Things to Consider When Transitioning To a Plant-based Diet
Part 2: Vegan Culture
This is a two-part article that will feed into a series of reports from my personal research of plant-based nutrition and well-being. In this research, my goal is to find out how to be healthy while eating mostly plants.
In Part Two I share my key insights on vegan culture. Read Part One for the introduction and for my lessons on nutrition and health.
Disclaimer: this article may disappoint and anger both strong advocates of the plant-based diet (such as those who refer to themselves as vegans) as well as those who strongly oppose it. I hope that people can be open to the possibility that there are things we don’t know and that sometimes our opinions can be wrong.
Making a switch from vegetarian to plant-based nutrition 3.5 years ago, I began by cooking only with plant-based ingredients. When eating out I would order dishes that were either 100% plant-based or come close to that mark.
But I would not worry too much if my order came with some cream or another minor ingredient that did not come from a plant. I would occasionally eat a dessert that had dairy and eggs in it. Nevertheless, I reckoned that even if my diet was only 95% plant-based it would still be good for the animals and for the environment.
My simple strategy was to eat as little of animal products as possible, as long as I had a choice. Roaming between London and Ukraine, I can’t think of many instances when there was no choice in either of these places.
I did not label myself as a vegan at that time.
But pretty soon I started to get labelled so anyway, by my girlfriend, friends, and family. With that came an unconscious pressure of their expectations to eat only 100% vegan food. A switch from a mostly plant-based eater to a vegan was very subtle and subconscious. So I hardly noticed when I started to think of myself as a vegan. It didn’t take too long before I was getting pretty fanatical about the vegan movement and judgmental of meat-eaters.
The Dark Side of Veganism
To clarify, I am not against vegans. These days my diet is still mostly plant-based. I am also a firm believer that by the end of this century eating meat of any mammals will be seen as outrageous as it is eating dogs today. And that will be a true revolution of humanity.
Definition of ‘humane’ in the Oxford English Dictionary:
“Having or showing compassion or benevolence.”
(credit to Earthling Ed for pointing this out)
However, I can now see the dark side of putting on a vegan identity “hat”. Which is, a sense of separateness that vegans create with the larger society.
Often people who label themselves as vegans create a mental border between their “conscious” subculture and the “unconscious” popular culture.
That’s because, once someone has labelled themselves as a vegan, there is a subconscious need to maintain that identity.
For that purpose, vegans tend to criticise and judge pretty much everybody else (society, meat-eaters, vegetarians, flexitarians, less strict vegans, etc) because criticism and judgement are necessary to protect the fragile bubble of their identity.
Of course, most would not be aware of the real reason why their criticise and judge. Because it’s hard to see this when you are inside the vegan paradigm.
In a way, I am grateful for my illness to have popped the bubble for me (see Part One). I was humbled to realise how my ego exploited my compassion towards animals under the radar of critical thinking and how it sucked me into the vegans’ “boat”.
The way in which a sneaky ego can picky bag on our good intentions is both, amazing, and scary.
But I do believe that it’s possible to make a difference for the animals, for the environment, and our health without having to put on a vegan hat.
Making a Real Difference
So there is an option to put on an identity of a vegan and to stay in the bubble. Or, we can choose to be more conscious and compassionate human beings and to understand that it’s not individual people that are to blame for all the cruelty in the world. But it’s our collective culture that dictates how we treat each other, animals, and the environment.
Then we can also choose to make a however small a contribution to shape the culture. Of which, we are always a part of anyway (like it or not).
And what would make a real service to animals is to move one’s focus from polishing his or her saint-like identity to influencing the popular culture.
A great role model of a common-sense approach is historian and writer Yuval Noah Harari, who describes himself as being “vaganish”. In his bestselling books among many other mind-opening things, he explores the current state of the meat and dairy industry with its cruelty to animals. I would argue that with his written observations Harari has done a big promotion for a plant-based diet. Yet, you can’t find a trace of fanaticism in his books.
A similar attitude is shared by Andy Shovel and Pete Sharman, or the “bad vegans”. Two entrepreneurs who embarked on a quest to produce delicious alternatives to meat. You can watch their TED talk on why being a bad vegan is actually a good thing.
And do not forget about a plant-based athlete Novac Djokovich, who refuses to be called a vegan, but who through his incredible career is showcasing just how powerful a plant-based diet can be.
All these amazing people have given up labels, blame, criticism. Instead, each of them expresses what they believe in through their craft. For Noah Yuval Harari that craft is writing. For the “bad vegans” it is entrepreneurship. And of course, for Novac Djokovich it is his athletic achievements.
The Middle Way
We all know the stories of people who once were vegans but then eventually relapsed to eating meat or dairy, or both. It’s tough to swim against the current. So wouldn’t it be better to be a 90 % plant-based for a lifetime, as opposed to a 100% vegan just for a few years? As a “side-effect”, perhaps more people would do it then.
Also, maybe we wouldn’t need to put all those expensive artificial supplements into our bodies. Which by the way, in my experience, can not save us from the disease.
Now, I am not saying we should take lightly the absolute horrors we do to animals. And I am not advocating to do those horrors for only 10% of your diet. The lines which should not be crossed may vary per individual.
Personally, I avoid the meat of other mammals, dairy, poultry, and eggs. I do now consume some wild fish and occasionally some honey. That is what I feel comfortable with. These days I prefer to get all my nutrients from natural sources. But that’s my comfort zone. It may be different for you.
It doesn’t have to be either all or nothing. When you give up your vegan hat (or an “our ancestors ate meat” hat), suddenly you can listen to your body and your conscience to guide you towards food choices that will work for your body and your peace of mind. If for you that means eating 100% plant-based food that’s wonderful. But it is still not a good reason for crafting an identity out of this.
I found my parents to be a good role model of a middle way in nutrition. They used to struggle with my experiments with food. Always trying to convince me to change my mind each time I was going through a diet change. Yet, they have benefitted from my experiments greatly. As they learned what I did, but without the negative consequences. Over time they have become more conscious about food and nutrition, minimised animal products in their diet and started to eat more healthy. Which is, of course, I am very pleased about.
After wearing a vegan hat for a while, it’s hard to take it off. And taking it off was certainly a very humbling experience for me, as well as a mind-opening one. My main motivation for sharing this experience is to contribute to a more conscious, and more of common sense, plant-based movement. I hope that this article accomplishes that to whatever a tiny degree.
To sum up my advice (Part Two):
- Try not to subscribe to any “ism” religions. Even if it is “veganism”. Watch out for your ego! Don’t allow it to keep you unconscious and live your life for you. Trust your intuition and reason. Middle way can mean different things for different people. Find out what works for you and make peace with your conscience.
- Swap criticism for taking action. No need to put “green barriers” between yourself and others. Remember, the enemy is in the unconscious culture, not in people’s faces. Embrace both, plant-based nutrition, and the broader culture you are part of by playing an active role in shaping it. What you do professionally or a personal hobby may provide a vehicle to express your compassion. “Being vegan” does not mean playing an active role. Opening a plant-based bistro or a food truck does (check out The Good Food Institute for support and guidance for plant-based entrepreneurs).
On another note, I do believe that any major dietary change should be approached with great understanding and care. And as more people worldwide start to look into plant-based nutrition due to health, ethical, or environmental reasons, it becomes crucial that we collectively develop a holistic understanding of plant-based nutrition and health. See Part One of this story for some insights on nutrition and health.
Call for feedback
This advice is written for me as much as for anyone. And I am learning as much as anyone. If you can see blind spots or mistakes in my thinking, please share it in the comments below. And of course, all thoughts and feedback are more than welcome.
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