What does the typical vegan look like? You might imagine a hemp-clad hippie or a willowy celebutante. In recent years, however, the vegan movement has gained some unusual participants, such as metal legend Ozzy Osbourne and former boxer Mike Tyson. There’s also a subset of body builders, the subject of a Jan. 4 article in The New York Times.
That’s not to say that veganism is anywhere near mainstream; even vegetarians often have a hard time ordering food at restaurants. Still, many activists are trying to make plant-based diets the default. In their mission to stop animal cruelty and environmental damage, organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Last Chance for Animals promote strict veganism.
Giving up meat, eggs and dairy for a cause is noble. If you can do it, that’s great. Unfortunately, veganism is unrealistic for much of the population.
Animals rights and environmental organizations should recognize that many Americans lack the time, money and access to information on becoming vegan. If activists’ main goal is to reduce the overall consumption of animal products, they should encourage people to simply alter their diets — not subject them to a total renovation.
The media is full of vegan celebrities raving about the diet’s health results. Eight months after becoming a vegan, Tyson told Details magazine, “I get these explosions of energy. I don’t know how long they last, but they’re like explosions. So powerful.”
Plenty of students could use the occasional explosion of energy. But while a vegan diet is certainly healthier than the typical American meat-sweet diet — a diet based on red meat and refined grains — it’s not always the healthiest option. Vegans only reap the benefits if they get the diet right.
In a 2008 USA Today article, Keri Gans, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, explained that many vegans switch right to vegetables and soymilk and wind up sick. A proper vegan diet consists of “a bountiful variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and a few fortified products.”
The sad reality is that it’s usually costlier to get that healthy variety than to buy meat, bread and a few vegetables. The latter option might not be ideal, but it gets the job done at a lower cost.
The article goes on to mention that fortified food and supplement vitamins often aren’t available in conventional stores. It advises people outside of cities to order them online.
But not everyone can afford the additional cost of shipping, let alone the products themselves. And not everyone can afford to spend extra money on groceries in the first place.
There is also the issue of time. A vegan diet requires research. In an ideal world, we’d all be spending plenty of time educating ourselves about nutrition. But what if you’re taking five classes and writing a senior thesis? What if you’re a working mother with two children? Not everyone’s obligations and priorities make room for veganism. Good or bad, that’s the reality.
Personal experience has taught me that even if you buy the right products and do your homework, it’s still possible to fail. I spent a semester going nearly vegan — I ate eggs only one day a week. I researched obsessively, and as far as I know, I followed the rules. But it wasn’t meant to be: I got sick by the end of the semester. I didn’t recover until I succumbed to chicken nugget Tuesday.
Organizations that demand veganism from everyone — without regard for class, income and lifestyle — risk putting off people who might otherwise be happy to give up meat for a day or two.
From the outside, becoming vegan seems sort of like joining a secret club with a pledge process. You go through weeks of cravings and emerge with the glow of health and moral superiority. It’s no wonder so many people are reluctant to join.
But giving up animal products for one meal a day or one day a week is far less daunting.
When the entry fee is low, more people are likely to join. Isn’t it better to convince hundreds of people to adopt Meatless Mondays than to convince a handful of people to give up all animal products for life? Perhaps this approach is less ideologically pure, but when you’re looking out for animals’ well-being, numbers count.
The approach might even lure a few unexpected people into the full-on vegan lifestyle.
Maya Itah is a senior majoring in communication. Her column “Tackling the ‘-isms’” runs every other Thursday.