Ten years vegan: what I’ve learned
Tomorrow is my ten year vegan-niversary. Ten years without meat, dairy, eggs, fish, anything like that. If it had a face, or came out of the sex parts of anything that has one, I’ve tried very, very hard not to put it inside me.
Yay me! Right?
Well I’ve definitely learned a few things. About myself, how my monkey-brain works (or doesn’t), and how my weaknesses can be turned into a kind of scared strength. And about other people, and how bloody weird we all are about what’s ‘normal’ to eat.
And I’ve also thought about whether I want to keep on being vegan, and for how long, and why.
I thought I’d write them down. So here you go. Five personal reflections.
1. I reckon the only way you’ll be vegan for a long time is if you actually want to be
I’m often asked if I ‘can have’ a particular food.
Can I have Jaffa Cakes? (no). Can I have Hobnobs? (yes). Can I have Jammie Dodgers? Well I could, until the bastards changed the recipe.
But that word: can(’t). It grates. There are people that can’t have dairy — about 65% of the world’s population, actually. I’m not one of those.
I can have dairy. I still, at a residual level, like it (taste-wise). But the only way I’ve stuck at this for so long isn’t about can’t. It’s about: I choose not to.
In rehab, addicts are taught to train themselves to choose not to drink or do drugs. Not to pretend they don’t want to. Of course they want to. They’re addicts. But to choose not to, and from that choosing draw strength and fortitude, and choose again the next day.
I am pigeon-weak in the face of peer pressure and temptation. And I was raised on meat and dairy. If I was on a 3 x daily battle against temptation every meal, I’d fail. So I had to do something else: take a positive decision.
No thanks, I choose not to have that.
It works for me. More and more. A learned habit. It gets ingrained.
Luckily that nagging voice — the one that stumbled horrified into a battery chicken farm when he was eight, the one that just does not dig the industrialization of billions of animals because we like the taste of their secretions — has turned out to be impossible to quiet. Without that voice, I’d never have made it to ten years.
If you are one of those people that says, “but I just couldn’t give up cheese”, then I reckon your brain isn’t thinking about it right. The thing you have to do to your brain is this: tell it that you really could, and it wants to.
Tell it that until it starts believing it. It will in the end. Brains are stupid like that.
2. I’ll do it my way, thanks
So, obv: veganism is about something greater than yourself. It’s about immediate impacts — less demand for eggs (so fewer baby male chicks minced alive at birth), less demand for cheese (so less of this), etc etc — and helping to tip a system through positive demand for vegan nosh. Far fewer greenhouse gas emissions too: the green case against all types of animal farming is increasingly hard to ignore.
But also it’s about you. What do you want to put in your gob? What makes you feel like you’re doing the right thing? You’re doing it for the animals. But you’re just as importantly doing it for your own peace of mind.
TO HELL with strict rules, absolutism, moral high-ground, and sneering at those who don’t do it right.
Do what makes you feel good, and what you can given who you are, and don’t beat yourself up too much, and start from there.
I am a right sod when it comes to wiggle room. Without totally saying no to it all as a basic set of rules, I’d be poking myself into grey areas before you can say “well, they are only going to throw this slice of Red Leicester away if I don’t eat it.” I need to have a code. It’s easier for me that way. I may slip occasionally. But it doesn’t mean you need to have the same code I’ve got.
And of course: I’ve definitely eaten dairy products in the last ten years. Sometimes by mistake; sometimes when to send something back to the kitchen to be binned wouldn’t make a single bit of difference other than wasting food in a world of hunger. If you think that means I haven’t been vegan for ten years, then OK, whatever. Far as I’m concerned, in terms of what I’m setting out to do and the standard against which I hold myself, I’ve stuck the course.
You are the important factor here. I know what worked for me. Find what works for you. If you really don’t think you’re ready to give it all up, try giving some of it up. It all chips away at the margins. It all makes it more likely that the shop from which you just bought one fewer pint of milk will order one fewer pint of milk from the dairy next time.
Absolutism, and the elevation of veganism to an exalted position of rarified moral superiority, is stoopid; I am convinced to my core, after ten years of this, that it turns off more people than it turns on.
3. Stop being so bloody worried about me
The hardest part of the whole vegan thing isn’t really anything to do with me.
I’m pretty good at being vegan now. It’s just a thing I do. In supermarkets, I don’t even really notice any more all the stuff in there that’s not vegan (and plenty is, I assure you). And in London in the year 2016 there is pretty much always something vegan or which could be made so on the menu, or the chef is invariably prepared to knock you something up.
The problem is other people. Specifically, nice people; well-meaning people. Family, colleagues, friends, who want you to be happy. Who want you to have some cake when it comes round the office. Who want you to have a staggering array of choices from every restaurant menu, just like they do.
STOP BLOODY WORRYING.
Look, it’s nice to have cake. I LIKE cake. And it’s nice to have more than one choice in a restaurant. But it’s no kind of hardship not to eat a thing I’ve chosen not to eat and didn’t expect to be an option in the first place. It really isn’t.
If I had to pick one thing that anyone reading this who knows me could do to make me feel nice, it would be to STFU and stop fretting on my behalf about how many things on any given menu I can eat.
Your heart is in the right place. But you are being a pain in the arse.
4. People get really REALLY weird about food
“Why are you a vegan?”
I know. It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. More and more people are vegans, but obviously most people aren’t.
In touchier times, my response would be this: “why aren’t you?” Which I know makes me sound like a dick. But what I meant was this.
Western diets ooze meat and animal products, but eating them is a choice, just like not eating them is. In the UK we eat some animals (i.e. cows) and freak out at other ones (i.e horses), for no logical reason whatsoever. And my theory is that even people who think it’s perfectly fine to eat animals carry some unease at the barbarism, the mass commodification of sentient life. I think we all baulk a bit at the ocean of disconnect between the cute little baa-lambs that everyone loves and the sizzling meal on your plate.
So, I think I was trying to say, why have you chosen to eat what you eat? Why’s the question any more valid to chuck at me than at you?
“It’s not normal”. There’s the rub. Normal: equal parts daft and pointless, and also very important for our psychologies. Any fule kno that just because something is normal, doesn’t make it right. Lots of very bad things have been considered normal, and lots still are.
But, ‘normal’ matters, too: evolutionarily speaking, it’s how you arrive at acceptance and safety in a hostile, tribal, world. Normal is about identity: who am I? Who am I not?
Opting out of normal in any circumstances is not for the meek. But some things are deeper set than others, closer to the core of who we are. Food is literally that: we put it into ourselves and our loved ones. We need it, or we will DIE.
And so, people go really, really funny about food. And despite veganism being ever-more accepted (see #5), people deciding not to eat the same as most other people can still expect a barrage of unsolicited (and generally uninformed) nutritional alarm. Or — as the inhabitants of ‘normal’ do anywhere at any time — the turning to other ‘normal’ people for an off-camera guffaw at your expense.
I do like this passage from Jonathan Safran Foer’s exemplary Eating Animals:
“What would happen if there was no Thanksgiving turkey?… It’s not so hard to imagine it. See your loved ones around the table. Hear the sounds, smell the smells. There is no turkey. Is the holiday undermined? Is Thanksgiving no longer Thanksgiving? Or would Thanksgiving be enhanced? Would the choice not to eat turkey be a more active way of celebrating how thankful we feel?”
There is no ‘normal’ in food other than that which our social mores create, and it’s only when you opt out of them that you realise their depth and force. That can be a hard thing to stand up to. I’ve found it very hard: frustrating, belittling, on occasion. Some family meals have left me on the verge of tears. But it gets easier. And it helps to have people around you that are also vegan, which I was lucky to have.
Yet, normal changes. As a clever Professor chap said to me the other day: “of all the things that our society currently considers to be ‘normal’, factory farming is the one that we’ll be most likely to consider repugnant 50 years from now”.
5. Once, I was unhealthy. Now YOU are unhealthy.
There has been a huge, and I do mean huge, shift in what it means to be a vegan in the UK over the last ten years.
There are over half a million vegans in Britain now, a 360% increase since I started. A beef farmer, in an unguarded moment, recently described to me the huge popularity of vegan diets amongst younger people as a “raging epidemic”. You can’t move for vegan celebrities. And the thing I talked about elsewhere — that restaurants know what a vegan is these days and cater for them — was I guarantee you not always the case just ten years ago.
When I started at this, the general jibe was that it was unhealthy. Now, it isn’t. Just the other night a good (meat-eating, male) friend remarked that my good skin must be down to my diet. That wouldn’t have happened, to me at least, a decade ago.
I guess it’s had a lot to do not just with the positive side of things — celebs, Veganuary, the fact that plants are GOOD FOR YOU — but also the prevalence of new evidence on the potential health impacts of gorging yourself on animals and the stuff that comes out of their tits.
And I’ve noticed a change in the way I view it all too. I used to think, if I am being perfectly honest, that I was doing something risky, cos everyone told me so. I put normal ailments down to my diet. I worried I was attacking my immune system, ruining my running times, risking starvation. Basically what it was is that I knew bugger all about nutrition, vegan or otherwise.
But I’ve worked it out. It’s fine. It’s a healthy diet, and I’m still not dead, and I’m not fat, and my sinuses are much better, and I never get food poisoning, and my skin is looking lovely.
Epilogue: Will I Ever Stop This Madness?
I think a lot of people still expect — hope? — that I will pack it in one day.
I did think about it at one point, at a low time in my life; was it something for which I still had the verve? Would I get to ten years then meekly surrender to egg mayonnaise and Jaffa Cakes? Welcome Jammie Dodgers back into my life? Become ‘normal’?
And back in those first few months, I admit wanting to stop quite a lot. I was forcing myself to go without something that my body was telling me I wanted to eat. That chemical memory, the social association, the difficulty of opting out, dies hard.
Even more recently there have been times when I’ve caught myself wondering what I’m doing it all for, really, in isolated miserable moments. When I’ve caught a glimpse the scale of the industrialization of sentient life and thinking– really, what difference does it make, me opting out? When supermarket bins overflow with unsold factory farmed meat? When a billion chickens are killed every year in the UK alone?
Why annoy people? Why make people less likely to invite you round for dinner, or to worry you can’t go to restaurants with them? Why take a stand?
Because — sod it — it’s the right thing to do. For me anyway. I don’t know if I can unthink that which I think. And not even I am lazy enough to try to force myself to.
I can’t say in all honesty that I’ll never give up being vegan. Life is long, and who knows. But I don’t want to stop today. And I won’t stop tomorrow. And I can’t really see myself, in practice, stopping the day after that either. Or the next day. It’s too… me, now. It’s my normal.
You may choose to eat dead animals and their milk. I choose not to. I chose not to yesterday. And I think I’ll probably keep on choosing not to for a while yet.
These are the author’s personal opinions. He’s on Twitter here.
All images used here are by the splendid Vegansidekick: www.vegansidekick.com