Going vegan isn’t always easy for everyone. And clearly some people have trouble sticking with veganism for the long haul. So finding the best ways to support new and potential vegans is an important part of advocacy. Unfortunately, new vegans sometimes say that they feel discouraged and alienated by some messages they hear from vegan activists. Based on the comments I hear fairly often, here are a few ideas on what we might do to make it easier for others to go (and stay) vegan.
Be flexible about the transition. There is no “right” way to go vegan. Some people drop every animal product from their lifestyle overnight, which is great. But for most, it’s a process and we would do well to support people no matter how they choose to approach veganism. They might appreciate knowing which steps can have the biggest impact on reducing animal use, or they might want to start with what feels doable for them and their families. It doesn’t matter whether they give up particular groups of food one at a time, or just start adding more vegan meals to their menus. There are no rules on how to go vegan.
Focus on things that matter. Avoiding additives like sodium stearoyl lactylate because it might possibly be animal derived doesn’t reduce animal suffering or further the cause of animal rights. Most of the tiny animal ingredients in foods are cheap byproducts of factory farming. When factory farming goes away, so will these products. The energy and time that go into researching, creating and sharing long laborious lists of non-vegan ingredients is kind of mind-boggling when you consider that their overall effect is more likely to be harmful than helpful. If anything, they add a layer of (unnecessary) complexity to going vegan and reinforce negative beliefs about the difficulty of being vegan. I know that some people like these lists because it is personally important to them to avoid every possible animal ingredient. But is it worth doing something that makes us feel good if it is counter-productive to outreach efforts?
Promote veganism—not unnecessarily restrictive diets. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it many more times: Advocating diets that incorporate unnecessary nutrition-related restrictions makes it harder for people to go vegan. That goes for fatfree, soy-free, and raw foods diets. Sometimes these variations on veganism are perceived as steps in the same dietary evolution. They aren’t. Veganism is an ethical choice and it’s a diet that is healthful and appropriate at all stages of the lifecycle. Raw foodism is a fad diet that is appropriate only for adults and is based on shaky scientific principles at best. Fatfree veganism is a therapeutic diet for adults with health problems—and as I’ve noted before, it’s not necessarily the ideal approach.
Let vegan diets be fun. One vegan recently commented to me that she couldn’t understand how anyone would need to eat more than beans and rice for dinner. But whether or not it makes sense to us, the truth is that most Americans—who are used to chowing down on fried chicken and pork chops—may not find beans and rice to be all that satisfying. If you don’t like to cook or don’t have a lot of time, or find meals without meat to be extremely unsatisfying, or have picky kids to satisfy, then processed foods like veggie burgers, pasta sauce, Daiya cheese, and store-bought cookies can make it a whole lot easier and satisfying to be vegan.
Be tolerant when people fall short. People slip up; let’s cut them a break. And life and relationships are complicated. Some vegans may make choices that don’t seem vegan to others—accepting a nonvegan gift from a beloved older family member, or letting a child go to a nonvegan birthday party. Policing others’ behavior and making judgments about who is really vegan alienates people who are trying to do the right thing and attempting to make a difference. No one is 100% vegan. Most of us knowingly use products—like books that are bound with animal-derived glue—that we technically could do without, even though it would be extremely difficult. So when people say that veganism is “absolute,” they usually mean it’s absolute the way they define it.
Be honest about nutrition. It’s pretty unlikely that a vegan diet is the only healthy way to eat and we will always get backed into a corner if we say that it is. Likewise, some nutrients are harder to come by on a vegan diet. If we dismiss nutrition issues, we run the risk that some vegans won’t thrive, which is bad for them and bad for veganism. Using bad science to prop up outdated views about vegan nutrition will not, in the long run, produce a positive outcome. The same is true for pretending that there are reasons other than animal rights and animal suffering for going vegan.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep. People switching from a typical unhealthy American diet to a healthful vegan eating pattern are likely to experience some improvements in health. But those who are already eating a relatively healthful plant-based omnivore diet may not. The idea that going vegan will produce a better complexion, more energy, protection from cancer, and a sense of “well-being” is pretty farfetched. If you make promises to someone about the health benefits of vegan diet and they don’t pan out, then your argument for veganism has failed. What we can guarantee is that every step a person takes toward veganism reduces suffering and brings us closer to the end of animal use. That’s a promise we can keep!
“The same is true for pretending that there are reasons other than animal rights and animal suffering for going vegan. ”
“Pretending”? Suppose a new vegan we’re trying to support went vegan for health reasons or environmental. Should we tell that person his/her reasons aren’t real or legitimate? How is this view better than the other caveats listed above, such as being too purist about obscure ingredients or pushing extreme dietary restrictions?
I originally went vegan for health reasons and, as I’ve gotten deeper into it, I’ve become increasingly convinced about the ethics of veganism. But I’m glad that when I was first transitioning no one discouraged me about my motives being “wrong.”
The energy and time that go into researching, creating and sharing long laborious lists of non-vegan ingredients is kind of mind-boggling when you consider that their overall effect is more likely to be harmful than helpful.
I only disagree here because the mere thought of putting any animal product or by-product into my body is utterly disgusting TO ME. But I don’t judge people who aren’t as obsessive about this particular point because, like you said, it’s important for each person to go vegan in the way that is easiest for them.
letting a child go to a nonvegan birthday party.
My son is not vegan or even vegetarian. It was a personal choice made between his father & I, not between me & the vegan community. Just as I was given the freedom to choose my own lifestyle, so will my son be granted that freedom.
Veganism is a VERY personal issue for every vegan, and I make it a point not to preach, not to promise, but to encourage & support my friends who have wanted to make the switch. There’s no magic bean here, it’s just called being a decent human being.
So if your son decided to be homophobic and a gay basher (or anti Semite, or mysoginistic, or a school bully) is that also a “personal choice” should he also be given the freedom to decide? This attitude is completely missing any logic that I can see.
What?! I went vegan for health reasons only. I can not believe how judgemental some of you are!
Totally agree john
Thank you so much for this. It is exactly how I think, and I will forward this article to my friends and loved ones. I appreciate all that you do!
I am exited to see your new website. I look forward to reading the other pages when they will become available.
“Promote veganism—not unnecessarily restrictive diets. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it many more times: Advocating diets that incorporate unnecessary nutrition-related restrictions makes it harder for people to go vegan. That goes for fatfree, soy-free, and raw foods diets. Sometimes these variations on veganism are perceived as steps in the same dietary evolution. They aren’t. Veganism is an ethical choice and it’s a diet that is healthful and appropriate at all stages of the lifecycle. Raw foodism is a fad diet that is appropriate only for adults and is based on shaky scientific principles at best. Fatfree veganism is a therapeutic diet for adults with health problems—and as I’ve noted before, it’s not necessarily the ideal approach.”
This struck home with me most. I’ve actually found my eating choices (relatively health-conscious vegan) on the defensive lately, by other vegans, who have made that “more enlightened” leap to the next level of vegan purity (raw foods, etc. etc.) despite thriving completely through my current non-harming eating. If it works for others…great…but I’m surprised the holier-than-thou mentality that tends to go along with it is still being employed.
Thanks for the grounding in this post. Great stuff.
I felt better going vegetarian and much better going vegan. I still feel great as a result of my whole foods vegan diet. So, I have trouble accepting the “don’t talk about health” theme. I do agree that the exaggerated claims of the zealots are nauseating.
Promote veganism—not unnecessarily restrictive diets.
Amen. I haven’t looked at one in a few years, to be fair, but the starter guide Friends Of Animals publishes promotes raw foodism and to young people.
Likewise, some nutrients are harder to come by on a vegan diet. If we dismiss nutrition issues, we run the risk that some vegans won’t thrive, which is bad for them and bad for veganism
Again, I haven’t looked at one of their starter guides in a while, but PETA is guilty of leaving a lot of basic vegan nutrition information out . They are not the only animal protection organization that does so.
The best free vegan starter guide, hands down, is “A Guide To Cruelty Free Eating” published by Vegan Outreach. It is written by Jack Norris, a registered dietitian and a vegan. The guide has complete vegan nutrition information, is brief and easy to read with lots of practical tips.
IMHO, it is the best piece of free literature to give to someone willing to give a vegan diet a try.
“The same is true for pretending that there are reasons other than animal rights and animal suffering for going vegan. ”
I respectfully disagree.
Right now I am reading Six Arguments for a Greener Diet: How a More Plant Based Diet Could Save Your Health and the Environment.
The authors do not tell people the need to go vegan, but the book makes it abundantly clear that there are ample human and planetary health benefits to be had with a vegan diet.
It is published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and is fairly up to date having been published in 2006. Chock full of references to back up their points.
I agree that there is a strong argument from both a health and environmental standpoint for eating a diet consisting of mostly plant foods.
The problem is that there is no evidence that eating a 100% vegan diet is better than an almost-vegan diet that derives maybe 5% or 10% of calories from animal foods. So if we are interested in promoting veganism–and especially a vegan lifestyle, not just diet–then neither the health nor environmental arguments hold up.
I think it’s fine to point out to people that they are likely to have improved health and a smaller carbon footprint as they begin to reduce animal products in their diets. And, I am happy to support people who go vegan or almost vegan for any reason. But what I can’t say, in all honesty, is that a vegan diet is the most (or only) healthful way to eat or that you have to be vegan to be “green.” So that’s why those arguments always fall short.
I really like this essay by Matt Ball from the Vegan Outreach site on the topic of the “health argument” for veganism.
Hi, Ginny. Thanks for thinking and writing about these things. One thing about avoiding 7-syllable ingredients — those are probably not good for us anyway. (I do think health the environment are significant issues – and if we have those arguments in the bag, why not flaunt ’em?); and It doesn’t hurt to promote whole foods — the most delicious breads are often made of only four or five ingredients, all straightforward and pronouncer-friendly — and that way we avoid those bits that that add up to a significant profit from animal agribusiness.
And there might be just a little bit of honey, whey, gelatine or butter but again that little bit is tons in the aggregate.
My tuppence. (Hey, those little tuppence here and there add up!)
Your new blog design is quite fresh and welcoming.
“Avoiding additives like sodium stearoyl lactylate because it might possibly be animal derived doesn’t reduce animal suffering or further the cause of animal rights.”
GInny, if your point is not to waver over ingredients that might be vegan or not, then I guess that is up to the individual to decide. You start by mentioning ‘maybe-vegan’ ingredients, but then switch into discussing ingredients that are clearly animal derived (“factory farming”).
I understand the desire not to appear fanatical or obsessive about ingredients lists. I also understand the desire to make eating vegan seem easy, because it is easy! From this point of view it makes sense to avoid focusing on “the tiny animal ingredients in foods”.
Alternatively, situations like this could be used to illustrate how far-reaching and insidious our use of animals is. I would think that this would be a good opportunity to demonstrate how messed up things are, when even things you would expect to be vegan are not (a recent personal example: breadcrumbs containing fish). This sounds like great animal rights education to me.
It also speaks to vegan consistency. Animal use is animal use regardless of whether it’s a “byproduct” (like leather is a “byproduct?” like veal is a “byproduct”?) or the primary product. If vegans avoid consuming anything containing animal products, why not be consistent and avoid *all* animal products? Accepting some because they are “byproducts” creates confusion as to where exactly your line in the sand is.
Also, I think it’s kinda weird to imply that some animal products are ‘worse’ than others (as in, primary products are worse than by-products, which is what is implied above.). They’re all the result of speciesist ideology, whether it’s bacon or casein. Shouldn’t we be against them all?
BTW, I’m not saying it’s perfection or you’re off the team. Sure, sometimes vegans consume things that they later find out contained animal products. So what? We don’t live in a vegan world. Learn from it and move on. Of course vegans don’t want to consume these things, and are often grossed out by the very thought of it, but if someone’s using veganism to seek personal purity for the sacred temple of their body, then all I can say is that it’s about the other animals silly, not you 🙂
Excellent post! Thank you for being a voice of reason and encouragement. I want to welcome new veg*ans with open arms, not lists of Thou Shalt Nots.
I’m pasting in a couple of comments to this post that came in just as my blog was migrating to its new site on Friday night. They arrived in my email, but not in the blog:
From Lisa, on Aug 6:
Ginny, Wonderful suggestions! Thanks. I love your blog posts. lisa
From Malitsu on Aug 7
One more thing I’ve noticed in myself is that it’s better to introduce new and fascinating stuff instead of making up restrictions. For example learning how to value different aromas of vegetable milks instead of just quitting cow milk right away. The latter one will follow on its own.
Love the new look of the website.
I’ve only been vegan for a few weeks (was vegetarian for 8 months) and I just had to leave you a comment to say…bang on sister!!
You are a true voice of reason..keep it coming 🙂
Thanks for posting. I love this site…I’m a “work in progress.” Went pescatarian (and resolved not to buy any more leather products) last week, and haven’t missed the meat and fowl one bit. Going vegetarian as soon as I get my protein sources straight (blood sugar issues). Aspiring to vegan, hopefully within a year.
Just dropping land animals, I already feel physically and ethically better. Eating something that has been horribly mistreated just feels like bad karma, kwim? Looking forward to further reducing my contribution to commercial animal abuse.
The “maximium impact” approach of this site is refreshing, and exciting to a work in progress like myself. The content keeps me inspired to keep improving without feeling guilty about the parts I’m still working on.
[…] doesn’t matter or because the small stuff makes us look petty. For example, Ginny Messina says: “Focus on things that matter. Avoiding additives like sodium stearoyl lactylate because it […]
Excellent advice. Several of my friends are working toward more compassionate diets and lifestyles, and I want to provide them encouragement and show them that veganism isn't as difficult as they might imagine. We share recipes, books, DVDs, magazines (VegNews!), and recommend eco-friendly, animal friendly products to one another. When we meet for dinners and happy hours, I call ahead or find the menu online, so that I can order my food without interrogating our waiter about the ingredients in each entree. I want to demonstrate just how joyful a life of veganism and animal advocacy can be!
[…] promote ethical veganism, it is counter-productive to this goal. As aptly noted by Ginny Messina, The VeganRD, “Advocating diets that incorporate unnecessary nutrition-related restrictions makes it […]
Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am a registered nurse, and am a lacto-ovo vegetarian. I started my veggie path at age 14 by dropping veal because I wanted to stop participating in animal cruelty. I made changes gradually to my diet, becoming fully lacto-ovo veg by age 22. I will be 40 this year. My fiance went lacto-ovo veg cold tofu 25 years ago, and it worked for him. (Granted, some of those years he was a Doritos and Mountain Dew vegetarian.) For me, the best way to make the dietary changes stick was to do so gradually.
I gained weight last year, and went through an extremely strict program in Colorado. I lost 7 lbs in 6 weeks and never felt so awful in my life. A dietician friend reviewed the plan with me, and determined that I was eating 1500 calories per day. No wonder. I stopped, and decided to go back to my normal diet, but more mindfully so.
What I decided was to dramatically cut dairy. I started choosing vegan recipes that sounded wonderful to me, generally lower in fat (unless they were full of coconut milk, of course). And I feel pretty darn good. I started a blog to detail my food adventures, and what I'm finding is that I eat more vegan meals than I realize.
I honestly don't know if I'll go fully vegan or not. I don't like the Thou Shalt Not approach as a vegetarian, when I dine with meat-eaters. I find it more helpful to point ot vegetarian meals that meat-eaters DO enjoy. I like pushing the Meatless Monday idea to the meat-eating community, because I believe gradual change is a way to lasting change.
So right now, I'm simply noticing the vegan dishes I make. Choosing from the great cookbooks out there the recipes that look fun to make and enjoy. Noticing how I feel after I eat vegan meals, and noticing how little dairy and eggs I'm actally even wanting. It's a good place.
I am realy enjoying your blog. As a nurse, I deeply appreciate facts rooted in research. I also deeply appreciate the, "Come join us, we're having fun and eating great and feeling great" approach as opposed to Thou Shalt Not.
“…. Animal use is animal use regardless of whether it’s a “byproduct” (like leather is a “byproduct?” like veal is a “byproduct”?) or the primary product…”
The difference is in *boycotting*. Supply of the primary product depends (at least in part) on demand for the primary product. Less demand for the primary product, less of the primary product gets supplied.
Supply of the byproduct doesn’t depend on demand for the byproduct the same way. Less demand for the byproduct + same demand for the primary product = just as much of the primary product gets supplied, just as much of the byproduct gets supplied, the price of the byproduct goes down because the producers still want to get this stuff off their hands.
That’s why boycotting whey won’t work as well as boycotting Greek yogurt will work.