Beyond Milk and Honey: The Vegan Controversy

by Nina Rubin
September 2005


The Argument for Veganism:

  • Healthy
  • No animal exploitation
  • Efficient food production
  • Responsible resource management

The Argument against Veganism:

  • Risk of malnutrition
  • Unnatural
  • Ethical overkill
  • Ineffective way of solving global problems


Imagine never tasting ice cream again.

Or how about milk, butter, yogurt or cheese? Next, try eliminating eggs from your diet (that means no more hearty egg breakfasts, and forget about most baked goods). While you’re at it, don’t eat any more refined sugar – that’s the sugar used in almost every sugar-containing food. And finally, get rid of everything you own that’s made of leather, wool, silk, or down.

Faced with this scenario, most people ask one simple question: why? After that question come others: What’s left to eat? What would you wear? How would you survive? Isn’t it unhealthy, unnatural, or at the least, terribly inconvenient?

It’s fair to say that most Americans know or have heard of someone who has given up meat. A growing number of people, known as vegans (pronounced VEE-gn, with a long "e" and hard "g"), have taken the plunge, bringing vegetarianism to a new extreme. They belong to a movement called veganism, founded in 1944 by a group of vegetarians who advocated for a new “way of living” through the elimination of exploitation of any kind. Practically speaking, this included eliminating all animal products from one’s diet and using alternatives to animal commodities, from leather shoes to silk pajamas.

Many people feel that veganism is a bit extreme - for a number of reasons. Some think it’s unhealthy, while others disagree with the founding principles of the vegan philosophy. Proponents of veganism, on the other hand, argue that vegans live a healthier, more ethical lifestyle.

Healthful or Harmful?
When discussing the health benefits of veganism, most supporters are quick to point out that non-animal based diets tend to be high in fiber, nutrient-rich, cholesterol-free, and low fat 1. They emphasize that not only is vegan food better for you, but the consumption of non-vegan food, specifically animal fats and proteins, has been linked to a number of health problems. These include obesity, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis, and several kinds of cancer 2. According to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with reduced risks for all of these conditions 3.

The counter-argument is that although vegan diets are undoubtedly beneficial in certain respects, they are detrimental in others, causing minor to serious health problems that often go unnoticed. Critics maintain that even the most informed, health-conscious vegans run the risk of malnutrition 4. There are several nutrients that are found in abundance in animal products, but exist in only a handful of vegan foods. Therefore, critics argue, while it is possible to get all of the essential nutrients on a vegan diet, it is extremely challenging.

Vitamin B12, for instance, is only naturally-occurring in animal cells and yeast or mold cells. Since vegan sources of vitamin B12 are scarce, vegans must be vigilant about getting enough of this essential vitamin. This is an arduous task, made more difficult by the fact that some vegans altogether avoid yeast or bacterial products. These people must rely upon fortified foods and supplements. A popular argument against veganism is that heavy reliance upon artificial nutrient sources (vitamin pills, fortified foods, etc.) is an unhealthy practice. These people believe that nutrients should be delivered to the body in their natural packaging, which just isn’t feasible on a strict vegan diet.

Ethics and the Preservation of the Planet
Aside from health benefits, many vegans cite ethical concerns as a primary motivation for committing to the vegan lifestyle. For as long as the vegan movement has been alive, the mistreatment of animals has been a hotly debated issue. More recently, animal rights groups have called attention to the horrors of the meat, poultry, and fish industries through widely circulated statistics. Yet few people realize that such mistreatment and exploitation also exist in the production of other animal by-products, such as dairy, eggs, wool, and honey. For example, strict vegans take issue with the fact that in order to extract honey from a hive, some of the bees are inevitably injured or killed. Anti-vegan critics address the animal mistreatment issue with the argument that, as the old saying goes, it’s a dog eat dog world. We are part of the food chain, they say, and killing to eat is a natural part of the cycle of life 5.

Another hot topic is the environmental ramification of eating meat. According to many, meat-eating societies encourage inefficient food production and resource management. In light of population pressures, many vegans contend that it is irresponsible to produce meat when, in fact, more people could be fed on a vegan diet than on a meat-based one 6. Furthermore, studies indicate that animal agriculture is contributing to a host of environmental problems, including topsoil erosion, wilderness area depletion, groundwater contamination, and greenhouse gas production 7. While many people feel that these arguments are hard to dispute, others claim that such research is bogus or inaccurate. And then there are those who confirm the validity of these environmental statistics, but deem such facts to be insignificant – how could not eating dairy and eggs save our planet?

Can becoming vegan save our bodies, restore our consciences, and preserve the environment? Or do such choices lead to bodily harm and an unnatural lifestyle? Tell us what you think.

1 The high percentage of fiber and nutrients in a typical vegan diet stems from the abundance of vegetables and whole grains, and the lack of fat and cholesterol relates to the absence of cow's milk and eggs, respectively.
2 J of American Dietetic Association, 1997; 97 (No. 11): 1317-21; Am J Clin Nutr, 1999; 69: 727-36.
3 American Dietetic Association, Position on Vegetarian Diets, 1996.
4 Of particular concern are protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12.
5 Another example of such mistreatment comes from the egg industry, where "although chickens can live up to 15 years, they are usually slaughtered when their egg production rates decline after two years" (Bernard Rollin, PhD., Farm Animal Welfare, Iowa State University Press, 1995).
6 "For instance, projections have estimated that the 1992 food supply could have fed about 6.3 billion people on a purely vegetarian diet, 4.2 billion people on a 85% vegetarian diet, or 3.2 billion people on a 75% vegetarian diet" (Peter Ulvin, The State of World Hunger, reported by UN FAO, 1993. Percentages by calories.)
7 According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture is linked to "contamination of aquatic ecosystems, soil, and drinking water by manure, pesticides, and fertilizers; acid rain from ammonia emissions; greenhouse gas production; and depletion of aquifers for irrigation" (United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization, Livestock & the Environment, 1996).