Pax and Saryta pet Brahma, a steer at Preetirang Sanctuary. Photo by Ziggy Tomcich.

So you’re going vegan for New Year’s

Some advice and reality checks

‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions. If you’ve resolved to go vegan in 2018, sincere congratulations. I want you to succeed. But having been involved in vegan and animal rights activism for the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of misconceptions, both from vegans and non-vegans, that I feel contribute to the lack of vegan retention. If you approach veganism with a solid grounding, you’ll have a greater chance of lifelong success, and help make this world a better place for our fellow animals.

1. Understand what veganism is.

While there is much debate about what the word “vegan” means, I use as a starting point the definition of veganism from The Vegan Society:

Veganism is a 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.

That said, in this article I am going to focus on food. I have found that many people who adopt a vegan diet strictly for health reasons eventually come around to see our fellow animals as individuals who should not be exploited for any purpose, and stop buying clothes and other products made from or tested on them. In a world where animals are almost universally viewed as property, the nonconsensual use of their bodies is ubiquitous. Eliminating all avoidable use of animal products is the goal of veganism, but beyond what most people making New Year’s resolutions are willing or able to commit to immediately, and beyond the scope of this post.

In the food realm, animal products include anything that comes from the body of any member of the animal kingdom. Fishes and insects are animals just as much as mammals, birds, and humans are. Some disagree on whether honey is vegan, and some feel that certain sea animals are not sentient and can therefore be consumed by vegans. As there are thousands of edible plants, I don’t feel that removing honey or oysters from the diet makes it overly restrictive compared to an otherwise vegan diet that includes animals at the margins of what humans describe as intelligence.

While most people adopt a vegan diet in stages rather than eliminating all animal products immediately, a diet that includes the deliberate, avoidable consumption of any animal products — regardless of origin — is not vegan. This includes the eggs, milk, or flesh of animals from so-called “humane”, “free-range”, or organic farms, or your neighbor’s backyard. Focus on discovering the huge number of satisfying dishes that can be made exclusively with plants, rather than looking for excuses to keep consuming the bodies or secretions of animals.

2. Understand what veganism is not.

Veganism is not a weight-loss diet. I’m neither going to applaud nor shame anyone for wanting to lose weight; the ethics regarding body size are another topic entirely. But do understand that simply eliminating animal products from your diet will not in any way guarantee weight loss. Weight — and body fat percentage, which is what most dieters are trying to reduce — depends on many factors, including the calorie density of your meals and your level of physical activity.

Vegans come in a wide range of body sizes, just like non-vegans, and that’s OK. Avoid groups or gurus who shame or shun vegans who are not thin.

Veganism is not a cure-all for diseases. Eliminating animal products from your diet is not a magical key to good health. Vegans can and do get sick, even seriously ill, just like non-vegans. This includes some “whole foods” vegans as well as those who eat copious amounts of junk food. Anyone who claims otherwise is deluded, lying, or a charlatan. Avoid groups or gurus who shame or shun vegans who get sick.

Vegan and “gluten-free” have nothing to do with one another. This is a pet peeve of mine. Well-meaning people often confuse or conflate vegan and gluten-free diets, because they see veganism as just another dietary choice. But even strictly in food terms, there is no comparison. Vegans avoid animal products. There is no animal called a “gluten”. There is also no ethical issue I’m aware of that is specific to the production of glutenous grains.

Additionally, I feel (from my lay perspective) that there is no health reason to avoid gluten unless you have celiac disease or a diagnosed sensitivity to this substance. But I don’t care whether people choose to eat gluten or not; I just want them to stop confusing a vegan diet with that entirely unrelated choice.

Veganism is not “cruelty-free”. I never describe my diet or lifestyle as “cruelty-free”, nor do I make the false and misleading claim that “no animal died for my meal”. (Both of these claims are frequently made by ovo-lacto vegetarians as well, which is even more inaccurate as millions of chickens and cows die annually in the course of egg and dairy production, even on “humane” and “free-range” farms.) While animal deaths caused by plant harvesting are often over-emphasized by non-vegans — who also eat plants themselves, both directly and recycled as animal products —they do happen. Some amount of death and suffering is unavoidable; the aim of veganism is to reduce avoidable harm. (The suffering of humans involved in vegan food production is also relevant; see “Check your privileges”, below.)

3. It’s OK to make mistakes, but don’t make them habits.

Even people who have been vegan for many years might accidentally ingest food containing animal products from time to time. But these occasions are just that: accidents. If you knowingly and deliberately eat animal products at regular intervals or make exceptions for certain occasions — evenings, weekends, at restaurants, at parties — you are not following a vegan diet.

Calling yourself vegan when you’re only following a vegan diet part-time is not fair to farmed animals, who don’t get evenings, weekends, or “special occasions” off from being exploited. You can call yourself mostly-vegan or plant-based or choose another label if you must have one, but please don’t call yourself a vegan until and unless you are committed to eating this way full-time. It’s not about vegans being morally superior to anyone else; it’s about preventing the word “vegan” from becoming entirely arbitrary and meaningless (as, I would argue, has already happened with the word “vegetarian”).

Another reason for consistency is to make sure that you’re giving a vegan diet a fair chance. I once heard from someone who went back to eating animal products because they experienced health problems. It turned out that what they described as an “entirely vegan” diet included regular consumption of dairy products from cows that they deemed were humanely raised. As discussed above, cow’s milk is an animal product and not consistent with a vegan diet regardless of origin. But beyond that, milk is a common allergen, and the majority of the world’s people cannot digest lactose properly after infancy. I’m not saying that this person’s health problems were necessarily due to cow’s milk, but they were not following a vegan diet, and cannot blame their health problems on veganism without giving it a fair test.

Vegans and non-vegans with food sensitivities and allergies—some of which can be life-threatening — deserve to know that when we buy or are served “vegan food”, it is actually free of animal products. This can only happen if we stop redefining veganism to include non-vegan substances.

4. Check your privileges.

Some see veganism as a diet or lifestyle only for white people or those who hold other privileges. This is not surprising, considering that veganism in the U.S.—both as a diet and as an ethical lifestyle — has been marketed primarily by young, thin, conventionally-attractive white people. However, there are many vegans of color who are changing that narrative, while demonstrating that we can care about animal and human oppression simultaneously.

It’s also important to be aware of the impact on marginalized humans of all food production, whether those foods contain animal products or not. The cocoa beans used in many vegan chocolates, for example, are harvested by enslaved children.

A full exploration of this subject is beyond the scope of this post, but a few fellow vegans of color and resources by them to check out are Aphro-ism and Black Vegans Rock by Aph Ko (I manage the BVR Instagram page); Sistah Vegan by A. Breeze Harper; the Food Empowerment Project, founded and led by lauren Ornelas; Brenda Sanders; and Saryta Rodríguez (pictured with me at the top of this article).

5. Don’t feel obliged to become an animal rights activist.

I’ve been seriously disturbed by the human oppression — racism, sexism, ableism, and so on—I’ve seen in vegan and animal rights communities. There are no good excuses for this behavior. Don’t let any group or guru convince you that you must join them, follow them exclusively, or participate in any specific actions for the animals. If you are marginalized yourself, being vegan is enough.

6. Plan ahead.

If you’re aiming to go vegan on New Year’s Day, you only have a few days left to prepare. Committing to a vegan diet can seem intimidating, but it’s largely a matter of preparation. As with any dietary change, you’re much less likely to stick to it if you find yourself hungry and surrounded by tempting food. Many vegans eventually lose all desire to consume animal products, but there’s nothing wrong with eating dairy and flesh substitutes if those are readily available and affordable where you live.

If you can’t get or don’t want to eat faux flesh, I recommend stocking up on starch staples, not just raw vegetables: Pastas, beans, cereals, etc. (I do not follow or recommend a raw or low-carb diet, and don’t like eating salads much in the winter, but do whatever works for you.) Get used to reading labels; animal-based ingredients turn up everywhere. Vegan convenience foods are great if you can get them, but learning to cook, if you can, will give you more control over your diet. Check out whyveganism.com for some tips on nutrition and cooking, as well as more information about veganism from an ethical perspective.

7. Visit a sanctuary.

If there is a vegan animal sanctuary near where you live that allows visitors, take a day to get to know what farmed animals are like when they are given the opportunity to live out their natural lives in freedom. If you can’t make it to a sanctuary in person, read stories and watch videos produced by their caretakers. Sanctuaries I’ve visited include Preetirang Sanctuary (pictured at the top) and Hen Harbor in Northern California, and I’ve also supported VINE Sanctuary (which is LGBTQ-run) in Vermont and Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary (which has produced some of the educational materials on “humane farming” I’ve linked to) in Colorado. Getting to know individual animals in person can help strengthen your resolve to go and stay vegan.

In summary, going vegan is a laudable and achievable goal, but one that, like any major lifestyle change, requires education and preparation. Our fellow animals cannot thank you with human words, but they will benefit from your actions. Together, we can help reduce harm and make this world a better place.