Vegan and vegetarian lifestyles have faced a new kind of scrutiny lately. From articles about vegetarians eating meat when intoxicated to the recently-gone-viral study suggesting lettuce production is harsher on the environment than raising pigs for pork, there is a ton of commentary out there telling people that plant-based eating is not as “pure” as the stereotypical militant vegan may want us to believe. And, you know what? I have a confession to make: veganism can actually be really hard at times. But not for the reasons you may suspect.
Popular opinion might suggest that being vegan is difficult because there is a sacrifice that takes place—whether it’s the taste of meat and dairy or the ability to enjoy social outings. Or some may suspect it’s challenging due to plant-based cooking and dining requiring a lot of extra work. The boring reality, however, is: being vegan is hard because of feelings.
At the risk of seemingly splitting hairs, let’s differentiate between plant-based eaters and ethical vegans. The former choose to eat mostly plants in their diet largely for health and wellness reasons. The latter do so because of an uncomfortable awakening and inability to suppress the knowledge of how our food choices directly affect the lives and welfare of animals. These two labels, per se, can co-exist, yet my experience tells me that ethical vegans have a lot more emotionally invested in the terms.
Being a vegan can be extremely challenging at times for the same reason anyone else would feel anger, sadness or hurt when their values are brought into question or insulted—intentionally or not—by others. The extra layer of “ouch” comes from the understanding that others’ dismissal, invalidation or downright nasty comments toward veganism have unseen victims: the animals.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, cookbook author and hostess of the Food for Thought podcast, outlines this experience in her series: “What Happens When We Stop Eating Animals.” Stage 5 of this identity development model is “Sorrow and Anger,” both of which are felt fluidly throughout one’s transition and maintenance of a vegan lifestyle. For me, sorrow pops up alongside feelings of helplessness and knowing that, despite everything I try to do to save and represent factory farmed and other exploited animals, there are still creatures suffering on a massive scale. Anger rises when I want so badly for other people to feel the same passion and outrage at the systems which work so tirelessly to keep the horrors of factory farming hidden, yet instead I receive unsolicited comments such as “I could never give up bacon!”
Let me be clear in saying that finding a balance between these strong emotions and the realistic understanding that most people who consume animal products aren’t bad people is very important. However, it’s downright difficult to be both understanding of someone’s actions (or inactions) and desperately wanting them to change because others are being hurt. This is how “militant veganism” is born—when this balance is disrupted and anger takes over.
Luckily, becoming and staying a “joyful vegan,” as Colleen puts it, is very attainable. And to address some of the other suspected difficulties of veganism: no, we do not crave meat or dairy. We most definitely still enjoy the creamy, fatty, luxurious texture of cheese and the salty, smokey flavor of bacon—we just satisfy these cravings with plant foods. And no, being vegan does not mean spending countless hours in the kitchen (unless you’re into that kind of thing). Transitioning to plant-based cooking can cause some growing pains—like any new habit—and getting into the swing of researching restaurant menus and talking up servers takes some getting used to, but after that it is smooth sailing.
If you are considering giving plant-based eating or ethical veganism a try, there are tons of resources out there to make the switch easier. Having people who are in it alongside you is an invaluable tool for staying joyful, so be sure to reach out to others in your community and online. Ask questions, share recipes, meet up face-to-face and share your sorrow, anger and happiness together. This way, being vegan doesn’t seem so hard after all.