Vegan(ish): why we need to change the way we talk about food


The current discussions around veganism are unhealthy and polarising.

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Image by Rene Cortin

By Hannah Lamond

In recent years, politics has become increasingly polarised. My lifetime has included two majorly divisive referendums, for Scottish independence and Brexit, that have distilled incredibly nuanced debates into restrictive, binary choices. Increasingly, instead of questioning someone on an issue, we simply ask them to pick a side. If they don’t pick the same side as us, we refuse to engage completely, or we passionately rant about why our side is better without any aim of finding common ground. Each of us remains stuck in our own echo-chambers, surrounded by a cacophony of tweets affirming our views, shouting in capital letters about those who disagree.

Like everyone, I am guilty of adopting this mindset. As a feminist, I struggle to hold conversations with those who don’t identify as such; as a Remainer, I avoid debating with my Leave-supporting relatives. But when I started trying to adopt a more environmental diet, I struggled to find a label that fit.

The climate emergency is the most pressing issue of our time. As consumers, what we eat matters. Global greenhouse gas emissions must be drastically cut, and livestock accounts for 15% of these. Our growing population demands more efficient land use, and every pound of animal flesh produced uses up to thirteen pounds of grain that could go straight towards feeding the hungry. Ever-evolving research reveals the extraordinary intelligence of the animals we slaughter and the torturous methods of factory farming upon which the meat and dairy industries rely. Going vegan, you save the lives of nearly 200 animals annually, according to PETA.

I could argue about the pressing need for us all to go vegan. But that feels incredibly hypocritical, as someone who still eats fish, and the occasional product containing eggs.
But I’m realising that my inability to fit the definition of a ‘vegan’, despite making radical changes to what I eat, has stopped me from advocating plant-based diets and speaking out about the climate crisis.

Diet has an enormous presence in all of our lives. Far from being as simple as what tastes good, often the food on our plate is deeply connected to our culture, childhood, mental and physical health, alongside the relationship with our body. Myriad factors interact when we browse supermarket shelves; picking up ingredients for a cake our grandmother used to bake, a roast chicken to mark the end of the week, a chocolate bar to treat ourselves after a tough day.

The incredibly polarised language associated with veganism demands we immediately sever our complex, emotional ties to food in the name of saving the planet, and that a failure to do so is equivalent to murdering a lamb with our bare hands.
Especially as women, rules around diet, restriction, and “guilty pleasures” that we have been inundated with our whole lives have fostered unhealthy, and potentially fatal, relationships with food. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, and the psychological hardship of curating a diet free from guilt, with a healthy nutritional range, can seem near impossible for anyone who struggles with disordered eating. The shame directed at those eating animal produce often replicates the damaging narrative of diet culture. The blanket assumption that veganism is a wholly accessible diet is extremely damaging.

However, the aggressive resentment towards the vegan community is equally worrying. Often, the mere mention of my attempt to transition to veganism has prompted genuinely angry responses from others, who see my individual effort to be sustainable as a personal attack. In the past, I bought into the narrative of “militant” and “self-righteous” vegans; a defence mechanism to combat how daunting and impossible adopting a plant-based diet seemed. It was in fact this fear of hypocrisy, of not being able to fit perfectly into the “vegan” label, that delayed me from making any positive changes to my diet. Convinced that I had to cut out everything or nothing, I stayed safely in the binary camp of “anti-vegan meat eaters”, defiantly eating unnecessary bacon in the name of not being deemed a hypocrite.

Diet is a complex, and deeply emotional, topic. We must all make radical changes to the way we eat if we are to tackle the climate emergency, and this only becomes possible when our conversations around food become less polarised and more empathetic. Re-evaluating and restructuring your diet requires certain amounts of time, money, and mental capacity that some of us have more of than others.

Of course, it is possible to advocate sustainable eating without maintaining a 100% sustainable diet. Striving for perfectionism, and associating food with shame and guilt, must disappear from our conversations if we are to make a lasting, positive difference.

You do not have to fit into a binary camp; it is in the no man’s land of the pescatarians, the dairy-free, and the almost-vegan-except-for-chocolate that the change is happening. The only way to safely and inclusively change our diets is by accepting how complex they are, and recognising that the future is vegan…(ish).