As a 15 year old girl searching for ways to ~get skinny~ and healthy, I stumbled across videos by FreeLee the Banana Girl, an Australian vegan YouTuber. FreeLee introduced me to veganism, crediting the lifestyle to her lean physique (conveniently without mentioning that she biked for hours each day…). She claimed that ingesting animal products contributes to sludge buildup in your gut, with the “carcasses” of animals fermenting and contributing to bloat, weight gain, and all forms of maladies and chronic disease.
Although I was skeptical, what she said made sense to me; I did minimal further research to ensure that veganism wasn’t actually an eating disorder as I’d suspected, and that athletes could go vegan. Upon finding research that veganism is sustainable for athletes “if done correctly,” I became a vegan overnight, diving into the vegan online community to learn more. I started reading, discovering vegan recipes, and watching any vegan YouTuber I could find–HappyHealthyVegan, Essena O’Neill, Nina and Randa, Mic the Vegan, NaturallyStefanie, and more.
During my time as a vegan, I did experience some benefits I attributed to my diet change. My acne cleared up, I leaned out, and felt generally better; at the time, I did not consider that perhaps my acne cleared up because I focused on my improving my skin care routine and stopped wearing makeup on a daily basis, nor did I consider that I put on muscle and felt better (at first) since I had eliminated most processed foods, started eating more vegetables and fruits, and began resistance training. However, as I look back on my diet of almost seven years, I realized that I had certainly overconsumed carbs, over-ate a considerable amount, felt significant fluctuations in energy levels, and often experienced bloating and discomfort (particularly toward the end of my vegan stint). This is not an uncommon experience–plenty of ex-vegan influencers, including Bonnyrebecca and Meghan Bowen, have cited similar issues, particularly relating to gut and digestion. For example, Bonnyrebecca and her partner experienced adverse reactions to their diet, including skin issues, excess inflammation, and IBS. Similarly, Meghan Bowen discovered her gut issues and sensitivity to fiber-rich foods, soy, and legumes, prompting her to start consuming a limited number of animal products. Upon adopting minimal animal products into each of their diets, Bonnyrebecca and Meghan Bowen both felt considerably better, and released lengthy videos explaining their situation, expressing their regret that they could not sustainably continue a vegan diet. Both were genuinely saddened by their inability to function on a vegan diet, only to be bombarded by endless criticism from the vegan community on YouTube. Celebrities who once fully supported veganism, including Miley Cyrus, have also ditched the diet in response to adverse neurological impacts.
I’m not writing this to degenerate veganism. It’s a noble pursuit undertaken by generally compassionate people. In terms of health, there is certainly a “correct” way to approach veganism as a diet, but this requires diligent research, dedication, work, and money. Some professional athletes are able to achieve this and thrive on the diet, but do so with a team of nutritionists and hefty salaries. I certainly could not have done so as the average, uninformed, broke high-school/college student. Rather, I’m writing this in response to those who believe veganism is a cure-all under any and all circumstances, and advocate such on the internet to impressionable people like my 15-year-old self.
A prime example of what I take issue with includes Bowen’s story. When the ex-vegan began introducing a limited number of animal products in her diet due to severe allergies to vegan protein sources, YouTuber Ryan Lum from HappyHealthyVegan accused Bowen of not doing her best to maintain her vegan diet; this is despite the fact that Bowen specifically chose eggs and mussels to incorporate into her diet, both of which do not originate from once-sentient sources, unlike meat from a cow, for instance.
Additionally, Lum went on to claim that Bowen’s doctor does not know what he is talking about, despite being medically trained to treat conditions like Bowen’s. Rather, Lum claims that all of Bowen’s ailments will be solved by increasing her fiber intake, something her doctor specifically told her to limit. Furthermore, Lum offers to guide Bowen in solving her gut issues through a vegan diet, with only his wife’s vegan cookbook in his arsenal. In what world does a video developer like Lum have more information and credibility than a doctor who underwent rigorous studies, training, and practice, to diagnose whether a vegan diet is suitable for a particular patient?
Now, I’m not claiming that the current structure of medical treatment is completely infallible, or that all doctors are perfectly capable, but to claim that a doctor “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” simply because he did not make his patient continue a vegan diet is disingenuous. Not to mention, Lum has absolutely no medical or nutritional training under his belt, save some anecdotes about how the vegan diet has worked for him, as well as some basic internet research. Again, this is not to say that the internet does not contain valuable and credible information, but the internet isn’t exactly known for being the arbiter of truth.
Unlike a doctor, Lum likely has not had training in becoming scientifically literate. For example, has Lum taken into account the potential confounding factors that would skew results of a study on the benefits of a vegan diet? Lum has likely not considered that nutritional studies are often correlational rather than experimental, meaning that although researchers can use correlations to see if a relationship exists between two variables, researchers cannot determine if a particular variable is influenced directly by another variable. Consider this: the same health claims Lum makes about his vegan diet–that it increases longevity, contributes to a decrease in all-cause mortality, decreases inflammation, provides steady energy, etc.–are also claims made by advocates of the carnivore diet. How might you explain this, Lum? Because the carnivore diet also eliminates processed foods, or that individuals attracted to elimination diets are also more likely to engage in other healthy behaviors, like exercising or sleeping well? Again, these same criticisms can be applied to studies and claims surrounding veganism.
Lum’s argument behind Bowen’s desire to have a high-protein also diet did not sit well with me. Lum completely fails to consider that Bowen not only engages in resistance training, but she participates in female fitness competitions, and needs to build as much muscle as possible to ensure her success. As someone studying to be a Certified Personal Trainer, I know for a fact that protein is essential for anyone, like Bowen, hoping to gain muscle and burn fat. Lum misleadingly noted in his criticism that virtually no one in developed countries suffers from protein deficiencies. While this may be true, this does not address the fact that higher protein intake is associated with improving body composition, building muscle, recovery, and hormone regulation. If one were to eat less protein on a vegan diet, while still eating the same number of calories, one would be making up for the lack of protein with another macronutrient group (either carbs or fat). Although it is rare to suffer from a protein deficiency, that does not mean that consuming less protein on a vegan diet is optimal, especially for resistance training athletes looking to build muscle mass (like Bowen).
The saga of Lum and Bowen is not unique to the vegan YouTube scene; it’s not even unique to HappyHealthyVegan, who engaged in a similar episode when Bonnyrebecca left veganism for health reasons. The arrogance surrounding online nutritional advice from vegans is widespread. The scene has undergone a variety of trends, including Raw Till 4, Fully Raw, High Carb Low Fat, and more. Each of these iterations has fundamentally misconstrued basic nutritional concepts, including the easily debunked notion that fat makes you fat (what is this, the 80s?). The “raw vegans” tout the healing power of raw foods, claiming that humans were not created to consume meat for fallacies including the fact that given the choice between a strawberry and a rabbit, a baby will naturally prefer to eat the strawberry. Raw vegans fail to account for our molars and incisors, as well as the theory that human brains grew in size due to our consumption of cooked foods. Raw vegans also conveniently ignore the adverse impacts of excess raw foods (primarily fruits) on digestion, blood sugar, and dental health. High-carb low fat vegans exhibit similar follies, claiming 80% of calories should come from carbs, with the remaining 20% of calories coming from protein and fat. These recommendations are incredibly out of line with general guidelines for nutrition by nearly any certified body, most of which only recommend about 30% of calories to come from carbs. The elimination of fats is a particularly dangerous recommendation, as it may lead to hormonal imbalances and deficiencies since lipids are vital substrates to facilitate endocrine processes and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Additionally, these vegan strains neglect to account for different health goals that may require different macronutrient profiles, and thus make sweeping claims about the fail-proof nature of the vegan diet.
Leaders of each movement (largely FreeLee the Banana Girl and her ex-fiancé, Durianrider) served almost as cult leaders, continually telling their followers to have faith in the process. For example, when confronted by a young girl who had gained a considerable amount of weight after following his high-carb recommendations, Durianrider told this young girl that she was only suffering from “metabolic damage” and that she simply needed to be patient (this is coming from a man who advocates dumping white sugar into one’s smoothie and who is on the record saying that the best thing for you is Coca Cola…).
The diet also has a peculiar emphasis on purity, claiming that animal products clog arteries, that eggs are “chicken periods,” that dairy is full of pus, and that eating meat contributes to a feeling of deadness. Conversely, vegan influencers often advertise the diet by claiming individuals can eat however much they want without having to worry about gaining weight, clearly ignoring the First Law of Thermodynamics. The emphasis on purity and staying thin despite getting to eat copious amounts of food (arguably overeating) is part of the reason that I originally wanted to ensure that veganism was not an eating disorder when I discovered the lifestyle. In fact, many vegan influencers have a history of eating disorders, and may be susceptible to the qualities of unfounded online vegan nutrition recommendations and promises. For a movement that hopes to escape diet culture, it tends to tout similar promises to crash diets (eat whatever you want! Lose weight! It’s a lifestyle!).
I realize that it may be ironic that I, someone who is not trained in nutrition, am criticizing a movement based on faulty nutritional advice. However, I am not administering blanket nutritional advice to thousands of individuals on the internet. In my experience, nutrition is highly personalized. There are seven billion of us, each with our unique health concerns, from unique backgrounds and cultures. A variety of factors play into nutrition and one’s personal diet choices. For example, one of my good friends is vegetarian, and has expressed an interest in veganism. She decided not to adopt the diet, as she is allergic to most legumes, including soy, as well as nuts, which are significant parts of a vegan diet. Emerging products on the market in which customers send personal samples to labs demonstrate just how individualized nutrition is (use code “SPOTSWOOD” for $10 off Viome 😉 ).
I’m not sure how the spread of misinformation and the abuse of power by some Vegan YouTubers would be solved… Sure, Vegan YouTube ~must be stopped~, but not literally through censorship (that’s a topic for another day). I believe the responsibility lay with individual content creators, who may consider including disclaimers about their nutritional recommendations. Channels like NaturallyStefanie should serve as a model for vegan YouTube; Stefanie, a devout vegan and weight-lifter, provides recipes and lifestyle content, but does not give blanket nutritional advice. Rather, she consistently highlights that veganism works for her, while also recommending her followers do their own research.
Although this small article will likely not change the Vegan YouTube landscape for the better, I hope that it will help one person question the validity of claims that seem too good to be true (like the promises made by Vegan YouTube).