The Glossy Magazine Myth – Part 1

Every once in a while I stumble across something or someone which helps me reinforce my beliefs, and reminds me why I have worked (relatively) hard to be where I am now.

Sometimes it’s something which reminds me how badly I want to succeed in training. Sometimes it’s an affirmation of my belief that veganism is the smartest choice for a healthy, ethical and sustainable lifestyle. Occasionally it’s a reminder that all those years of writing essays, learning how to research and analyse texts and information were not wasted, and have directly helped me develop my intellectual skills. If I’m super lucky, it’s all three.

Today I feel I have hit the jackpot. So instead of starting with a rant about how awful, ignorant, and badly-researched this article in Marie Claire is, I would like to take a moment to thank this terrible writer for reminding me that I am smarter, better informed, more compassionate, and probably healthier and fitter than a number of people on this planet. I will also now be able to use this infuriating piece as fuel for grappling or conditioning, providing the aggression I sometimes lack at the end of a long and stressful day at work because I am a weak-minded vegan, so malnourished my brain can no longer process emotions, let alone the explosive movements required in martial arts.

However, I am aware that simply going on a verbal rampage of virtual destruction of this poor misinformed “journalist” – who for all I know had to write this dangerously misleading piece in exchange for a lifetime’s supply of free meat (we are in the midst of a worldwide financial crisis after all, and we’ve all got to do what we can) – will do little to redress the harm she may have done to her faithful readers.

Instead, let me offer a point-by-point counter-argument. I will try to keep this as rational and objective as possible, which shouldn’t be too hard as most of the article was filled with unsubstantiated statements and logical fallacies.

1. Hidden agenda: “Could the so-called healthiest diet in the world actually make you sick – and fat? Jessica Girdwain investigates the scary side of extreme eating.

Who has called this “the healthiest diet in the world”? What Jessica is doing here is setting her subject up for failure – I smell a hidden agenda (possibly that lifetime supply of free meat we talked about earlier).

I love the dramatic pause before “and fat”. Because being fat would clearly be the worst thing that could happen – much worse than being sick, clearly.

Extreme eating? Can we have a definition here please? Or do we just want to throw around big flashy headline words?

2. Wait, what are you talking about again?: While veganism’s draw is clear–ranging from the moral argument against eating animals to the health impact of overconsuming red meat–for many women, one motive is to lose weight.”

Is veganism’s draw clear? This makes it sound like a fashionable thing to be doing. According to this, an estimated 1% of the population of the USA is vegan, and only a fraction of that in the UK. Looking at figures for vegetarians, they still only represent about 3% of the population in most Western countries, so it would be dramatically less for vegans. Ok, so those figures are about 5 years old, but I’m not sure the vegan population of any country will have been so much as tripled since then. I could find more up-to-date statistics, but you get the point. Or what anyone (including women’s press journalists) could do is just type “Veganism Statistics” into any search engine.

But that’s not my main gripe here. I have two more. Yep, that’s 3 issues with one sentence. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said I had hit the jackpot here! “For many women”. I know Marie Claire is a women’s magazine but this makes it sound like veganism is an exclusively or predominantly female dietary choice. According to the Vegetarian Society there are actually more male vegans than female vegans (3% vs 2% respectively, in 2007 – again, dated, but you get the point).

Anyway the main point here is the last statement. If the main motive is to lose weight, then we are assuming these people adopting a vegan diet on the fly probably a) struggle with healthy eating anyway and b) will be aiming for a calorie deficit in their diet, which always entails risks of nutritional deficiency as intake of everything is lowered. Maybe Ms. Girdwain should then be looking at this as a temporary weight-loss diet, and not a sustainable ethical diet?

3. 2 + 2 = 5: Trade the meat-packed standard American diet for plant-based foods and you’ll slim down like you just stepped out of a fat suit.”

This reminds me of that question, “Which weighs more, a tonne of bricks or a tonne of feathers?”. You can eat 2000kcal of meat or 2000kcal of kale, it’s still 2000kcal. And if you need to be eating 1600kcal, you’re going to put on weight. It’s not so much that Ms. Girdwain’s statement is misleading, it’s just that her logic is just plain dumb (well, non-existent).

4. Follow the leader: “…the number may be growing as proponents like Michelle Pfeiffer and a dramatically slimmer Bill Clinton praise its virtues.

Some of us can think for ourselves. Here I will admit that Ms. Girdwain is bound by her readers to name-drop and to cite examples, so I won’t go too hard on her, but whenever you use names to illustrate a point, you risk alienating those who don’t identify with that celebrity. Either Ms. Girdwain skipped Marketing 101, or she deliberately wants to frame veganism as a fleeting fashion trend and not give it the chance to be anything else.

5. 5 cheeseburgers a day: “…many women cut out the cheeseburgers (along with fish and skim milk) without considering the nutritional deficit.”

What essential nutrition does a cheeseburger bring to the table (no pun intended), pray tell?

Fine, fine, cut the cheeseburger but what am I going to do without fish and skim milk?!

6. I have a reservation for one vegan: “…even in cities like New York, L.A., and Chicago, vegan restaurants are sparse…”

New York ranked number 4 in Top Vegetarian Cities. See all 92 listings of vegan-only establishments on Happy Cow.

Times are harder in Los Angeles and Chicago (poor Chicago only ranks 10th best vegetarian city in the US) with only 40 and 34 establishments listed, respectively . So if I were to eat out once a week for a whole year, I may need to double up on a couple of places. Might as well get a loyalty card.

It really must suck for vegans over the other side of the Atlantic to not be allowed to enter non-vegan restaurants. I would assume they get food served in their leper vegan colonies – hopefully someone has thought to fortify it so the poor things don’t wither away altogether.

7. Please don’t feed the omnivores: There are some people who may become vegan simply to eat more junk food

Luckily, there is no way those very same people would eat any non-vegan junk food.

8. Planning makes perfect:As a vegan, you need to spend a large part of your life planning what to eat…

Things that I spend most of my life doing, in order of time spent doing them, on average:

1) Sleeping

2) At work

3) On public transport

4) Hanging out, surfing the internet, watching documentaries, etc

5) Training

6) Eating meals, snacking

7) Making food

Somewhere below that is the time I spend thinking about food to make. It might be in the top 15 or even top 12 these days, but before I decided to be super healthy and before I started earning my own money, it probably didn’t even make it into the top 30.

Nobody freaks out about planning when to go to sleep (when you’re tired or have nothing better to do), when to get that urgent task done at work (as soon as you can or in your lunch break), when to brush your teeth (after a meal) or when to go out for a drink with colleagues (every Friday afternoon), so why do we freak out about planning healthy food (every evening when you are planning your next day anyway, perhaps)?

On a side-note, the quote is from a Dr. Michael D. Gershon. Ok, so he’s chairman of the department of anatomy and cell biology at New York’s Columbia University. I’m not saying he’s not a clever guy. But if you look at his publications it’s pretty clear his speciality isn’t anything to do with nutrition of the general population. Just sayin’.

9. Let’s throw some buzzwords around: “… whole-food sources of soy, like edamame and tofu, along with legumes and grains like quinoa, can provide plenty of the protein you need.”

First, what really is a whole food? Is all vegan food a whole food? Second, tofu is not a whole food as it is made from processed soy beans. Third, quinoa is not a grain but a seed. Fourth, what do you need protein for? Obviously I know the answer but do Marie Claire readers know the answer? Does Ms. Girdwain know the answer? Even if we do have a vague notion that it is the “building blocks of our muscles” or whatever it is that the meat and dairy industry have bludgeoned into our skulls, do we know how much we need and how much these vegan sources of protein provide?

10. Did you really just say that?: “…even nutrition professionals find vegan diets hard to regulate.”

Seriously? I mean, really? How can a nutritional professional find any diet hard to regulate? That’s like saying an accountant finds it difficult to work out their tax return.

A diet is almost by definition something that we regulate. You put together a diet based on what you want to put in and leave out. A diet doesn’t just materialise out of nowhere and start telling nutritionists what to do. Come on.

11. 1 + 1 + 1 = 4: “…because she was already gluten-, bean-, and soy-free (due to allergies), nixing meat was the tipping point to poor health.”

I know the expression goes, “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, but surely we all know it wasn’t really the straw? Isn’t it fairly obvious here that it wasn’t the vegan diet that was the problem, but the lack of gluten and beans and soy? (I might point out that it is also possible to thrive on a gluten-free soy-free diet, but that’s not the point here – the point is that whether you agree with the concept of veganism or not, this example is just totally flawed)

(As in the point above, I am also slightly concerned that there are professional chefs and elite sportspeople out there who are unable to make sensible choices as to what they put into their bodies.)

12. Bad science: Crosby Helms’ doctor diagnosed her with hypo-thyroidism, adrenal fatigue, and anemia.”

Devon Crosby Helms is a 30-year-old female endurance athlete who doesn’t eat soy, beans, or gluten. How on earth did anyone ever figure out that the root of all her problems was cutting out animal products? Yes, I understand that she was “fine” until she adopted a plant-based diet. What if she had been vegan and then gave up the gluten, beans and soy? Or what if she had been vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, bean-free and then taken up ultra-marathon running? My point is, this was not a controlled experiment. The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.

I’d also like to point out that anemia is a common problem among female athletes regardless of whether they eat animal products or not. Only three of this list of the 10 foods highest in iron are actually from animal sources, and even the NHS gives a list which includes no animal products whatsoever.

Meanwhile, there is nothing to suggest that those following a vegan diet are more at risk of hypothyroidism, nor any indication that animal products are necessary for reversing or controlling the condition. And why would they be, as any food is just a collection of macro- and micro-nutrients, and so long as you get the correct nutrients in, and that your body is absorbing them correctly, it doesn’t really matter how that nutritional package was wrapped.

As for adrenal fatigue, again, no need for animal sources. Plenty of vegetables, proteins… just common sense. I don’t know anything about adrenal fatigue, but just a quick internet search seems to suggest that timing of food intake is key, rather than any specific food source. Oh yeah, and adrenal fatigue a term used in alternative medicine, and even Wikipedia cautions us not to confuse it with recognised forms of adrenal dysfunction. Those who do believe in it, though, put it down to emotional and physical stress – there is no mention anywhere of diet setting it off.

Yeah, that whole paragraph was really a big journalistic mistake, eh Ms. Girdwain?

13. Micronutrients, macronutrients, enzymes… Ah who cares? “Any diet that requires you to cut out entire food groups will generally trigger cravings…”

Definition of a food group from the Collins Dictionary: “any of the categories into which different foods may be placed according to the type of nourishment they supply, such as carbohydrates or proteins“.

As I said above; carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals are all little components of a nice big care package we can send our bodies. It doesn’t really matter if this is in a box, in bubble-wrap, in shiny wrapping paper with a big silk ribbon tied around it, wrapped in a banana leaf, or in a Lady Gaga-style meat dress.

Or to be a little more blunt – meat is  not a food group, dairy is not a food group, eggs are not a food group, etc. Going vegan does not constitute cutting out a food group. End of.

14. Godwin’s Law – Nutrition Edition:An extreme diet [of any kind] can often trigger disordered eating and sometimes even an eating disorder.

It seems that mentioning eating disorders is rapidly becoming the Godwin’s Law of health and nutrition discussions. But I’m not scared to go there.

First, let’s start with the logic of this. Surely this statement is the wrong way around; I wouldn’t think adopting an “extreme diet”, whatever that is, can trigger an eating disorder, which is usually a very complex psychological and emotional issue. Rather, I would define an “extreme diet” as one that is created by disordered eating or an eating disorder.

Let’s assume this is just a misquote, and that what its author meant was that an “extreme diet” can mask an eating disorder. Of course there is a risk of people hiding an eating disorder behind a vegan diet, and that is something everyone should be aware of. But there will be just as many, if not more, hiding an eating disorder behind any other diet or lifestyle habit. Maybe if people were a little better informed about vegan diets, and how totally not extreme they are, they would know how to recognise a disordered eating pattern?

And thus concludes Part 1. I think we all need a bit of a break to digest this before Part 2. I hope it is clear that these are not the impassioned ramblings of a vegan extremist, but more the lamentations of someone who values clear, unbiased, transparent science which encourages its readers to make their own decisions and gives them the tools to do so.

You wouldn’t accept a ride from a stranger – don’t be taken for a ride by an internet stranger with a fancy website and a big logo behind their name.