This week, my friend Wendy wrote a post about VegNews magazine, and some of the foods they choose to promote or publish. It was a really interesting discussion, and I encourage you to check it out. If I were to summarize, I’d say that Wendy is approaching this from the perspective of a nutritarian eater who finds it troubling that VegNews doesn’t put as much effort into promoting healthy food as it does into promoting animal rights. Some of the folks who responded—including me—pointed out that VegNews does have something of a health focus, especially lately, but that it is at heart a vegan lifestyle publication, which means that it covers all aspects of vegan living (travel, apparel, and food, as well as health) and makes no claims to be a magazine that only promotes 100% healthy recipes.
I don’t disagree with Wendy that some of the recipes in VegNews don’t qualify as health foods. Take, for example, the chocolate peanut maple bars she used as an example: a cup of vegan margarine, tons of powdered sugar (I hope it’s powdered sugar without bone char, and trust it is), vegan chocolate chips, and vanilla pudding mix. Not exactly health-promoting food by any standard! But the question is whether it’s fine for VegNews to publish the recipe anyway, because they’re not only trying to share healthy foods; indeed, sometimes they’re trying to say to new or aspiring vegans “hey, you can still indulge in some of your favorite ooey, gooey childhood treats on a vegan diet!”
Photo courtesy of VegNews magazine and VegNews.com
I’m personally grateful that VegNews presents a range of vegan recipes. My column is 100% raw; an upcoming column by a good friend will feature allergy-friendly foods; Allison Rivers Samson’s column features indulgent, yet health-conscious vegan spins on omni classics, and Robin Robertson’s column features global food. Between us, there’s a big range of content. I think readers should be made aware of the possible health advantages of veganism, but I also think they should be made to feel that veganism will not mean never eating an indulgent dessert again.
Because whether or not you intend to eat a chocolate peanut maple bar every day, most new vegans find the concept of “can’t” and “never again” to be seriously intimidating; simply knowing that “junk foods” (a term I don’t love) are out there is comforting and encouraging—and that’s perfectly OK. Lately, there’s a ton of talk in vegan circles likening sugary or fatty foods to drugs (and in fact, this was a recent VegNews article topic!). I get it, I really do, but to be honest, I don’t love the demonizing of sugar/fat/salt, regardless of the health crisis that has led to this kind of reasoning. People—women especially—have enough guilt, misery, and self-loathing surrounding food as it is. The last thing we all need is to be told that every bit of sugar we eat is the same thing as heroin. As a vegan publication, I think it’s in VegNews best interest to share the potential, life-changing, and exciting health benefits of veganism. But I also think it should remind people who want very much to make the transition that a sugary snack once isn’t off limits. And that, even if you are a health-minded vegan, it’s not a mortal sin to crave such a thing once in a while.
But this conversation about whether or not VegNews has a duty to shun unhealthy recipes became a lot more interesting and subtle than a simple debate about the politics of writing a vegan lifestyle publication. What it really became was a dialog about what constitutes “healthy living” at all. In response to my initial comment, Wendy asked me,
Anyway, my wish is that this incredible magazine put more emphasis on promoting human health issues. Aren’t humans animals that we care deeply about? Aren’t many of us suffering enough? Isn’t our healthcare system in a monetary crisis? I think you totally get where I am coming from, and since I am partial to both issues (the healthy side and the animal rights side) I just thought I would put this posting out into the universe and see if anyone else felt the same way and maybe be a force for change.
You are incredibly healthy (as far as I can tell) and also (as far as I can tell) would never eat one of those brownies. Am I wrong? I follow your blog pretty actively and you seem to be as uber healthy of a Vegan as it gets. I’d love to see a blog posting from you on this subject.
If your goal was to get more people to eat less animals or treat animals better, would you resort to food porn? You haven’t done that so far on your blog, so I’m thinking that’s a “no.”
To begin with, of course I get where Wendy’s coming from; I wouldn’t be dedicating my life to health care if I didn’t. And I agree that we’re in the middle of a dire national health crisis. But more on health in a moment; that question—would I ever eat a chocolate peanut maple bar—is a really important one, and I am so grateful to Wendy, who you may remember as the powerful, passionate author of one of our best green recovery posts, brought it up. When you write a food blog, you really do forget how others come to perceive you and your habits by reading it. Because I post a lot of the food I make, but not everything I eat, I trust that you guys have a general sense of my lifestyle. But I know that it’s easy to draw assumptions based on what you see, so if you’ve all been assuming that I literally always eat big salads and beans and juice pulp crackers and smoothies, allow me to disabuse you of that idea!
Would I ever eat a chocolate peanut maple bar? That chocolate maple bar, in particular? Well, it would be disingenuous of me to say that vanilla pudding mix or powdered sugar are my norm; the vegan indulgences I like are more along the lines of the chocolate pot de crème at Vedge or the mint chocolate chip sundae at Pure Food and Wine. But would I try one? Just to see what it’s like? Sure I would! There are very few “nevers” in my diet. If it’s vegan and it sounds enticing, I’m happy to try it. I used to say I drew the line at fried foods, mostly because I don’t care for them—that was my “never,” if I had one—but guess what? The vegan calamari at Millennium proved me dead wrong.
When I cook at home, for me and for you guys, I do try to make desserts and baked goods with ingredients like coconut oil, whole grain flours, and agave, rather than vegan shortening or powdered sugar. But when I’m out and about, especially at events or vegan bakeries, I find it really fun to taste some of the goodies, and see how far vegan baking and confection-making has come. I was blown away the first time I tried Sweet and Sarah marshmallows. The Sweet and Salty cookie at Sticky Fingers—which I am positive contains a good dose of margarine and white flour—is probably my favorite vegan cookie. (And their vegan grilled cheese, also not exactly health fare, is mighty fine, too.) Again, these may not be foods you see me eating on a daily basis, but I enjoy tasting vegan specialties, and I take a lot of delight in knowing that they’re out there, reassuring new vegans that it’s not all quinoa and kale.
Do I think that this open-mindedness interferes with my otherwise healthy diet? No. Because I don’t think that healthy living and occasional indulgence are mutually exclusive. As passionate as I am about healthy food, I also believe (and most evidence, anecdotal and clinical, bears it out) that one can afford to eat a rich dessert or French fry now and then, so long as your overarching tendencies are toward whole, unprocessed, and vegetable-rich meals. As someone who went through a strong phase of orthorexic thinking, I’ve been reassured and pleased to realize—through my own experience and through my health education—that the human body isn’t quite so fragile as I used to think it was. We can’t abuse it with a SAD diet or habitual consumption of processed food, but we can afford to eat things once in a while that aren’t health-giving. Unless we happen to be suffering from a health condition that merits special vigilance—and of course if you are, I hope my blog shows you that truly healthful eating round-the-clock isn’t too hard, either!—we have a little leeway.
For me personally, I find that the freedom to enjoy something that has no health benefit whatsoever is actually a part of my overall health: I was much less healthy when I spent endless mental energy thinking on thinking about how nutritious each and every thing I ate was than I am now, enjoying the healthy foods I love on a day-to-day basis, but not subjugating myself to rules about what I can and can’t do. And I think the reason I can eat treats moderately is because I don’t restrict or deny myself things I want to try.
So to answer the big question here, which is “would you ever eat [name your vegan indulgence]?” The answer is yes. I think these foods have an important role in advocacy, I enjoy the freedom to experience them, and I know that my everyday habits give me the freedom I want to be indulgent now and then. So long as the food sounds truly appealing, and so long as I’m as sure as I can be that an animal didn’t suffer or die for it, it’s not “never.”
For the record, Wendy writes a blog for people who have found nutritarianism in a search for health answers, as well as for vegans of all stripes. If you do have a health condition that warrants no processed food at all, or if you believe that such a way of eating is the only way to be healthy, well then, I respect your position totally. I especially respect Wendy herself, who is a shining example of a truly impassioned health advocate (and who made my quinoa and eggplant dish look so much better than I did recently!) And I hope we can come together and support each other as we show readers that fresh fruits and dates and nuts can be just as delightful as Earth Balance* and flour, even if we take personally different stances on the occasional place of the latter in a healthy diet.
As always, CR community, I’m eager for your thoughts!
*It occurs to me as I post this that the recent controversy over Earth Balance and orangutans adds an ethical complication to the example, and I haven’t actually gotten EB for a while for this reason. But I assume a new vegan margarine will take its place soon, if EB doesn’t create one on its own, so the basic point of this post will still be the same!