The “Beyond Veg” website I started in the early days of the web established its position then by drawing a few different lines in the sand that provoked controversy. First, by publishing the earliest widely referenced debunkings of vegetarianism’s claim (at that time) of being the original human diet. This we accomplished by also being the first online to translate and present in plain English the findings of peer-reviewed science on paleoanthropology and human evolution as they pertained to diet.
My motivation was not debunking for debunking’s sake, but because I myself had been misled into believing the above claim. And, following advice based on it had delayed my recovery from health problems by a few years. Perhaps I might help others avoid the troubles I had undergone and not also lose months or years to inferior health — time they could not get back.
I also wanted to set the scientific record straight. While many if not most in the vegetarian movement probably did not base their adherence to the diet primarily on the belief that humans’ biological dietary adaptation was originally vegetarian and presumably supported by evolution (or the Bible, some believed), still, it was part of the “canon,” more or less. At the least, vegetarianism’s status as more whole and “natural” than the indiscriminate standard American mixed diet was usually a selling point. And it was true it was more natural in terms of its inclusion of a large proportion of whole plant foods — if one also ignored its omission of meat. So Beyond Veg’s debunking of that omission as unnatural and less whole did not sit well, at all.
Planting seeds of change
Before exploring why I went to the sidelines of the internet for 15 years after moving on from Beyond Veg, which will be covered in Part 2, I’d first like to give the bigger picture here in Part 1. What kind of response did we get, and how did that compare with the original motivations for the site mentioned above? What role did the website end up playing in its sphere of the much smaller internet in those days, at least in my view? In retrospect, what did I get out of it?
Lightning rod for the vegan/vegetarian movement
To get a better handle on the reaction the website got, it can be useful to view the vegetarian world as composed of two broad camps. In one are nutritional vegetarians, a smaller segment. Among others, this camp includes both registered dietitians of vegetarian or vegan persuasion focused on clinical studies, as well as a more radical element such as vegan raw-foodists, plus less-radical vegans who include cooked food (whom we termed conventional vegans). But as a whole this camp is strongly motivated by what is believed to be the diet’s nutritional superiority. Some of these folks hew to “dietary naturalism,” whether evolutionarily based or not, as their primary basis for belief, while for others it’s clinical science that’s of most interest.
In a second, larger, camp are ethical vegetarians, advocates with a broader agenda, less nutritionally focused and more concerned about vegetarianism’s ethical basis and lessening the exploitation of animals as reasons to support the diet.
Different camps, different reactions. Obviously these two groups overlap. But regardless of which set of motivations mattered as a vegetarian, having had a supporting leg kicked out from underneath that had been available to help reassure prospects about the naturalness, wholeness, and/or nutritional adequacy of the diet — as Beyond Veg did — was not at all welcome. Raw-foodists felt it was a direct attack on a core premise of the diet. Dietitians and conventional vegans for whom clinical studies are the gold standard felt it was misdirected and did not prove anything, nutritionally. Ethical vegetarians felt it sidestepped and diverted precious attention from the dilemma of cruelty to animals.
Redefining the debate. Beyond Veg became a lightning rod for the vegetarian community for the reason that it began to redefine the terms of debate. And the response brought varying reactions to the surface among vegetarians that led to dissension. Also, with the internet being the echo-amplification-chamber that it is, and with others joining in to (almost literally) flesh out the debate as more new information kept bubbling up, the situation was gradually pushed beyond the vegetarian movement’s control or ability to stem the tide of information being generated by evolutionary research.
Putting the spotlight on failure-to-thrive
This was not all, however. As a second line in the sand, the website was also shining a spotlight on the failure-to-thrive issue (substandard, even poor health) among a significant number of vegetarians, particularly strict long-term vegans. This common problem had received little if any public attention until then, or even much self-acknowledgment by vegans themselves.
Hidden dynamics. Since this is key to understanding some of the dynamics of the movement, and because the reaction we received gives an idea of what Beyond Veg faced, I want to pause for a few moments and go into this a little further. It paints a good picture of why I started the site, and illustrates the type of hidden issues that fascinate me. Ones that I feel drawn to uncover, but also that, once sufficiently outlined and understood, begin to lose their pull for me once that happens.
I mention this here because I have found in my own life that after I understand something thoroughly enough, there is then a natural desire, after incorporating it into an expanded or revised mental framework, to begin turning my attention elsewhere and to move on. Perhaps this is a natural tendency for other people as well, perhaps not, but I’m highlighting it here as one of the factors that played a role in eventually moving on from Beyond Veg after a certain point.
Shooting the messenger
Ostracism of failures and perceptual blindness. Beyond Veg’s role in pointing out the failure-to-thrive issue, though, was one of the biggest reasons it was disliked so much, similar to “shooting the messenger” rather than taking the time to seriously consider what is said. Vegetarians in general loathed the website for what we were saying, but failed to realize that there was a very high turnover rate within their ranks due to the failure-to-thrive phenomenon — rather than just lack of commitment or effort. This was because the movement’s ostracism of dissenters and of those who failed at vegetarianism long-term, especially its highest ideal of veganism, suppressed awareness of the issue. Or if they were aware of it, the problem was explained away through “blame the victim” tactics. This left a void that Beyond Veg stepped up to fill.
The failure-to-thrive phenomenon and vegetarianism’s blindness to it was, and remains to this day, the movement’s most serious shortcoming, in my opinion — a continual drain on its very lifeblood no matter how many new (but after a time, temporary) adherents might adopt the diet. It is the fatal flaw to its argument for “saving the planet,” because most people prove unable to sustain the diet in optimal health long-term.
Overpopulation’s role compared to diet. As an aside, I want to emphasize here that I very much sympathize with such vegetarian concerns as ecological destruction and the wholesale abuse of animals. Even if vegetarianism could support most people in good health, though, I don’t believe it is really an answer.
Rather, in a nutshell, I think the fundamental root of the problem is severe human overpopulation that dwarfs, by perhaps an order of magnitude, the impact any particular human diet could have in making a serious dent in habitat destruction. There is also the general rule in nature that populations expand to whatever level the food base will allow. So in my view, more food for humans is more likely to exacerbate the extreme ecological destruction our species is already causing than to help — all other things being equal, i.e., same Western lifestyles as before.
High turnover rate (stock vs. flow). But to continue, the failure-to-thrive conundrum among vegetarians also exemplified the perceptual problems that can stem from what is called a “stock vs. flow” issue where, for example, surveys might show there is such-and-such a percentage of vegetarians in the population (which would be the “stock”). Yet if there is an 80% turnover rate (the “flow”), say — for the sake of discussion — that goes unacknowledged, the picture looks much rosier than it is. Especially from the inside, when you curtly, unfeelingly, or emotionally judge such people to be lacking in integrity, commitment, or effort, or to be sour-grapes malcontents just trying to give the movement a bad name.
Follow-up edit: A 2014 study finds that the all-cause relapse rate among vegetarians and vegans combined is 84%, with over 50% of the study population reverting to eating meat within one year. (Comment: the rate among vegans alone with their much stricter diet than vegetarians, the latter of whom include dairy and eggs in their diet, could therefore be expected to be even higher.)
Related causes of blindness about the issue. Even the movement’s highest-profile and most-credentialed advocates (some of whom are R.D.s and M.D.s., for example) — perhaps especially these individuals — seem unable to unacknowledge how widespread the failure-to-thrive issue is. To me it appears there are a few different reasons for this:
- First, there is the self-selection bias that results from dealing mostly with people who are currently in the true-believer stage or who are the long-term successful — i.e., those left after the failures leave the movement — which thereby gives a skewed perception of actual success rates.
- Second, there is the habit of viewing the failures one does come in contact with through the confirmation bias that such people simply aren’t following the details of the diet perfectly. (This by itself, though, at the least, points up the thin margins for error with restricted diets.)
- Third, most failures quietly go away either out of loss of face, or because they don’t want to face the ostracism from speaking out about having had to give up, which is fierce. (Take a look at the comments in any vegetarian or vegan forum where the topic of failure-to-thrive is brought up.)
- And a fourth lack-of-feedback issue that advocates often don’t seem very aware of (even less so than of failures), which we discovered behind the scenes with Beyond Veg, is that there is significant once-in-a-while “cheating” that goes on with these diets for an indeterminate but not insignificant proportion of adherents. (The actual number is anyone’s guess because it is kept mostly on the QT and therefore doesn’t show up in surveys well.) In other words, the individual temporarily goes off the wagon every now and then and eats dairy, eggs, chicken, fish, or red meat due to cravings they can’t control. So some of the people who are seen to “succeed” are actually getting extra, unacknowledged nutrition since they aren’t adhering to the diet strictly.
The unheard ex-vegetarian majority: our real target. In any event, it was exactly the “unheard,” high-turnover stream of people who had run aground on the diet long-term who were ready to hear what Beyond Veg had to say. These individuals were our real target, and the audience who helped pass the word along once they had experienced a rude awakening of their own.
These and plenty of others began to add their voices to Beyond Veg’s on this score. As a result, over time the mounting scrutiny from the internet at large began to put the veg movement on the defensive and under pressure to reassess its nutritional claims. This was how the internet was changing things early in its existence.
Paleo diet outpost
As a third line in the sand (of sorts), because the paleoanthropological information we had uncovered about early human diet was scattered in disjointed fashion in separate silos all over the scientific literature, I thought it would be worthwhile to pull everything together into a coherent timeline of human dietary evolution. From 65 million years ago prior to the advent of the human genus, continuing all the way to the present, this detailed timeline put into clear perspective the various evolutionary events and dietary developments in the primate and human lines as supported by paleoanthropological and evolutionary evidence.
This also had not been done before, and became a touchstone for the paleo diet community to point others to as a reference. For the vegetarian community, however, it was a line in the sand that put into relief claims that did not square up with the actual evidence.
Moving on from Beyond Veg
The reason I have painted the above picture at some length is to give a sense of how I experienced events to contrast with the question: why would I leave if things were going so well? Now, it could be reasonably argued that I am biased in recounting the above narrative, overstating the role Beyond Veg played, and all of the above is just my own interpretation of events. Perhaps so, and fair enough. (Recall, though, that the internet was a much smaller place in those days, so a single site could have more of an effect on things than now.)
But whatever the case, given my own perceptions, with the site going strong at the above juncture and well situated to take advantage of the flow and expand further, or for me to use it as a springboard into something new and different, I instead ended up turning things over to my partner in the site and dropping off the internet as an active contributor, for 15 years. Why would someone do that?
On the sidelines vs. dropping out. To begin with, I should clarify here that “dropping off the internet as a contributor” doesn’t mean I didn’t use it in more mundane ways, such as for personal and business email, exchanging photos and files, forwarding jokes to friends and receiving them in kind, reading articles, researching and gathering information, getting software support, and so forth. A more matter-of-fact characterization would be that I went into long-term “lurker” mode, while continuing to read and explore topics widely online. And I have run an online business most of this time as well.
But as far as personal participation or writing on the internet, I have avoided public online postings for 15 years until now. However, for someone who previously was among the most prolific contributors to online forums and who ran a controversial website known for its thoroughgoing articles and debunkings supported by voluminous research, this is about as close to cold turkey as it gets.
So… why? The reasons actually go back well before that time.
A brief aside as perspective for those interested in exploring Beyond Veg
Before getting into the backstory here, I want to note that I won’t be reviewing the topics or articles that Beyond Veg became known for, other than what I’ve already provided. For those with further interest, take a look at one of the cornerstone articles I contributed for the site that was widely referenced in the paleo diet community at the time (Part 1 includes the human dietary timeline mentioned above), or see my other articles.
Also check out the articles of my partner in the site, Tom Billings, who contributed more than I did to the site’s offerings. As a vegetarian himself, he took far more heat from the vegetarian community for his more direct criticisms of the movement, motivated by his insistence on more honesty among advocates.
I should also mention here that the site has been on indefinite hold for some years now, with Tom being otherwise involved. It has also not seen a redesign since its opening in 1997 when many do-it-yourself websites like I created with Beyond Veg were very unvarnished. The site looks now much as it did then. For us, the research, writing, and ideas were the important thing. And while my interests have moved on to other things further afield since then, looking back I would say that other than some obvious research updates that could be made, the material still holds up well today for the most part.
Early participation online
I first became active on the internet in 1989 a number of years before most people had ever heard of it — before the World-Wide Web even existed — in “email list” discussion forums. Along with Usenet newsgroups, plus bulletin board systems (BBSes) for computer geeks, those were the only games in town, other than “walled garden” forums on sites like CompuServe or America Online.
Email forum participation prior to the web. My first foray was to join The WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link), which had very active email forums on a wide gamut of topics, and where I cut my teeth with online discussion. These were good-natured forums for the most part, and tended to uphold a standard for civil debate. Later, in the early 1990s, I took part in the t-and-f (track and field) email listgroup which followed elite track and field. Here, although there were eventual moderators, discussions could get more intense, and vigorous debates arose from time to time where I learned the ropes of handling things that became a little more emotional.
Vegetarian email forums. By the mid-1990s the web had gotten going in earnest, at least among early adopters. Around this time or soon after, a proliferation of email lists had evolved on a myriad of topics about anything and everything under the sun. My memory about this time is hazy and perhaps somewhat inaccurate, but I remember participating for a few years in two or three vegetarian and paleo diet-related email forums. Among the former were the old Veg-Raw group and the Raw-Food group (which was a later iteration of Veg-Raw). There was also a Sci-Veg list where I lurked but did not post, that was, I believe, moderated. Scientific references were strongly encouraged when posting, although the moderator had some blind spots for what constituted evidence when it came to alternate views like paleo.
Later, paleo diet email forums. On the paleo diet side there was an early, moderated, approved-posts-only, research-based list called, simply, Paleodiet that I read and participated in to some degree, administered by Dean Esmay and that counted among its participants most of the “heavies” (or soon to be so) in the field, including Loren Cordain although not Boyd Eaton. Then there was the Paleofood group for the general public where I might have mostly or completely lurked rather than posted (can’t recall).
Flame wars. On the vegetarian listgroups in which I participated, intense and incessant debates and/or flame wars took place. Here, if I didn’t already know them, just as a general (non-diet-related) lesson, I experienced and learned the full range of debating gambits employed online, both legitimate and fallacious. Also instructive but searing at times were learning how to handle oneself in flame wars and dealing with rabid individuals, in some cases what one would judge to be nutcases, or at the least very unreasonable people nearly off the deep end.
Formative influence of zines and many-to-manys (M2Ms)
Forerunners of today’s blogs and online forums. Something else shaping my experience just prior to the email-forum days were zines and many-to-manys. These were the paper-based equivalent of today’s online forums prior to the advent of the web. I no longer recall how I stumbled onto and got involved with M2Ms and zines — perhaps the same way I stumbled onto The WELL, which was via an article in Whole Earth Review magazine.
Lure of the “underground.” For those who haven’t heard the terms, zines and M2Ms were self-published “underground” newsletters produced on the cheap using photocopiers. Zines are the product of a single person writing on a topic, perhaps obscure, but one in which they have a compelling interest, or perhaps simply about the ongoing events in their life, as a form of self-expression.
M2Ms are what I term the “group” form of zines, where one person serves as coordinator, and by a periodic deadline, collates the letters and responses from the M2M’s participants into an issue which is then photocopied and mailed back out to everyone for the next cycle of comment and response to each other. My first experience participating in M2Ms was through the nonprofit volunteer organization Action Linkage in the late 1980s, which served as an umbrella for M2Ms on social-change topics.
Created and ran my own health M2M. I mention zines and M2Ms because in the years before the World-Wide Web came on the scene, after the Action Linkage experience, I started up and published my own M2M focused on a vegan diet and health movement called Natural Hygiene. (Today, the movement is now probably on its way to becoming an historical footnote.)
Health crash, recovery, and disillusionment
At the time I started this M2M, I was recovering from a health crash due to poor diet, too little sleep, and too much stress and overwork running a freelance typesetting business serving advertising agencies and graphic design studios. (This was in the days just before and after the advent of desktop publishing on personal computers.) Along with other lifestyle changes such as regular and adequate exercise and sleep to help regain my health, I was trying to remedy my previously haphazard vegetarian diet by going almost completely vegan. I felt I would learn a lot more from other vegans and vegetarians’ actual experiences than what I sensed might be a whitewashed “party line” I was getting in the magazines and books available on the diet from official organizations.
M2M insights vs. official “party line.” For me, the M2M — like the early web probably was for others — proved to be an eye-opening experience, which eventually led to my disillusionment with vegetarianism after hearing unvarnished accounts from participants about their own experiences with it. People do zines and M2Ms for much the same reasons one might start a website or blog, and in my case the M2M foreshadowed the Beyond Veg site I later went on to launch. Had the web existed at the time I started the M2M, a website is what I would have created instead. But M2Ms were the only suitable format available at the time, so that is what I worked with.
Beyond Veg website launch
On from M2Ms and email forums to the early web. So by 1997, when I started the Beyond Vegetarianism site that I became known for, I had already been active on the internet in public forums for years. And before that, I’d been immersed in M2Ms for several previous years — as well as absorbed with zines that I subscribed to during that same time period, which I won’t go into here. For the most part, I was pretty much through with the email listgroups by this time, having had my fill of the flame wars, and looked forward to a more sane project of building a website to write about my experiences and research.
Six months to research and write first cornerstone article. The first article I published on the website was the three-part “Paleolithic Diet vs. Vegetarianianism: What Was Humanity’s Original, Natural Diet?” article series, which I had reworked from a written newsletter interview done for Chet Day’s printed Health and Beyond newsletter. The original writing of this for Chet took six months of spare time, due to all the university-library research that was required (my own requirement, not Chet’s) along with footnoted references to back everything up. (Again, remember, this was in the days prior to the availability of any online peer-reviewed research, to speak of.)
References, references, references. Most readers then — particularly the inevitable ignoramuses taking potshots — probably didn’t have a clue how long it can take nor how painstaking it is to thoroughly research a topic in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, particularly thorny topics like this. For me, the research involved was an introduction to the heavy time commitment required for diligent fact-checking. In some cases, almost every second or third sentence was referenced.
The process was exacting, rigorous, and required as objective self-criticism as I could muster. Am I interpreting this paper or these findings correctly? Is it possible that confirmation bias may be coloring my view? (Actually, in the beginning, before I ever had the idea for Beyond Veg, my initial confirmation bias was not to credit what I was reading because of how it deflated my prior positive view of the nutritional basis for vegetarianism and veganism.) If so, what would be the most accurate, charitable interpretation — if I were debating this with a friend, what would be the best way to word things?
Like-minded souls. This initial three-part article was more or less a “first of its kind” for the people inhabiting these corners of the internet. I started hearing from and working with others with allied goals behind the scenes because of it, including Loren Cordain (now a central figure in the paleo movement). Another was my eventual site partner Tom Billings, who was one of the very first to contact me, and came on board not too many weeks after the site had launched.
As things progressed, Tom’s name became associated with the site probably even more than mine, at least with the vegetarian community, due to his more direct and ongoing debunkings of numerous other vegetarian myths. He also continued to be a vegetarian himself, which other vegetarians rather comically — to me — seemed to regard as a sign that he was some kind of turncoat.
Comical conspiracy-theory accusations. We were also accused by the more conspiratorially minded of being secretly funded by the Meat and Dairy Board or the USDA. I penned a tongue-in-cheek riposte suggesting that wasn’t imaginative enough, and that anyone postulating such subterranean links would do better to: “Think black helicopters, Trilateral Commission, and all that other good New World Order conspiracy stuff. The goal here is to be masters of the universe, and therefore you gotta believe our roots trace all the way back to the Knights Templar in the 13th century.”
A partnership that “just clicked”
Into the groove. Tom and I worked very hard in our spare time researching and writing articles for the site. Our partnership was one of those rare things where everything just clicked, and we went into overdrive. There was a natural division of duties: with me handling the editorial duties and website work, while he handled chasing down much of the scientific peer-reviewed research. Tom had access to one of the top university research libraries in the U.S. and loved drilling down into all the peer-reviewed journals. Again, this was before any peer-reviewed scientific research to speak of was available online, and his work was critical to the project. And of course we both wrote for the site as well, and helped edit contributions to the site made by others.
Myths on the run. By the year 2000 when I turned things over to Tom completely, we had largely accomplished what I originally set out to do with the Beyond Vegetarianism site. Few except diehards probably any longer believed the myth of vegetarianism as the “original” diet of humans, or that we should take the apes as our model for a vegan or vegetarian diet based on “comparative anatomy.” While myths like this lived on for decades prior to the internet without much challenge, once the latter exploded onto the scene, the bright light of day shone on unsupportable claims and they tended to quickly wither, at least where scientific information was the standard for evaluation. (Not so for social, political, or economic topics, of course, where emotionalism seems to overwhelm all attempts at reason.)
A “natural” diet no longer. Such dietary ideals were ones I had originally believed myself but that eventually led me into a cul-de-sac health-wise, along with many others, as Tom and I later discovered after writing about our experiences and findings on the site. There are other reasons one might still choose a veg diet, but the idea that vegetarianism or veganism was humans’ “natural” diet was no longer credible except with the uninformed.
To clarify the above point on “natural” and naturalism: Just to put a finer point on this so that people don’t misunderstand me, I am not an unalloyed paleo-ist even though that does largely describe my position. Anybody who has made an adequate study of evolution will understand that the outcome of a species’ evolution results in, and is incorporated into, its very “design”: how it is intended to function. Labeling or regarding evolution as a guide for nutrition as simply another form of “the naturalistic fallacy” or “philosophical naturalism” (i.e., that what is natural prescribes what one should do), which paleo is sometimes accused of — is a significant misunderstanding.
What a species is designed for is key to the health question, and that is what evolution and genetics are uncovering. Since a certain amount of human evolution, albeit modest, has taken place since the Neolithic (agricultural) revolution, one can expect that some individuals, depending on their specific ancestry and genetics, may not do best on a full-on paleo diet. Even though that will likely determine the overall thrust for most people — at least in terms of the nutritional parameters required for optimal health — they may still need to make specific modifications.
Rippling, intersecting circles of influence
One of my other objectives with the website had been to help “get the ball rolling” with cross-fertilization of information on the internet, so other individuals and sites would join in and take over the arduous task of unearthing, summarizing, and rewriting the conclusions of cited and referenced scientific research in plain English. And this applied to both paleo diet — and any issues, myths, or misconceptions to address on that side of the divide too — as well as the dietary pitfalls of vegetarianism and veganism.
Allied efforts begin to take over the workload. The idea was for Beyond Veg to be a “seed event,” or like a stone thrown in a pond, with the outward-traveling waves intersecting with those of others to eventually coalesce into a collective, unstoppable “wave” marginalizing the myth-mongering sites. This too had begun to occur and was starting to gather momentum by the time I moved on from Beyond Veg. I didn’t much mind if the site was overshadowed by others with more ambition or larger budgets than we had (which was nothing but our spare time and out-of-pocket costs for web hosting). I wasn’t fond of the spotlight.
To an outside observer it may have appeared that my time with Beyond Veg was something of a “flash in the pan” or like a brief shooting star — here in 1997, gone in 2000. But in reality I had been active in various discussion and debating forums both offline and on for about a dozen years already. First with Action Linkage’s M2Ms; initial experiences with early online forums such as The WELL; ferreting out, subscribing to, and following independent zines; launching and running the Natural Hygiene M2M (later renamed as the Natural Health M2M); participating in several different online email forums just prior to the blossoming of the web; and only then launching Beyond Veg.
But why specifically would someone move on from something they had greatly enjoyed — not to some other online publishing venture, but instead disappearing in lieu of, say, gearing down to a more moderate pace? There were a few specific direct, “proximate” causes, but also other related reasons. I’ll cover that in part two, along with what provided the motivation to start writing online once again, in part three.