Dealing with Vegan Stigma

Having been a vegan for about a year, I’ve found that the diet itself is simple. There is a huge abundance of vegan products on the market nowadays. Not only is there vegan meat but also vegan cheese, vegan milk, vegan protein shakes, and even vegan yoghurt. To be a vegan, all you need to do is do exactly the same thing you are doing currently but veganize everything gradually. For example, replace all meat with vegan meat, replace dairy milk with almond milk or soy milk, replace dairy yoghurt with coconut yoghurt, replace dairy cheese with coconut cheese (e.g. Bio cheese is now available in Australian supermarkets), replace whey protein with pea protein, and replace multivitamins with vegan multivitamins.

Many people assume that vegans do not get any protein in their diet or that being vegan makes you nutrient deficient. In reality, if you simply eat whatever you normally eat but replace it with vegan substitutes, your nutrient intake will be roughly the same as what it was when you ate an omnivore diet. This is because vegan substitutes are usually designed to have the same nutrition profile as the animal product they replace. For example, most brands of soy milk have the same amount of calcium and protein as dairy milk. Of course, some vegan food will have more of some nutrients (e.g. coconut yoghurt has more saturated fat than dairy yoghurt) and some vegan food will have less of some nutrients (e.g. almond milk has less sugar, protein, fat, and calories compared to dairy milk and soy milk). Regardless, if you eat a wide variety of food, it should all balance out, and if you are very paranoid, you can simply take a vegan multivitamin (e.g. Deva Multivitamin and Mineral Supplement from iHerb).

Social stigma

The biggest difficulty with being vegan is the social stigma and discrimination from other people. This is something I have grappled with for a long time. If you tell people you are vegan, all of a sudden they come up with assumptions about you. They will assume you’re not getting enough protein or that you lack iron. Over time, I have discovered a way to deal with this. I simply don’t tell people that I am vegan or vegetarian. I simply tell people that I am an omnivore who doesn’t eat much meat because I don’t like the taste whereas I like the taste of meat replacements such as tofu and beans. Even though I tell people I don’t eat much meat, in reality I don’t eat any meat at all, so that makes me a liar.

I don’t eat out too much. It’s easy to eat vegan at home. I make my own vegan sandwich that I take to work. However, if I am eating out with others, I always order the vegetarian or vegan option, and when people see this they usually ask me if I am vegetarian. I simply say no. They will usually just be confused but then change the subject. This happens most of the time. However, some people will say something like, “If you’re not vegetarian, why are you eating the vegetarian dish?” The assumption behind this question is that omnivores must eat meat all the time. Obviously this is false. You can be an omnivore and eat meat, say, during dinner only. Technically, you can eat meat once every five years and still be an omnivore. You’d be 99.7% vegan, which still technically makes you an omnivore.

So how do I respond if someone asks me, “If you’re not vegetarian, why are you eating the vegetarian dish?” I just look at what is in the food, e.g. tofu or beans, and say something like, “I am eating this because I like tofu. I like the texture and the taste.” The bottom line is to be specific about the food, e.g. “I really enjoy this fried tofu. It is delicious. It is also healthy.”

When you choose to eat something because you like the taste, there’s no argument against it. If you eat tofu because you like tofu, there is no argument against that. If someone doesn’t like the taste of tofu, that is their subjective view.

A particular conversation will not necessarily be the same as the example above, but the bottom line is to not use labels. Be a vegan, order vegan food, but just don’t use labels. By doing this, people cannot use their preconceived stereotypes or prejudices, and it messes with their simplistic views of the world, which can annoy some people. It forces them to talk about the specifics and the detail, and you can use this as an opportunity to educate others on the scientific and factual basis behind the vegan diet.

Most people think in extremes. It’s black or it’s white. There are no grays. You are either vegan or not. The trick then is to act as if you are 99% vegan (and therefore not really a vegan but a flexitarian) but actually be 100% vegan. Practically speaking, being 99% vegan (and therefore an omnivore) versus 100% vegan makes no difference, but socially it means a lot.

Too often we apply labels to ourselves and to others and this often makes complex matters simplistic. When you’re out and about and socializing, it is different to being on the internet or if you are among good friends or family members who really understand you. On the internet, you can focus on one topic in depth and there is time to think, but when you’re out and about with people you don’t know that well (e.g. work colleagues), discussions are meant to be superficial and light. Conversations also tend to wander around. The topic changes all the time. Because these conversations are superficial, they are based on stereotypes and prejudice, and most people recognize that you’re not supposed to take these conversations seriously. Rather than fight it, go along with it, but stay vegan.

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