by Ben Hunt and Karin Lindquist
Veganism is often presented as the solution to our environmental, health, and animal welfare problems. But is it?
We have written elsewhere about the other failures of veganism when it comes to sustainability and health.
- There is no scalable model for sustainably producing enough food to feed the world’s population that does not include large animals.
- A diet devoid of all animal products is extremely detrimental to the health of most individuals. That’s a big reason why 84% of people who go vegan quit within the first twelve months.
We believe that, while the movement may have fine intentions, it is not only misguided in its approach, but also dangerous to its followers’ mental health. This article focuses on those psychological dangers.
Many of the psychological risks stem from the fact that (in our opinion) the vegan movement shares many features in common with cults. We’re writing it in the hope that at least one person, wherever they are in their relationship with veganism, may be encouraged to look at it with a more critical eye.
Please remember, it’s not our place to tell anyone what to think or what to do. Our objective is only to present some information, which we don’t feel is discussed enough, for your consideration so you can make up your own mind.
We should start clarifying that veganism as an all-encompassing lifestyle is not the same as simply following a plant-based diet. Some people choose to exclude all animal products from their diets, whether for reasons of ethics, health, or environmentalism. That is not the same as veganism, which goes beyond diet into politics and identity, and into the realm of cult, as we hope to explain.
We are also not talking about everyone who identifies as vegan. Many of them do a great job of getting on with their own lives without preaching to everyone else what they should be doing, without breaking into farms and harassing people in restaurants. Here we’re talking about militant, fundamentalist veganism exclusively.
(Ben) I have some experience in this area of psychology, as I spent several years in a cult myself in my early twenties. The group I was in was made up of passionate, energetic people with massive integrity, and yet we were all duped into a control structure that left us unsure what to think. I recognise many of the same factors that were going on in that group evident in the discussions I have online with people who are part of the vegan movement. Below we’ll describe each of the factors in turn.
Risk of Nutrient Deficiencies
There are risks to a person’s mental health in any fundamentalist group, but for vegans this is compounded by the fact that following a totally plant-based diet carries significant risks for the brain and nervous system due to its being naturally deficient in several essential nutrients: Vitamins A, B-2, B-3, B-6, B-12, D3, and K-2, cholesterol, iodine, heme-iron, zinc, and the fatty acids DHA and EPA.
Without very careful dietary management (which will certainly include supplements), this will already put an individual at a disadvantage when it comes to thinking clearly. (More info here.)
Powerful Sense of Identity
Veganism is an “ism”, which means it’s presented as a belief system, like Marxism or capitalism. Like a religion, an ism offers the individual a complete worldview that you can use to make sense of life.
Another factor that gives the movement power is the fact that vegan isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. It gives you an identity within the group “you are one of us now”, and that you wear in the world.
Becoming something can be particularly appealing to those who have suffered abuse and may be dealing with identity and confidence issues.
Once a person comes out as “a vegan”, that makes it harder to revert, because it means abandoning an identity, both in your own mind and in all your relationships.
Like all cults, veganism offers a hard-line worldview with a set of extreme beliefs. It seems to me that the more polarizing the belief system, the stronger the hold it has over people.
The promise of veganism is powerful. This is the ONLY way to save the planet. It is the ONLY way to save the animals. And what’s more it’s 100% guaranteed better for your health. It’s veganism or nothing, failure, turning your back on everything that’s wrong with the world.
It is also a fundamentalist ideology, which means that followers must agree to a set of absolute beliefs, with no room for interpretation.
In veganism, it is not only wrong to take the life of any sentient being, but wrong to keep or use any animal for our own benefit (which is presented as akin to human slavery).
Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
We call this extreme because humans have coexisted with farm animals for most of our evolution. It is as natural for human beings to live alongside poultry, pigs, and other animals as it is for ants to “milk” aphids. This is not an appeal to nature, it is actually evident in our physiology. Homo sapiens evolved from a primarily plant-eating ancestor by consuming meat and animal products, resulting in bigger brains and shorter guts. In fact, our digestive physiology is closer to a pig’s or a dog’s than it is to any herbivore’s.
Veganism has two responses to these facts. The more extreme response is to deny the science. Some vegans will claim that we are physiologically herbivores, and refuse to engage with the plentiful evidence to the contrary. This is simply gross cognitive dissonance.
A less extreme viewpoint will acknowledge our omnivorous history and claim that we are now able to evolve to live without animal flesh and products. This sounds more reasonable, but it is still a dangerous ideology. It is a fact that many people cannot be healthy on a plant-only diet. (Many people in the Ethical Omnivore Movement are recovering vegans and can attest to their own experiences of negative health impact from the diet.)
We are convinced the plant-only diet is also extreme, at least for many people, if not the majority. Apparently, people can feel a sense of euphoria, lightness, and energy in the first few months of the diet. This may be due to the body actually starting to reabsorb the nutrients it needs for organs to function from its own muscle and fat.
Following any extreme diet could actually be considered a kind of eating disorder called orthorexia:the addiction to “correct” eating. Like other eating disorders, it is more attractive to those of us who are vulnerable or insecure. Combine that with an initial high, which disappears after a few months – never to return – and you could have a recipe for disaster.
A bigot maintains that they are right and everybody else that doesn’t agree with their views is wrong. It is essential to any cult.
Bigotry is found everywhere in militant veganism. Followers will proclaim their own rightness as a given and simply write off any alternative view as foolish, uneducated, unevolved, or conspiracy.
There is simply no room or tolerance for facts or beliefs that conflict with veganism’s inherent, inalienable truth, leading to horrendous cognitive dissonance.
Many vegans will argue (wrongly) that it’s possible for everyone to thrive on a plant-based diet, because they have to believe that, and must find a way to invalidate any contradicting evidence. They must believe that “most crops are fed to animals” (false) and that it’s easy to feed the world’s population on a plant-only diet (also wrong).
The more the vegan community repeats these (and many other) falsehoods as factual truth, the more it reinforces its members’ feelings of self-righteousness. They are making a real difference to the environment, to animals, and to their own health, and what’s more, one day everyone could be vegan. It’s the only right way for humanity.
Warped Sense of Reality
With their bigoted mindset and repeated rhetoric that many cult members have no doubt been taught to repeat as “undeniable truths” reveals their warped sense of what is reality with the world, particularly when it concerns animals and the environment.
Vegans strongly believe that they are saving animals by not purchasing anything that has anything to do with an animal, and by advocating that others do the same.
They believe that, by their advocacy and actions, animals will be free to live their lives as they see fit, or to be released back into the wild where they belong. To take this to the extreme, their ultimatum is for animals to “never be born into the cruel and inhumane world” which animals alive currently live in.
In other words, they advocate for the complete extinction of all domesticated animals. This is what is called an abolitionist ideology. And it is a very dangerous ideology to hold for humanity.
What many vegans do not realize is that there are billions of products, from pharmaceuticals to construction materials, that contain animal products of some form, whether it’s leather (skin or hide), bone, gelatin or a hormone derivative. The consequences of advocating for and enacting upon abolishing the use of all form of animal products, not just the eggs, milk, and meat, is that there will be a significant increase in reliance of using petroleum-based products and man-made chemical compounds that need to be created in a factory and/or a laboratory. There are many unintended, unseen consequences to our own bodies, and to the environment that many of us still cannot comprehend that can – and already have – come about as a result of industrial-scale activitites.
Vegans also strongly believe that they are saving the environment with their advocation, boycotting, and buying habits. Many openly believe that crop or plant agriculture is much more environmentally beneficial and sustainable than any form of animal agriculture, including grazing. There is usually no mention about their increased indirect reliance on the fossil fuel industry.
They believe that it is very easy for the crops that go to animals can be fed to humans; they also believe that land that is used for raising animals can be “re-wilded” by completely abandoning it and letting it go back to nature, or simply planting trees.
The bigotry and zombie-like rhetorical thinking about the vegans’ “benefits” to the environment reveals an ugly testament to their lack of awareness of the real world around them. Very, very few understand the damaging effects of tillage, pesticides, and fertilizers from these often-monoculture cropping operations have on the soil and soil biology itself.
Animal agriculture is usually blamed as being the primary cause of such damage. But this merely is a half-truth. Many also don’t realize how unsustainable current crop production practices are, with the need to utilize fossil fuels for everything from building farm equipment, to developing fertilizers. There are still some significant unintended consequences that have not been scientifically studied regarding the use of pesticides, or even the effects of GMO crops, on everything from soil biology to pollinator insects.
Many of these realities, and more, are simply ignored. This is directly linked and sure-fire proof to the vegan movements willingness and deliberate attempts to make itself as pure and holy and right with everything in the world.
(Karin writes…) The ability of the vegan cult to create such a warped sense of the world is primarily due to the background of most of its followers. From the many interactions I’ve had with many vegans, it can be safely estimated that around 99% of all vegans have an urban upbringing. In other words, their interactions with anything related to agriculture and the environment has primarily been through the media (television, newspaper or on-line articles, etc.) or from the safety of the car travelling down the highway.
Their only and closest interactions with animals are only with urban-friendly companion animals, from dogs to gerbils. Perhaps they have a short interaction with a farm animal at a petting zoo, but that type of interaction is a far cry from the kind of relationships farmers have with their animals.
I have known many vegans to be dishonest about their real knowledge and understanding about animals and the natural world around them. This bigotry that is pushed into them naturally also pushes for this level of dishonesty with not only other people, but also themselves.
This is a certain recipe for animosity; and these vegans don’t even have to try to create such tension.
Create an Enemy
Every cult needs an enemy. It has to be “us against the world”. Having an enemy gives you a cause to fight for, and something to fight against.
So vegans have created their own, and have even coined new terms. They call “the world” they’re against speciesism or carnism (more isms).
- Speciesism is the supposed belief system that supports discrimination against animals, giving humans the right to use animals for food, work, and other products. The word is clearly intended to parallel racism. Where racism validated treating people differently (often cruelly) because of their race, speciesism extends the same concept to discrimination on the grounds of species. The argument often follows that, at some point in future, we’ll look back on these times with the same sense of shame that we look back on the history of slavery.
- Carnism is supposedly the mental conditioning that people go through that leaves us believing it’s okay to eat the flesh of other animals. It is set up as the opposite of veganism. The concept of carnism only exists within vegan logic, where it is often presented as the gateway to other forms of discrimination, such as racism and homophobia.
These arguments reveal another insidious mechanism that positions veganism as not just about ecology and animal welfare, but fundamental to any rights movements. Because carnism is presented as the foundational discrimination, the most basic abuse of our minds that opens the door to every other one, proponents can then position veganism as THE single radical solution. So people will say you cannot be a feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobia, etc. unless you are also vegan.
What is probably most disconcerting about their creation of enemies is that it gives followers leave to carry out real attacks.
Attacks in the Name of Activism
One of the types of people they consider “the world” are those people who actively farm or ranch. They particularly target those farmers and ranchers who own and raise livestock, no matter if they are horses or chickens or cattle. Militant vegan strikes against these farm families often occur on social media platforms, such as Facebook.
The vegan cult of deliberately delivering such animosity towards those individuals or farm pages is most notable when they report back to their secret or closed groups, telling all their cult members about this particular farm or farm page, and then showing up in droves for the sole purpose to post often spiteful, vitriolic and even malicious comments.
Many of these comments will contain death threats, threats to do bodily harm, and other types of harassment and abuse. The purpose behind these attacks is to completely terrify and unnerve the people behind the page. The militant vegan hope is that by carrying out such attacks, the farmer will delete the page (okay), stop farming and go vegan (great), or even commit suicide (often a cause for celebration in the vegan cult).
One of the most insidious behaviours of a cult is victim blaming, which is a common byproduct of any rigid ideology.
This is where people’s issues or struggles are used to disempower them. In religious and political groups, any weakness can be framed as a lack of faith or commitment to the cause.
A common psychological response is for the victim to blame her/himself for what may well be a valid doubt, and to commit to go deeper into the cult, papering over their issues and potentially making their problems worse, even leading to addictions or to violence against the self or others.
I and others have experienced many examples of victim blaming within the vegan community.
Those who report health issues are criticised as, “not doing it right” (because, as everyone knows, a plant-based diet is right for everyone).
People who “lapse” (or whose bodies force them to consume some nutrients they desperately need?) can be shamed or ostracised from their vegan circles.
And anyone who abandons the plant-based lifestyle (usually due to chronic health issues caused by malnutrition) can be excommunicated from the vegan cult. They were obviously “never really a vegan” if they abandoned the faith. I have been told several times, “There is no such thing as an ex-vegan.”
But of course there are. There are a LOT of ex-vegans. In 2014, research by Faunalytics estimated that, while 2 percent of the adult-age U.S. population described themselves as vegetarian or vegan, ten percent were “former vegetarian or vegan”. So it is likely that vegans have a lower than 1/6 probability of sticking with the lifestyle (matching the 86% drop-off rate in the first year).
It is also interesting to note that the analysis includes…
a large majority of former vegetarians/vegans (63%) said that they disliked that their diet made them stick out from the crowd; 41% of current vegetarians/vegans also agree with this statement. Similarly, a majority of former vegetarians/vegans (58%) did not see the diet as part of their identity.
We could speculate from this that veganism may have a stronger long-term appeal to those people who are looking for an identity.
It is not for us to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t eat, or should or shouldn’t be. We offer these thoughts because our personal views is that veganism in many ways shares features with cults, and to encourage anyone involved in it, or considering becoming involved, to make decisions from an evidence-based position.
If you choose to follow a plant-based diet or to exclude all animal products from your life, fair play to you. Our hope is that, whatever choices you make, that you make them with clarity and strength and from your own personal truth, not one that is imposed by anyone else.