Diet shaming and bidding cheese farewell: A (plant-based) rocky road to veganism

Veganism has taken the world by storm in recent years as a reaction to the ever-increasing need to protect the environment and halt climate change. Some believe that the entire global population should convert to veganism in full effect: it has proven to be doable, so why aren’t we all scrapping the steak and tucking into the tempeh?

Disclaimer: I’m not actually vegan. There, I said it. I am not speaking from some sort of herbivorous high horse. I follow what is often referred to as a ‘flexitarian’ diet: I try to eat plant-based as much as I can, but I do occasionally splurge on the odd non-vegan treat (namely cheese). I decided to change my diet last year in favour of sustainability, and I have found that this transition, just like any significant lifestyle change, has had its ups and downs. This process, whilst exposing me to the weird and wonderful world of plant-based eating, has shown me that veganism is not a simple case of switching out the meat for tofu, but a much more complex dietary, social, and environmental movement.

Doing your research

Veganism is a growing trend, and whilst it is fantastic to jump on the bandwagon, it is not something you can realistically do overnight. When you cut out animal products, you are at risk of depriving your body of very important nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, and B12, to name a few.

This is not to say that you cannot fully function on a vegan diet: you absolutely can. It just takes some practice getting to know which foodstuffs can give you what you need. It’s about striking a balance: finding the foods you like, which give you the nutrients you need, as well as the dietary variation that makes it enjoyable and therefore endurable. Yes, quinoa is full of protein, but if you eat quinoa day and night, you will get bored, and the likelihood of giving up and binging on a Big Mac (we’ve all been there) is much, much higher. Throwing yourself into hardcore veganism seems like a great idea, but make sure you are doing it safely and sustainably. Do your research first, folks.

Another thing to consider is the ethical viability of the products you consume. If, like me, you are opting for a plant-based diet for environmental reasons, you might want to do a quick background check of your shopping basket. Whilst following a vegan diet can significantly reduce your carbon footprint, the simple fact of being vegan does not automatically mean a product is sustainably made.

Take Quorn, for example. Quorn is made up of mycoproteins, or rather a fungus called Fusarium venenatum. This fungus undergoes a series of processing and fermentation, as well as the addition of several artificial supplements, to make it edible and marketable. Yes, Quorn is a tasty, plant-based, protein-rich meat alternative. However, the manufacturing process undermines its greenness, whilst the long list of ingredients on the back of the packet doesn’t quite give off the ‘wellness’ vibe we expect from a vegan diet.

Absolute vs relative veganism

Interestingly, whilst vegetarianism is considered a diet choice, veganism is often talked about as an ideology. When we talk about veganism in this way, it seems as though we cannot dip in and out of it. If veganism relates to a set of beliefs rather than a conscious diet choice, you eliminate any wiggle room when it comes to what you consume. Right?

Well, wrong.

As a so-called ‘relative’ vegan, I often feel a sense of guilt when I tuck into a portion of cheesy chips with a side of garlic mayo. I feel as though I have failed, and I might as well not bother with veganism at all. This pressure to go cold turkey (pardon the pun), can be quite off-putting to newcomers.

It isn’t necessarily the ‘vegan warriors’ ramping up the pressure: more often than not, it is the meat eaters who roll their eyes at the idea of cutting down on our animal product consumption. I must sometimes remind myself that an occasional cheese and cracker splurge doesn’t undo all the positive environmental progress I’ve made whilst eating predominantly vegan. We need to stop enforcing this absolute veganism and accept that following a relatively plant-based diet is a whole lot less daunting, and a whole lot more manageable.

The accessibility issue

French foodie Jean Brillat-Savarin once said: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” He was absolutely right in saying that your diet is inextricably linked to your identity and class. Veganism as we know it today is a predominantly white, middle class trend, despite having century-old roots in some of the poorest indigenous communities around the world.

Boris Johnson’s new obesity plan was recently rebuked by the British public for being elitist, phobic of certain health conditions, and only accessible to the privileged. More often than not, veganism is guilty of just that.

Again, a plant-based diet requires a certain level of planning to ensure all food groups are covered, which can be time-consuming. Poor planning can lead to nutritional deficiency or a heavy reliance on processed and pricey meat substitutes. A vegan diet may also pose problems for those with allergies or dietary conditions. Whilst you can take supplements to ensure your body gets everything it needs, they are often expensive, inconvenient, and artificially made.

Financial considerations can also be a limiting factor. Whilst a lot of plant-based foodstuffs are affordable (such as pulses, rice, and grains), the bulk of a nutritious vegan diet, namely fruit and vegetables, is expensive, perishable, and requires refrigerating. Even the cheaper, store cupboard options need to be cooked before consuming. It can be difficult to follow such a diet without the budget or the facilities.

Ditching the disdain

Vegans are often criticised for being fussy, condescending, and most importantly, for forcing their beliefs on others. Whilst this is a tiresome stereotype, the concept of diet shaming definitely does exist, and can deter rather than encourage people from giving veganism a go.

Made in Chelsea star Lucy Watson often reposts graphic videos of abattoirs on her Instagram feed in an attempt to convert her followers to veganism. This kind of shaming is unlikely to work. Apologies in advance. Reproaching people about their lifestyle choices, even if we mean well, may dissuade them from considering the alternatives. There is a big difference between offering helpful information and pointing the finger: sometimes the line between the two is blurred. Guilt tripping, diet shaming, and unsolicited food advice are downright counterproductive.

Diet shaming can also be much more inconspicuous: perhaps in the flicker of contempt when a meat eater orders a beef burger, or in the snide remark ‘don’t you know how bad dairy is for the environment?’

This behaviour is inherently problematic. Making comments about someone’s diet, regardless of content or context, can be triggering. Whilst you might feel as though you are providing useful information, an individual’s relationship with food can be personal and fragile. Veganism is effectively a form of diet restriction: for obvious reasons, we need to be sensitive when we talk about this.

At the end of the day, we can only make choices that work for our personal lifestyle. Yes, eating green will have a positive ethical impact, but it is unrealistic to expect everyone to convert in immediate effect. And lest we forget that around 71% of global emissions can be traced to just 100 corporate and state-owned companies. Simply do what you can, don’t pester your friends about what they eat, and don’t feel guilty about that kebab you ate last night. You’re doing great, sweetie. 

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