Being Vegan. Cruelty Free in a Cruel World.

So, we’re 8 months into our vegan lifestyle, and starting to come a lot more to terms with exactly what it involves, the pros and cons and such like. Seems as good a time as any to have a bit of a progress report.

First, the positives. Number 1, I feel great. I didn’t think I was particularly overweight to start with but I’m 2 stone lighter than this time last year and down to a weight I hadn’t previously seen since I was 22 and returning from a year of backpacking in Australia. I think I had previously assumed that the rest of my life would be steady ascent up the scales so to stop and reverse that process so dramatically in such a short space of time has been a real revelation. We’ve both had zero issues with illness since turning vegan, not so much as a cold or a headache, which suggests the expected benefits to the immune system are kicking in already.

Aside from the obvious physical impact, some of the other main benefits I would have to file in the somewhat intangible category. How do you categorise a general sense of wellbeing? There’s just something spiritually uplifting about knowing you’re working every day to live your life cruelty-free, although on the flip side this is negated to a certain extent by raised awareness of the unnecessary suffering and ill health taking place on an industrial scale each and every day. While you know you’re doing your bit, and enjoy the accompanying sense of satisfaction, you do become uncomfortably aware that you are still very much part of a minority. I do though take comfort in what seems to be a steadily growing number of people turning to veganism, and remain optimistic that this will continue – in this sense the opportunity to be in the vanguard of such a transformative lifestyle choice has the potential to be its own reward.

What about the negatives? Surprisingly few I have to say. Finding things to eat is the one thing you would expect to be the big issue, and here we’re especially fortunate that we live close to an excellent fruit and vegetable market and have plenty of time to plan and make fresh meals every day. You might imagine a vegan diet to be restrictive, but I’ve found the opposite to be the case, I’m eating by far a wider variety of food on an ongoing basis. Step away from the comfort zone of curry, chilli, pizza and spag bol and you actually have to start thinking a little more creatively about your daily diet, and I’ve been absolutely delighted with the results.

Eating out remains an issue, and it’s something we do a lot less of these days. But I don’t think that’s an especially bad thing in itself as eating out almost inevitably leads to meals far more calorific than you would be having at home. We still get our weekly take away, and the veggie ranges at both the local Indian and Chinese give us more than enough to choose from, with the added bonus that you don’t have that heavy, bloated feeling afterwards – ultimately you’re eating a plate of vegetables and the body’s digestive system seems to be able to break that down far more quickly that the meaty equivalent.

What about the attitudes of others? This is the one area that I think puts most people off trying a vegan lifestyle, and when you think of how deeply entrenched meat eating is in our culture this is probably understandable. I would place the reactions we’ve encountered broadly into 3 categories:

1. Genuinely interested and inquisitive. Probably the smallest category. A few of our close friends have taken a real interest in our choices and in a couple of cases have even taken significant steps towards veganism themselves. This, I have to tell you, is a great feeling, the thought that you are taking the message to a wider audience and starting to effect real change. It’s very small scale so far, but from tiny acorns…

2. Mildly amused and generally dismissive. Easily the biggest group so far. I like to call this the “I could never give up meat” group as that’s probably the single statement I’ve heard most frequently. Actually, I think you’ll find they could, if for instance the price went up tenfold, or perhaps there was a poison scare affecting the meat supply, then they would be giving it up sharpish I reckon. This leads quite nicely to the most effective arguments we use when discussing our vegan lifestyle. It all boils down to self interest. I freely admit that is what brought me here in the first place and I’m convinced it’s the best approach for encouraging others to join in.

The friends I mentioned above who decided to try out veganism? The main one of those took an interest not because of a sudden overwhelming affinity with innocent animals but because he saw how much weight I had lost. And that’s fair enough I think, if he’s anything like me the cruelty awareness will follow as once you’ve already made the decision to stop eating meat then it’s much easier to open your eyes to the other issues surrounding this. As a meat-eater I always knew at some level that something reasonably unsavoury had to be taking place to turn that living pig into the sausage on my plate, I just didn’t like to think about it. Stop eating the sausage and you can enquire as to the fate of the pig with a clear conscience.

3. The haters. Some people are just virulently anti-vegan, and although there’s not too many of them, they tend to shout the loudest so it’s quite difficult to ignore. The main symptom here appears to be trying to trip you up, to prove that you aren’t actually fully vegan and therefore must be a massive hypocrite. For example, I have a pair of leather boots. I’ve had them for over 10 years, a time frame that predates my veganism by a factor in excess of 10, so I confess I see little benefit in throwing them away. There is no respite for the cow slaughtered to make those boots if I stop wearing them now, as far as I’m concerned as long as I don’t buy any more I’m ethically in the clear.

Example 2 – bread. It has yeast in it, yeast is a living organism so if you eat that bread you’re a killer. I’m not joking, this is an argument that has actually been presented to us. Both the leather boots and the bread-eating are quoted as reasons why we’re not proper vegans, and this is further chaotically expanded into the decision that the entire vegan concept is a fallacy, and guess what, we’ve lost. You’re looking at a circuitous thought process that somehow manages to take wearing boots or eating bread and effectively use it as justification for heading home and eating an extra large mixed grill, content in the knowledge that you’ve bested those pesky vegans.

This is something that has genuinely surprised me and I’ve had to take some time to step back and examine the reasons behind it, and I think it boils down to this – implied criticism. Now I must stress we have in no way tried to force our views on others, we will answer questions truthfully if asked in a genuinely inquisitive and non-confrontational manner, but in terms of preaching our beliefs to other people we’ve been very, very careful not to. If you attack people then human nature dictates they will become defensive and your chances of reaching consensus are as good as gone.

However, whether you explicitly state it or not, the reasons for someone going vegan are pretty widely known – it’s because they think it’s healthier and they don’t agree with killing or enslaving animals for food. If you’re not vegan then this automatically makes you unhealthy and uncaring, cruel even. And that’s a set of characteristics not many people like to associate themselves with. So therein lies the problem – simply by being vegan you highlight the opposing position of someone who’s not, and many people react to that implied criticism very negatively. Ironically, this is more likely to be an issue with someone who prides themselves on their healthy lifestyle and ethical food choices, a fact borne out by one of our strongest critics being a vegetarian! It’s as if we’ve in some way trumped them, forcing them to look deeper into an area where they know they’re going to locate some tough choices….

So that’s a summary of my experiences to date. I’ll be revisiting this subject with further posts throughout the year, as we no doubt will continue to encounter new issues and challenging viewpoints. In the meantime, we would absolutely love to hear of any other experiences people have had with turning and living vegan, so it would be great if you could add your comments below.

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