Something new has taken hold of the vegan movement. It’s what everybody seems to be talking about these days. Perhaps you’ve noticed it, too?
There are vegans who are taking a stand against oil.
(“Oil will kill you, it will destroy you, even the teensiest little drop. It is artery-clogging, liquid death.”)
There are vegans who are blowing the whistle on dietary fat.
(“No, not just oil: all fat. I just tossed out my flaxseeds. I wish I could take back those sunflower seeds I ate last week.”)
There are vegans who are shedding light on the dark side of carbs.
(“Um, carbs are the real problem, not fat. Potatoes, rice, fruit, it doesn’t matter: carbs are the enemy and they will make you obese.”)
There are vegans who are exposing the world to the dangers of gluten.
(“Not all carbs are the devil. It’s just gluten that will destroy your gut, the foundation of your health. The rest is fine.”)
There are vegans who are pulling the curtains back on sodium.
(“Why is no one bringing up sodium?!”)
There are vegans who are leading the charge against sugar.
(“Oh, come on. Sodium? It’s sugar that is the real problem. Just a few granules and you will become instantly toxic.”)
There are vegans who are educating the world about acidic foods.
(“What you really need to be concerned about is alkaline versus acidic. That’s it. You cannot die if your blood is more alkaline. It’s a known fact. Acidic environments equal death.”)
There are vegans who are teaching the masses about the hazards of cooked foods.
(“Oh, please! Why are we all dancing around the truth? It’s all about enzymes: heating food over 104 degrees destroys the enzymes and then it is nutritionally void. End of story.”)
It used to be that vegans concerned ourselves with social justice and digging at the roots of unjust privileges. We worked at changing how society conceptualizes other animals, at getting people to finally see the unnecessary, systemic violence that is so pervasive and ingrained, it’s nearly invisible. We thought that we had a lot of work to do but it turns out that we’d been badly neglecting a whole sphere that deserved our attention: nutritional one-upmanship. No longer, though. Now it seems that so many vegans are consumed with policing each other and the world at large over carbs versus fat intake, the satanic properties of salt versus the sinister underbelly of sweeteners, that the real compelling message of compassionate living is lost in the swirling miasma of paranoia and disordered thinking.
I believe that this creeping demonization of our food landscape - the environment of shaming and judgement, posturing and rancor over nutrition - deeply undermines and restricts our efforts at building a culture of compassionate, dynamic veganism.
Unless there is something radically and uncommonly wrong with one’s body, that person has serious allergies or addictions, no, a little oil, a little sugar or some carbs won’t likely kill anyone. It just won’t. This is absolutist and fear-based thinking that is not rooted in science or fact. Scaremongering does sell a lot of books, though. It is a hard sell for celebrity doctors and wellness gurus to build a base without demonizing something(s) - fat, carbs, cooked food - and they need a solid hook to be heard above the clatter of all the other competing celebrity doctors and wellness experts seeking their piece of the (low glycemic index, gluten-free, raw) pie. They realize, too, that the buying public needs a plan to rally around, one that’s easy to understand, to stay motivated.
I have seen vegans become downright vicious as they slam others in defense of the specific dietary and health beliefs they hold to be true; I have seen vegans publicly attack each other in a cruelly personal, bullying manner, the likes of which I had not seen since middle school, over nutritional minutiae and body size as if their adversary were an animal abuser instead of, um, someone who occasionally eats rice. I have no doubt that our country eats too much protein, too much fat, too many processed foods, and that this is not health-promoting for anyone. I also have no doubt that the health experts have helped many who were at death’s door by exposing them to a healthier way to live. I am not disputing that and I have so much gratitude to those who have turned people away from meat and animal products to give them a new lease on life. I remain skeptical, though, that a little “this or that” is deadly or even injurious for most people. Followers make these assertions as though they were facts but passionate beliefs about something do not make it a fact. Instead, it becomes a form of zealotry and, because we are still a small minority of the population, this then becomes associated with veganism to the public at large, which already considers how we live to be extreme and requiring the discipline of a mountain-top dwelling monk as it is.
The repercussions here are pernicious: the conflation of veganism - which has its core foundation rooted in convictions about nonviolence, equality and justice - with random diet plans that happen to be promoted by various vegan doctors or weight loss gurus. Veganism has nothing to do with being gluten-free, fat-free or raw and we need to be mindful about not intertwining it with whatever diet we consider to be optimal. Years ago, when raw foods was becoming The Big Thing, I heard a lot of confusion from the public due to this intertwining: Wait, so vegans don’t eat anything cooked? Is that right? I am starting to hear the same general confusion about vegans being gluten-free. Now are we to also believe that people are somehow “less vegan” if they are not oil-free? What does sautéing broccoli in a little olive oil have to do with the exploitation of animals? What does anyone’s Body Mass Index have to do with the institutionalized cruelty we inflict on animals? That’s right: absolutely nothing.
We should be doing everything we can to remove the barriers to compassionate living, not putting up more arbitrary and personal hurdles that have nothing to do with it. There are already huge cultural and personal leaps that many people find overwhelming and intimidating: why would we make it harder by making veganism even that much less attainable? If people want this to be a personal purity club that revolves around restriction, dietary absolutism and body shaming, then that is what it is, but it is not helping the animals. It’s disordered thinking (no doubt fostered by our sick society) that has gotten wrapped around veganism and I have seen the shame, anxiety, confusion and isolation it engenders. For veganism to thrive and grow, it needs to be expansive and accessible, not the opposite. As time goes on, I’m more and more certain that being mindful and smart with our messaging has got to be our priority as effective advocates. When we use the same kind of righteous indignation for potatoes or olive oil that we do for violence against animals and the planet, something has gone haywire with our priorities. When we abandon the ethical argument - the one that we basically own - because we'd rather publicly berate each other over perceived nutritional shortcomings, we have taken an axe to our own foundation.