Indulge with me in a bit of imagining. Before you stand two women—or men, your choice. In addition to being of the same gender, both share the same ethnicity, age and height. At a glance, both seem similar in appearance, except one is slim, while the other is overweight or even obese. Quick—which one is vegan?
Trick question. They’re both vegan!
Which one is healthier?
The slim one, obviously. Right?
Perhaps the overweight vegan has lost 100 pounds over the past several months through careful food choices and a dedication to consistent, strenuous exercise. Perhaps the slim vegan enjoys a fast metabolism and sedentary lifestyle, paying little attention to food quality. I personally know vegans in both categories.
We’re bombarded with the message that “overweight” is bad and “obese” is even worse. In her book What’s Wrong with Fat?, Abigail Saguy points out that these two terms inherently imply “medical problems.” And both are labels the Centers for Disease Control use for Body Mass Index ratings that rank above the “healthy” range (BMI is the ratio of a person’s weight to height). But here’s the thing. You can’t necessarily tell the state of a person’s health merely by guessing or even knowing their body fat percentage. While obesity is correlated with greater disease risk, it cannot be said to be causative. This means that, as a group, heavier people are more at risk than slimmer people of developing certain diseases such as diabetes and colon cancer. But it’s not proven that the weight itself causes the disease. The disease might be triggered by one or more lifestyle factors that also contribute to obesity.
There’s also the “obesity paradox” which describes protective powers associated with obesity in relation to certain conditions, such as heart failure and osteoporosis. Obese women have an increased or decreased risk of breast cancer dependent upon when in life they gained the weight, and whether they were obese prior to or after menopause.
Why does this matter?
For most overweight and obese people, losing weight is hard and successfully maintaining weight loss has proven nearly impossible. Not because heavier people are weak-willed or lazy. But because a host of physiological, environmental and psychological factors conspire to put the weight back on. Rather than continuing to chase a fleeting ideal weight, Health at Every Size, for example, suggests redirecting focus away from body size and toward “compassionate self care.” After all, health is a continuum. It’s sleep and mental outlook and resilience and stress management and personal relationships and intellectual stimulation and spirituality and so much more than body fat percentage.
So, the slim vegan may be a No Meat Athlete while the overweight vegan knocks back Oreos while binge-watching Scandal. Or vice versa. Most likely, both engage in a range of behaviors that are more or less health promoting. Most important, both have overcome ubiquitous and revered cultural practices to accomplish what only 2% of the U.S. population so far has been able to achieve—they have removed as many forms of animal cruelty as possible from their diet and lifestyle.
So, let’s take another look at our vegan couple from the beginning of this blog. Which one is healthier?
The truth is, you don’t know. But by being vegan, both are contributing to a healthier planet, which has positive health impacts for us all.
A nearly 30-year veteran of the animal welfare field, Vicki F. Stevens, VLCE, has led and contributed to a variety of programs at national animal protection organizations. In her spare time Vicki has earned a BA in women’s studies, an MS in nutrition and integrative health and has raised six cats (most formerly feral) to geriatric adulthood. Vegan since 1988, Vicki is unapologetically obsessed with the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and thinks Keats stinks. Visit Vicki on Twitter.