Bill Clinton, Vegan Poseur

He certainly wasn’t the first person you would expect, so when the news hit it was all over the veggie blogosphere. “Bill Clinton goes vegan!” the headlines read, “so should you” was the unwritten subtext. Nevermind that he really wasn’t claiming veganism, admitting to eating fish and taking no stances on animal rights.

If the former Big Mac munchin’ president of the United States could go “(mostly)vegan” for heart health and receive such great benefits, why not you. By his own account Clinton after adopting “essentially a plant-based diet…[living] on beans, legumes, vegetables, fruits” he lost 24 lbs and is feeling great. But is this really the best argument for veganism?

As I’ve said before we need to be very careful about health claims, as far too often the media reports one-off, poorly controlled and designed studies while vastly overstating the implications.

By all accounts Clinton’s dietary change is a health experiment inspired by the likes of Dean Ornish whose work he references in interviews, “I did all this research, and I saw that 82 percent of the people since 1986 who have gone on a plant-based, no dairy, no meat of any kind, no chicken, no turkey — I eat very little fish, once in a while I’ll have a little fish — if you can do it, 82 percent of people have begun to heal themselves.”

In a post over on Science-Based Medicine Dr. Harriet Hall explains the study that is the source of this statement:
“He started with 48 patients with angiographically documented coronary artery disease and randomized 28 of them to an experimental group (a 10% fat vegetarian diet, stopping smoking, stress management training, and moderate exercise) and 20 to a usual-care group. Only 20 experimental and 15 control patients completed the 5 year study. The diameter of the coronary arterial stenoses improved by 3.1 percent in the experimental group and worsened by 11.8 percent in the usual care group. Overall, 82% of experimental-group patients had an average change towards regression. They had about half as many cardiac events: 25 in the experimental group versus 45 in the usual care group. None of the experimental subjects were on any cholesterol-lowering medication, but the usual care group allowed cholesterol-lowering prescriptions, and after 5 years the LDL levels of both groups were the same. In short, only 20 patients were on the diet, and it was not a trial of diet alone, but of intensive lifestyle management involving several other interventions. The study has not been replicated.”

Studies like this might point the direction for further research but with such a small sample size and poor controls its nothing to hang your hat on. While the nutritional adequacy and some benefits of a vegan diet are well accepted, many of the specific and sometimes extreme health benefits claimed by advocates have yet to be irrefutably established in the medical literature. Long term diet and nutrition can be a complex issue for study with many confounding variables, more rigorous studies and much more data will be required to establish any real positive (or negative) effects of a vegan diet.

Clinton also cites Caldwell Esselstyn and authors of The China Study, T. Colin Campbell and his son, Tom Campbell as inspiration. Ive previously mentioned the China Study as an example of poor evidence for the nutrition argument and it has been thoroughly torn apart so I will not directly address that book for now. In Dr. Esselstyn’s book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, he oversteps the evidence to conclude that following his restricted vegan-type diet can prevent “strokes, hypertension, obesity, osteoporosis, adult-onset diabetes, and possibly senile mental impairment, as well … impotence and cancers of the breast, prostate, colon, rectum, uterus, and ovaries.”

Such grandiose promises may appeal to an unskeptical segment of the population already obsessed with health and fad diets, but the claims just are not rational or well supported. Poor reasoning and fallacious arguments in the long run distract from the central cause of animal rights. Once the weight is off or health benefits don’t materialize folks are likely to abandon the diet and be the next poster child of the ex-vegans. As noted by Ginny Messina, The Vegan RD, in a recent must-read-post on supplements, “There are many reasons why people abandon vegan diets, and bad nutrition advice from within the vegan community is probably one of them. “

When promoting veganism our reasons should be clear, it isnt the newest weight loss fad, nor a panacea. It’s a stance that rejects the anthropocentric and speciesist bias of our culture, an ethical choice aimed at reducing suffering and ultimately achieving animal liberation. As Matt Ball of Vegan Outreach had to say, “Ultimately, the bottom line is: Reduce Suffering. Everything has to answer to this. I can’t emphasize this enough: the only thing that matters is to reduce suffering. If you accept this as the What, the next question is, How? At this time, in this country, we choose to promote veganism. However, veganism is not an end in and of itself. We don’t promote veganism because ‘veganism is good.’ Veganism is merely a tool to reduce suffering.”

UPDATE:For more on this topic I highly recommend this new post titled How the Health Argument Fails Veganism by Ginny Messina, the Vegan RD. She pulls no punches in getting to the point,“here is the problem with using the health argument in this way—it’s that there isn’t any health argument for veganism. There is, of course, a pretty good argument for eating more plants (lots more plants) and less animal food, but no one has shown that you must eat a 100 percent plant diet in order to be healthy. So to make an argument for a 100% vegan diet based on health benefits alone, we have no choice but to stretch the truth. We have to overstate the benefits of vegan diets, and sometimes minimize or dismiss the risks. And as soon as we stray from the actual facts, our advocacy is on shaky ground. “


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19 Responses to “Bill Clinton, Vegan Poseur”

  1. beforewisdom Says:

    Having a former president of the United States go on CNN to endorse a diet is a strong promotion.

    I read a web board where a very prominent woman on the board ( she owns it ) who is also a very prominent figure her community decided to give President Clinton’s diet a try as a result watching the CNN interview I posted.

    I haven’t read all of the articles about President Clinton’s diet, but I can’t recall him every using the word “vegan” himself or not being upfront about what he eats. In that respect President Clinton is more accurate than the title of your post.

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      Yeah I address that in the first paragraph, “he really wasn’t claiming veganism”. The claims were being made for him by actual ethical vegans, thats what I have a problem with, folks misusing the label of vegan and wanting to slap it on Bill just because he is a prominent person. The name of the post was just snarky word play on the phrase “Vegan Power”

  2. Ginny Says:

    Great post! I am right in the middle of writing something along the very same lines–even used Bill Clinton as the jumping off point. I’ll link to your post when I publish it. I’m really enjoying your blog.

  3. Laura Says:

    Dean Ornish defended the small sample sizes in his studies – which include one on prostate cancer also – by saying you don’t need a big sample size to get statistical significance if the effect is big. “Statistically significant” meaning 95% probability that the “null hypothesis” is wrong – the null hypothesis in this case would be that his very lowfat diet wasn’t clearing arteries.
    There was actually a similar study recently:
    But they found that weight loss in general reversed atherosclerosis.
    It could be that the very lowfat Ornish diet is better at clearing arteries than the lowfat diet in this recent study. It was probably not as lowfat as the Ornish diet. I didn’t know how their measurement of arteries clearing compares with Ornish’s.
    Also, maybe Ornish showed that his diet clears arteries independently of weight loss. You would hope that he separated out weight loss effects from other effects of his very lowfat diet – although it’s also good that it causes weight loss!
    I think the idea that lowfat vegan prevents heart disease is also well supported by the populations who’ve eaten nearly vegan diets and had low rates of heart disease.

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      “But they found that weight loss in general reversed atherosclerosis.”
      thats what the evidence seems to be currently pointing to as the major factor, though Im no dietitian
      unfortunately this still wouldn’t be the best argument for veganism given the ethical reason and the fact that weight loss can be achieved with a variety of lifestyle and dietary changes

      • Luara Says:

        Science does support caloric restriction for health and longevity, and a lowfat vegan diet is probably the best and easiest way to do this longterm. With enough added omega-3 fat to achieve a good omega-6/omega-3 ratio.
        The National Weight Control Registry studies people who manage to maintain a large weight loss, and they found that people do this with a 20% fat diet, on average. So while they may have lost the weight with a highfat lowcarb diet, they maintain weightloss with a lowfat diet.
        I stay slim while eating a lot, without much effort on a lowfat vegan diet (with enough added omega-3). The main downside to this diet for a lot of people, would be eating radically differently from other people – but who wants their health problems?

  4. How the Health Argument Fails Veganism | The Vegan RD Says:

    […] vegan diet based on health benefits alone, we have no choice but to stretch the truth. We have to overstate the benefits of vegan diets, and sometimes minimize or dismiss the risks. And as soon as we stray from the actual […]

  5. AmyOh2 Says:

    Did you see that Harriet Hall also debunked Gary Taubes and the low-carb diet a few days ago? At least she’s an equal opportunity skeptic.

    As for Bill, whatever. I wish him well but if the vegan-ish diet starts to fail him he’ll be back to pork chops faster than you can blink.

  6. Kate Says:

    Hello there, if the ONLY thing that matters is reducing suffering, then what is the problem with “happy meat” (humanely raised and slaughtered animals)? I’m not being snarky–I’m honestly curious.

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      Your comment seems more aimed at a quote from Matt Ball than me, the context of that quote was about the realistic approach Vegan Outreach has versus purists or Utopians who focus on tangential or insignificant issue to the detriment of the overall movement. I preceded the quote with my own statement about how veganism or better yet anti-speciesism is “an ethical choice aimed at reducing suffering and ultimately achieving animal liberation*.” I regret that I gave the impression reducing suffering is all I personally care about by using Matt Ball’s quote. Ending another sentient life without extenuating circumstances is also something I care about but I see this as tied to the of the issue of suffering, or rather both are tied to the issue of autonomy. See Tom Regan’s The Case For Animal Rights for more on this issue, reading Animal Liberation by Peter Singer is also crucial. I probably should have been more clear and should write a post explaining my philosophical reasons behind anti-speciesism and veganism. The point I was trying to convey with the Matt Ball quote was that veganism is about reducing suffering(in the most simplistic terms, animal rights philosophy is nuanced and varied), and this is not what Bill Clinton’s diet is about, nor is this what health-foodies and the like are advancing. That’s all I was trying to get at, that the health aspects and arguments are tangential while the issue of animal suffering and use is central.

      To the degree that the conditions actually are better for the animals, the purchase of so-called “happy meat” is preferable to alternative farms with lower welfare standards. But I still do not believe this choice is ultimately justifiable given the injustice in the use of a sentient beings as means to others ends and ending of a sentient life especially given the readily available alternatives. I also think that “happy meat” serves to make consumers feel better about animal exploitation and lure once vegetarians back to killing unnecessarily.

      A last issue to consider is the use of “happy meat”, “free range”, “organic”. ect as Green Wash. These various terms depending on industry have little-to-no meaningful regulation or enforcement, and often serve as little more than marketing labels. When given the to opportunity to vote in new higher welfare standards we should do so but I believe that reducing and eliminating our use and consumption of animals is how to ultimately make an impact on suffering rather than putting large amounts of energy and resources toward cage-free egg campaigns.

      *I would like to note that while this is the goal of animal rights I am no utopian or perfectionist, we and all sentient life will never be free from suffering but we can reduce or eliminate institutionalized exploitation and contribution to that suffering. So I mean “animal liberation” in the sense where legal rights are gained and social discrimination is curtailed rather than some ideal of the lion lying down with the lamb.

    • The Geologizer Says:

      Sorry for responding late. I hope Kate is still reading.

      Kate, the problem with “happy meat” is rather simple. There’s no guarantee that the individual animal you are eating didn’t experience its own suffering at slaughter-time. And what’s more, there’s no way you, as a consumer, could ever know that information with any reasonable degree of certainty. Eating “happy meat” is simply taking on faith the claim that this cow or this pig or this chicken right here on your plate wasn’t still conscious when it was skinned.

      I, for one, am unwilling to take that leap of faith.

      • Kate Says:

        Well, I raise my own happy meat (lol), and I see it get slaughtered, so I actually do know what happened…and I think more and more people, when they buy meat, are starting to look into exactly how the animal was raised and how it was killed…I know my animals never suffered for one second of their lives. But I agree with you that it is likely that much of the happy meat at the store isn’t as happy as we’d like to believe it was… 😦

  7. The Geologizer Says:

    I’m curious, Kate: what precautions do you take at slaughter-time to ensure your animals don’t suffer? I’m not being snarky, either; I’m genuinely curious.

    And anyway, I slightly disagree with skepticalvegan: veganism isn’t JUST about avoiding the infliction of suffering. It’s a rights philosophy: animals have a right to their life, and humans don’t have a right to kill and eat them when there is no overriding need to do so.

    Ultimately, you’ll not make headway with ethically-based vegans by raising “happy meat” (though I will concede that it’s preferable to factory farming). From our perspective, you’re just tidying up the prison camp. 🙂

    • Kate Says:

      hi Geologizer,

      If veganism were ONLY about avoiding animal suffering, it would include animal products, because it is not difficult to find animal products that don’t involve suffering.

      We raise sheep and sometimes pigs, as well as various poultry. We have a guy come out and we give the sheep something to eat, and then while they are eating he shoots one in the head at close range and it drops and is dead instantly. And then he cuts it up and then does it again with the next sheep. You can’t argue that the shooting is upsetting to the other sheep, because they don’t even stop eating. Sheep are very difficult to anthropomorphize if you’ve spent any time around them.

      Our sheep don’t suffer at all, but if an animal suffers for a few minutes right at the end of its life, I’m ok with that (although it is not ideal). It fits with my personal belief system which is that it’s natural for us to eat animals but not OK for us to cause them to lead lives of prolonged misery. When we raise meat bird chickens I have to drive them to a processing place in crates and the guy there kills them one by one. I’m sure the chickens are uncomfortable for an hour or so while they’re sitting in the crates on his back porch waiting. And again, I’m ok with that because they had great lives–fresh air, pasture, dust baths, sunshine, and etc. (And they taste so much better than store birds). If we’re just killing a couple of chickens we’ll do it here ourselves.

      It’s when you get into the large scale industrial slaughtering where people start cutting corners and animals get skinned while they’re still alive and etc. And again I personally believe that the life the animal led is more important than what happens right at the end, but still I would like to see some serious changes in the meat industry in this country.

      You also need to consider the fact that animals suffer and die for vegan diets as well. Unless you are growing all your own food, you most likely have no idea how many animals suffered and died for what you are eating. When you eat a sheep you raised yourself, you know that one animal had a good life and died without suffering. To me it is a good feeling.

      I didn’t mean to be so long-winded but I hope that answers your question. It’s ok with me if you think my “prison camp” is the same as a factory farm. People believe all kinds of things and there’s nothing I can do about that. LOL

      • skepticalvegan Says:

        “If veganism were ONLY about avoiding animal suffering,”

        But as already said, its not just about suffering, that is a very simplistic way to put it. Utilitarians generally base their arguments on suffering and happiness but it is usually more complex and nuanced. There are various forms of utilitarianism which weight things differently such as preference utilitarianism (to which Peter Singer ascribes) or rule utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is also only one of various philosophical approaches to veganism or animal rights. There are also rights-based approaches such as advocated by Tom Regan or Gary Francione. So for many it is not just about suffering but also about preferences, autonomy and/or inherent rights.

        Exploiting and killing humans for profit isn’t much more acceptable when it is done quick and painlessly, humans see murder as an issue far beyond suffering.

        “You also need to consider the fact that animals suffer and die for vegan diets as well.”
        This issue has been address multiple times on this blog in the comments such as here and here. We are certainly aware of harvesting deaths, though the grain consumed by animals accounts for more land usage than for humans and therefor more field deaths. When you add the veggies that omnivores eat plus the land use and harvesting needs for raising “food animals”, vegans still seem to come out ahead of most omnivores. Its also an issue of avoiding direct harm and pursuing a reduction of indirect harm as much as possible. Ive elsewhere talked about altering types of inputs and harvesting techniques along with other measures to reduce field kills.

        I don’t think your prison camp in necessarily the same as a factory farm. Abuse can certainly have gradients, but in the view of animal rights advocates family and factory farm both cross an ethical baseline by exploiting or “using” a sentient being as a instrument of production.

      • The Geologizer Says:

        It fits with my personal belief system which is that it’s natural for us to eat animals but not OK for us to cause them to lead lives of prolonged misery.
        Appeals to “nature” are not sufficient justification on either moral or rational grounds. Many natural behaviors of humans are considered unacceptable in the modern world, with good reason. For vegans (or, at least, for vegans like me), the question isn’t whether it’s natural to eat animals, but whether it’s right.

        You also need to consider the fact that animals suffer and die for vegan diets as well. Unless you are growing all your own food, you most likely have no idea how many animals suffered and died for what you are eating.
        Why do meat-eaters always say this, as though it’s somehow shocking to vegans? As skepticalvegan just pointed out, it’s about eliminating direct cruelty and reducing indirect cruelty as far as possible. We’ll never acheive Utopia, but that’s no excuse for failing to do our best.

        And I do have some idea how many animals suffered and died for what I am eating… and it’s a heck of a lot less than what meat-eaters (even consumers of “happy meat’) cause.

  8. whitenebula (@whitenebula) Says:

    I have heard that Clinton was following a “Near-Vegan Diet”. I was never given the impression that veganism affected any of his other choices other than trying to improve his health situation.

    However, I don’t think people choosing a vegan DIET as a healthy lifestyle should be discouraged. Obviously, not all vegan food is healthy, but eating a well-planned plant-based diet is a vast improvement over the crap that people are eating today. Some people even choose a vegan diet and lifestyle for environmental concerns. If there are reasons other than animal welfare / suffering, veganism can still be a good choice, and as it alleviates animal suffering as a side-effect, I don’t think it should be scoffed at.

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      You know this may be one of my most misunderstood posts. For me its the issue that veganism is turned into a health-food diet in the mainstream and loses its connection to animal rights. I know Clinton didn’t personally claim to be vegan or use it as a promotional point, the online vegan community did that. I recommend reading “How the Health Argument Fails Veganism” linked to in the post fora better understanding of why I wrote the post.

  9. Thoughts on Ginny messinas “How the health arguement fails veganism” // 30 Bananas a Day… Sucks! Says:

    […] vegan diet based on health benefits alone, we have no choice but to stretch the truth. We have to overstate the benefits of vegan diets, and sometimes minimize or dismiss the risks. And as soon as we stray from the actual […]

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