Friday, June 22, 2012

Bob Harper, "Reluctant Omnivore"

Bob Harper, trainer on the NBC reality weight-loss show The Biggest Loser, created a stir a few years back when he announced in various interviews and articles that he had "gone vegan."  At the time, I remember being excited over the news and hoping he'd at least mention it on the show itself, where he was often extolling the virtues of product-placed items such as Jennie-Oh turkey.  Eventually he did serve his team members a vegan meal at his house, featuring the recipes on his website.  Bob also hosted a Farm Sanctuary "Walk for Animals" and delivered one of the featured pep talks for PCRM's 21-Day Vegan Kickstart.

But somewhere along the line, he started to tweet about "cheating" by eating egg whites or other animal products.  Then he posted a blog entry about a book that was coming out this year, The Skinny Rules, with a link to a "preview" of the rules.  One of them was to include protein in every meal and to make fish the "go-to protein."  What?

Had Bob stopped being vegan?  I did a search via Google and found an article: "Bob Harper Explains Why He Quit Veganism."

His #1 reason for sneaking around and indulging in egg whites, dairy chocolate and cheese is the stereotypical “my body needed it” one.

“I still believe that a plant-based diet has tremendous health benefits but I have incorporated more animal protein into my diet,” Harper said.  “I found that my body personally got to a point where I needed something more. I used to yell at people who said that, but now all of a sudden, my body just kind of went, ‘I need something.'”
Curiously, one of the major articles identifying him as a vegan (Fitness magazine) came out after this item was released.

Now that the book is out, Bob (or staff) has been posting to his Facebook page soliciting comments about whether his followers are following the "rules" in his book.  (The subtitle for the book, by the way, is "The Simple, Nonnegotiable Principles for Getting to Thin.")  One of these recent postings was about adding protein to breakfast by adding egg whites to oatmeal.  Some of the comments below the posting were along the lines of "I thought you were vegan."  Someone responded that Bob had addressed this in his book--that he'd "had to" stop being vegan because he'd gotten "too thin."

Taking a peek into his book, I discovered that pages 18-19 have a section entitled "Animal Protein and Me."  I will quote from it at length and provide my thoughts as I go.

"Some of you who’ve read about me in the last several years and thought I was vegan will be surprised to see that I recommend animal proteins at all. There’s a personal story behind this."  "Thought I was vegan"? But you were, weren't you?

"The 'compassion' argument was a big part of my decision to go vegan--I care about treatment of animals, and I’ve read and seen the films about the conditions at many farms and slaughterhouses."  But as he will reveal in a later paragraph, he absorbed this message in a way that gives him some wiggle room.
I have also read about the health and disease-prevention benefits of reducing or swearing off animal proteins. The China Study by T. Colin Campbell is one of the most convincing studies there could be. Campbell studied Asian eating patterns for decades, and the results of his work showed in great detail that some of today’s healthiest populations are those that do not eat meat.
I will want to get back to this later.  "So, I went vegetarian, then vegan. No animal protein for me! Milk--no, I’ll take a soy latte or a soy cheese. An omelet? Only if you make it with scrambled tofu. There were veggie burgers and almond loafs and enough dal and lentils and curries and falafels to fill a stadium." I'm not sure why he affects such a flippant tone, but okay.

"It worked: my cholesterol went down. I lost weight. I felt lighter. But for me, being strictly vegan was work--I scrutinized everything I ate--but my health was clearly worth the effort."  I'm a bit gapped on why he found being vegan such work. It seems he scrutinizes what he eats anyway. Even when he's not vegan, he still has other criteria that he adheres to.   He even made that point in the Fitness magazine article I linked above:  "People always ask me how I get enough protein and other nutrients. I can get all that I need with the way that I eat -- I just have to do a little recon. No matter what diet you follow, eating right isn't easy and takes planning."

It's also noteworthy that in this case, he only posits that his "health was clearly worth the effort." No mention of the animals he's not eating or using.
But after a few years, the benefits start to wane. I was fatigued. And I was getting . . . soft, which is not a particularly good thing if you are the trainer for a show called The Biggest Loser. My own trainer, Sam Upton (who has, let’s say, the perfectly fit body--the kind trainers themselves strive for!), suggested I needed to reintroduce some animal protein to regain my muscle tone and strength.
It's not clear to me whether that suggestion from his trainer was all it took to convince him to reintroduce animal products into his diet. I would have hoped he'd consult with some of the people whose work convinced him to go vegan in the first place. He continues, "My own experience isn’t scientific but it is significant--bringing some animal protein back into my diet helped my energy levels. I stayed lean. I felt better." You will see that although he concedes it is not "scientific," he apparently sees it as "significant" enough that he advises his readers to follow his example.  And turning his back on the science that backs up The China Study.
I am a reluctant omnivore, I have to admit. I still have all the reservations about meat, about the way the animals are treated, and about its health effects. But I also believe that we are quickly changing the way we treat animals--free range has become a mainstream concept; we pass laws to make sure our animals have better living quarters; and slowly but surely, even the meat industry is getting the message about better animal husbandry and hygiene. Slowly, yes. but it’s happening. And we can take advantage of those changes for our own benefit. And for the animals: if we demand cruelty-free food, we’ll create a market for it, and thus encourage farmers to continue such improvements. The power of the eater’s purse is remarkable. Use it, I say.
I think this passage exemplifies the concerns that Gary Francione has often expressed about vegan advocacy that focuses on treatment rather than use.  Seeing labels such as "free range," "cage free," or "humane" make omnivores who want to be able to see themselves as compassionate feel more comfortable with their animal use.  And as the Humane Myth website demonstrates, these "humane" designations do not actually achieve what Bob probably thinks they do.  (Bob, if you are reading this, please visit the page!  See especially their slideshow presentations on "Happy Cows" and "Cage-Free Eggs.")* 
I still very much advocate a plant-based diet for the most part. You’ll see in my menus and recipes, I don’t ever recommend that anyone go heavy on the animal protein, but I also don’t think it is so awful to eat a steak or a breast of chicken or some cheese in an otherwise plant-heavy regimen. The country’s most lauded vegan chef, Tal Ronnen, was recently interviewed on just this conundrum. His response? “So be a vegan who eats bacon!”
"For the most part."  However, he is actively advocating that his readers not be vegan; that they consume animals and animal products (except for once a week, when they are instructed to "go meatless"--for just one day).  "I also don’t think it is so awful to eat a steak or a breast of chicken or some cheese in an otherwise plant-heavy regimen."  Awful in what sense?  My dad thinks it's hilarious to point out that the cow or pig that he's eating "isn't complaining."  No, once we are dead, we cease to complain.  From the perspective of the cow or chicken being eaten, or the cow whose milk was stolen from her (following the theft of her calf), it's pretty "awful," I think. 

As for the quote from Tal Ronnen, a "vegan who eats bacon" is a vegan who eats tempeh bacon.  Anyone who eats the kind of bacon that actually came from a pig's body?  Is not a vegan.

The final section from Bob's book on which I'd like to comment is from page 158, and is a note pertaining to his recipes:
I have tried to insert vegan and vegetarian ingredient options, but in some cases animal fats or proteins are so important that I’d be misleading you if I suggested you could get by without them. No doubt I’ll get a million e-mails disagreeing with me on this. I appreciate your input. Please tell me your recipe suggestions and I’ll give them a try! If I love your recipe, I may post it on my website. (18-19)
This passage is really insidious.  He has tried to "insert vegan and vegetarian ingredient options," but really we can't "get by" without animal fats and proteins.   As mentioned above, he is actively urging that people not be vegan. It's not enough that he's abandoned veganism for himself, it seems as though he wants to trash it altogether. 

And I can't help thinking that if only he'd reached out to people like Jack Norris, RDGinny Messina, RD, or Neal Barnard, MD when he began to feel "off," he could have tweaked his diet in such a way that he could have stayed vegan and gone back to feeling his best.  Jack Norris became a registered dietitian  specifically for the purpose of helping vegans stay vegan when they encounter health problems, by helping them tweak their diet and ensure they are getting all their essential nutrients.  He and Messina co-authored the book Vegan for Life, and Norris also maintains the site.  (Bob:  please check these resources!)

My heart sinks whenever a high-profile person who has self-identified as "vegan" declares him/herself ex-vegan and goes on to trash veganism.  I feel even worse when the person in question is somebody people look to for advice on diet and nutrition.  I cannot help but worry that his new book will dissuade people from being vegan and possibly convince people he's previously inspired to go plant-based to follow his lead back to animals and animal products.

*In case it is not clear, there is no version of animal treatment that, in my mind, makes it okay to kill, eat, or use animals.  I know people hate this comparison, but you can imagine the look on Bob's face if someone were to suggest that he should kill and eat his dog Karl?  But please stay with me for a moment.  Bob loves Karl and has treated him very well--very humanely.  By the logic of those who say it's okay to kill/eat/use animals who are treated "well," why not kill Karl and eat him?  Sure, Bob and I both live in a culture in which dogs and cats belong to a different category than cows, pigs, and chickens do, but there is no logical reason for that.  Pigs are intelligent like dogs, and there are even people who keep them as companion animals.  Chickens can learn to play video games and can also be great companions.