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.


Marya said...

Just wanted to say that I think this is a wonderful post. It is certainly discouraging and disheartening, but thank you for breaking it all down. I used to be a big Big Loser fan but won't watch it at all anymore because Bob makes me sick.

Mirkat said...

Thanks, Marya. I really felt something needed to be said on Bob's flip to ex-vegan. He's got such a large platform and there are people who hang on his every word. It's a shame he uses words like "rules" to characterize the advice he's giving.

Get Skinny, Go Vegan. said...

Um, yeah. I think I am done with the show as well. I mean, I wasn't very happy that I was watching a show glorifying the morbidly obese getting thinner on a game show. But I started watching because Bob was Vegan AND he was the spokesperson for the Farm Sanctuary Walk..........SO glad I didn't buy the book JUST to read the BS he just put out. I like the guy, but think he has really missed the mark...........AND most of the food addicts he works with will never be able to eat freely again, if they are eating addictive foods. So I think it's stupid actually.....Why create a system of eating for food addicts that they always have to keep track of stuff? Why not just eat unproccesed plant foods and live?

Mirkat said...

Get Skinny, Go Vegan, for a while I was holding onto hope that Bob was changing the food culture of TBL for the better, but his flip-flop has me thinking it'll just remain with its status quo. :(

phluttery said...

I was excited when I saw Bob's book for sale on my book club website. I hadn't realized he wasn't vegan anymore (I haven't watched the show in a while, but still do Bob's worksouts) and promptly bought the book, expecting to find awesome recipes I could use. I was disappointed. The funny thing.. this is at a time my son comes home from school saying, "mom, I don't want to be vegetarian, because the kids think I'm weird". Maybe Bob felt "weird" too? I told my son (who is 6) why I believe in veganism and ESPECIALLY vegetarianism and that "giving it up" isn't something to be taken lightly... When he gets older I want him to make his own decisions, but I want him to make them for all the right reasons. I agree with the poster that said, "why not just eat unproccessed plant foods and live" , Right on, Brother or Sister!

Mirkat said...

Maybe Bob felt "weird" too?

That could be, phluttery. Bob's become heavily involved in Crossfit, and can't help wondering if he's been influenced by the pervasiveness of the Paleo diet amongst Crossfitters.

Hope both our sons decide to stay vegan. Mine is nine, and so far so good. He yells at the TV when they have meat/animal-product-centric ads. :)

Anonymous said...

Most of the Vegans I know personally are overweight, and two of them are obese(one of my friends is obese and been Vegan for 21 years). That "get skinny, go vegan" thing doesn't apply to every one.

Lets face it, we do not hunt and gather our food anymore. These days we should eat all our food resources responsibly, be it fruits, nuts, grains, vegetables, or animals. I think anyone who allows anyone else to "Make them sick" should find something positive to focus on. Life is too short to allow someone else to make you ill or angry.

tracie said...

I am a vegetarian. But i do leave room for the fact that we are not all built the same. So many diets claim to be the ultimate answer, but it seems there cannot be one answer for everyone. I am a vegetarian for animal loving reasons and I would love it if everyone else was too. I a an animal lover for sure. But I am also a people lover. Give this guy some grace.

Cristiano Nisoli said...


For what is worth the following is my experience. I became a vegetarian for almost two years, about 12-10 years ago. I did everything properly, wIth vegetarian nutritionists and so on. I tried many different ways. The outcome always the same: weaker and weaker, sicker and sicker, hungrier and hungrier, and fatter and fatter.

Eventually, as I always do, I analyzed the facts and reconsidered. I had gone vegetarian because I already had those problems in milder form before, when I was eating a rather "healthy" diet, according to guidelines: little meat, lots of veggies, never processed food, everything home cooked, and so on.

Unfortunately vegetarianism had exacerbated those very problems I had hoped it would ameliorate.

So not only I quitted vegetarianism, but also I did not go back to my previous "healthy" diet. Instead, I started consuming meat, daily first, then at every meal (something even before vegetarianism I would have considered crazy). Still vegetables and fruits. Really little grains, as meat provided calories already. ALso lots of cheese, eggs, milk cream butter and so on.

Of my previous habits I kept the abstinence from any form of junk food, as well as the fact that 99% of what I eat is home made, with quality ingredients (typically dished of the European or American tradition, meat based).

Also I don't care about reducing animal fat, in fact I grew convinced that its consumption is necessary for me: if I stay without fat--usually unintentionally-- I do not feel that well.

Anyway, the point. I felt fantastic immediately, and so I do after 10 years. In fact I feel better now than when I was 12 years younger and a vegetarian. All symptoms gone, very low body fat, rather muscular and active (I now run, pump and so on).

And it did not take time to adjust or anything: two weeks later I felt like new.

Therefore I understand Bob Harper very well, as his symptoms were very similar to mine. I witness the same problems in most vegetarians I know (depression, low energy, and overweight) although not in all of them.

So, while I am sure vegetarianism and perhaps (but I have doubts) veganism might work for some, even many--I know a few people for whom it seems to work--it certainly did not work at all for me and for many others. I seem to be a carnivore. Sorry animals, can't apologize for what I am.

I am not saying this to be a troll (I am signing with a true email) or to proselytize. I really care very little what people decide to do or eat. However, I feel my experience might come useful to somebody who could now be in the same situation I was back then: you don't have to be stuck there, you can change. If you do not like it, you can always go back.

Also, I suppose I could say that I am rather highly educated (classical studies, scientific studies, then Ph.D. in theoretical physics). I am a published (although certainly minor) scientist, and I believe I do know how to do things properly when I set my mind to it. I am saying this to avoid criticism such as "you did not do this or that", not because I want to brag. In fact one of the privileges of my job is that I get to meet lots of people waaaay smarter than me (as in Nobel Laureates).

Anonymous said...

Vegan diet has worked wonders for me and my family. I would not go back to a sad and sick omnivore diet for anything. Ive seen too many health benefits living the ethical life.

Deanna said...

This is super disappointing. It is the difference between having conviction and being wishy washy. There is still hope. I was wishy washy and selfish about 12 years ago and went away from being veg. I came back stronger and more vegan than ever and it is for life. I had to grow as a person.
He was awakened once and it will nag at him if he truly loves animals.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I'm extremely disappointed in Bob. If you want a piece of meat, eat piece of meat. But don't turn around and act like the reason you're eating it is because your body is deprived and needs it. That's just a way to justify something. This is about the money, in my opinion. A book about a celebrity, ex-vegan will sell, whereas if he wrote a book about a plant based diet, it would most likely not be a popular. It's true that people love hearing good things about their bad habit.

Christina said...

Choice is choice. Those who look around even a little will find many professional athletes who are vegetarian or vegan and have been so for a lifetime in many instances; in others, with better physical and performance results than when they ate meat (products). I don't fault him for his choice, or saying that he feels better - one can't pretend to know another's physiological response to anything we intake, food or medicine - but I just hope he realizes the impact of his dietary advice on others. Mind you, if you are seeing him as a nutritionist, which I'm sure he doesn't claim to be, then it's the viewer that needs to adjust their perspective. I gave up meat a year ago; I'm a competitive recreational half marathon runner and have had no drop in performance at all. (My three degrees also don't make m any more of a nutritionist than a doctorate in physics would, since we are going for the initials) We can all go to google university for our advice if that's what sounds good.)

Fungirl15 said...

I'm glad Bob stopped eating vegan. He realizes that it was bad for his health. I fully support his decision. I believe animal treatment is important but God gave us animals for nourishment.

Laurie said...

Totally lost respect for him not gonna lie. I get 60+ grams of protein a day with out even paying attention. Maybe calorie restricting is the issue. Eat your carbs, man.