Book Review: Kathy Freston’s Veganist

I dutifully ordered a copy of Kathy Freston’s Veganist the moment I heard she was appearing on Oprah. I just finished it last night. Seems like this review should answer a couple of questions: is Freston’s book a must-read for you, and is it worth recommending to potential vegans?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, and have read books like Eating Animals, my own Meat Market, and Neal Barnard’s stuff I’d give Veganist a major pass. The book breaks no new ground, and there is nothing of consequence here I haven’t seen presented elsewhere.

But how is it for somebody contemplating a move towards a vegan diet? Pretty good and definitely worthwhile. In fact, it might be the most persuasive book of its kind. But I do have some reservations.

First, Freston should have done a much better job with her research. And Veganist should have been fact-checked by somebody who really knows the literature. Throughout the book, she makes claims that don’t stand up. Here are four:

  • “The fact is our bodies aren’t meant to ingest meat and dairy and eggs and fish.” What does “meant” mean, and how can she prove this? There’s no doubt that over homo sapiens’ history, the ability to eat animal products during times of food scarcity kept countless people from starvation.
  • “[Veganism] will all but guarantee you a longer life.” There’s no convincing evidence that vegans actually live longer than omnivores. It makes sense that they should, but the evidence just isn’t there.
  • “[A fast food hamburger] actually costs $200 to bring to your plate when all true resource costs are accounted for.” Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof. I’ve never seen anything to back this up.
  • “When you eat meat, it’s like you are taking food right out of the mouths of the poor. The grain that could have fed hungry people instead is shipped to factory farms to feed the [animals fattened for slaughter].” This argument dates all the way back to Diet for a Small Planet, and is as problematic now as it was then. Unless the grain that would have gone into your USA-produced burger could get magically teleported to famine-stricken Pakistan, there’s a key part of reality this analysis ignores.

So if you really know your vegan stuff, there’s material throughout Veganist that will grate on your nerves. But, for the most part, Freston stays in the ballpark in having her claims reflect reality. And where the book shines is its non-judgmental use of language, and Freston’s constant affirmations that you can begin moving in a vegan direction today, without making hard sacrifices.

The writing is clean but uninspired. It’s got none of the beauty or nuance of Eating Animals or Dominion. But towards the end, Freston offers up a couple wonderful sentences:

Would you rather have your energies contribute to a world of slaughter or one of harvest? It’s a decision we make every day.

If you read this blog, and your taste in books runs towards sophisticated literature, Veganist wasn’t written for you. This book is intended for mass-market America. Everything about this book is stupid simple and relentlessly inviting, which makes Veganist a useful first book for someone brand new to thinking about veganism. I wouldn’t rank Veganist as one of the five best vegan-oriented books ever written, but its impact in inspiring mass social change may well outweigh those five books combined. In other words, maybe wonks like me ought to shut the hell up, get out of the way, and let Freston do her thing.

There’s influential stuff within the vegan movement that I am unwilling to promote or distribute because it’s ineptly done. The “Eating” DVD is the latest example of a successful project I can’t bring myself to get behind. Happily, I think Veganist clears the quality bar in terms of being something I can promote and still be able to sleep at night. It’s far from perfect but it might be the most persuasive single book for a mainstream reader, unfamiliar with veganism, to read.

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