This is my 4th and final (for now) post on tactics for preventing ex-vegans. My thoughts on this topic come from several different types of evidence—including research in vegans and vegetarians as well as research on eating behavior in general.
To summarize, what I’ve already written about:
- People sometimes leave veganism (or vegetarianism) because they no longer believe in its benefits—so overhyping the benefits of veganism, promoting unrealistic expectations (like the idea that you could age like a supermodel) can definitely backfire when it comes to encouraging long-term veganism.
- Likewise, ignoring the issue of ethics can be a mistake. It seems like sometimes we are afraid to talk about it—afraid, in fact, to say that animals matter. The truth is that ethics is a more honest approach to vegan activism and probably one that is more effective in the long run.
- Finally, while we want to present veganism as easy, we really do fail vegans, new vegans in particular, if we don’t talk about the important details of nutrition. Vegans can and do get sick if they don’t have access to reliable nutrition information.
There are other important issues that we all know about—giving support, and especially sympathetic support when people are struggling with their veganism. Our community needs to provide a safe place for people to admit when they have made a mistake or a non-vegan choice. We need to honor effort and intention even when perfection (whatever that means) is elusive, to respect the challenges that some people face, and to let them proceed at their own pace.
But the last thing that I want to talk about actually covers a lot of ground in terms of encouraging a commitment to veganism. It’s the importance of making veganism feel “normal.”
A study from Cornell University titled “Who We Are and How We Eat: A Qualitative Study of Identities in Food Choice,” looked at this issue. The researchers found that many people (these were non-vegetarians) expressed a desire to view their food habits as “normal,” rather than “extreme.” This is important for our advocacy because surveys of ex-vegetarians found that many did not like feeling “conspicuous.”
We vegans eat (and live) in a way that is very different from the rest of the population. For some of us, it’s not a big deal. For those who value feeling normal, it might bring considerable discomfort regarding their vegan lifestyle. We can’t change the desire to be normal, but we can take steps to “normalize” veganism.
One way is to provide more vegan options that mimic usual eating patterns. The food industry has done a remarkable job of this and the choices are getting better and more diverse all of the time. Veggie cheeses and meats are much better today than they were ten years ago. It’s easier to find vegan options in mainstream eateries, too, and this is something that vegan activists should support.
I am frequently chastised for my stance on veggie meats—which is that it’s okay to eat them. Recently, a blog reader told me that they are “junk foods” that are “worse than meat” (as she had learned in an online course on plant-based nutrition).
I understand that avoiding these foods is an important part of some plant-based dietary philosophies. But nutrition isn’t a philosophy; it’s a science. I know of no evidence that a few servings of veggie meats per week will harm your health.
And it’s not just about convenience—although that is a big part of the benefit they bring to vegan diets. Just as importantly, these foods and others may make veganism more socially and psychologically comfortable for some people. They make it feel a little bit more like what some of us grew up with. They allow vegans to eat at restaurants with friends without having to ask the server to create something special for them—something that perhaps makes them feel conspicuous and uncomfortable.
We know that veganism isn’t about us. And a little discomfort on our part shouldn’t be a big deal given what the animals endure every day. But we also need to be realistic. Going vegan presents a huge challenge for many people. It’s not just about learning to like new foods and giving up old favorites. It’s about choosing a path that puts us out of step with much of society. Depending on who you are, where you live, and what your social circles are like, it can be alienating.
What we really want, of course, is for vegan to become the norm, not the fringe. But until that happens, making it look normal might be what is needed to help some people go and stay vegan.