“So, where do you get your protein?”
A fellow doctor asked this question after finding out I became a vegan. Imagine my surprise, considering that doctors should know that a person’s daily protein requirement was less than one gram per kilogram of body weight.
While avoiding meat, dairy, and poultry altogether may mean the rejection of an entire food source that has all the essential amino acids a person needs, this abstinence leads to a trade-off that is pretty much worth it. Instead of consuming cholesterol-laden meat, vegans can opt for a balanced diet that provides all the protein they need without any of the artery-clogging fat.
It seems that doctors, being the health experts that we are supposed to be, have a blind spot when it comes to veganism’s role in health. You might think the above anecdote is an isolated incident, but it isn’t. How many local medical societies have boldly released statements about the benefits of a vegan way of life? How many doctors have openly endorsed — and are also following — plant-based diets?
Medical practice as a whole still speaks of a general passivity, if not ignorance, regarding the major contribution of plant-based nutrition in the prevention of non-communicable diseases. These diseases, by the way, happen to be the top causes of mortality worldwide.
Denial in systemic addiction
Ask a person who eats bacon if they can live without it forever and their reaction runs the gamut from mild anxiety to violent refusal. However, barely any bacon-eating person will admit the unhealthy, almost-addictive nature of their food choices — even if that person was a doctor.
While not quite meeting the criteria for addiction, man’s obsession with meat and compulsion to consume it hint at an unhealthy dependence almost akin to addiction. After all, we have been warned against the negative impact of animal agriculture on health and ecology. In fact, eating meat comes with many defense mechanisms common in addiction, such as denial.
“Mmm, bacon.” These two words have become the most common retort to ward off vegan advocates. They also reveal how a barbaric way of life — one we are barely even aware of — has become widely accepted despite it being harmful not only to our health, but to our planet and the many animals with which we share it. Once addicted, the brain will deny that it is on the path to self-destruction.
Even a medical education does not necessarily spare a person from the pro-meat propaganda. I, for one, have eaten meat for almost 40 years. Despite doctors lobbying against cow’s milk for babies, we have somehow forgotten to lobby against it for adults.
This “meat bias” can be found across all medical fields. Even as rheumatologists are now aware that gout is not caused by legumes, they still forget to conclude that foregoing meat is a great way for the human body to heal. Even as the American Medical Association adopts a resolution asking hospitals to exclude processed meat from their meals, many cardiologists neglect to recommend plant-based diets to all their patients, especially those with heart and weight problems.
No; just because we benefit from cow’s milk does not mean it is okay to have male cows masturbated, female cows raped, and baby cows killed for it. We can get the exact same benefits through more compassionate, more sustainable means that do not involve the unnecessary mass murder of animals and exploitation of natural resources.
No; it does not make sense for rational human beings, especially doctors, to continue to passively support the meat industry. We should know better about how animal agriculture is one of the leading drivers of deforestation, air pollution, and water degradation.
Passive denialism in the health industry
The passive refusal of many health professionals to acknowledge veganism as the key to better health may be evident in the relative absence of lectures in some medical schools about the pros and cons of veganism; the traditional focus on curative instead of preventive medicine, especially in terms of nutrition; and the lack of active recommendations by other medical societies about plant-based diets being superior to meat-based ones.
In essence, our low-key denial becomes a systemic practice that reflects our blind acceptance of the cruel, unhealthy way we eat — and our collective refusal to actively espouse veganism becomes a form of denialism. When denial becomes ridiculously widespread that it clouds even the judgment of specialists and health experts, it becomes more than an isolated defense mechanism and deserves its own suffix.
Veganism as a health recommendation
Doctors have every reason to encourage patients to shift to plant-based diets. According to the American Dietetics Association, “The results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates.”
Veganism prevents not only disease but also climate change. As health professionals, the health of the only planet we live in should also be every doctor’s concern.
According to the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), raising cattle produces more greenhouse gases than transportation. Henning Steifeld of FAO said in a report that livestock turned out to be “one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems”, which included water pollution and deforestation.
It is in everyone’s best interest for all doctors to learn more about veganism. Neutrality regarding veganism isn’t a courtesy to people who eat meat; it is a form of denialism that endorses a cruel, unsustainable way of life despite its negative impact on our health, our fellow sentient creatures, and our planet.
*Conflicts of interest: I am a vegan doctor and the founder of Pangasinan Vegans.