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.