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The Great Plant-Based Setup, by Victoria Moran

220px-Herbert_M._SheltonI saw the setup the first time forty years ago. Dr. Herbert Shelton, a pioneer in the holistic health movement, was in his eighties and wracked with Parkinson’s. People tried hard to explain it. He’d been very stressed, they said. He’d suffered years of harassment from the medical establishment. This was why he was no longer in good health. There was no other explanation.

Then, in 2000, American Vegan Society founder Jay Dinshah died of a sudden heart attack at the age of sixty-seven. People were as shocked as they were saddened. Vegans weren’t supposed to die in their sixties — or seventies, for that matter. Dying at 90+ in good health was the plan, as Dinshah’s father had done, falling from an apple tree at, if memory serves me, ninety-four. In Jay’s case, stress was again deemed the culprit. Then some people said that he hadn’t been on an oil-free diet. I thought that was mean and they should have kept their opinions to themselves.Unknown

Two years ago, we lost Rynn Berry, the great historian of the vegetarian movement, at sixty-eight. The longtime vegan and (mostly) raw-foodist was out running (good; running is good) when he collapsed with an asthma attack on a January day in a Brooklyn park (he was so healthy that most of us didn’t know he had asthma – again: good). We consoled ourselves that the underlying asthma, so well controlled for years by his great diet, was to blame. Some even conjectured that since he’d been running with no ID and days passed before he was identified as a retired professor with good insurance, perhaps his care at the hospital had been substandard.Unknown-1

These are stories of three remarkable men who did the unthinkable: they died. No one knows when he or she will leave this life, but somehow when we’re vegan, we start to think that this universal truth no longer applies. It is inconvenient for the vegan/plant-based/natural health movement when one of us passes before ninety, or gets sick at any age. We think it makes us look bad. But there are worse things than looking bad — doing harm, for instance.

Think how difficult it is to be sick, especially with some chronic, painful or, heaven forbid, fatal disease. Maybe the person “caused it” with their habits, but there are plenty of nonsmokers who get lung cancer and emphysema, a goodly number of type 2 diabetics who are fit and trim, and people who have heart attacks while running fast enough to leave the rest of us in the dust. Like our beloved companion animals and our non-vegan fellows, we sometimes get sick, and at some point, we’ll all leave the physical world. Nobody knows when. And oftentimes no one knows why, either.

It is a terrible thing to add the burden of guilt to the fear, uncertainty, and discomfort of sickness, but that’s what we do when we whisper, “How could that happen? I thought he was raw,” or “Gosh, do you think she cheated?” or “It was the oil [or sugar or processed food or whatever we disapprove of].”

Eating an animal-free diet of mostly whole foods is apparently the nutritional gold standard. If you read Dr. Michael Greger’s new bestseller, How Not to Die, cover225x225you’ll be blown away by the scientific approbation of this choice we’ve made, whether we did it for health or animal rights or the environment — or because we fell in love with a vegan and, gosh, what’s a change in diet when “happily ever after” is staring you in the face? Yay for vegans! We’re changing the world for the better. But, uh, as Dr. Greger admits in the early pages of his book, we’re all going to die. We don’t want to do it prematurely or unnecessarily. We don’t want to spend our last years in “morbidity,” the medical term for chronically ill, impaired, or unable function normally. Heck, we don’t want to get sick at all if it can be helped, but let’s not make the lack “perfect health” the next new way to screw up. (Being a few pounds overweight was the first way. Then came being “skinny fat” – you look thin but you’re fat on the inside.)

I am vegan for the animals, but I’m also kind of a health nut. I eat really well (in my opinion. My doctor is an Atkins guy who leaves me alone about food, but I know in his heart he thinks I’m crazy). Even so, I sometimes get sick. One day I’m apt to get really sick. And at some point – long from now, I hope, but I don’t know for certain – I’ll move from life in this body and on to the next adventure. May I ask you a favor, and ask it for every other vegan who’s just trying to do the best he or she can to make this world a little less awful for animals and the rest of us? If we get sick, and when we die, please don’t try to figure out what we did wrong. And please don’t second-guess every weird kind of possible cause for why a vegan left this world without winning the Longevity Olympics. We’re all leaving. If it’s our “fault,” it’s essentially our fault that at some soul level that we opted to sign on for a human experience. That requires a round-trip ticket. Even if you eat plants.

2015 headshot coralVictoria Moran is the author of Main Street Vegan and eleven other books. She is the founder and director of Main Street Vegan Academy, where Matt Rusigno, RD, teaches a dynamite class on not overpromising the health benefits of a vegan diet, stellar though they may be.


  1. Real and honest.

    • Thanks, Lisa. It seems hard enough to be vegan in an omnivore’s world without making people feel guilty about not being a physical superhero. Comment appreciated.

  2. Such joy to read such truth Victoria. Thank you for bringing so much to it. As always bless you dear person!

    • Barbara, you are so lovely. Thanks for your comment. We’ll all just human. I don’t want anybody to feel that imperfection is a sin. I think, rather, that it’s a requirement.

  3. This applies to everyone. It’s incredibly ableist to try to play detective about why someone is ill/disabled/mentally ill, and victim blaming helps no one. I’ve had vegans tell me that I’m ill because I’m not vegan and that being vegan would cure me, I’m sure you’ve experienced the reverse scenario. Let’s be empathetic and stop assuming we know more than people with medical degrees. Anyway good post

    • Thanks so much, Max. I read once that we’re all really bummed to be on earth as humans instead of in heaven as angels so we expect to be able to make everything perfect. We’d probably be much happier if we could just follow our hearts, do what makes sense to us, and expect that life will have roses and thorns, regardless of how we eat or what we believe.

  4. Suzanne Lyons says:

    great article and thoughts. Thank you for being such a deep thinker and sharing your thoughts with us! Makes us think as well.

    • Thank you, Suzanne. I don’t know how deep I am. I’ve just been feeling bad that we seem to have ourselves up for the impossible: that if we’re not borderline immortal, we’re harming the cause. Love to you.

  5. So well said Victoria!

    The exact same thing happened when Rev. Sylvester Graham (Graham Crackers) died at the age of 57. People came up with all kinds of reason where Rev. Graham must have “backslid” on his diet or that he was filled with anxiety all his life.

    Good grief…

    • I didn’t know that about Graham, Russell. I’ll add it to the history lecture! Gosh, we set ourselves up! Doing the best we can is one thing; doing the impossible is, well, impossible. And we know so little, about why things happen on a physical and non-physical basis. We don’t even know if things that look tragic on earth aren’t, in some soul way, great gifts. It’s all mysterious and we live in an age that resents mystery.

  6. Good. Sadly, Americans have difficulty with this concept called death. It is a natural, normal part of life.

  7. Sheer brilliance! Love you so much, Victoria!