Jack Norris and Matt Ball started Vegan Outreach in 1993 to fill a void they saw in animal activism at that time. With the help of volunteers, they now distribute over 1 million pamphlets about the practices of modern animal agribusiness to college students every year. 

Devoting a good chunk of his life to animal activism put Norris in touch with former vegans and vegetarians who had gone back to animal products for health reasons. To figure out why this was and what he could do about it, Norris became a registered dietitian and founded VeganHealth.org. And through his blog JackNorrisRD.com, Norris dispels vegan nutritional myths (like that vegans don’t need to worry much about B12 or calcium) and comments on new studies that are relevant to vegans and vegetarians. 

I hadn’t heard of Norris when I quit veganism at the end of 2007. If I had, maybe I would have hit him up for some brain fog dissipating tips before self-medicating with salmon, flounder and Thanksgiving turkey, enjoying the results and abandoning veganism forever.

Might I still be vegan if Norris had intervened in time? If his reputation is to be believed, it’s not impossible. I’ve heard from multiple vegans who say that following Norris’ Daily Recommendations for Vegan Adults is the surest way to avoid failure to thrive on a vegan diet. There are plenty of ex-vegans who couldn’t hack it on raw, macrobiotic or low-fat vegan diets, but I have yet to interview an ex-vegan who said “I followed all of Jack Norris’ recommendations and still couldn’t get it to work.” 

That — along with Vegan Outreach’s willingness to critique counterproductive aspects of the vegan movement, rethink and improve its own strategy and treat meat eaters as potential allies — makes Jack Norris one of the most formidable individuals promoting veganism today. 

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This quote from a speech Matt Ball gave a while back seems like a succinct description of how Vegan Outreach approaches animal advocacy:

“Ultimately, the bottom line is: Reduce Suffering. Everything has to answer to this. I can’t emphasize this enough: the only thing that matters is to reduce suffering. If you accept this as the What, the next question is, How? At this time, in this country, we choose to promote veganism. However, veganism is not an end in and of itself. We don’t promote veganism because ‘veganism is good.’ Veganism is merely a tool to reduce suffering.”

If Vegan Outreach is concerned with “what reduces suffering” rather than veganism for the sake of it, shouldn’t VO be open to exploring non-vegan approaches to suffering reduction? Eating bivalves, locavore hunting, hunting invasive species, eating eggs from free-range rescued hens and eating insects are all non-vegan ways to reduce suffering. Does consumer veganism, even with its reliance on agriculture, always lead to less suffering than non-vegan alternatives? If not, why doesn’t VO explore these other possibilities?

We want a way to reduce suffering that is sustainable. I have no problem with people eating eggs from rescued hens, but that’s not a realistic model to promote for most people. I don’t think bivalves are conscious of suffering, but there would be environmental concerns with promoting bivalve-based diets for everyone. If someone has a hard time being vegan and eating bivalves does the trick for them, I would have no qualms.

I just blogged about some researchers who think insects might be able to feel pain. I doubt that most species of insects can suffer and if it came between someone eating chickens or insects, my vote would definitely be for them to eat the insects.

It’s hard for me to see how hunting mammals or birds can result in less suffering than eating vegan. I tend to think that for many species, like those who live in packs or who are monogamous, you cause indirect suffering to the animals who are left behind – possibly even more than to the animals you kill.

As society evolves toward being more concerned about the suffering of animals, plant farming will be done in a way that harms as few animals as possible.

I’ve talked to many ex-vegans or non-vegan conscientious eaters who are concerned with reducing animal suffering, but distinguish animal suffering from animal death. They hunt deer, for instance, and even though they are out to kill the deer for food, they try to cause as little pain to the deer as possible. To most vegans, this seems like a contradiction. (How could you care about an animal enough to not want it to suffer, but be okay with ending its life?) From your point of view, is killing an animal only bad in the sense that the process of death is painful? Or is animal death objectionable independent of any suffering?

Animals’ lives matter to themselves and they matter to me. If someone felt that the only way they could possibly live is to kill animals, then I can understand them doing that. But if you must eat animal products in order to be healthy, why must you kill deer? Why not try eating dairy or eggs from companion chickens or cows?

If someone cares about the suffering of the animals they hunt, they could hunt in more humane ways than shooting with bullets (or arrows) — perhaps a dart that isn’t very painful and makes the animal unconscious so they could be killed in a painless way. It’s not something I’ve investigated because it’s not realistic to promote for everyone; it would be easier for society to be vegan.

In vitro meat might be another avenue that will become sustainable for all of society.

Some vegans say that human intent is more important than results. For instance, it’s worse to shoot a deer and kill it quickly than for a deer to die of starvation or get hit by a car, because in those latter scenarios humans are not guilty of willful killing. Does intent matter if the goal is suffering reduction?

My understanding is that fish and wildlife departments manipulate the environment to cause deer overpopulation so that hunters will have more of a political justification for killing them. That said, what happens to the deer matters to me more than the intent in any person’s mind. If we really have to kill deer for their own good, then they should be euthanized, not shot with bullets.

Vegan Outreach calls vegan foods “cruelty-free,” but all foods involve some animal suffering. Why is it not cruel to kill animals to produce crops (displacing them from their habitat, shooting and poisoning them to protect the crops, grinding them in the thresher) but is cruel to kill animals to eat them as food?

I will refer to the argument that vegans kill more animals than they prevent from suffering as the “collateral damage argument.”

The collateral damage argument only applies to eating grass fed animal products, with grass-fed beef being the food normally discussed. If an animal is fed grains, then people who eat the animal foods are inadvertently causing more plants to be raised than are vegans. So by going vegan, you will increase the amount of habitat available for wild animals.

The collateral damage argument gained some momentum around 2000. At the time, a woman from Garden City, MI posted a survey she did of 40 crop farmers throughout the country to the Vegan Outreach message boards (which no longer exist). The overwhelming response to her survey was that vertebrate animals are rarely killed while harvesting crops.

In 2003, Oregon State University professor of animal science Stephen Davis published the paper “The Least Harm Principle May Require That Humans Consume a Diet Containing Large Herbivores, Not a Vegan Diet,” (Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 16, no. 4 (2003): 387–94). He argued that someone who eats grass fed beef kills fewer animals than someone eating a vegan diet. There have been two academic responses to Davis’ paper.

Gaverick Matheny (Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 16: 505–511, 2003) argues that “Davis makes a mathematical error in using total rather than per capita estimates of animals killed; second, he focuses on the number of animals killed in production and ignores the welfare of these animals; and third, he does not count the number of animals who may be prevented from existing. When we correct these errors, Davis’s argument makes a strong case for, rather than against, adopting a vegetarian diet: vegetarianism kills fewer animals, involves better treatment of animals, and likely allows a greater number of animals with lives worth living to exist.”

Andy Lamey (Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 38 No. 2, Summer 2007, 331–348) argues that the numbers Davis uses to estimate the animals killed in growing crops has some flaws (one being that he uses numbers from alfalfa farming and vegans do not eat alfalfa). Lamey sums up his findings by saying, “After reading the same studies as Davis, my own conclusion is that the science of estimating field animal deaths is still in its infancy, and is not a good basis on which to make large-scale recommendations. Davis himself concludes that more research is needed in this area. But we do not know enough to make even the rough calculations that Davis offers.”

If we were to have a society that largely cared about animals, there are probably ways to prevent a great deal of the animal deaths caused by plant harvesting. The vegan movement is striving for a day when society values the lives of animals and being vegan is a good step towards achieving that goal and lessening the most animal suffering over the long term.

Just by being alive we cause animal suffering. Could the logic of minimizing animal suffering ultimately lead to a case for suicide?

It would be hard for me to fault anyone who absolutely must kill to stay alive – whether they have to kill animals or even humans. But you are talking about accidental deaths and whereas I have said that the consequences matter more than the intent, I do not think it is fair to hold animal advocates to a higher standard than you would hold human rights advocates.

For example, whenever we drive our cars, we take a chance of killing other humans. Yet, very few people do not drive because of this possibility. And yet, most of these people do believe humans have rights. Most human rights advocates pay taxes and some of those taxes go to violating other humans’ rights, such as collateral damage in war. Is this an argument for human rights advocates to commit suicide? I don’t think so.

Some utilitarians get around this problem by saying that by being alive and working to prevent suffering, they are preventing more suffering than they are causing, so they are a net gain to the world.

Is that part of your own reasoning for being an activist for the animals?

Not really. If I were to cease being an activist for animals, I would not feel the need to kill myself in order to avoid causing any accidental animal (or human) deaths.

Vegan Outreach passes out pamphlets to college students, hoping to open their eyes and help them change to a more moral way of living. How is this different than the booklets college students get from Christians about how they need to see the light and change their ways?

That’s an interesting way to put it. I think a more accurate analogy would be to compare us to students who pass out literature to try to get other students to boycott the products of sweat shop labor or human slavery.

The pamphlets talk about “saving animals” through veganism, which sounds like living animals are being freed, but since animal farmers don’t release their animals if they overshoot demand, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say veganism is “saving non-existent animals from being born”?

Yes, it is more accurate to say that we are “saving non-existent animals from being born.” We are not trying to mislead people, just trying to make our sentences easy to read.

Since humane improvements in animal farming affect animals that are here, whereas veganism works in defense of animals that are not yet conceived, might the fight for humane farming be as important as veganism?

If everyone who donated to helping animals were willing to donate to spreading veganism, there might be an argument for spending it all on spreading veganism. But since many people will not donate to such a radical (in their view) proposition, there is a lot of money that can be spent making farms more humane. At any given time, there are only a small percentage of people who are amenable to going vegan. Once we have saturated those people with our message, additional funds would probably be more effective at making farms more humane. Currently, there are more funds available for making farms more humane, or putting rescued animals in sanctuaries, than for spreading veganism.

Suffering reduction is one way to improve the world, but increasing pleasure might be another way. Does the pleasure humans get from animal products, and the sacrifices vegans make to be vegan, figure into the calculation of suffering? If so, could that make a lifestyle that includes humanely raised animal products (smaller sacrifice for a reduction in animal suffering) more appealing than veganism, which requires a larger sacrifice for its reduction in suffering?

One thing missing from this calculation is the emotional suffering caused to humans who care about the animals being killed. I suffer knowing that right now there are warehouses with tens of thousands of chickens scrambling frantically to escape from wire cages that are digging into their bodies, or pigs who have not been allowed to turn around or walk in months. For some people, living with such knowledge is terribly painful and I suspect some of the animal activists who have committed suicide have done so at least partly because they could no longer bear thinking about these things.

I know you have written about what an inconvenience being vegan is to people (both to the person who is vegan and to their friends and family), but I haven’t found being vegan to be such an inconvenience. It seems like the very least I can do.

While suffering matters more to me than rights, I do view many species of animals as having rights. Most people agree that humans have a right to life, and the species of an individual should not matter in this regard, only that individual’s characteristics. So if we had the ability to breed humans to have awareness similar to pigs and raise them and kill them humanely, but we do not do so because we think it would violate their rights, then we should not be breeding and killing pigs.

People seem to think that there is some magical difference between the human species and all other species. But why not draw the line between genus, family, class, etc.? I realize the practical reasons – because most groups of humans have had the ability to stand up for their rights, whereas other species have not been able to do this. But being able to exert political pressure to force others to recognize one’s rights should not be required for them to be recognized.

One of the sacrifices I see in veganism is the alienation of living in a world that you perceive as 99 percent murderer. This seems to be what leads to the stereotype of the misanthropic vegan. Is it possible to believe that meat is one of the world’s great wrongs, responsible for so much suffering and (some vegans say) tantamount to slavery and murder, yet think that meat-eating friends and family members are not bad people?

I can remember that I wasn’t always vegan and that these issues are not as black and white to many people as they are to me. Plus, it does no good to be angry towards them. I cannot say that it doesn’t bother me that they do not want to take a stand, but I take solace in the idea that things are changing for the better.

You became a dietitian after hearing from many people who quit veganism for health reasons. Have you been successful at helping vegans stay healthy and thus stay vegan?

I’ve helped a number of people suffering from either a B12 or vitamin D deficiency, as well as making the vegan community aware of the need for reliable sources, which has probably prevented many vegans from getting a deficiency.

I have also pushed for vegans to get more calcium. There are many vegan nutritionists who say things that lead to vegans being complacent about calcium, so this is an ongoing effort.

Some vegans like to think they can get the B12 they need from tempeh, spirulina or dirty vegetables. Even some vegan leaders downplay the need for B12. Why do so many vegans want to think they don’t need to supplement?

Because they want to think that the vegan diet is natural. Many vegans believe that a vegan diet is the most natural and, therefore, the healthiest, and so everyone should stop harming animals and live an Eden-like existence. I understand the appeal of this, but the evidence that humans evolved as vegans is simply not there, not to mention the important fact that what is “natural” is not necessarily what is the healthiest.

But this cuts both ways. The vegans who want to base their nutrition on a return to Eden are no sillier, in my opinion, than the paleo dieters who want to return to hunter-gatherer times.

There are people who are too lazy about nutrition to supplement regularly or eat with necessary nutrients in mind. Are these people better off as omnivores?

If these people happen to consume vitamin B12 and calcium-fortified soymilk each day, they probably will fare about the same as most omnivores. If they don’t, then it’s hard to say because someone who pays little attention to nutrition as a vegan probably will do the same as an omnivore, increasing their risk for chronic disease.

If a vegan gets no dietary B12 at all, then it is just a matter of time before they run into acute health problems and so they will be worse off at some point until they correct that problem.

You’re a critic of “the health argument” for veganism, which says that veganism is the healthiest possible diet. What is wrong with that argument?

As an animal protection group, we focus on ethical arguments regarding animals and reducing their suffering, and we try not to make promises to people about any improvements a vegan diet might have for their health. Unfortunately, nutrition and health do become tangential to our promotion of animal protection because we are asking people to change their diets and so we try to make sure that we give sound nutrition advice.

There is evidence that for most people, a vegan diet is healthy in the short term. Cross-sectional studies of vegans show them to have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and also show them to be less likely to have hypertension, obesity and type-2 diabetes.

We do not have much long-term data yet, but a group of researchers who has studied vegans has said that there is no reason to think vegans have higher rates of mortality than other groups. The number of kids raised vegan from birth and who seem to be thriving is an indication that a vegan diet can provide all the necessary nutrition (assuming it’s supplemented with vitamin B12).

Since we do not yet know the disease rates of vegans over time, it is impossible to know if the average vegan diet is healthier than the average meat-eating or lacto-ovo diet. Two prospective studies containing the most vegans of any studies to date are under way and in the next decade we will start getting disease rates.

Some people with heart disease have been able to reduce the level of blockage in their arteries and live longer by using a very low-fat (15% or less of calories), vegan or near vegan diet. But, Vegan Outreach is not a heart disease prevention group so we refrain from promoting eating programs for people with heart disease.

The American Dietetic Association says that “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”

How can they know this if there hasn’t been enough research on the long term effects of veganism? Do they mean that veganism might be appropriate for each life cycle separately, but not necessarily all together?

The authors of the position paper base their statements on two lines of reasoning. The first is by looking at studies of different groups of vegetarians or vegans at different stages in the life cycle and finding them to be healthy. The second is by examining the known nutrient needs of people during different stages of the life cycle and determining if a vegetarian or vegan diet theoretically meets those needs.

There have been long term studies done on “vegetarians” most of whom have been lacto or lacto-ovo vegetarian, but which included some vegans. In a meta-analysis of those studies published in 1999, the vegans’ mortality was exactly the same as the regular meat-eaters at 1.00. Due to there being so few vegans in the study, I consider the data to be preliminary. I would guess that very few if any of those vegans had been vegan their entire lives. It will be a long time before there are enough vegans from birth into adulthood to be able to measure chronic disease rates of people who are vegan from birth.

If the new prospective studies show that long-term vegan disease rates are higher than on other diets, how would that affect your outlook and your promotion of veganism?

That would be a problem.

One study has shown vegans to have higher bone fracture rates. Luckily, the vegans in the study getting more than 525 mg of calcium had the same rates as those in the other diet groups indicating that if vegans get more calcium, they should be no worse off. Some vegans dismissed these results, but I responded by telling vegans to get more calcium.

That was an easy solution, but other diseases might not be. In the meantime, I am hoping for a positive outcome. Most of the disease markers (cholesterol levels, type-2 diabetes rates, etc.) from cross-sectional studies on vegans give us reason to be optimistic.

It used to be that health-conscious vegans would choose between macrobiotic, raw foodism or low-fat veganism. But you don’t recommend any of those approaches. How would you describe the diet you recommend?

I’m more pro-protein and pro-fat than most traditional vegan nutritionists. Vegans should make sure they get enough of both – and try to get a balance with each meal.

Vegans should make an effort to eat some form of legumes (including soy foods, beans, peanuts, lentils, and peas) at most meals for protein. If you cannot eat legumes, there are other sources of protein, but you need to be more diligent.

Studies on vegans show them to get an average of just under 30% of their calories as fat and I think that’s about right, especially if the fat is mostly mono-unsaturated like nuts, avocados, olive oil, and canola oil. People with heart disease might benefit from less fat than the average vegan.

Many vegans assume that if someone fails to thrive as a vegan it is because they eat too much junk food rather than whole foods. I have not really found that to be the case – the people I talk to who fail do not seem to eat more junk food than the vegans I observe who do not fail. But, this is just anecdotal evidence, no study has looked at this phenomena. Some of the processed foods, especially soy and wheat meats, are very high in protein, which might provide a benefit to some vegans.

How much whole foods you should eat depends on your activity level and risk for diabetes or heart disease. The more active you are, the more processed foods you can eat — you might even need processed foods to get enough calories and protein. But if you are less active or you are at risk for those diseases, less processed food is a good idea.

I also think most vegans do not get enough calcium without using fortified foods or supplements.

Ex-vegans who quit for health reasons are often told by current vegans that they did it wrong. Some of these vegans also say that if they had followed your recommendations, the now ex-vegans could have avoided failure to thrive. You have said that you make no such guarantees, but is there truth to the claim that people who give up veganism for health reasons must have done something wrong? Or is there reason to believe that not everyone can thrive on a vegan diet?

While rare, I have come across people who have tried everything I can think of and the diet doesn’t seem to work for them. Other people quit before exhausting the possibilities. Because I have advertized that I try to help vegans who are having a hard time, I probably hear from a lot more of them than just about anyone. And while this body of experience does make me laugh to hear what some other vegans say regarding health and the vegan diet, the number of people who are both ethically opposed to eating animals and who exhaust all the legitimate possibilities and still cannot make the diet work is a pretty small percentage.

But for the people who do think animal products have helped them regain their health after not thriving on a vegan diet, I would like to point out that animal products do not contain magic. If there is something in animal products that makes some people healthier, it comes down to molecules in food, not some sort of life force they get from the animal. My hope is that in vitro meat will one day solve these problems.

What are the most common problems vegans approach you with before exhausting all vegan nutritional possibilities? Do they usually require the same basic solutions, or have there been some unusual cases?

I have only dealt with a few people who have tried all the usual suspects.

If someone is not thriving even on vitamin B12, vitamin D, and with normal iron levels and a decent protein, fat, DHA, and zinc intake, then I suggest carnitine which has significantly helped one person. Saturated fat can help boost cholesterol and steroid hormone levels if they are low and can improve sex drive – I know of one person who went this route and got his sex drive back. Creatine, choline, taurine, and beta-alanine are other possible supplements that theoretically could help (though I don’t know of any cases where they actually have).

The most common way I’ve helped people has been with vitamin D deficiency. Three people I knew were having some combination of bone pain and fatigue and vitamin D supplements cured them.

A common complaint I hear is that someone is having too much gas. Digestive enzymes and eating more processed sources of protein (like soy meats or tofu rather than whole beans) are two things to try.

Before I quit veganism, I was suffering from chronic fatigue, depression and brain fog. I started eating a little fish and then turkey and I felt a lot better. But if I had emailed you for advice before doing that, what would you have told me? I assume you would have said to get a blood test. (Something I never did.) But just based on the symptoms, would you have had a theory what the problem was?

I would have first found out if you were taking a reliable source of vitamin B12 as those symptoms sound like fairly classic B12 deficiency. If B12 deficiency were ruled out, I would have suggested DHA. Blood tests can help, but they wouldn’t be necessary before trying out B12 and DHA. Vitamin D and iron would be next on the list — blood tests would be more helpful for those.

Is there anything you want to add?

The reason I decided to do this interview is that I suspect that you are saying publicly what a lot of people are thinking about veganism. It would be easy for us in the vegan movement to pretend that people with your view should be dismissed as unreachable, but I think it’s a conversation our culture is going to have to have.

I just read your post about vegan weddings and it got me thinking about the difference between how you see the world and how most ethical vegans see it. While some animal liberation advocates approach the subject from a purely rational point of view, my sense is that most vegans come to view animals the way they do because they have had a meaningful relationship with one or more. These relationships led to viewing animals as very similar to humans, with many of the same emotions and having an inner life. To us, animals are “persons.”

In your post on weddings, you say the following about comparing killing animals to human slavery, “Of course it’s an outrageous comparison, but that’s how many ethical vegans see it (your eyes can open to some truly offensive comparisons once you accept anti-speciesist logic).” I have never seen someone explain how these comparisons are so offensive; they simply state that they are and then rely on other humans -who have a clear self-interest in seeing the world that way - to agree.

History has been riddled with one group exploiting another group and justifying it by convincing themselves that the exploited group is inferior. The exploiters have failed to recognize these claims of inferiority for what they were at the time – self-interested rationalizations. So how likely is it that we have finally reached the pinnacle of moral evolution and are now able to set aside our own self-interests to accurately recognize which other groups are inferior?

Even if human slavery is much worse than animal slavery, there is still room to believe that animals are more than just pieces of meat to be enjoyed at a wedding. I hope most people would not consider their dog to be only a piece of meat to be eaten at a wedding reception.

Another difference is that you think veganism is only about symbolism and doesn’t actually do any good. If you believe that, then I can see why your attitude is critical towards vegans who are causing such a fuss over something you think is merely symbolic.

The idea behind ethical veganism is not only to remove one’s self from support of animal cruelty, but to be part of a growing movement that will one day become the norm. If someone doesn’t actually become vegan themselves (or close to it), they cannot be part of such a movement. You have said that you believe it’s inevitable that any given vegan will one day reject veganism. While some people try veganism for a while and then stop, I know many people who have been vegan for decades and show no indication of changing. Our numbers and impact are growing.