Does the “Health Argument” Hurt Animals?

Why Matt Ball thinks vegans should talk about animals rather than health.
Last Updated: November 4, 2014

Countless vegans made their change of diet for health reasons, so it’s common sense that any serious animal advocate should be discussing the health advantages of going vegan at every opportunity. In fact, even if you’re personally most interested in animal protection, maybe the health argument deserves priority when speaking about veganism. After all, nearly everybody cares about their health but not everybody cares about animals.

In a new essay, veteran animal advocate Matt Ball explains that “the health argument” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Not only does Ball view it as counterproductive, he believes that it directly leads to the deaths of huge numbers of chickens and fish.

At issue is the fact that while chicken and fish are probably more healthful choices than beef and pork, they demand upwards of ten times more killing per pound of flesh. So while the health argument does inevitably convince some listeners to go vegan, it also encourages many others to eat more chicken and fish. Ball provides strong evidence in his essay that, while the health argument undoubtedly gets some people to go vegan, its net effect is to push up the total number of animals sent to slaughter. He writes:

History shows that eating fewer large animals and more small animals for health reasons isn’t a made-up, worst-case scenario. It has been the driving force for the suffering and slaughter of billions and billions of birds. Just look at any graph of animals killed in the U.S.: as the consumption of mammals declined, the slaughter of chickens skyrocketed over the decades!

chicken consumption vs red meat
Source: Earth Policy Institute. Credit: Angela Wong / NPR

Some thoroughly indoctrinated vegans might protest that chicken and fish are every bit as unhealthful as beef and pork. But that’s a losing argument. Chicken and fish are much lower in total fat, especially saturated fat, and they lack red meat’s strong association with bowel cancer. And the Omega 3s in fish are a desirable nutrient that vegans need to go out of their way to find from plant sources (although, to be clear, vegan Omega 3s and DHA are cheap and easy to obtain.)

It’s possible that Ball is incorrect in concluding that the health argument is counterproductive, since it would be exceedingly difficult to get reliable data supporting or contradicting his assertions. That said, his warnings certainly make a great deal of sense, and therefore deserve careful consideration from every activist who is focused on doing more good than harm.