Thinking of Going Vegan?
If you are on the fence about going vegan, or even just peeking over the fence, wondering what all the noise is about, I can share with you some key understandings I have accumulated, after about twenty years of consciously excluding animal products from my life. There is no one path to follow, and mine certainly is not “the way” to the ideal compassion-focused lifestyle or the all-in-one guide to conscious-consumption. This is just how my life unfolded and going vegan has been one of things that has shaped my choices and worldview significantly.
Everyone will have a beginning to their vegan journey. It may be an epiphanic moment or a gradual shift in perception. Mine was kind of both; an instant realization that I was going to make a change in my consumer habits, but also, a clumsy process of learning and gathering experience as I moved towards my newfound ideal.
I was 26 years-old and about five months pregnant with my first child. During an after-work outing at the Books-a-Million store in Clarksville, Tennessee, I was perusing the diet and nutrition section, as I often did. I came across a book titled, Diet for a New America, by John Robbins. Loving the progressive-sounding nature of the title, I figured it might hold some new nutritional insights to lead me towards the better balance I had been seeking for most of my young-adult life.
But, rather than some sparkly new diet program to try, within the pages of that book were ideas about food that I had never considered; mainly how it is produced and the cost of that production on animals, the planet and people. Going vegan seemed like the only thing to do after learning these realities.
It was 1999, and though I’d had access to the Internet for a few years at that point, I had yet to come across any information on factory farming. My recent book purchase armed me with all sorts of new search terms to launch my DIY vegan education and prompted my shift from unconscious to conscious consumer; at least with regards to food. There was a lot to learn about going vegan.
Over the next few years, I tripped and stumbled along the path to veganism. Going vegan was a solitary venture. Nobody I knew was vegan, and there were so many times it would have been easy to just give up, melding back into the surrounding cultural norms. But, my conviction was strong. Thankfully, my husband, supportive and ever-willing to try new things, joined me on my new lifestyle adventure. Together we bumbled along, learning more about our food addictions, the nuance of animal ingredients in many packaged foods, and where to find good resources and community support.
Since those early years, I have parented three kids and navigated life outside the dietary status quo. I have learned more about nutrition and tried to balance my perspective with the constant barrage of information coming at us. I think I have done alright, and am apt to share my insights with those considering going vegan.
Veganism is an ethical bar you set for yourself, not a diet.
Ethics are the fuel and motivation for becoming and staying vegan long-term. Vegan ethics supersede the dietary dogmas of the surrounding culture and provide a guidepost for individual consumer choices. It is the “why” that sparked my initial action and still drives my individual daily choices.
As much as I care about my own health and well-being, I know for certain that my personal health concerns would not have inspired me to take the “all in” approach to abstaining from animal products that I have over the past two decades. I was far too much of a food junkie to deny myself the pleasure of tasty foods, simply because it was good for me. Going vegan had to make so much sense to me that it changed my perception of what tastes good!
Vegans share the belief that needlessly exploiting animals is unethical. Veganism is not a religion, but in order to live a vegan lifestyle long-term, it is necessary to religiously prioritize the interconnectedness of all living beings and make all reasonable and practical efforts to avoid the exploitation of animals in our daily lives. That requires devotion and the faith that there is value in our efforts. Otherwise, sustaining a lifestyle so seemingly divergent from the surrounding culture might become tedious or stressful. In my experience, it has become easier and more meaningful as time has gone on.
Our Abundance is Mismanaged
Unfortunately, consumer trends still have us, collectively, considering the unnecessary exploitation of farm animals to be within the acceptable parameters of our societal ethical standards. The privileged lives most of us lead in the western world now has us encountering the challenges of managing abundance, and with that comes responsibility to examine our current food systems and explore ways to improve upon them, for the benefit of the animals, the planet and people.
Just as with many things in history that stood out as unjust to a few vocal individuals, many people have begun to question the ethics and environmental impact of animal agriculture, giving rise to the vegan “movement.” I am thankful to live during a time when the onset of this conversation is possible.
I recognize that veganism is a privileged response of protest to the abuses of our current food system. I do not claim to have all the answers for what an alternative system would look like, but I do know that it would empower individuals and communities to grow more of their own food, minimizing the impact on the environment, our health and animals.
We obviously have a lot of work to do to realign ourselves with our environment and stop seeing animals as a commodity, but rather vital partners in an ecosystem. In the meantime, wherever I can seek to reduce suffering, I will. Being vegan gives me that opportunity at every meal. It feels like the least I can do.
The Pain is Real
The undeniable pain necessary to breed, sustain and slaughter animals for food has inspired me to continue to vote with my food choices. Most of us would never want to see an animal suffer. I know many would agree that factory farms are, indeed, horrible. Alternatives, such as hunting, raising our own animals or supporting local small-scale farms are suggested to minimize suffering. Yet, in order to keep up with current rates of consumption, these options would not be sustainable, either. Our forests would be depleted, many of us don’t own land and small-scale farms would have to resort to large-scale practices in order to keep production up and costs down.
But, most importantly, it does not change the fact that unnecessary pain and suffering inflicted on anyone, including animals, lacks moral conviction when there is no need for it. In my opinion, lacking the struggle for survival most of us are fortunate to have, there is currently no moral justification for breeding animals into existence simply to die by our hand for a few minutes of sensory pleasure and nutrients we can obtain elsewhere. And, on a more philosophical level, it seems the more pain we release into the world, the more we get back.
I cannot unsee the images of senseless pain inflicted upon animals in our “modern” farming systems. There is no sugar-coating it. With the advent of the Internet and the sharing of information, there is no hiding the brutal realities of trying to produce animal products on the mass and wasteful scale by which we demand them as a culture. Of course, exploitative practices take place across many industries, but it shouldn’t stop us from trying to make a difference where we can. And what we choose to eat is a good place to start.
Being Vegan Is Healthy… or it’s not….
Veganism, from a health perspective, is somewhat uncharted water for any society, which can make people nervous. Historical models do not offer much wisdom, but we all know that just because something has been done one way for a long time, it does not make it ideal or “right.” The primary point of contention is whether the pain we inflict upon animals is necessary for human survival under current conditions. With our modern knowledge of nutrition and technological and medical advances, we find ourselves able to safely run the vegan experiment, backed by science and many anecdotal accounts of life-long vegans who have not perished from malnutrition.
Further, keep in mind, veganism is driven by ethics, and just as there are many omnivores out there filling up on processed junk foods, there are plenty of vegans doing the same, minus the animal products. Going vegan is not about standing up for ideal individual healthy choices or being a pillar of nutritional excellence in your community. Healthy eating is great, but veganism is about avoiding needless animal exploitation, not scoring all A’s on your nutritional report card.
Of course, a “clean” whole foods diet is ideal for most everyone, but not everyone adheres to balanced dietary guidelines, vegan or not, for whatever reasons. So, we really cannot simply compare vegans to omnivores to get the clearest picture of health. It seems to be common knowledge that, whichever dietary path one follows, those that avoid highly processed foods, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, stay hydrated, exercise, manage stress and tend to their emotional well-being are likely to have better health markers long-term.
Vegans are in it for the animals, but educating yourself about basic nutrition can go a long way to make sure you take care of yourself and pass along accurate information about going vegan to others.
Education is Key
Like many philosophies or lifestyle choices, they are subject to the scrutiny of individual perception, formulated from life experience. If you are not armed with accurate knowledge, you could be a target for misinformation and a beacon for doubt. Educate yourself about going vegan, so you can’t be feared into thinking you are inherently going to run into deficiencies only eating plant foods, or that your life will somehow be lacking substance without all the “traditional” foods of your culture/community/childhood, etc.
These days, there is plenty of valid research showing that a vegan diet, when balanced properly, is safe and healthy for all ages. For example, in 2016, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics updated its position on vegetarian and vegan diets, and a short Google search will unearth plenty of other valid sources on the benefits of a vegan diet and how to balance yours for optimal health, satisfaction and long-term success.
Along with current studies, you will also find a plethora of anecdotal accounts and personal opinions about the dangers of a going vegan, or how a vegan diet caused someone’s health problems. While each person’s experience deserves recognition, it does not constitute the body of nutritional knowledge applicable to everyone, nor does it take into account all the other factors that influence health and well-being. If your healthcare provider is not well-versed in, or supportive of, plant-based nutrition, find one who is.
Spend time delving into the research, checking the validity of your sources, and make sure you feel like your understanding and your actions align. This may require challenging some long-held assumptions or beliefs about your food choices. Making community connections and meeting other long-term vegans can go a long way towards squelching your fears of becoming malnourished as you move away from animal sources of food towards going vegan.
Lastly, as hard as it can be, it might be useful to try to occasionally watch current reputable documentaries and factory farm footage on the Internet, to remind yourself, that while you go about your life, animals are suffering daily. Acknowledge that your small daily choices, combined with others, minimizes some of the demand for that suffering and is providing fodder for discussion around animal agriculture. Without these reminders and community support, the status quo will be waiting in the wings to assure you things are fine, just as they are. They are not.
The Path of Righteousness is Subjective
While you might feel you are on the morally superior path, abstaining from using animals as a commodity in your own life, remember that you, too, prior to your “vegan awakening,” partook in the consumption of animal products that most of us were raised to think is “just the way it is.” It is important to try to meet people where they are with regards to their moral framework. Challenging long-held beliefs takes time, looks different for everyone, and requires the desire to do so. Going vegan isn’t going to be for everyone, but everyone can benefit from a discussion about the principles of veganism.
It’s the circle of life. It’s the way it’s always been. We NEED animal protein to survive. Vegans are annoying with all their dietary “restrictions” and constant reminders that eating animals is “mean.” These are some of the commonly held beliefs about animal products and veganism. There are also those who will simply always believe in the “might of man” and that animals are here for our use, maintaining a detachment from the suffering of non-human animals. Spending time trying to convince such people that they are, in some way, morally corrupt or lack the capacity for empathy is not a good use of anyone’s time and only creates a further divide. Rather, we need to try to understand the systemic issues that created the mindset many people have about animals, and do our best to be the antidote to those sentiments with our actions.
You might even encounter some people feeling you do not respect their choice to eat the way they want; including animals in their diet. A simple reminder of the definition of respect, being “due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others,” can prompt some self-reflection. If we extend respect to animals and their feelings, wishes and right to exist without oppression, then how can we simultaneously think it is okay to exploit them? That said, you can find yourself circling round and round in the analysis of that definition. When it comes to traditions and long-held beliefs, be mindful it is a complex topic and do have respect for peoples’ feelings, even if not their food choices.
Tradition Dies Hard
The customs and beliefs passed on to us from our families and social circles become part of the fabric of our identity and self-perception. Food can be foundational in that identity and a sense of connection to family, community and ourselves. Challenging those long-held beliefs can bring up inner conflict, cause discord within relationships and unravel the patterns we have set in place in our lives. Culture and traditions evolve, and shifting towards a vegan lifestyle does not mean discarding all traditions; it just means they may need some tweaking.
I have many fond memories surrounding foods made with animals; my grandmother’s babka and golumpkis, picking all the green and brown M&M’s out of the bag and eating Bit O’ Honey candies with my dad, donuts with my mom on the way to music lessons, homemade pumpkin pie at the holidays, foods eaten on our travels, and so on. But, I have recognized that I do not have to continue to consume these foods to connect to those memories. Where possible, I have even tried to “veganize” some of my favorite food memories and create new traditions for myself and my family.
Nonetheless, individual and cultural tradition can be a big obstacle, for many people, in the pursuit of adopting a vegan lifestyle. If you find your individual ideals conflicting with your family or community traditions, try an honest approach with your friends and loved ones. Try not to get into a debate of who is right and who is wrong, but rather stay focused on your individual desire to make a change in your life. When it comes down to it, you may not prompt a cultural mindset shift amongst your friends and family, but you can, at least, follow the path that feels best for you. Once you are well-established on your path, it is easier to revisit some of the cultural tradition conversations with more insight and understanding.
Community Support is Important
Support is important when you decide to go vegan. You may find yourself feeling alone and isolated as you endeavor to shift your consumer habits, as these changes might not align with the ideals of your friends and family. But, if you practice good communication with those in your inner circle, and let them know that this lifestyle change is important to you, you might find support in unlikely places. Be patient with those relationships that feel strained by your new dietary habits, but also set clear boundaries. Over time, with open communication, those that truly care about you will adjust to your new way of being. Some might even join you!
In the meantime, seek out the support you need through on-line groups and local MeetUps. Our local vegetarian society and MeetUp groups were instrumental in learning the ins and outs of the vegan lifestyle and feeling connected to a larger community. Potlucks are great places to explore new foods, share recipes and ideas. Most larger areas have vegan Facebook groups, so try starting there and seeing what’s going on closest to you!
Further, reach out to your favorite local businesses and ask if they would be willing to offer vegan options on their menu or carry vegan products in their store. And, if they are, be sure to leave them favorable online reviews, letting other businesses know there are vegan consumers in the area!
Being vegan is hard… and it’s easy.
One of the biggest reasons I hear for not going vegan is that it’s just too hard. There certainly is a learning curve. And, as stated above, there are a myriad of considerations to sift through as you journey into this new lifestyle. But how hard it feels will really come down to your personal convictions and desire to use your dietary and consumer choices as a means of advocating for change. It will likely not come without its challenges, but in my experience, the rewards have been great.
One shift in perception that helped me greatly, early on, was to stop thinking about all the foods I “could not” have as a vegan. Rather, I tell myself I can have anything I want, but I am CHOOSING not to eat animals and their by-products. I reminded myself of all the beautiful and nourishing things available to me and how fortunate I am to have the choice of what I want to buy and eat. In most circumstances, once you’ve made the choice, being vegan is easy, especially once you’ve gone through the initial learning curve.
It Starts with a Vision
If you find yourself truly aligning with the principles of veganism, but stuck in your food routines, fearful of change, try taking it one day at a time. Going vegan isn’t an exercise in perfection. If you slip up, start again at the next meal, and keep going. Keep educating yourself and finding community. Look at going vegan as an opportunity for growth. Do the hard work of some introspection about your food traditions and/or addictions and establish momentum on a new path. The path will likely get much easier to follow. It is often said that vegans are unrealistic in their vision of a world without animal agriculture, but change is incremental, individually and collectively. Without a vision, we have nothing to work towards, so let’s just do our best, one day at a time.
1 – Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016 Dec;116(12):1970-1980. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025. PMID: 27886704.
A Handful of Vegan Resources to Get You Started
The Vegan Society (resources & education)
Earthling Ed (Activism/Education)
John Robbins Official Website
VegNews (news & resources)
Mic the Vegan (Research/Education)
High Carb Hannah (food inspiration)
This is a great app/website to help you make sure you’re hitting your nutritional milestones