because I want people to know how awesome veganism is and that vegan food means your being comassionate but you’re not depriving yourself of something. You are not starving because you can’t have a steak. It’s not sad that you won’t eat the cake made with eggs and butter. Because there’s a a whole new world of flavours, ingredients and fantastic recipes to be discovered.

33 thoughts on “Veganism, Fat Shaming, Health and Why I am Vegan

  1. I am not a vegetarian or vegan but I eat a lot of raw vegan food because they are quick portable interesting (kale chips anyone?) Usually tasty, And best of all good for you! I welcome it even it is becoming more of a fad.

  2. Thank you for writing this! I am a “fat vegan” who went vegan and has stayed vegan for ethical reasons and this new veganism just for health craze has almost made me feel bad for being vegan and overweight. Thanks for reminding me that that’s not what veganism should be about, it is a compassionate lifestyle. And that’s what makes a lifetime vegan, not someone who is just chasing the new healthy diet craze.

  3. 1,000 times yes! I agree with everything you wrote! Thank you for writing this it found me at the right time.

  4. It isn’t just vegans with the gluten free fat free sugar free.I was on an Indian site and someone was ripping her a new one for frying wanted her to redo the recipe baked. I wanted to write do it yourself!my friends are not vegan they are obsessed with no this no that.Yet they drink with no worry LOL! What makes me always stressed out is my doctor. my cholesterol is too high and you weigh too much.I did lose 25 lbs and i was starving and gained it back.I am a size 14-16.So I won’t spend 10 extra years in the nursing home GOOD!It used to stress me out that i was the fattest one in Yoga class but I kept going. I have read when you become a vegetarian the weight falls off. Mine loves me and is sticking around.My boys have always been heavy and the parents of kids were meaner than the kids. People made remarks at restaurants like you are never supposed to eat.I have lived with fat shaming from teachers parents. they have an elitist attitude they do everything right we have failed. I see them at drive thru’s and eating hot pockets.they think they have the right and obligation to say do you know you are fat? well no I didn’t thanks for waking me up butt head.

  5. ps. It is interesting as you say that people think veganism is also very unhealthy. People keep telling me that I will be “missing something” in my diet. Hmmm I seem to remember 39 years ago when I became a vegetarian that people told me I would either die, become anemic or my bones would become brittle. I think people just don’t like anything that’s not what they consider normal! Now vegetarianism is considered completely normal. May be if we give veganism another 20 years or so it will be accepted as just another way of eating.

  6. Mihl, thanks for this, I completely agree with you. My choice (and my husband’s) to be vegan is completely about animal treatment, nothing to do with health. I’m a FAT vegan and I have to say I put on 1/2 a stone (3.5kg) when I became vegan because the food was so damned good. (In fact a lot of it was to do with your fabulous ice cream recipes.) I’ve lost a bit of it since but you can definitely be an unhealthy vegan! I blame Bill Clinton and his steamed vegetable and raw fruit vegan diet, he lost so much weight everyone thinks that’s what it’s all about. I love FAT GAY VEGAN’s web page, the man knows who to enjoy his food. I’m not saying you should go out there to be deliberately unhealthy and there are various reasons for being vegan but it’s definitely not about being healthy to the exclusion of all else. You can be an unhealthy vegan, vegetarian or omnivore. I do love my vegetables and fruit though and I’m not advocating deliberate unhealthiness but I don’t think veganism should be lumped in with fad weightloss diets. Thanks again for the post and the great recipes.

  7. sing it, baby! totally agree with you. oh, and i read most of this post while eating chocolate-covered raisins. DEAL WITH IT. ;)

  8. This post seems like two different posts that have stuck together. I’m all for the end of body shaming, and no one should feel guilty about their choice to eat whatever they like. But you lost me with ”it makes me sad when people who seem to be perfectly healthy post “healthy” cookie recipes or apologize for posting those that aren’t “quite that healthy” and swear they almost never eat sugar.” I don’t get your point – people should eat what they want, as long as the line between healthy and unhealthy foods is black and white? I don’t see the connection between the condemnation of fat shaming and your implication that we shouldn’t post healthier versions of recipes if we so choose. Trying to be better to one’s body in small ways, like choosing to eat whole grains or alternative sugars, is not necessarily correlated with hating one’s body, nor is it opposed to ethical veganism. Personally, I am a chunky vegan who loves to eat. I became vegan for ethical reasons, and many of the things I do to be healthier, including eating whole grains (even in cookies) and less processed sugar, I also do because they are better for the earth and/or the animals. While I appreciate the sentiment behind this post, I find the logic flawed and the tone offputting. There are many paths to an ethical life.

    1. I really don’t see Mihl’s post implying we shouldn’t post healthy recipes, just that we shouldn’t feel guilt-tripped into doing so.

    2. Rachel, you are right, this post is a little too complex and I should probably have splitted it into several parts. That’s why I chose to split it in several parts and used headings. English is not my mother tongue and sometimes it’s hard to say exactly what you want to say in a foreign language.
      My point is not to tell people they shouldn’t eat healthful. I just think it’s sad and not right if people apologize for not always making the healthiest food choices. People shouldn’t feel guilty and beat themselves up over it. In the sentence you quoted I tried to say that there’s nothing wrong with eating unhealthy food once in a while, especially if you have no health problems to begin with. Sorry if my wording was not clear.

  9. This is a great post! Very passionate and interesting; Choosing Raw did a great post a few months ago about the intersection of beauty and veganism in response to a photo of a ‘pretty’ meat-eater and a ‘less pretty’ vegan health advocate. It pairs nicely with your great response to this shift in blog writing- which I have been witness to also. I’m personally pretty exhausted with the vegan fashionista thing happening, which does indeed make many blogs seem like women’s mags. I look forward to many more awesome posts like this!

  10. thank you for this open & honest post mihl. i agree with you on so many fronts. have you considered sharing this with JL’s blog stop chasing skinny? i think it would be a great fit.

  11. Love love love.

    I did a gluten/sugar free thing for lent for a few years in the interest of simplified eating (I tend to get depressed in the winter and into food ruts and it helped me to think, get creative in the kitchen, learn more about xgfx eating, etc.). I didn’t do it this year in part because I was doing P90X and a lot of my protein was coming from seitan and vegan jerky, but also because I didn’t want anyone to mistakenly think I was doing a ‘cleanse’ or anything of the sort.

  12. Great post, thank you. Sometimes I despair at the fixation some vegans have on seeing how much sugar/fat/gluten/cooked food they can cut out in the pursuit of being thin and detoxed. For me veganism is about ethics, animals don’t care how much gluten I eat!

  13. Thank you so much for this post, Mihl. I became vegan for health reasons, but animal rights followed IMMEDIATELY. In my view, how can you become vegan and NOT become invested in protecting and loving animals? For me, they go hand in hand.

    I almost never share links on other peoples’ comments, but I did write about this, too, and had really similar thoughts: http://www.choosingraw.com/when-promoting-a-vegan-diet-turns-into-body-shaming-2/

    I appreciate your activism, and your honesty.

    1. Thank you, Gena! I read your post before and really liked it. I should have linked to it myself.

      1. No no! I wouldn’t want to even give people the chance to click away from your smart, excellent words. But I’m glad to share here. Thanks for having read mine, too. I adore your blog, which I’ve been reading since before I went fully vegan :)

  14. I went vegan over a decade ago, for ethical reasons. I went vegetarian over 30 years ago for ethical reasons. I also live in the Bible Belt. In the Midwest. In a place where you may be a “communist” or UnAmerican or UnChristian or Satan for not supporting the meat and dairy industry. I also live in a place where the majority of people are suffering from issues due to meat & dairy & overeating the wrong kinds of foods. I think it is a travesty that women feel like they have to “miss out” on good food or count calories or all the BS that these “diet” places sell them. I live where WW rules and most people gain the weight back & pay out the ass and still don’t get to where they want to be. I also embrace all reasons people want to eat less meat. It is MUCH easier to make the connection with animals once you are NOT eating them, for whatever reason. I have nothing at all against vegan junk food (except I kind of wish there was less packaging) or any style of vegan diet, I also have nothing against people eating unprocessed plant foods to gain health & a better weight. It also takes an army. So it is wonderful to have the cupcake vegans, the cookie vegans, the gluten free vegans, the salt free vegans (there are scads of regular people out there trying to quit salt because their docs said so-how awesome if they can find vegan recipes to help them), republican vegans, green vegans, blah blah blah blah. I guess I just generally appreciate the complete diversity within the eating more plants movement (because lots of people are trying to eat less meat & dairy and are not “vegan” in diet or lifestyle yet) and I don’t think that focusing on healthy food is hurting those people baking vegan pies. In the Bible Belt, in general, even people who RISK THEIR LIVES TO SAVE DOGS, will fight you tooth & nail about eating deer, pigs, & cows. There are SO many who will not see the connection, yet the SAME people constantly are trying to eat better, lose weight, or get off meds. So while I personally went vegan and veggie from about 3rd grade (I am 40 now), I don’t live in a place like San Fran or Berkeley where everyone has advanced degrees, ponders the ethical side of eating other animals, or even believes in global warming. Actually, a fair amount of people in my area do NOT even believe in climate change. Often they hate B. Obama, hate Muslims, hate gays, and anything else that isn’t in their “world”. And these types of people are coming to plant based diets (not giving up the leather or fur yet) because of movies like Forks Over Knives and because of health issues. So I just want to fckn embrace everyone who is trying to encourage veganism in any way/shape/form in any place in the world. Because I can tell you that in general, even the biggest “animal lovers” the ones who plaster stuff about animal cruelty ALL over their FB pages, STILL saturate their “Pinterest” boards with pulled pork, chicken, and whey shake powders. And while I never give up hope, it’s a tough sell. All I try to do is be a happy vegan, a good person, and don’t push it (in person).

  15. Great post. I am a fat, fit vegan! Overweight, but I lift weights, run (half marathons even),go to spin classes and swim. I do more exercise than many ‘thin’ people I know. I don’t get sick much, and when I do rest not antibiotics gets me better. Fat, but reasonably healthy.
    And I eat the stuff that just over 10 years ago people thought was weird (you know nuts, seeds, tofu, beans and fresh fruit and vegetables). Turns out that we were right all along.
    I really like the sentiment about compassion, not just for animals, but for ourselves and fellow human beings.

  16. good post! i wrote an article about being a vegan at any size for my current zine. i was tired of this new trend of promoting veganisim as a miracle diet by a lot of people who have never dieted in their life!

  17. Right on! I’m all for trying every vegan morsel of goodness being cooked, baked, grilled, etc. We’re constantly bombarded with posts to cut down on oil and sugar. I love dessert and will never pass up good vegan dessert.
    Cheers!

  18. I relate so strongly with what you’re saying here. I went vegan for ethical reasons, first and foremost, and the health aspects still aren’t something that I’m really all that concerned about. I like delicious vegan food, and I’m not going to apologise for it.
    I have been absolutely heartbroken to see an organization I once respected stoop so low as to insult people and hurt people into changing to a diet that I’ve otherwise found peaceful and ethical. I’m tired of the fatphobia I see (from PCRM/PETA/other vegans), but I especially hate it when it is used to guilt people into hating themselves just a little bit more in the name of veganism. No thank you.

    But thank you for this post. <3

  19. Although I just decided to try the sugar-free thing for a month just to see whether or nor it offers any health benefits, I didn’t go vegan for health reasons or to lose weight. In fact, I gained 20pounds within only a few months of living on a vegan diet, so “weight” wasn’t high on my agenda. I made the change because of ethical reasons. And environmental reasons.

    By and by, I became a fan of healthy eating. Obviously, health & veganism don’t need to go together, but I like finding “healthy” vegan recipes because both are important to me. I personally believe that striving for a healthy body (weight only being a part of this) is a good thing. I believe that a sound mind benefits from a healthy body and vice versa. But this is my personal belief. Who am I to say it’s the truth?

    That being said, what I think is that people lost touch with what they are eating, regardless of their diet. I’d like to see cooking classes back in school. Obviously, the curriculum shouldn’t be “How to lose weight with home cooking” but simply to learn how to roast broccoli and what kind of nutrition it contains. Only when you know what you eat can you make informed choices about what you put into your body. And then it’s up to the individual to set their own priorities, find their own balance in tune with their own body. What works for one person doesn’t have to work for another. We are all responsible individuals. Other people may evaluate things differently than we do; they choose differently for different reasons. We have to respect that.1

    _____
    1 I was tempted to say: “When it’s by choice and not by lack of information, we have to respect that.” But isn’t that patronising? Isn’t lack of information in many (most?) cases also a choice? After all, it’s all out there, if you want to find it. Oh dear…

  20. Fantastic post! Could not agree more. I’ve noticed this shift as well and I hate that I’ve even felt guilty for using sugar/white flour/fat. These things are after all, still vegan.

    (Although, I must confess that I do actually like counting calories which I explain here: http://maplespice-eats.blogspot.com/p/calories.html ;-))

    I’ll still happily have sugar laden vegan cake for breakfast or something deep fried if I fancy it now and again. Moderation is absolutely key.

    Excellently written piece!

  21. What a great post, Mihl. I couldn’t agree more–it does seem as if vegan blogs are “the new women’s magazines”! For me, cutting out the sugar was a necessity–I was never so sick in my life as I was when my candida spiralled out of control. Eating low glycemic has been a lifesaver for me. I also believe in whole foods in general–I think foods that are not processed (or minimally processed) are simply better for our bodies and health. I have nothing against conventional treats with sugar, flour, shortening, etc–in fact, my hubby eats that way all the time–for those whose bodies can tolerate it (and if they don’t have an addiction to sugar like I do). I think the problem in North America, though, is that far too many of us have very unhealthy relationships with our food. Sadly, years of abusing white sugar, white flour, processed fats, and so on have created a situation where many people are risking their health and longevity if they continue to eat that way. But most things–even high fat, high sugar, high flour foods–are fine in moderation.

  22. Hear, hear!

    IMHO “vegan for slimming reasons” and “vegan for health reasons” are two entirely different pairs of shoe. I can support the second, while the first leaves be a bit disappointed.

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