I went vegetarian in 1969 and starting my observations of the vegan/vegetarian world started soon after. Over these decades I’ve come to know hundreds and ultimately thousands of people who changed their diet for reasons of ethics, health, or both. And I’ve long noted the incredible discomfort we different-drummer diners have with those among us who become ill, or who pass away before turning 90.

Ellsworth Wareham, MD, ate a fully plant-based diet, practiced surgery into his nineties and lived to be 104. He’s an inspiration but not the norm.

The first case I remember was a modestly prominant spokesperson on the health side of things who had cured himself of ulcerative colitis. That condition stayed in abeyance but another malady — cancer, maybe, or something with his heart — took him in middle age. “What do you think he did wrong?” I heard people whisper.

When Nathan Pritikin developed leukemia after famously overcoming a heart condition, we were able to say: “Well, he ate low-fat, but he wasn’t vegetarian.” When it was one of our own struck by illness, though, many either questioned their choices — “She ate a lot of processed food” — or concocted some reason why the unthinkable had happened: incredible stress, exposure to toxic chemicals, too many years of “living conventionally” prior to seeing the light.

The origins of our horror at being as mortal as anybody else are easy to trace. 19th and early 20th century vegetarians fell into two camps, not so different from the ones we see today. Some adopted the regimen to save their lives or build their health; they needed this to work or they’d be proven wrong, perhaps tragically so.

The others, the ones who turned from meat, as writer Isaac Bashevis Singer put it, “for the health of the chickens,” also had something to prove: they had to stay at least as healthy as they’d been before or they’d be selling out the animals.

When veganism came on the scene in the 1940s, calling for the elimination of even more components of what was  believed to be a “balanced diet,” the challenge to evidence its safety and nutritional adequacy became more pressing than ever. A Vegan who got sick before reaching advanced age could set back the fledgling movement.

Neal Barnard, MD, founder of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has long been a champion of both health-promoting vegan eating and animal rights.

So here we are. The movement is growing and thriving, and yet we’re living in a world mad with stress and wracked by pollution. There’s radiation in the atmosphere from nuclear explosions and accidents. The ill effects of DDT still affect us, long after its being banned in most places. And a stready stream of viral and bacterial scourges, usually zoonotic in origin, wreaks havoc on some part of the world or, in the case of HIV and more recently Covid-19, the whole world. All this is before we even get to the food. Soil is depleted of nutrients. Most people can’t afford to eat all organic all the time. Fast food and convenience foods get into most people’s diets because it’s late and we’re tired.

Are these lapses from kale-kissed perfection the reason people get sick? Maybe, but so much is still misunderstood. Autoimmune disorders, Lyme disease, depression and anxiety, chronic fatigue, thyroid disorders, dementia, and all manner of digestive disturbances run rampant. Some people change their diet and find relief. Whether by eating Whole Food Plant-based No Oil, or raw food, or macrobiotic, or by juice-cleansing for long periods and eating “clean” in between, many folks do get well and this is thrilling. The health stats of Vegans are promising indeed and implementing some dietary tweaks can make a real difference for many people.

Still, it’s not a slam-dunk for everybody. The last thing someone struggling with chronic disease or a scary diagnosis needs to worry about is not measuring up because their body, for whatever reason, is unable to maintain perfect health. They may need medication, or surgery, or a CPAP machine. They may seek alternative therapies. None of that is my business.

This is what I try to remember when a fellow Vegan is ill:

  • I don’t know why this is happening. Their doctors may not even know. This Vegan deserves love and support and humor and good wishes, not second-guessing.
  • Unless I’m asked for an opinion or a suggestion, I don’t give one. They’ve probably already been told to try the Mayo Clinic, wheat grass juice, ozone therapy, Dr. So-and-so’s protocol, and the energy healer with a two-year wait list. It’s overwhelming.
  • This person probably already feels that they’ve “done something wrong.” It’s my job to assure them of all they’re doing right. They’re vegan, for heaven’s sake. They’ve made a rare and radiant lifestyle choice for the benefit of all beings. They’re bright and compassionate and amazing — even if they feel like hell, are scared to death, and feel guilty for turning to Western medicine (or for choosing not to do that). They can use some reassurance: “You, like Baby Bear’s porridge, are ‘just right.'”
  • If they’re in a hospital or nursing home, they’re enmeshed in a health care system that doesn’t know beans about what vegans eat and even less about what vegans value. It’s my job as this person’s friend or relative to be sure they have the kind of food they want, and maybe to intercede on their behalf with dietitians and other staff.
  • While someone who’s sick may look different, may not be able to walk around, and may be surrounded with
    Brooke Goldner, MD, overcame severe lupus through a diet that’s animal-free and life force-abundant.

    medical paraphernalia, they’re still themself. I need to see the person, not the condition.

  • And it’s my job to envision this person well and thriving. Even if the diagnosis is dire, I have no right to project anything negative into the situation. I’m supposed to hold my friend in my highest thoughts and wrap them in all the light and prayers I can come up with.

Sometimes people get sick — Vegans, too — even Vegans with the squeaky-cleanest food choices you ever saw.  We’re all doing the best we can to live our own best lives. As a group, Vegans tend to make a lot of really healthy choices, but life has been known to take detours. As we’ve heard, none of us gets out of here alive. But we can get out of here without having judged our fellow Vegans, and trust that when we’re the one faring poorly, there will be another vegan in our circle, supporting us no matter what.


Victoria Moran is a prolific author and the founder and director of Main Street Vegan Academy, training and certifying Vegan Lifestyle Coaches and Educators. She is also a cofounder of the Compassion Consortium, an online spiritual community for vegans and pre-vegans. Follow her on Instagram @VictoriaMoranAuthor.

29 thoughts on “The Taboo Topic: Sickness and Vegans, by Victoria Moran, CHHC, RYT-200”

  1. Breitman Patti

    Beautifully said, Victoria. And such an important message! Thanks for writing and sharing this.

    1. Thank you Patti. I know you have seen this for a long time and you and your colleagues read the wonderful book, Even Vegans Die.

  2. Such an important thing to think about! I remember reading about the Rev. Sylvester Graham (Graham Crackers) and how when he died (at 57 I think) everyone was aflutter about what he must have done wrong or how he must have cheated on the diet. It’s natural for us to try and fill in the gaps when we do not understand. But, for heavens sake, let’s do what you suggest and celebrate all the good things that come from not eating animals, for however long that may be.

    Peace,
    Russell

  3. Victoria, Thank you so much for this compassionate essay. This is such an important subject and your practice suggestions are perfect. As a long time vegan,i it took me a long time to admit that I am working through a very serious and scary medical diagnosis. Compassion, light, support has helped me. Judgement, and the idea that I somehow failed, has impeded my recovery. Let’s all be the light for each other. There is already too much negative surrounding us.

    1. Bless you, Rachel. I hate it that you felt this way. Please know that I support you and wish you healing and peace.

  4. This is wonderful, Victoria! You said the things that we most need to hear – as usual! You are the kindest, most generous, empathetic soul and we are lucky to be the beneficiaries of your wisdom.

    1. Aww, Natalie, you’re so kind. Thank for your lovely words. I hope your life is wonderful.

  5. Jamie McElhany

    What a beautiful way of letting people (vegans and non-vegans) know that we all deserve compassion in whatever our choices are.
    Thank you.
    Jamie

  6. Thank you for this. When I became vegan I did so with the promise to myself that I would stick with it even if it were not good for my health–not saying that is necessarily a wise choice–but was pleased to find it is a healthier way to go. However, I am sick of vegans who think it will cure or prevent everything. Some inherited conditions I believe are not as bad as they would have been were I not vegan. I have had other health problems, no way of knowing if they would have been better or worse with a different diet. I’m vegan for the animals + the environment not because it is some magical protection.

    1. Thanks for this beautiful comment and your beautiful, unselfish commitment to this way of life.

  7. Thank you for this. I have thyroid cancer. I’ve been vegetarian for 25+ years and vegan for 6 and have worried and wondered how this could happen.

    1. hello, Leslie… I am so very sorry to hear about your diagnosis. I only know that life on earth is complex and problematic and a great many things happen that have no logical cause. I wish you recovery, and peace, and smart, compassionate doctors. Know that I’m keeping you in my thoughts. All good things to you, Victoria

  8. Carianne Stone

    Thank you so much for this Victoria.

    This is beautifully said with your essence of unmatched compassion.

    I personally struggled with this for a long time. I would do anything in my power not to be “sick” or show “weakness” for fear of it being blamed on my vegan diet. I was afraid of letting the animals down…the potential vegans that may not be if I wasn’t radiant and at the top of my game at all times.

    I am happy to report that for the most part I have let this go but this resonated with me deeply.

    Thank you again for all that you do and all that you share!

    1. Thank you, Cariamne. I know we don’t want to let down the animals. And I think if we can just get it through our heads that as long as we live up to the highest light we have, whatever may come to us because we are humans on earth instead of angels in heaven, we can deal with.

      1. Carianne Stone

        I do get it now and could not agree more….

        I never felt that way when a fellow vegan was not on top of their game…

        Thank you again!

  9. Victoria,
    Your message is caring and insightful. Thank you for so eloquently describing being human in a complex world. Our eating habits raise the odds of health and longevity, but nothing is foolproof!

    1. Thanks for your beautifulcomment, Sally. I love your phrase: “raise the odds…” That’s exactly it. Be well.

  10. Victoria, this is so spot on. One of my best friends died from cancer of the tongue in the midst of Covid lockdown. She didn’t even let me know she was sick. It all started after a dental visit where she severely bit her tongue and it didn’t/wouldn’t heal. We would text a lot and then communication ceased. At the last she mentioned she was going through a health issue but I had no idea. She had been vegetarian for 20+years and vegan for 10 years. She had true celiac disease and was meticulous about what she ate. After she died, her husband called to let me know of her passing. I was crushed. It was such a blow out of the blue. In my mind, I was like how could this happen to her of all people. It really shook me to the core. It hurts me to think she may have kept it quiet so as not to be judged. It took a while for me to come to grips with it and realize that we really don’t know what we’ve been exposed to over the course of our life. All we can do is our best and leave the rest. We need to show more compassion for each other not judgement and criticism.

  11. All of you, starting with Victoria, said beautifully and with great sincerity, much of what i was thinking when reading this article. Full of Victoria’s never-ending compassion and understanding, the article is a necessary reminder of being aware of the tender hearts in each one of us, and our sensitivity to that tenderness in all of God’s creatures being a quality from which we can all benefit.

  12. This article touches me so deeply that tears trickle down my cheeks each time I read it, and I’ve read it several times. As a community based on compassion, we vegans are sometimes excessively judgmental and unkind to one another. Thank you SO much for this, Victoria.

  13. I agree completely! I also am bothered when a person who eats a “conventional” diet gets cancer or some other disease, and a vegan responds “it was caused by the meat or the dairy”. We do know that statistically when certain lifestyle interventions are made, a population of people will have certain results. But we cannot know with any certainty why any one individual gets sick, or stays well. Anyone with a human body will eventually at some point in their life have some illness or malady, and ultimately none of us live forever. The only appropriate and compassionate response when someone (vegan or otherwise) is ill, is “oh I’m so sorry to hear that! How can I help?” (and offer a specific way: do the dishes, walk the dog, pick up the kids from school, offer a ride). Thank you for bringing attention to this.

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