Veganism is not a diet. If that is news to you, please read on. If you not only know this, but are tired of having to explain it to others, please read on. Because most pre-vegans — and even a lot of new vegans — don’t know, yet, and it’s critically important that we try to remedy that as quickly as possible.
My partner and I originally went vegan a few years ago for “health reasons.” We were part of the graduating class of Forks Over Knives vegan converts. I’d had very little exposure to veganism before that; a remarkable feat given I’d lived in Portland, Oregon for over 10 years at the time! I must have had some exposure to derogatory coverage of veganism, though, because we were careful to tell friends and family at the time to not worry, that “we’re not the crazy, militant vegans — we’re doing it for health reasons.” I think we felt at the time that we had to set our friends’ minds at ease that they didn’t have to worry about us judging or trying to convert them. In other words, we were treating veganism like a diet.
We went on for the better part of two years, calling ourselves “vegan for health reasons” while eating a mostly plant-based diet. What that looked like day to day was this.
SCENE: Company barbecue
Meat-loving colleague, flipping cow burgers on the grill: “Hey, aren’t you vegan? Those veggie sausages have egg in them…”
Me, taking another bite of the veggie sausage: “I am vegan. I just don’t want to be a pain in the ass or waste food.”
Colleague: “Well… then you’re not really vegan…”
Me, angrily: “I AM vegan! This is the first non-vegan thing I’ve eaten in weeks!”
Colleague, rolling his eyes: “Whatever, man.”
I probably believed at the time that it had been weeks. Or at least wanted that to be true. The reality is, while I hadn’t eaten animal meat since watching Forks Over Knives, I was probably eating foods with animal-derived products (dairy, eggs, honey) in them two or three times per week. Sometimes less, sometimes more. But without having made a commitment to leave my participation in animal suffering behind for good, I saw the occasional non-vegan convenience or indulgence as relatively harmless in terms of its effects on my personal health. Not only was I guiltily eating pastries or other things that I told myself were probably vegan — but was careful not to confirm — I was still wearing cow skin shoes and belts, still carrying a cow skin wallet, still wearing clothing made from sheep’s wool, a coat lined with birds’ feathers, etc. The fact is, I was eating a mostly plant-based diet, but I was lying to myself and everyone else by claiming to be vegan. By doing that, I was unwittingly making the lives of vegans more difficult and setting back the critically important work of saving the planet, the animals — and the health and habitat of the human race in the process.
[Veganism is] a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals. — The Vegan Society, 1979
This is why it’s risky to promote veganism with the health benefits as the primary or sole driver. While the health benefits probably have the broadest appeal, at least initially, the reason for that is also the greatest weakness: it’s driven by self interest. We don’t have to look very far to see that Americans are prone to jumping from health fad to health fad, be it diet, fitness program, or the latest science-for-hire studies about other factors that affect our health. If someone is eating a plant-based diet for health reasons alone, they’re at much greater risk of eventually caving to societal pressures and animal exploitation industry propaganda and making the jump to a fad diet that promotes eating animals or animal-derived products. Especially if they’re seeing the typical Western doctor who knows virtually nothing about nutrition and sees a medicine cabinet full of pharmaceuticals as an important part of a balanced diet. I don’t believe there are many ex-vegans in the world. I think there are people who tried eating a plant-based diet and thought they were vegan, but it’s hard for me to believe that someone could truly wake up to the horrors of the meat, dairy, egg, fur and animal entertainment industries — and then go back to participating in those very horrors.
People love to hear good news about their bad habits. – John A. McDougall, MD
Eating a plant-based diet primarily or solely for environmental reasons is equally risky. A recent example of this risk is a new fad diet called “climatarianism,” where adherents aim to eat locally sourced food, limit food waste, and avoid the “most energy-consuming of meat products.” Which leaves them eating most animals, including sea creatures. Obviously this diet will only fly with those who haven’t watched Cowspiracy or otherwise done their homework — which is what the industry counts on. That audience, though, is shrinking quickly as the truth continues to make it’s way out that no amount of animal agriculture is sustainable. Or healthy. Most importantly, adopting a plant-based diet for environmental reasons alone misses the most important point and the one that will help people go truly vegan and commit to it for life: respect for all life and compassion for non-human animals.
For now, still flush with cash and desperately trying to deny and fight off the inevitable, the animal exploitation industry (and the researchers, health professionals and government agencies taking their money) are still doing a remarkably effective job of keeping most of us in the dark about the grisly realities behind our food and animal-derived consumer goods — and their myriad deleterious effects on our health, the animals and the planet. And truth be told, most of us are an easy sell — more than happy to remain not-quite-blissfully in the dark.
I remember that even as I started to see behind the bloody veil of money, lies and cultural programming, I still found myself fighting an inner war with my thawing morals, ethics and compassion for non-human animals, as well as the human laborers (mostly poor and otherwise disadvantaged, if not enslaved) suffering horrendous conditions working in the animal exploitation industry. Food, after all, is a cornerstone of culture and community and a deep-seated anchor to family and home. Breaking away from the norm, from the familiar — replete with memories and societal approval — isn’t easy. If I hadn’t had the community and resources I did, if I hadn’t had a partner who was sharing the journey with me, if I had remained “vegan for health reasons,” I could have easily ended up calling myself an “ex-vegan” and plodding along in the carnist fog, mistakenly believing I’d tried veganism and moved on.