When Vegans Get Sick: A Thought or Two (or Three)

Three weeks in and already I’m giving 2013 the side-eye. I’m still pretty optimistic about the year as a whole (I’ve got Plans, you see), but so far it’s brought S and I a hefty share of unpleasantries. First there was my New Year’s Eve case of suspected food poisoning, which, although it didn’t technically happen in 2013, practically did. I say “suspected food poisoning” because, lo and behold, poor S came down with very similar symptoms barely a week later, leading me to think we actually each had a case of fast-moving norovirus.

Then, the very next weekend, S bent his permanent retainer (the kind some orthodontists install behind your bottom teeth) while crunching a roasted sriracha pea. This happened mere hours before a vegan friend cooked us dinner. S was worried that his tooth discomfort would ruin the evening, but his appetite was unaffected and his mouth didn’t hurt as much as he feared. He got the retainer removed a few days later.

Then, a week or two later, we got flu shots* and I experienced some unpleasant side effects. I woke up in the middle night with an unstoppable case of the chills – I was shivering and quivering all over, my teeth were a-chattering, and no amount of blankets or snuggles could make it stop. In the morning the chills were gone, but I was feeling off. I ended up coming home sick because I ached all over and my head felt all stuffy and generally bad.

Thennn, this past Saturday, S experienced a terrible back spasm while moving a heavy clothing rack. He could barely stand up, his face went pale, and he thought he might vomit or pass out. He hobbled out of the store, painfully arranged himself prone on the back seat of my car (he couldn’t sit!), and we went straight to urgent care, where he was prescribed a muscle relaxant and painkillers. Three days later, he’s finally feeling [mostly] better.

And that’s been our 2013 so far! I don’t write all this to complain, though – there are folks with much worse and more pressing medical issues out there. Instead, I want to offer a gentle reminder that being vegan does not mean you will never get sick. It doesn’t mean that you will be wholly resistant to disease, a strapping superhero with an immune system of steel. That’s a pesky notion that worms its way into one too many “all about being vegan” books for my liking. (Christina Pirello, I’m looking at you.) The idea that veganism is a panacea, a cure-all for whatever ails ya, is dishonest and dangerous. How many books and articles have you read that promise glowing skin, radiant health, and instant weight loss once you drop the dairy? Too many. Sure, some folks might experience one or two or even all of those as side effects of going vegan. But just as many – if not more! – people won’t experience those wildly obvious external changes. I’m uncomfortable with promoting veganism as a solution to a menagerie of unruly health issues.

I suspect that part of the problem is the vegan community’s reluctance to admit defeat. How many times have you read a blog post that starts with something like, “I rarely get sick, but I have a cold!” or “I haven’t been sick in aaaaages, but now I’m hit with the flu.” I’ve certainly been guilty of it. Maybe what we say is true. Maybe some vegans do have stronger immune systems – I’m certainly not doubting that it’s possible. But I think we often like to present ourselves as, perhaps, stronger and healthier than we are. Maybe it’s a reactionary instinct to the nay-sayers who think that vegans are, as a rule, sickly and weak. Maybe it’s just because everybody else is doing it, so we don’t want to appear less than our vegan counterparts. Either way, I find it worrisome. If I’m a new vegan, and I don’t immediately experience clear skin and boundless energy, and I still experience allergies and colds and general sickness, mightn’t I feel like I’m doing something wrong? Or that I’ve been duped by the spunky, oh-so-radiant vegans who told me going vegan would take care of all my woes? I’d rather we be honest and admit our weaknesses instead of setting up the unreal expectation that we’ll never get sick and we’ll all be beautiful and glowing and we’ll all be our ideal weights and able to run marathons with no practice. Y’all, that’s just not how it works.

I’m musing on this topic in part thanks to our series of recent health unpleasantries and in part thanks to Sayward’s recent post on a similar topic. Her health journey was scary and serious and eye-opening, and she writes about it and its implications in much more depth than my rambling last couple paragraphs. But her points and my points are aligned, I think, and though I could say more (indeed, have been thinking of more for months and months!), I’ll stop myself. This is already a photo-less, word-heavy post, and that just ain’t my thang.

I’m curious, though – do you feel compelled to present yourself as extra-healthy just because you’re vegan? Do you notice the vegan-as-panacea myth in vegan circles and literature?

*A note on the flu shot: No, it’s not vegan – it’s incubated in chicken eggs. I didn’t plan to get it, but I’ll be working in a hospital next month and it’s required for all staff and visitors. Veganism is about doing the best we can with the options we have, and as a vegan alternative to the shot doesn’t exist yet, I’m okay with having a non-vegan vaccination if it means protecting the health of folks with already compromised immune systems. For more thoughts on the intersection of veganism and vaccinations, check out Gena’s fabulously comprehensive and thoughtful post on the topic.

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7 thoughts on “When Vegans Get Sick: A Thought or Two (or Three)

  1. Oh, yes! I most certainly notice that “vegan-as-panacea” myth! And, guilty as charged, I do find myself rather smugly thinking that a practically-perfect-plant consuming-person like myself won’t catch the latest virus running rampant, and that so-and-so wouldn’t be so sickly were he/she eating a plant based diet. But, like most overgeneralizations, this is based on a certain amount of fact. Certainly, the “preventable” illnesses (diabetes, heart disease, etc.) are greatly affected by diet. And I do think that, as a whole, vegans are less prone to illness. That said, I agree that so much of the literature out there presents veganism as the cure-all, which as you so eloquently stated, may be setting up unreal expectations for those folks hoping to become healthy super-heroes by becoming vegan. I guess we could all benefit from knocking ourselves down a rung or two on the pretentious, perfectionistic plant-eating ladder. :)

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  2. What a nasty start to year! Poor you. Let’s hope you’ve had the worst of it and the rest of the year will be plain sailing.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic, it’s certainly an interesting one. I am someone who rarely does get sick but I don’t attribute this to my veganism and I think I’m just one of those lucky people who somehow manages to avoid catching bugs. But equally I am also probably keen to present myself as especially healthy because I feel a kind of responsibility to portray veganism in a good light and show that it doesn’t lead to poor health. Like you say it’s probably an instinctive response to those who still think of vegans as sickly folk. I agree with the above commenter that eliminating animal products can be highly beneficial to health in that we reduce our chances of things like heart disease and illness directly linked to diet, but don’t think our immune systems get a sudden boost on going vegan.

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    • “A kind of responsibility to portray veganism in a good light” – that’s a great way of putting it. I definitely struggle with that as well, in part because there are still so many misconceptions out there. It’s when folks actively hide or cover up sickness that I have a problem. I’ve read quite a few of those “I was vegan, but then I got really sick, so now I’m not” blog posts where the author leaves veiled hints that there are lots of other sick vegans out there, but they’re too scared to admit it. I don’t want people in the vegan community to feel ashamed to admit illness!

      Anyway, thanks for your well-wishes! We’re both feeling better, so maybe we got all our illnesses and issues out of the way in January. :)

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  3. Pingback: When Vegans Get Sick: A Thought or Two (or Three) | la vida vegga - Health Wise

  4. just a thought but do you think your bad reaction to the flu jab was because your diet had been ‘pure’ for so long and your system could not cope with the insult it had just had. Being a veggie/vegan for more years than I will own up to I have had my fair share of maladies including cardio myopathy{according to my cardiologist I am a walking miracle,my clever old ticker repaired itself and he doesn’t know how] and I am recovering from a particularly nasty bug which involved a quick visit via ambulance to A and E. So whilst diet can help things your own basic genetic makeup has a lot to answer for. A case of choose your ancestors very carefully!

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    • I don’t know if that could have anything to do with it! I’m not sure what the science behind that looks like. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of a fair few people who get sick after the shot, and not all of them are vegan.

      Wow, sounds like you’ve definitely had your fair share of illnesses! You’re totally right that there’s not a lot you can do about your genes. I guess that’s part of the reason a healthy diet is so appealing – at least we can have control over something!

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