From Nutrition Counseling to Vegan Activism

Some people just don’t like vegans. The fact of our ethical veganism, even if we don’t say a word about it, can be an affront to those who are still eating animal foods. We challenge the way others eat and live just by being vegan. And, understandably, most people feel discomfort when their way of life is challenged.

But it’s more than that. People expect to be scolded by vegans. How many times have you heard that vegans are judgmental, superior and unkind? Is that an unfair assessment or do some vegans alienate the very people they want to convert? Most of us are passionate, after all, about animal rights. It can be hard to keep that from turning into something that is condemnatory and critical.

Before I became an animal rights activist and vegan, I was already a dietitian with a relatively varied background in public health. I worked with migrant farm workers in the rural Midwest, low-income families in urban areas, pregnant teenage girls and well-to-do suburban women seeking weight loss. I learned a lot about working with people whose experiences and world views were different from my own.

One of my clients in a Washington, DC clinic was about the angriest person I had ever met. Her 2-year-old son was iron deficient and the pediatrician insisted that she see me. She would hardly look at me and, when she did, it was with intense and rather unnerving dislike. She was angry because she knew I was going to tell her that she wasn’t taking care of her child. I was going to judge her and find her wanting.

Of course, I didn’t do that at all. I told her all the reasons why kids with loving and attentive parents can have low iron levels. I let her tell me about the challenges of being a single mom without much income. Within 10 minutes, she was completely relaxed, talking and listening. At the end of our session, to my huge surprise she actually apologized for her initial attitude. She volunteered to come back for follow-up.

It really wasn’t that hard to help this woman feel respected and accepted. But I have to admit that I find it much more challenging to do that as a vegan activist. Sometimes I am desperately unhappy with people who won’t do the right thing by going vegan. I have to take a deep breath and remember the kind of conversations and interactions that will win the day for animals.

Be a cheerleader and a giver of positive strokes. Appreciating what people have done so far is likely to make them more receptive to your gentle, respectful prodding to go further. It’s not always easy when you feel like they haven’t done a whole lot. But yelling “You’re still murdering animals!” has never been shown to be an effective technique in getting people to change.

Be concrete in your reasoning and suggestions. People need information that they can understand and act on. A treatise on “the inherent rights of animals” is likely to be far less compelling to the average person than concrete examples of the suffering of factory farm animals.

Keep it simple. Most people can handle only so much information and change all at once. So maybe on the first day of their vegan adventure they really don’t need that list showing which beers are vegan and which aren’t.

Do whatever you can to make change less scary. I’m a big believer in feeding people good vegan food before suggesting that they drop animal foods from their diet. They’ll be that much more open to the reasons for going vegan if they know it’s not a death sentence for their taste buds.

Create a good environment for change. My activist soul has a tough time embracing “flexitarian” measures like Meatless Monday and Vegan Before 6. But anything that pushes the world toward more plant-based eating can help create an environment in which the “Go Vegan” message sounds less foreign. If it gets us a step closer to our goal, it’s good.

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6 Responses to From Nutrition Counseling to Vegan Activism

  1. Amanda Rock July 9, 2009 at 3:01 pm #

    I just barely found your blog!! I'm so excited to read all the older posts. :) – Just wanted to say thanks!

  2. Ginny Messina July 10, 2009 at 1:09 pm #

    Thanks, Amanda! It's great to have you here.

  3. Anonymous July 23, 2009 at 2:20 pm #

    This article that takes a look into the bacon industry really caught my attention.

    -Jessica, NYC

    Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction

    By Arun Gupta, The Indypendent

    Among my fondest childhood memories is savoring a strip of perfectly cooked bacon that had just been dragged through a puddle of maple syrup. It was an illicit pleasure; varnishing the fatty, salty, smoky bacon with sweet arboreal sap felt taboo. How could such simple ingredients produce such riotous flavors?

    That was then. Today, you don’t need to tax yourself applying syrup to bacon — McDonald’s does it all for you with the McGriddle. It conveniently takes the filling for an Egg McMuffin, an egg, American cheese and pork product, and nestles it in a pancake-like biscuit suffused with genuine fake-maple syrup flavor.

    The McGriddle is just one moment in an era of extreme food combinations — a moment in which bacon plays a starring role from high cuisine to low. There’s bacon ice cream; bacon-infused vodka; deep-fried bacon; chocolate-dipped bacon; bacon-wrapped hot dogs filled with cheese (which are fried and then battered and fried again) … bacon mints; “baconnaise,” which Jon Stewart described as “for people who want to get heart disease but [are] too lazy to actually make bacon”; Wendy’s “Baconnator,” six strips of bacon mounded atop a half-pound cheeseburger, which sold 25 million in its first eight weeks; and the outlandish bacon explosion, a barbecued meat brick composed of two pounds of bacon wrapped around two pounds of sausage.

    It’s easy to dismiss this gonzo gastronomy as typical American excess best followed with a Lipitor chaser. Behind the proliferation of bacon offerings, however, is a confluence of government policy, factory farming, the boom in fast food and manipulation of consumer taste that has turned bacon into a weapon of mass destruction.

    To read the entire article exposing how the pork and food processing industry have teamed up to spoil our environment and ruin our health by becoming the "manipulator of the consumers’ minds and desires," visit http://www.indypendent.org/2009/07/23/bacon-as-weapon

  4. Lizzie July 11, 2010 at 11:39 pm #

    This is so helpful. I am in a relationship with an ex-vegetarian. He became vegetarian while we were dating and for his own reasons but has now decided to switch back. I am having a really hard time with that because I am very vegan. In a way it changes who he is to me. His pleasure of taste, tradition and all that is more important than an animals life. He feels I am being judgmental because of my obvious unhappiness but who is more judgmental? I am disappointed with his choices, but I am not taking his life…

    Thanks for the post, it has helped me. Check out my blog! e-Eatery.blogspot.com

  5. Emily November 29, 2010 at 2:34 pm #

    I like your list, and will try to revisit it often to remind myself. After 14 years of being vegan I've become irrationally annoyed recently that people I meet don't "get it", but why should they when they've probably never even thought about veganism.

  6. Erin Plante September 27, 2011 at 5:19 pm #

    What a great post, and I love the example of your meeting with the single mom. I am a social worker and face similar circumstances, particularly when I worked solely with children and their parents and families. I absolutely agree that it’s best, in any work, professionally or as an activist, to be respectful, to listen, and to validate. Those things can open the door for a defensive person to finally relax and listen. I wish more people realized this.
    Erin Plante
    http://www.eatplantsanrun.com

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