Friday, July 6, 2012

On veganism and vegetarianism - what they are and what they are not

This post has been in draft form for many months now. I have opened it up and added to it every now and then, but never quite got it into a form that I was happy with.

I'm still not sure that I'm happy with it, but this week I had an experience that  prompted me to reignite the post and ultimately finish it off. The experience in question was overhearing the following conversation:


Person 1 (male): "I was with someone the other day who was vegetarian and gluten intolerant. I was like, what on earth do you eat? What else is there if you take away meat and grains?!"

Person 2 (female): "I know! I had a friend stay for a month a little while ago and she was vegan - it was such a challenge making meals. I kept thinking of vegetarian dishes but she wouldn't have cheese or milk so there was hardly anything I could make. It was really tough by the end of the month."


Guess what? I'm vegan! Chocolate mint cupcakes

I am guessing that if you're vegetarian or vegan, conversations like that aren't entirely alien to you. Even if you have never been involved in such a discussion, you are likely to have heard others express doubts over how meat-free eating could work.


Some of the things that might have come up are... 


All you eat are plants.


It's boring.


It's weird.


You must be a hippie.


You must be hard to entertain.


You're a health freak.


That's not a healthy way to eat.


Do you enforce that on others? It's not fair to make children be vegetarian.


You must have an eating disorder.


You must really miss meat.

And so on.

Me too! Vegetarian calzone

It's possible that these sorts of stereotypes are part of the reason that I don't, generally speaking, express my vegan eating preferences. After all, if people find vegetarianism odd, veganism is seen as odder yet. At the same time, I do believe that vegetarian and vegan eaters have a responsibility to demonstrate that those eating approaches can be nutritious, interesting and enjoyable, and that has been on my mind of late (and makes me think that the houseguest of Person 2 above should have contributed to the cooking!). However, that is a topic for another post.

And yes...vegan mint tim tams

Today, I want to talk about why I find these sorts of stereotypes so frustrating. It isn't that I necessarily think meat-free eating is the 'right thing' and I want to convince you of that. Rather, I am bothered by the assumption that everyone who is vegetarian or vegan is the same. This becomes particularly ironic when some of the stereotypes conflict, as with vegetarianism/veganism being seen as ridiculously over-healthy (in some people's eyes) and unhealthy (in others).


Do I look boring? Tofu with barbecue sauce

In my view, they can be both. They can also be perfectly flexible and balanced and nutritious. The same applies to non-vegetarian eating. I'm not someone who takes great issue with other people eating meat. I know vegetarians who have returned to meat eating on occasion in order to manage low iron levels, just like I know meat eaters who enjoy meat-free days at least a few times per week. My point is, there is no right or wrong.


A chocolate strawberry tart for non-vegan and vegan's alike

To illustrate this, I would like to refer to the following (non-inclusive) list of vegan foods.

  • Oreo cookies
  • Broccoli
  • Soy milk
  • Almonds
  • Chocolate avocado pudding
  • (Proper) dark chocolate
  • Deep fried tofu
  • Apples
  • Peanut butter
  • Sugar (in Australia, white sugar is processed without bone char)
  • (Most) potato chips and crisps
  • Lentils
  • Soy carob
  • Arnott's Nice biscuits
  • White bread
  • (Most) jelly beans
  • Soy icecream
  • Coconut milk
  • Digestive biscuits
  • Kale

As you might have noticed, the list includes foods that we might call "healthy" and foods we might call "unhealthy". It includes goods you might buy at a health food store and foods that you'll find at the local supermarket (or at your non-vegan friend's house).

And you can eat pancakes...chickpea versions included

I also think it deserves note that not everyone is vegan or vegetarian for the same reason. Health, animal welfare / activism, environment, cost, taste, convenience, culture, family...there are many reasons and the people who choose not to eat animal products are as varied as those who choose to. 

On that note, studies have found that adolescents who report being vegetarian to lose weight are less healthy, less happy, and report more eating disorder symptoms than adolescents who are not vegetarian. However, adolescents who report being vegetarian for ethical, moral or health reasons are healthier than adolescents who are not vegetarian. Other research has found that 'health consciousness' is a better predictor of health outcomes than vegetarianism or non-vegetarianism, which of course makes sense.

Vegan chocolate raspberry cheesecake


I do think non-meat eaters have to work harder at some aspects of health, including the consumption of sufficient protein, iron and Vitamin B. At the same time, I think meat eaters can find it hard to consume sufficient vegetables and fibre, if they don't pay attention to doing so. Current recommendations around meat intake are also lower than what many people consume.

I guess my point, wordy as it is, is that it would be nice if we thought about eating habits in less stereotypical ways. I won't judge your beef burger if you don't judge my lentil and quinoa mix, and perhaps we'll all be healthier for it.

What do you think about the stereotypes that can accompany vegetarianism and veganism? I would love to hear your thoughts!

34 comments:

  1. i think this is a great post and brings up some great points! very interesting about the study with adolescents!

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    1. Thank you - and I found that research interesting too. It makes sense, but it's rather lovely there is a study to show it!

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  2. I'm all about the live and let live, and let's all live in harmony, just like Ariel sings in the spin-off from The Little Mermaid. I don't apply labels to how I eat, and don't judge others for doing what suits their sense of self, well-being, and lifestyle. Nicely written. (Interesting to know about the bone char thing!)

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    1. I love your label-less approach, and that you eat meat at times despite being the queen of raw / vegan desserts. Given I don't fit into a neat label category I am probably a bit biased towards the 'let's be flexible' perspective, but I do struggle to see why we have to put ourselves in boxes and then throw stones at other boxes! I'm glad you share some of the same views :)

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  3. I agree with most of this great post. Actually, with all of it, though I will admit to judging meat eaters! (Though whenever people apologise for eating meat in front of me of course I do the "no big deal, you can eat what you like" thing.)

    Your comment at the end about potential deficiencies across any dietary spectrum especially strikes a chord. The number of times I have heard meat eaters say they could never be vegan because they have low iron... when they are still eating meat which is obviously not curing their low iron... to me, that indicates a health problem which is unrelated to diet (though admittedly perhaps exacerbated by it). I don't work hard, at all, to ensure that I am getting all the necessary food groups, vitamins, etc. But, a few years ago I had a detailed analysis done and was great for everything - just too high on sodium, which I think most people are guilty of!

    Anyways, thanks for a thoughtful post.

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    1. Thanks for your perspective Theresa - and I am impressed you tick all the boxes nutritionally without worrying too much about it (it reflects well on you!). I do have to keep an eye on my iron, which is a dietary thing, and also vitamin D, which is not, but I agree wholeheartedly that many meat eaters have problems in those areas too, so I don't think that red meat is necessary the solution. Amusingly, I also tend to run low on sodium, which is just odd, so I figure that some of these things are just the way our bodies tend to be and are likely to need monitoring regardless of meat.

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  4. Great post Kari! I get very frustrated with these stereotypes and don't enjoy having to defend myself constantly. It's especially difficult when it comes from family members which happens a fair bit for us. I get very annoyed with people's perceptions of vegan diets being unhealthy as I can attest that this has been the healthiest period of my life, even though this wasn't the reason for me making the change.

    I try not to be judgemental about other people's eating preferences as I was still eating meat just over 4 years ago but it is difficult at times. I do often wonder if people would eat as much meat if they had to raise and slaughter their own animals instead of conveniently picking up a neatly wrapped package from the supermarket.

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    1. Thank you Mel - and you're right, I think meat eating would drop dramatically if people were killing it themselves! I do feel for you having to defend your choices to your family as that makes it harder than it should be really. The idea of veganism being unhealthy is probably my biggest peeve too and it is one I'm starting to think I need to actively tackle rather than sit quietly when it comes up. I need to practice assertiveness!

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  5. Great post Kari! I was just thinking today that diet (in the sense of the word the things we eat) is actually a hugely personal thing. Gets people riled up almost as much as parenting methods and religion lol.

    I have more vegetarian tendencies because that's the way I was raised - we ate no meat when I was still living at home because my mum was vegetarian and she cooked haha. Then I married a carnivore and my eating habits are a bit of everything. I think it's a case of what works for you, what makes you and your body and mind feel better. Live and let be.

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    1. Absolutely! It's become one of those taboos in some ways - I find myself too scared to mention gluten a lot of the time (I will save gluten for another post / day though!). What makes you and your body and mind feel better is really what it comes down to, you are spot on.

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  6. I think if you're not used to cooking vegetarian meals, let alone vegan, then having a vegan guest in your house FOR A MONTH would be very difficult, especially if the vegan is sitting back waiting for meals and like you said, not giving help or ideas. I think once you're in the swing of it, most non-vegans would be amazed at the variety of dishes they could prepare xx

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    1. I did take affront, second hand, at that story about the vegan house guest. Being a guest for a month is quite a big ask without expecting specific meals and sitting back waiting for them to arrive! I suspect it's things like that which give meat-free eating a bad name. As you say, though, the flip side is that it really isn't that hard when you get going with it; most things are daunting at first so being prepared to experiment goes a long way.

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  7. Amen to this! I'm pretty sure a lot of meat-eaters just haven't experienced GOOD vegetarian meals which is why they think they're unsatisfying. I know that was true for my boyfriend but he has never once complained about being still hungry or needing meat after eating a meal that I prepared for us. I like to think my blog is kind of on a mission to show the world just how delicious vegetarian (and vegan on occasion) food can be!

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    1. Your blog certainly does achieve that Joanne! And if you can convert your boyfriend, that does speak to how many other people could probably be convinced if they only tried 'real' vegetarian dishes (not meat ones with the meat removed!).

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  8. Interesting post - the research about vegetarian adolescents is interesting, and I wasn't aware that all sugar in Australia was vegan).

    I get annoyed at some of these stereotypes - one of my pet peeves is that so many people seem to think that others choose to be vegetarian but they never make choices about eating meat. I also liked what you say about meat eaters not necessarily think about their nutrients because they aren't challenged about them in the same way that vegos are - just recently I have been talking with someone who eats meat who finds the idea of eating more vegies challenging. Yet you never hear people going on about meat-eaters not eating enough veg in the same way that we hear people talking about vegetarians and protein and iron.

    However, while labels can be frustrating, it is still useful if you say you are ordering vegetarian that there is a general understanding that this means no flesh and no fish and no meat stock etc.

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    1. Oh, yes to all of this Johanna - especially that bit about meat eaters making a choice too. We all make choices about our diets, every day, but some choices seem to be treated as the 'correct' default and thus aren't asked to be defended! I also agree that labels can serve a purpose (which is why they persist I suppose) and knowing that a vegetarian dish is made without meat stock is definitely one of them.

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  9. Hmmmm this is really a great post! It makes me think alot, because usually I try not to label people by the way they eat. But I always do hear others criticizing vegan/veg. lifestyles. I, for one, don't think I'll be vegan because I love fish, eggs, etc. But if it comes down to true ethical, health, etc., reasons, then I say go for it! So you're right that everyone is different in that regard. Of course we should never let that become an eating problem but if we feel better eating that way, then why not? :) I guess it also really narrows down to not being "ethnocentric", because soooo many countries believe that eating mostly non-animal foods is best for our bodies.

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    1. You make lots of good points here Ellie! It is such a big topic, and at the end of the day is a really individual thing. What works for one person may not work for the next, and that's ok!

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  10. Great post! You really bring up such true stereotypes. I don't call myself a vegetarian, obviously cause I do eat meat on occasion. The only times I eat meat are in social situations (at a party, bbq, etc.) So it ends up being once or twice a month. Although I can get guilt from even doing that, I know I have come a long way. I have found much enjoyment in experimenting with vegetarian and vegan meals at home. And although my bf loves meat, he really enjoys what I make.
    For me, I try to limit meat consumption due to the treatment of animals. After seeing a couple documentaries, it is truly disturbing to see how they are treated. It isn't fair and so sad.

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    1. I like your approach to eating meat because it is quite similar to the one I take with fish. It's also a nice example of how we don't have to put ourselves in one category or the other and draw a big line between the two!

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  11. What a wonderfully worded and thought-provoking post! I'm not a vegetarian/vegan, but my tastebuds do gravitate toward non-meat food. I would eat tofu over chicken any day. Growing up, my mom was also a vegetarian (she isn't anymore for health issues), so I've never had the stereotypical thoughts toward non-meat eaters. I personally am so glad and thankful that there are so many different types of diets! Otherwise, I'd be eating the same things over and over again. How boring would that be? Although my husband is a complete carnivore, he's starting to appreciate our meatless dinner once a week. This goes to show that we all just need to open up our (oftentimes) narrow minds to trying different things. Food preferences can change! Bet our tastebuds will thank us for it ;).

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    1. Thank you very much - I am really glad you enjoyed it. I like your point about variety too; it would be really boring if our eating habits hadn't evolved at all since the meat and 3 veg style of the earlier generations!

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  12. I think the best way of eating is the one that sustains and nourishes YOU :) I get cranky when people tell me that being a vegan is better for me. I have to say that I love lots of different types of food including vegan and vegetarian varieties - but I don't want to peg myself into any one way :)

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    1. Absolutely Liz. Even though I enjoy vegan eating, and enjoy reading vegan blogs, I also get annoyed when people try to convince others that they should join them in that eating approach. In fact, I think all of the vegetarian / vegan blogs I do read are ones that don't try to preach to their readers!

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  13. GREAT post!! and it's so true, it's incredibly annoying when uninformed people start making assumptions about anything, and u poor vegans/vegetarians get a lot of that. but i've always thought that if u're doing wat u want and it makes u happy, tell those blokes to bugger off and keep on doing wat u're doing!! :)

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    1. Thank you Cait! If only everyone was as open minded and flexible I think the world would be a better place :)

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  14. Excellent post Kari! Thank you for putting so much research/thought/time in to it.
    Now bone char I had to just look up, I had noooo idea that sugar can be refined using that process. (And rather happy to hear that we don't do it in Australia.)
    Although I'm not a vegan, just the amounts of blank looks I get when I say we as a family only eat meat once a week in very small quantities is rather funny... But what do you eat???!!!!

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    1. Thank you Brydie, very much. Do you feel speechless when you get those sorts of comments? Despite being able to write about it here, I am often lost for words when it comes up in person. It just seems so obvious and yet it isn't too so many people!

      The bone char processing is quite a horrible thing. I am not sure what rules apply to overseas products containing sugar, that come into Australia. It's quite hard to actually discover which companies process sugar that way and which don't, which is disconcerting.

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  15. I have vegan, vegetarian and gluten free friends and only once in my long life did I have one of them lecture me on what I should (and shouldn't) eat. On the other hand, I've seen many occasions where I've heard about the woes of not eating "a balanced diet" as if vegan and vegetarian are by definition not balanced.

    I'm one of those take it as I go people and meat free for health days fit into my menu rotation. I've done raw for a while and that only lasted a couple of months. I'm happiest living like I am now.

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    1. It's nice when you find what works for you - and I'm pleased to hear you have reached that point. I can't see myself slotting into a raw lifestyle even though others swear by it. It's such an individual thing. It is good to hear that your vegan / veg friends are accepting of different approaches!

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  16. This is such a great post Kari! It's crazy, living where I live, I never have a conversation about Vegan or Vegitarian lifestyles. But I think that I would be surprised to know that, even where I live, someone is living this lifestyle. I think that people who aren't Vegitarian or Vegan could learn a lot about a healthy lifestyle. :)
    Um, I love to use Carob chips instead of chocolate chips in my cookies!!

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    1. Thank you Brandi! It's interesting to hear it isn't a big thing in your community - I suppose it varies so much across countries and places.

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  17. I don't think vegetarian or vegan means boring - I covet many of the vegetarian and vegan dishes I see online. Case in point - those vegan mint Tim Tams - yum!

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    1. They are pretty good, those Tim Tams!

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