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!