It's been more than ten years since I decided to go vegan, and a few years before that since I became a Pescatarian, when I ate a mainly vegetarian diet but included some fish. That means it has been almost fifteen years since I have eaten any red meat or chicken. Back then, being vegan was considered an extremely unusual lifestyle choice to make. No one was calling it 'plant-based', there were only a handful of vegan recipe books, hardly anywhere served non-dairy milks or any vegan options for food or drink and there was no such thing as a food blog. The major supermarkets were just starting to bring in some 'free from' items, but mainly for those with gluten or dairy intolerances and so not many products were solely vegan or labelled as such.
Fast forward a little over ten years, and there has been a huge shift in the conversation around our diets, and what they're doing to our health and the environment. We have an understanding and an acceptance that reducing our consumption of meat and increasing our intake of plant foods is a necessary step forward in our evolution. A step that many of us are taking, even if it's without the intention to stop eating animal products altogether. It's not unusual to see mainstream coffee shops, sandwich chains, restaurants and supermarkets offering clearly labelled vegan alternatives, with plant based eating very much rising in popularity. It feels less 'us and them' than it once did, and more that collectively we are all thinking harder about the choices we make when it comes to our diets. I read the other day that Pret a Manger's vegetarian offerings outsold their meat counterparts in 2017, and Sainsbury's new vegan cheese range outperformed expectations by 400%. Predictions are that veganism and plant-based eating is set to be an even bigger trend in 2018.
Despite being vegan for so long, I have a love/hate relationship with the word 'vegan'. I don't think labels help us a lot of the time, and I think with regard to food, nutrition and the environment, holding meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans up against each other doesn't do anyone any good. Don't many of us want the same things for ourselves and our families? To eat food that tastes good, that makes us feel good and that keeps us healthy? And if we could do that while having as little impact on the planet as possible, that would be pretty good too, right? When someone tells me they would be vegan but they can't give up cheese, I question their motivations for going vegan. It's not an all or nothing choice, and reducing your consumption of animal products does not have to mean becoming vegan, if that is not ultimately what you want. I firmly believe it is better to do something, however small, than do nothing because you can't do it all. There's no vegan exam, no certificate to get, no badge to be earned and despite what you might think, no vegan police. I'm not here to preach giving up all animal products, and certainly not over night, but what I will unashamedly do is urge you to think more about your food choices. Where it comes from, and at what cost to animal welfare, human welfare, the environment and your health. We can always make better choices, and those choices begin with educating ourselves about what we put in and on our bodies.
Over the time I've been vegan, that word has been used a lot in judgment without understanding. Less so now, than ten years ago, but it is a weighty word that leads people to make assumptions about someone who decides to follow a vegan lifestyle, or about themselves and why they could never go vegan. I've also sadly seen it used a lot by vegans, in judgement against non-vegans, assuming that because something is vegan it is always a better choice. Each of our diets, and furthermore our ethical choices are a personal issue, and it is up to each of us to decide why we eat what we eat. We must respect other people's opinions, and in turn have our own respected. I choose to call myself a vegan, yet I use and wear wool (I make a point to seek out ethical options), I eat honey and am not as selective as I could be about alcohol and household products. Some of that is due to laziness, and some of it is due to making up my own decisions about some aspects of veganism. I say this, because pursuing a vegan or more plant-based lifestyle does not mean you have to be perfect or follow strict guidelines. What is important is that you arm yourself with the facts, and make your decisions based on your own values.
I'm not vegan because I think it's the perfect dietary choice, or even the perfect ethical choice. It's not a black and white issue, and just because something is labelled as vegan does not automatically mean it is good for our health or the environment. Many plant and plant based foods are produced with a huge environmental cost, many 'meat free' products are little more than processed rubbish, full of salt and sugar with no nutritional value whatsoever. It's not enough to say we are vegan or vegetarian or any other thing which gives us an umbrella to hide under. Instead, what we must do is be more mindful of how and what we eat. We must ask questions, read labels, educate ourselves and really understand what is in the food we buy, where it comes from and at what cost to ourselves, to the animals, to the planet and to other humans that food has. I am an animal lover and an environmentalist, but when my eyes were opened in my early twenties to the great cost on both of those things to put food in our bellies, I knew I my diet and lifestyle had to change. I couldn't reconcile my love for the natural world with my habit for eating meat and dairy, especially when I understood that those foods were not necessary to my wellbeing and survival in a Western country. And more than that, as much as they were detrimental to animals and the planet, they could also be damaging my own health in the process.
.The reality is, the way we treat most of the animals that we use for food is beyond cruel. It's no secret that factory farming practices are inhumane, and that if most of us could see inside one we'd think twice about consuming the products that come from them. But so much of our eating habits are tied up in tradition, in what we ate when we were children, in how our families still eat now, in what's easy and convenient and socially 'normal'. The way we eat is perhaps our most ingrained habit of all, and many of us (myself included) were raised as meat eaters without understanding there was a different way. For me, the animal cruelty is the most pressing issue. The way we treat animals for our own gains, when it is unnecessary to do so. I'm not here to tell you to go vegan, or even to change your diet, but what I will certainly encourage you to do is to think differently about your food and where it comes from. What's in your food? Who makes it? How far does it travel? Figure out your own personal philosophy of eating, and delve a little deeper into the food in your fridge and on your plate. Try to make better choices that are kinder to the animals, to the planet and to your own body.
Are you interested in going vegan, or eating more plant based meals? Is there something specific you'd like to know that I might be able to help you with? Leave me a comment, I would love to chat more about it.
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