Health Is a Privilege, Not a Virtue
The vegan movement shouldn’t embrace an ideology that makes health out to be a personal choice and a moral obligation — it’s not
Healthism, a term coined in 1980 by political economist Robert Crawford, refers to an ideology whereby health is something for which individuals are responsible and have complete control over. It proposes that health should be everyone’s top priority, and consequently, that each person is morally obligated to pursue it in their daily lives.
While the term itself is not commonly used today, the messages of healthism are pervasive throughout society. People are constantly told what they should eat, described as lazy if they don’t exercise, and they’re told that living a healthy lifestyle will prevent them from ever becoming ill or dying early.
There are several problems with this conceptualization. It fails to recognize that health is a privilege. Those with economic privilege have better access to high-quality healthcare and are much more able to engage in health-promoting behaviors, such as regular exercise. By positioning health at the level of the individual, it also neglects the social and genetic determinants of health. Nobody has complete control over their health, regardless of the lifestyle that they lead.
Healthism makes people who are sick, disabled, or “unhealthy,” most often for reasons completely outside of their control, feel that the absence of health is the product of an individual failing, resulting in their sense of self and worth being threatened. Weight is conflated with healthiness, and being thin is assumed to be symptomatic of being healthy. Conversely, fatness is assumed to indicate a lack of healthiness.
A person must continually be striving for improved health to be deemed worthy. Eating nutritious foods is portrayed as “being good” and eating treats as “being bad,” “falling off the wagon,” or “going off track.”
The weight stigma experienced by people in larger bodies — even from healthcare professionals, the individuals that are supposed to be helping them — does not help improve their lives or lead to health. Weight loss is often over-emphasized as a solution to health problems it has little to do with, while the importance of other health-promoting behaviors (which studies have shown to improve physical and mental wellbeing in the absence of weight loss) are ignored.
Healthism also tends to overemphasize physical health, often overlooking mental health. There is no acknowledgment that mental health not only directly impacts physical health but also makes it much more difficult to engage in health-promoting behaviors, such as exercise. In fact, an extreme pursuit of physical health can lead to a decline in mental health and wellbeing. In some cases, this can lead to eating disorders such as orthorexia, a pathological obsession with health.
Personal autonomy is overridden by healthism, which emphasizes one “correct” way to live one’s life, regardless of whether your lifestyle causes harm to others. A person must continually be striving for improved health to be deemed worthy. Eating nutritious foods is portrayed as “being good” and eating treats as “being bad,” “falling off the wagon,” or “going off track.”
Healthism has become pervasive over the past several decades. It has begun to permeate mainstream veganism, which has come to be predominantly represented by thin, white, able-bodied, middle-class women. Concurrently, eating a “whole-foods, plant-based diet” is positioned as the ultimate embodiment of health, purity, and morality.
Worryingly, a 2017 study revealed at one in four vegan activists in larger bodies have experienced size discrimination within vegan communities.
For a movement that is defined by the UK Vegan Society as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose,” this is hugely problematic.
The food and body-shaming, which have become increasingly common within vegan communities, are not only ineffective in encouraging behavior change but contribute to poorer health outcomes. Weight stigma is much more harmful to health than a person’s body mass index could ever be. Healthism also risks reinforcing the stereotypes that veganism is a restrictive diet, which could not be further from the truth.
Treating health as an individual responsibility also means that vegans who experience illness, physical or mental, can feel as though they are letting the movement down. Worryingly, a 2017 study revealed at one in four vegan activists in larger bodies have experienced size discrimination within vegan communities. These individuals reported only moderate feelings of comfort and community within an arena that should be welcoming them with open arms and championing their efforts. If such behavior continues, there is a risk that these people will cease their activism or even leave veganism altogether.
Veganism is not about health, it is about ethics.
Positioning veganism as a way to achieve optimal health is hugely misleading, and can easily be dismantled.
Vegans may make opt for nutritious foods and engage in regular exercise, or they may not. Neither denotes being a “better vegan”. It is a fatal error to assume that everyone is even in the position to make those choices. Health and its pursuit is a privilege, not a moral issue. There is nothing wrong with the personal pursuit of health, inside or outside veganism, but the idea that everyone is morally obligated to engage in this quest hurts more people than it helps.
Rather than promoting and celebrating diversity, healthism within veganism reinforces mainstream ideals health and beauty as well as the patriarchal, racist and capitalist systems that maintain them. This alienates existing vegans who come in all sizes, shapes, abilities, genders, ethnicities, and identities, but also represents the movement as yet another goal that people are failing at.
Veganism is in an ideal position to be challenging mainstream messages and oppression, but many vegan organizations and activists are failing miserably in this endeavor. Vegans need to embrace the radical nature of veganism, not attempt to suppress it.
The reliance on health rhetoric to support veganism is also a risky strategy. Nutritional science is inherently limited in its ability to make firm conclusions about food and health status. Positioning veganism as a way to achieve optimal health is hugely misleading, and can easily be dismantled. For starters, individual choices pale compared to the influence of sociodemographic factors on health outcomes.
As a movement based on the important values of respect for all species, veganism is in an ideal position to be challenging mainstream messages and oppression, but many vegan organizations and activists are failing miserably in this endeavor. Vegans need to embrace the radical nature of veganism, not attempt to suppress it.
Vegans should question mainstream, biased assumptions made about health and weight. Vegan activists must acknowledge the multiple societal determinants of health and help to address them, rather than inaccurately deeming “health” as something anyone can achieve with a plant-based diet. Vegans should be elevating the voices and experiences of those in marginalized identities, and listening to their experiences.
To achieve this, veganism needs to align itself with other social justice movements. This includes Health at Every Size (HAES), which challenges unscientific and unethical assumptions about food, weight, and health, celebrates diversity in all its forms, and supports individuals to eat and move in a way that brings them joy.
While the mainstream vegan movement further entangles itself with healthism to its long-term detriment, there are individuals within veganism who are already doing important work in this area. The Vegan Chub Club podcast is breaking the stereotypes about veganism and larger bodies (with plenty of laughs and sass!), and Taylor Wolfram is a registered dietician nutritionist who utilizes HAES principles, to guide people towards intuitive eating, self-care, and common sense vegan nutrition.
It is imperative, for both humans and animals, that veganism abandons healthism to progress the movement and ensure that everyone feels welcome.