Thursday, May 3, 2012

Is it Hard to Go Vegan? My Advice: Do the Best You Can

These days, people exploring the possibility of going vegan are probably hearing a lot of conflicting advice about the lifestyle.

On the one hand, vegans sing the praises of adopting veganism and the joys of consuming a plant-based diet. On the other hand, you hear about celebrities who give up on veganism, or famous people who acknowledge the challenges of a vegan diet.

Take, for example, Ellen DeGeneres, an inspiration for vegans across the country. Recently, Ellen admitted that going vegan is harder than you might think. Like so many of us, Ellen was an omnivore - and not all that long ago, either.

"I've always called myself an animal lover," she said. "And yet I ate them. Until four years ago I would be driving past these cows on pastures, and think 'What a lovely life that is,' and I'd go and order a steak. It takes a click, just one light bulb, and you're like 'I can't do that anymore.'"

So true. And yet sometimes the "click" is the easy part, especially when you live in a world where so much processed food includes animal products. Even many veggie burgers contain some sort of dairy or egg. Amy's Kitchen soy cheese pizza, for example, contains some modified milk ingredients (or it did for a long time). Many kinds of granola bars contain dairy. Baked Lays barbecue potato chips contain chicken broth (not all barbecue chips are made of meat products - many, in fact, don't contain them).

Then there are all those processed foods that don't have animal products in them. Oreos don't (they used to, but eventually lard was replaced by vegetable shortening). Skittles don't. Many kinds of potato chips don't. Chips Ahoy Chewy Cookies don't (although regular Chips Ahoy do).

You have to be an Ingredients reader when you go shopping. I suppose it's a good habit to get into - knowing what you're putting in your body.

Then you also end up asking at restaurants. "Are there any animal products in X?" Many times, the young and wide-eyed waiter or waitress doesn't know. "Let me get back to you on that."

As Ellen put it in her recent Washington Post interview: "It's like anybody who's trying to make a change, especially a habit like eating food every day. It's hard to make a change." And this is coming from a woman who has a 24-hour, full-time vegan chef working for her!

There are other challenges one must confront. If you switch to veganism later in life and you have older children (teenagers) who are omnivores and don't want to go vegan, what do you do? What about people who switch to veganism and have companion pets who eat food with meat in it? Even vegan pet food makers acknowledge that cats are naturally carnivores and male cats are easily susceptible to severe urinary tract infections if you steer them to a vegan diet instead of a carnivore diet. And finally, you have the purists to contend with - those people who police other vegans to make sure there are no cheatatarians in our midst.

It's hard, being a vegan in a meatcentric society. As Hanna Schosler, researcher at the Institute for Environmental sStudies at Vrije University in Amsterdam, told the International Herald Tribune: "The dominant social-cultural norm in the West is meat consumption. The people who want to shift to a more vegetarian diet find they face physical constraints and mental constraints. It's not very accepted in our society not to eat meat."

When you add up all the challenges, it can be pretty exhausting. But as my hero Elie Wiesel likes to begin so many of his sentences: "And yet..."

And yet...

And yet...

It seems to me that the best way to be a vegan - the only way to be a vegan, really - is to just do your best. If you fall off the wagon, you fall off the wagon. If you have an old pair of leather shoes from your past life that are more comfy than these stiff, new canvas jobs you just bought the other day, just wear the damn things until they wear out. If you don't want to switch your cats to the vegan pet food (that most pet stores don't sell anyway and you have to special order it over the internet if you really want it), just stick with the brand you've been buying.

Do your best. That's the mantra of the sensible vegan. And remember: Vegan options have massively multiplied over the last 20 years. It's far easier to be a vegan in 2012 than it was in 1992. And it'll be even easier to be a vegan in 2022 than it is in 2012. The word is spreading. More and more people are converting. Vegan restaurants are opening up in cities around the world. And more omnivore restaurants are featuring vegan options on their menu. A lovely restaurant around the corner from where I live now even boasts a vegan cheesecake on its menu.

We live in an imperfect world. Animals are dying by the billions. Food companies slip animal products into so many different types of food. If you can, read the ingredients and stay away from the foods that have animal products in them. But I go back to my advice: Do the best you can. Don't beat up on yourself if you thought something was vegan, bought it and discovered later that it wasn't. We all learn from our mistakes.

Most vegans I know are among the sanest and most reasonable people I've ever met. But there is that "purist" faction of the movement. If you let them call all of the shots and engage in self-flagilation for failing to live up to their demands, you'll burn out or self-destruct.

Sometimes you have to sit down and remember why you became vegan in the first place. I did it more for the animals than for my health. Seeing anxiety-filled pigs gnawing on the bars of gestation crates or workers tossing live male chicks into grinders or flailing cows hanging upside down as blood drains from their arteries - these are all the reminders I need for why I chose the vegan lifestyle.

Sure it's a challenge. But think of what an infinitely bigger challenge it is to be born an animal - a food animal, a fur-bearing animal, an animal used in tests. These doomed beings don't have the luxury of getting to choose between a cruelty-filled diet and one that is cruelty-free. They aren't put in the position of deciding whether to buy that nice leather jacket they saw at the mall. They can't debate the merits - or lack thereof - of vivisection. No. They will live their lives in fear and darkness and an early and violent death, the ultimate hellish creation of human selfishness.

Do your best.  Never stop doing your best. In a world filled with violence and imperfection, be as good a person as you possibly can be. Live as close to your ideals as you can. Never forget those inner stirrings that led you here. Remind yourself that our numbers are growing. It may seem lonely, but there are kindred spirits out there. Remember Shakespeare, from Hamlet: "This above all: To thine own self be true."

Or, as I prefer: Do your best.

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