By Daria Zeoli, Guest Contributor

Are you telling the truth about your health?

“I haven’t been sick in five years, unlike my meat-eating friends.”

Have you said something like this? You may have, and you may have meant well when you said it. But today I’d like to discuss how saying such things has the potential to do harm to the movement.

As veganism has crossed into mainstream consciousness, it’s done so as a health topic. “Eat vegan to lose weight, to feel better, to be a vibrant green goddess.” Because of this, non-vegans have the expectation that vegans never get sick, and vegans perpetuate that expectation. It’s as if having a cold or a stomach bug is scandalous: “See? Veganism isn’t healthy. Why should I stop eating animals?” “You look pale. You’re obviously not getting enough iron. I’m gonna stick with my steak.”

Of course it’s important that we take care of ourselves. That goes for everyone, no matter what lifestyle they ascribe to. But because such a large part of being vegan is entwined with what we eat, we are somehow held more accountable.

It’s the end of February, and let me confess to you: I have been sick a couple of times this year already. Not drop-dead, down-on-the-ground sick, but headaches, and cloudiness, and yes, it’s been pointed out that I look even paler than usual (but in my defense, it’s been snowy and freezing for what seems like forever). This has nothing to do with veganism and everything to do with the fact that my immunity tends to be lower during winter – along with my willpower to get to the gym, eat healthy foods, and stay active. I assure you that eating a hamburger or drinking a glass of cow’s milk would not cure my winter ills.

And it goes beyond just a run-of-the-mill cold. Studies show that a plant-based diet significantly reduces a person’s risk of major health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, and perhaps even cancer. This is great news! But it’s not an absolute. Reducing risk does not mean “to zero.” You will meet vegans who have heart disease. You will meet vegans who have cancer. This does not mean that veganism is at fault. You will also meet vegans with chronic illnesses: autoimmune diseases, arthritis, asthma, recurring migraines… the list goes on. Does a healthy, plant-based diet boost your chances of lesser recurrences of flare-ups? Yes. But again, nothing is a cure-all 100% of the time. Much as with the ethical arguments surrounding it, veganism does not mean perfection in this case.

There’s also a myth that all vegans are thin. As Dwight Schrute would say, false. Vegans come in all shapes and sizes. Some of us are thin, but some of us are heavier. Our weight should not be a measuring stick for whether we’re “succeeding” at being vegan, and if we don’t correct the assumption that weight loss is a given, we’re going to get the same arguments about veganism not being worth it. After all, people are doing just fine on Atkins and the Paleo diet.

Remember, veganism is a philosophy that is about how we treat and use animals. In today’s world, you can avoid animal products and still have poor eating habits. Hell, you can exclusively eat potato chips and drink soda and still be vegan. Eating junk or eating whole foods is a choice we all have to make. Any benefit to one’s health is just that: a benefit. Just as downing a multivitamin with a glass of water every morning doesn’t make you illness-proof, eating plants doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a picture of health one hundred percent of the time. You may get the flu. You may gain ten pounds. You may have thyroid disease and you may someday get cancer.

So, the next time you want to brag about your health at the expense of the meat-eaters around you, please think carefully about how you are presenting that argument. If you want to change the world for animals, then focus on the animals. While our health has its highs and lows, and while the environment is influenced by endless factors (though, yes, animal agriculture is the biggest), there is one constant in the case for veganism: animals are being exploited every day, and they need our help. That is an absolute where your health, your weight, and your chance of disease isn’t.