Change my mind: Veganism entails trade-offs, and health is one of the axes

Link post


To me, it is obvious that veganism introduces challenges to most people. Solving the challenges is possible for most but not all people, and often requires trade-offs that may or may not be worth it. I’ve seen effective altruist vegan advocates deny outright that trade-offs exist, or more often imply it while making technically true statements. This got to the point that a generation of EAs went vegan without health research, some of whom are already paying health costs for it, and I tentatively believe it’s harming animals as well.

Discussions about the challenges of veganism and ensuing trade-offs tend to go poorly, but I think it’s too important to ignore. I’ve created this post so I can lay out my views as legibly as possible, and invite people to present evidence I’m wrong.

One reason discussions about this tend to go so poorly is that the topic is so deeply emotionally and morally charged. Actually, it’s worse than that: it’s deeply emotionally and morally charged for one side in a conversation, and often a vague irritant to the other. Having your deepest moral convictions treated as an annoyance to others is an awful feeling, maybe worse than them having opposing but strong feelings. So I want to be clear that I respect both the belief that animals can suffer and the work advocates put into reducing that suffering. I don’t prioritize it as highly as you do, but I am glad you are doing (parts of) it.

But it’s entirely possible for it to be simultaneously true that animal suffering is morally relevant, and veganism has trade-offs for most people. You can argue that the trade-offs don’t matter, that no cost would justify the consumption of animals, and I have a section discussing that, but even that wouldn’t mean the trade-offs don’t exist.

This post covers a lot of ground, and is targeted at a fairly small audience. If you already agree with me I expect you can skip most of this, maybe check out the comments if you want the counter-evidence. I have a section addressing potential counter-arguments, and probably most people don’t need to read my response to arguments they didn’t plan on making. Because I expect modular reading, some pieces of information show up in more than one section. Anyone reading the piece end to end has my apologies for that.

However, I expect the best arguments to come from people who have read the entire thing, and at a minimum the “my cruxes” and “evidence I’m looking for” sections. I also ask you to check the preemptive response section for your argument, and engage with my response if it relates to your point. I realize that’s a long read, but I’ve spent hundreds of hours on this, including providing nutritional services to veg*ns directly, so I feel like this is a reasonable request.

My cruxes

Below are all of the cruxes I could identify for my conclusion that veganism has trade-offs, and they include health:

  • People are extremely variable. This includes variation in digestion, tastes, time, money, cooking ability…

  • Most people’s optimal diet includes small amounts of animal products, but people eat sub-optimally for lots of reasons and that’s their right. Averting animal suffering is a better reason to eat suboptimally than most.

  • Average vegans and omnivores vary in multiple ways, so it’s complicated to compare diets. I think the relevant comparison healthwise is “the same person, eating vegan or omnivore” or “veganism vs. omnivorism, holding all trade-offs but one constant”.

  • For most omnivores who grew up in an omnivorous culture, going vegan requires a sacrifice in at least one of: cost, taste (including variety), health, time/​effort.

    • This is a mix of capital investments and ongoing costs – you may need to learn a bunch of new recipes, but if they work for you that’s a one time cost.

    • Arguments often get bogged down around the fact that people rarely need to sacrifice on all fronts at once. There are cheap ways for (most) people to eat vegan, but they either take effort and knowledge, or they’re bad for you (Oreos are vegan). There are vegan ways for most people to be close to nutritionally optimal, but they require a lot of planning or dietary monotony.

    • Some of the financial advantage for omnivores is due to meat subsidies that make meat artificially cheap, but not all of it, and I don’t know how that compares to grain subsidies.

  • There are vegan sources of every nutrient (including B12, if you include fortified products). There may even be dense sources in every or almost every nutrient. But there isn’t a satisfying plant product that is as rich in as many things as meat, dairy, and especially eggs. Every “what about X?” has an answer, but if you add up all the foods you would need to meet every need, for people who aren’t gifted at digestion, it’s far too many calories and still fairly restrictive.

    • “Satisfying” matters. There are vegan protein shakes and cereals containing ~everything, but in practice most people don’t seem to find these satisfying.

    • There isn’t a rich vegan source of every vitamin for every person. If there are three vegan sources and you’re allergic to all of them, you need animal products.

    • The gap between veganism and omnivorism is shrinking over time, as fortified fake meats and fake milks get better and cheaper. But these aren’t a cure-all.

      • Some people don’t process the fortified micronutrients as well as they process meat (and vice-versa, but that’s irrelevant on an individual level).

      • Avoiding processed foods or just not liking them is pretty common, especially among the kind of people who become vegan.

      • Brands vary pretty widely, so you still need to know enough to pick the right fortified foods.

      • Fake meats are quite expensive, although less so every year.

        • I want to give the people behind fake meat a lot of credit. Making meat easier to give up was a good strategy for animal protection advocates.

  • Veganism isn’t weird for having these trade-offs. Every diet has trade-offs. I can name many diets I rank as having worse average trade-offs than veganism or a lower ceiling on health.

    • Carnivore diet, any monotrophic diet, ultralow calorie diets under most circumstances, “breathetarian”, liquid diets under most circumstances, most things with “cleanse” or “detox” in the name, raw foodism…

    • And even then, several of these have someone for whom they’re the best option.

  • The trade-offs vary widely by person. Some people have the digestive ability and palate of a goat and will be basically fine no matter what. Some people are already eating monotonous, highly planned diets and removing animal products doesn’t make it any harder. Some people are already struggling to feed themselves on an omnivore diet, and have nothing to replace meat if you take it away.

    • Vegan athletes are often held up as proof veganism can be healthy, with the implication that feeding athletes is hard mode so if it works for them it must work for everyone. But being a serious athlete requires a lot of the same trade-offs as veganism: you’re already planning diets meticulously, optimized for health over taste, with little variety, and taking a lot of supplements. If there are plant foods that work for you, swapping them in may be barely a sacrifice. Also, athletes have a larger calorie budget to work with.

  • Lots of people switch to vegan diets and see immediate health improvements.

    • Some improve because veganism is genuinely their optimal diet.

    • Others improve because even though their hypothetical optimal diet includes meat, the omnivore diet they were actually eating was bad for them and removing meat entirely is easier than eating good forms in moderation.

    • Others improve because they are putting more effort into their vegan diet, and they would be doing even better if they put that much effort into their omnivore diet.

    • Others see short-term improvement because animal products have both good points and bad points, and for some people the bad parts decay faster than the good parts. If your cholesterol goes down in a month and your B12 takes years to become a problem, it is simultaneously true that going vegan produced an immediate improvement, and that it will take a health toll.

  • Vegetarianism is nutritionally much closer to omnivorism than it is to veganism.

  • There exist large clusters of vegans who do not talk about nutrition and are operating naively. As in, no research into nutrition, no supplements, no testing, no conscious thought applied to their diet.

    • One of these clusters is young effective altruists whose top priority is not animal welfare (but nonetheless feel compelled to go vegan).

Those are my premises. Below are a few conclusions I draw from them. I originally didn’t plan on including a conclusion, but an early reader suggested my conclusions were milder than they expected and it might be good to share them. So:

  • People recruiting for veganism should take care to onboard people in a responsible way. This could be as simple as referring people to frequently enough that they actually use it.

    • Recruiting means both organized efforts and informal encouragement of friends.

  • Diet issues are a live hypothesis suggested to vegans with health problems, especially vague, diagnosis-resistant ones.

    • This one isn’t vegan specific, although I do think it’s more relevant to them.

  • False claims about vegan nutrition should be proactively rejected by the vegan community, in both formal and informal settings, including implicit claims. This includes:

    • Explicit or implicit claims veganism is healthy for everyone, and that there is no one for whom it is not healthy.

    • Explicit or implicit claims veganism doesn’t involve trade-offs for many people.

    • Motte and baileys of “there is nothing magic about animal products, we can use technology to perfectly replace them” and “animal products have already been perfectly replaced and rendered unnecessary”.

My evidence

One is first principles. Animal products are incredibly nutrient dense. You can get a bit of all known nutrients from plants and fortified products, and you can find a vegan food that’s at least pretty good for every nutrient, but getting enough of all of them is a serious logic puzzle unless you have good genes. Short of medical issues it can be done, but for most people it will take some combination of more money, more planning, more work, and less joy from food.

“Short of medical issues” is burying the lede. Food allergies and digestion issues mean lots of people struggle to feed themselves even with animal products; giving up a valuable chunk of their remaining options comes at a huge cost.

[Of course some people have issues such that animal products are bad for them and giving them up is an improvement. Those raise veganism’s average health score but don’t cancel out the people who would suffer]

More empirically, there is this study from Faunalytics, which found 29% of ex-vegans and ex-vegetarians in their sample had nutritional issues, and 80% got better within three months of quitting. Their recorded attrition rate was 84%, so if you assume no current veg*ns have issues that implies a 24% of all current and former veg*ns develop health issues from the diet (19% if you only include issues meat products cured quickly). I’m really sad to only be giving you this one study, but most of the literature is terrible (see below).

The Faunalytics study has a fair number of limitations, which I went into more detail on here. My guess is that their number is a moderate underestimate of the real rate, and a severe underestimate of the value for naive vegans in particular, but 24% is high enough that I don’t think the difference matters so I’ll use that for the rest of the post.

Evidence I’m looking for

The ideal study is a longitudinal RCT where diet is randomly assigned, cost (across all dimensions, not just money) is held constant, and participants are studied over multiple years to track cumulative effects. I assume that doesn’t exist, but the closer we can get the better.

I’ve spent several hours looking for good studies on vegan nutrition, of which the only one that was even passable was the Faunalytics study. My search was by no means complete, but enough to spot some persistent flaws among multiple studies. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time checking citations made in support of vegan claims, only to find the study is either atrocious or doesn’t support the claim made (examples in the “This is a strawman…” section). There is also some history of goalpost moving, where an advocate cites a study, I criticize it, and they say it doesn’t matter and cite a new study. This is exhausting.

I ask that you only cite evidence you, personally, find compelling and are willing to stand by, and note its flaws in your initial citation. That doesn’t mean the study has to be perfect, that’s impossible, but you should know the flaws and be ready to explain why you still believe the study. If your belief rests on many studies instead of just one (a perfectly reasonable, nee admirable, state), please cite all of them. I am going to be pretty hard on people who link to seriously flawed studies without disclosing the flaws, or who retract citations without updating their own beliefs.

A non-exhaustive list of common flaws:

  • Studies rarely control for supplements. I’m tentatively on board with supplements being enough to get people back to at least the health level they had as an omnivore, but you can’t know their effect with recording usage and examining the impact.

  • I’ve yet to see a study that controlled for effort and money put into diet. If vegans are equally healthy but are spending twice as much time and money on food, that’s important to know.

  • Diet is self-selected rather than assigned. People who try veganism and stick with it are disproportionately likely to find it easy.

    • I don’t expect to find a study randomly assigning a long term vegan diet, but I will apply a discount factor to account for that.

  • Studies are snapshots rather than long-term, and so lose all of the information from people who tried veganism, found it too hard, and quit.

    • Finding a way around this is what earned Faunalytics my eternal gratitude.

  • Studies don’t mention including people with additional dietary challenges, which I think are a very big deal.

  • Veganism status is based on self-identification. Other studies show that self-identified vegans often eat enough meat to be nutritionally relevant.

  • Studies often combine veganism and vegetarianism, or only include vegetarians, but are cited as if they are about veganism alone. I think vegetarianism is nutritionally much closer to omnivorism than veganism, so this isn’t helpful.

  • All the usual problems: tiny samples, motivated researchers, bad statistics.

  • Some studies monitor dietary intake levels rather than internal levels of nutrients (as measured by tests on blood or other fluids). There are two problems with this:

    • Since RDA levels run quite high relative to average need, this is unfairly hard on vegan diets.

    • Nutrition labels aren’t always corrected for average bioavailability, and can’t be corrected for individual variation in digestion. Plant nutrients are on average less bioavailable (although I think there are broad exceptions, and certainly individuals vary on this), so that’s perhaps too easy on plant-based diets.

  • Most studies are done by motivated parties, and it’s too easy to manipulate those. I wouldn’t have trusted the Faunalytics study if it had come from a pro-meat source.

A non-exhaustive list of evidence I hope for:

  • Quantifying the costs (across all dimensions) of dietary changes, even if the study doesn’t control for them

  • AFAICT there is no large vegan culture- the closest is lacto-vegetarian with individuals choosing to aim higher, and cultures that can’t afford meat often. Evidence of cultures with true, lifelong veganism (excluding mother’s milk) would be very interesting.

  • Studies that in some way tracking people who quit veganism, such that it could detect health issues driving people to quit.

  • What happens to health when a very poor community earns enough to have access to occasional meat?

  • What happens when people from a lacto-vegetarian or meat-sparse culture move to a meat-loving one?

  • Studies on the impact of vegan nutritional education- how much if any does it improve outcomes?

  • What happens to people who are forced to give up animal products suddenly, for non-ethical reasons? I’m thinking of things like Alpha-gal Syndrome creating an immune response to red meat, adult onset lactose intolerance, or moving to a country that deemphasizes meat.

  • Ditto for the reverse.

    • I’m especially interested in people with dietary difficulties.

  • Studies comparing veganism and vegetarianism, especially in the same person.

Preemptive responses to counter-arguments

There are a few counter-arguments I’ve already gotten or expect to get shortly, so let me address them ahead of time.

“You’re singling out veganism”

Multiple people have suggested it’s wrong for me to focus on veganism. If I build enough trust and rapport with them they will often admit that veganism obviously involves some trade-offs, if only because any dietary change has trade-offs, but they think I’m unfairly singling veganism out.

First off, I’ve been writing about nutrition under this name since 2014. Earlier, if you count the pseudonymous livejournal. I talk about non-vegan nutrition all the time. I wrote a short unrelated nutrition post while this one was in editing. I understand the mistake if you’re unfamiliar with my work, but I assure you this is not a hobby I picked up to annoy you.

It’s true that I am paying more attention to veganism than I am to, say, the trad carnivore idiots, even though I think that diet is worse. But veganism is where the people are, both near me and in the US as a whole. Dietary change is so synonymous with animal protection within Effective Altruism that the EAForum tag is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the animal suffering tag. At a young-EA-organizer conference I mentored at last year, something like half of attendees were vegan, and only a handful had no animal-protecting diet considerations. If keto gets anywhere near this kind of numbers I assure you I will say something.

“The costs of misinformation are small relative to the benefits of animals”

One possible argument for downplaying or dismissing the costs of veganism is that factory farming is so bad anything is justified in stopping it. I’m open to that argument in the abstract, but empirically I think this isn’t working and animals would be better off if people were given proper information.

First, it’s not clear to me the costs of acknowledging vegan nutrition issues are that high. I’ve gotten a few dozen comments/​emails/​etc on my vegan nutrition project of the form “This inspired me to get tested, here are my supplements, here are my results”. No one has told me they’ve restarted consuming meat or even milk. It is possible people are less likely to volunteer diet changes, although I do note I’m not vegan.

But even if education causes many people to bounce off, the alternative may be worse.

That Faunalytics study says 24% of people leave veg*nism due to health reasons. If you use really naive math, that suggests that ignoring nutrition issues would need to increase recruitment by 33%, just to break even. But people who quit veganism due to health issues tend to do so with a vitriol not seen in people leaving for other reasons. I don’t have numbers for this, but r/​exvegans is mostly people who left for health reasons (with a smattering of people compelled by parents), as are the ex-vegans angry enough to start blogs. Even if they don’t make a lifestyle out of it, people who feel harmed are less likely to retry veganism, and more likely to discourage their friends.

I made a toy model comparing the trade off of education (which may lead people to bounce off) vs. lack of education (which leads people to quit and discourage others). The result is very sensitive to assumptions, especially “how many counterfactual vegans do angry ex-vegans prevent?”. If you put the attrition rate as low as I do, education is clearly the best decision from an animal suffering perspective. If you put it higher it becomes very sensitive to other assumptions. It is fairly hard to make a slam-dunk case against nutritional awareness, but then, (points at years of nutrition blogging) I would say that.

“The human health gains are small relative to the harms to animals”

I think this is a fair argument to make, and the answer comes down to complicated math. To their credit, vegan EAs have done an enormous amount of math on the exact numeric suffering of farmed animals. But honest accounting requires looking at the costs as well.

“The health costs don’t matter, no benefit justifies the horror of farming animals”

This is a fair argument for veganism. But it’s not grounds to declare the health costs to be zero.

It’s also not grounds to ignore nutrition within a plant-based diet. Even if veganism is healthy for everyone and no harder a switch than other diets, it is very normal for dietary changes to entail trade-offs and have some upfront costs. The push to deny trade-offs and punish those who investigate them (see below) is hurting your own people.

“This is a strawman, vegans already address nutrition”

I fully acknowledge that there are a lot of resources on vegan nutrition, and that a lot of the outreach literature at least name-checks dietary planning. But I talk to a lot of people (primarily young EAs focused on non-animal projects) with stories like this one, of people going vegan as a group without remembering a single mention of B12 or iron. I would consider that a serious problem even if I couldn’t point to anything the movement was doing to cause it.

But I absolutely can point to things within the movement that create the problem. There are some outright lies, and a lot more well-crafted sentences that are technically correct but in aggregate leave people with deeply misleading impressions.

While reading, please keep in mind that these are formal statements by respected vegans and animal protection organizations (to the best of my ability to determine). All movements have idiots saying horrible things on reddit, and it’s not fair to judge the whole movement by them. But please keep that context in mind while reading: these were not off-the-cuff statements or quick tweets, but things a movement leader thought about and wrote down.

  • There are numerous sources talking about the health benefits of veganism. Very few of them explicitly say “and this will definitely happen with no additional work from you, without any costs or trade-offs”, but some do, and many imply it.

    • Magnus Vindling, who has published 9 books and co-founded the Center for Reducing Suffering, says : “Beyond the environmental effects, there are also significant health risks associated with the direct consumption of animal products, including red meat, chicken meat, fish meat, eggs and dairy. Conversely, significant health benefits are associated with alternative sources of protein, such as beans, nuts, and seeds. This is relevant both collectively, for the sake of not supporting industries that actively promote poor human nutrition in general, as well as individually, to maximize one’s own health so one can be more effectively altruistic.”

  • This Facebook post from Jacy Reese Anthis, saying vegan dogs and cats can be perfectly healthy. Jacy was a leader among animal EAs until he left for unrelated reasons in 2019. He cites two sources, one of which supports only a subset of his claims, and the other of which actively contradicts them.

      • Apologies for the tiny image, WordPress is awful. If you right-click>open in new tab it will load a larger version.

    • His first source does say veganism can work, in dogs, but says nothing about cats.

    • His second source cites one person who says her cat is fine on a vegan diet but she doesn’t tell vets about it. The veterinarians quoted say dogs can be vegetarian and even vegan with some work. The statement on cats is ambiguous: it might be condemning only vegan diets, or both vegan and vegetarian. It rules out even vegetarian diets for young or breeding animals.

      The piece ends with “When people tell me they want to feed [their pet] a vegan diet, I say, ’Get a goat, get a rabbit”.

    • Normally I would consider a 7 year old Facebook off-limits, but Jacy has a blue check and spent years doing very aggressive vegan advocacy on other peoples’ walls, most of which he has since deleted, so I think this is fair game.

  • There is a related problem of motte-and-baileying “one day we will be able to have no-trade-off vegan diets, thanks to emerging technologies” and “it’s currently possible with no trade offs right this second”, e.g.: “Repudiating what “obligate carnivore” means – Kindly, but stridently, we have to correct folks that obligate carnivore stems from observation, not a diet requirement. This outdated thinking ignores the fundamental understanding of biochemistry, nutrition, and metabolism, which has only developed since the initial carnivore classification.”

  • In Doing Good Better, EA leader Will MacAskill advocates for a vegan diet to alleviate animal suffering, without mentioning any trade-offs. In isolation I don’t think that would necessarily be the wrong choice; the book is clearly about moral philosophy and not a how-to guide. But it is pushing individuals to change their personal diet (as opposed to donating to vegan recruitment programs), so I think it should at least mention trade-offs.

    • Apologies for the tiny image, WordPress is awful. If you right-click>open in new tab it will load a larger version.

  • name-checks “a balanced diet” but the vibe is strongly “veganism is extra health with no effort”:

    • “According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a well-planned vegan diet is nutritionally adequate and appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.1 Everyone should have a balanced diet to be healthy, not only vegans. In fact non-vegans may well have unbalanced diets which are not good for their health. In order to be healthy we don’t need to consume certain products, but certain nutrients. Vegans can ingest those nutrients without having to eat animal products.”

    • “Being vegan is easier than you may think. Finding vegan food and other alternative products and services that do not involve animal exploitation is increasingly easier. It is true that some people may experience a lack of support from their family or friends or may find it extra challenging to stop eating certain animal products. However, other people can help you with that, especially today, given that internet and social networks have made it possible to get information and help from many other people. It is important to identify the factors that may be hindering your transition to veganism and look for assistance and encouragement from other people.”

    • Do I need to consult a doctor or nutritionist before becoming vegan?
      While this can be useful, as in the case of a planned non-vegan diet, it is not necessary. A vegan diet is suitable for people of all ages and conditions. A vegan nutritionist may help plan custom menus to meet specific requirements – for instance, if you are an athlete or if you want to gain or lose a lot of weight as a vegan. It is always advised to consult a nutritionist regularly for a check-up. However, it is important to note that some nutritionists are biased and don’t know a lot about vegan nutrition. Note also that medical doctors are often not experts on nutrition.”

  • EA-Foundation says veganism requires “appropriate planning”, but that this is easy

  • That Faunalytics vegan study, which I mostly loved, contains the following: “Former vegetarians/​vegans were asked if they began to experience any of the following when they were eating a vegetarian/​vegan diet: depression/​anxiety, digestive problems, food allergies, low cholesterol, an eating disorder, thyroid problems, protein deficiency, B12 deficiency, calcium deficiency, iron deficiency, iodine deficiency, vitamin A deficiency, vitamin D deficiency, zinc deficiency. The findings show that: – 71% of former vegetarians/​vegans experienced none of the above. It is quite noteworthy that such a small proportion of individuals experienced ill health.”

    • 29% isn’t small. You can argue that’s an overestimate, but they’re accepting the 29% number, and are saying it doesn’t matter.

Why is this so hard to talk about?

This is probably the least important section. I’m including it mostly in the hope it lowers friction in the object-level conversation.

The stakes are so high

Hardcore vegan advocates believe we are surrounded by mass torture and slaughter facilities killing thousands of beings every day. That’s the kind of crisis that makes it hard to do really nuanced math people may use to justify ignoring you.

Vegans are sick of concern trolls

Vegans frequently have to deal with bad-faith interrogation of their choices (“wHxt ABuoT proTEIn?!?!”). I imagine this is infuriating, and I’ve worked really hard to set myself apart by things like investing hundreds of hours of my time, much of which was unpaid, and working to get vegans the nutrition they needed to stay healthy and vegan.

Typical minding/​failure of imagination

People who find veganism easier are disproportionately likely to become and stay vegan. That’s what the word “easy” means. Then some of them assume their experiences are more representative than they are, and that people who report more difficulty are lying.

E.g. this comment on an earlier post (not even by a vegan- he was a vegan’s partner) said “there is nothing special one needs to do to stay healthy [while eating vegan]” because “most processed products like oat milk, soy milk, impossible meat, beyond meat, daiya cheese are enriched with whatever supplements are needed”. Which I would describe as “all you need to do to stay healthy while vegan is eat fortified products”. That’s indeed pretty easy, and some people will do it without thinking. But it’s not nothing, especially when “no processed foods” is such a common restriction. Sure enough, Faunalytics found that veg*ns who quit were less likely (relative to current veg*ns) to eat fortified foods.

That same person later left another comment, conceding this point and also that there were people the fortified foods didn’t work for. Which is great, but it belonged in the first comment.

Or this commenter, who couldn’t imagine a naive vegan until an ex-vegan described the total ignorance they and their entire college EA group operated under.

Lies we tell omnivores

Ozy Brennan has a post “Lies to cis people”. They posit that trans advocates, faced with a hostile public, give a story of gender that is simplified (because most people won’t hear the nuance anyway), and prioritizes being treated well over conveying the most possible truth. The intention is that an actual trans person or deeply invested ally will go deeper into the culture and get a more nuanced view. This can lead to some conflict when a person tries to explore gender with only the official literature as their guide.

Similarly, “veganism requires no sacrifice on any front, for anyone” is a lie vegans tell current omnivores. I suspect the expectation, perhaps subconscious, is that once they convert to veganism they’ll hang around other vegans and pick up some recipes, know what tests to get, and hear recommendations for vegan vitamins without doing anything deliberately. The longer sentence would be “for most people veganism requires no sacrifice beyond occasional tests and vitamins, which is really not much work at all”.

But this screws over new vegans who don’t end up in those subcultures. It’s especially bad if they’re surrounded by enough other vegans that it feels like they should get the knowledge, but the transmission was somehow cut off. I think this has happened with x-risk focused EA vegans, and two friends described a similar phenomenon in the straight-edge punk scene.

Failure to hear distinctions, on both sides

I imagine many people do overestimate the sacrifice involved in becoming vegan. The tradeoff is often less than they think, especially once they get over the initial hump. If omnivores are literally unable to hear “well yes, but for most people only a bit”, it’s very tempting to tell them “not at all”. But this can lead even the average person to do less work than they should, and leaves vegans unable to recognize people for whom plant based diets are genuinely very difficult, if not impossible.


I think veganism comes with trade-offs, health is one of the axes, and that the health issues are often but not always solvable. This is orthogonal to the moral issue of animal suffering. If I’m right, animal EAs need to change their messaging around vegan diets, and start self-policing misinformation. If I’m wrong, I need to write some retractions and/​or shut the hell up.

Discussions like this are really hard, and have gone poorly in the past. But I’m still hopeful, because animal EAs have exemplified some of the best parts of effective altruism, like taking weird ideas seriously, moral math, and checking to see if a program actually worked. I want that same epistemic rigor applied to nutrition, and I’m hopeful about what will happen if it is.

Thanks to Patrick La Victoire and Raymond Arnold for long discussions and beta-reading, and Sam Cottrell for research assistance.

Crossposted to EA Forum (125 points, 84 comments)