“How do I deal with negativity towards my veganism?”

It is often said that the hardest thing about being vegan is not the food, it’s dealing with other people. Despite it’s growing popularity, there is still a noticeable stigma surrounding veganism, and often extraordinary negativity and aggression is levelled at vegans for little more than revealing the fact that they don’t believe in animal exploitation. Even among the socially conscious, mocking and sometimes outright bullying vegans is still seen as socially acceptable, and we remain the butt of many cruel jokes and harmful stereotypes. Making this even worse is the fact that vegans don’t often feel like they can discuss these issues openly, for fear of people claiming they are “making themselves out to be oppressed.” This can and does have a very real impact on the mental health of vegans, particularly those with existing issues like anxiety and depression.  Continue reading ““How do I deal with negativity towards my veganism?””

“How do I get all of my nutrients on a vegan diet?”

This is a natural concern for any new or transitioning vegan, we are all raised to believe that animal products are an essential part of the human diet, and that avoiding them will inevitably lead to deficiencies. This just isn’t the case, both  the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the National Health Service have released public statements to state that vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. There are some vitamins people tend to worry about more than others, so I will discuss each of these in turn.

The primary concern about vegan diets tends to be protein. That protein is mentioned so often is quite strange, since protein deficiency is extremely rare for anyone who isn’t malnourished,  according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. In first world countries like the USA, protein deficiency is almost unheard of. There is no significant evidence to suggest that adequate protein cannot be easily acquired without animal products, this makes sense when you think about it, since all protein is originally derived from plants. Unless you are a serious athlete then protein will not really be something you even need to think about when going vegan, and if you do require extra protein, there are plenty of plant based sources which are pound for pound far higher in protein than any animal product. Plant proteins also have the advantage of being very cheap, things like beans, lentils, chickpeas and whole grains are all very high in protein and are all highly accessible.

Another common concern is calcium, which again is largely unfounded. Cow’s milk is advertised as being high in calcium primarily because it is fortified with it, but vegan products like almond, oat and soy milk are fortified in exactly the same way, in equal and often greater quantities. Aside from these products, dark leafy greens usually carry calcium in plentiful amounts. Daily requirements for adults are around 1000mg, but this is easily reached through plant sources. Collard greens for example are 260mg per cup, spinach is 250mg, bean sprouts are 320mg and bok choy is 330mg per cup. A single cup of some fortified cereals can meet your entire daily requirements on it’s own in some cases, even before factoring in a plant milk, and 4 or 5oz of a fermented soy product ike tofu comes it at around half that. Calcium is present in so many plant foods that meeting your requirements is achievable with minimal effort.

After these two, iron is often cited as a concern, particularly for women. Adult men require around 8mg a day, and women around 18mg. Plenty of plant foods are very high in iron, for example, half a cup of tofu carries 6.6mg, one cup of soy beans is 8.8mg, a cup of white beans is 7.8mg, a cup of lentils is 8.8mg and spinach is 6.4 mg per cup. If you are consuming a diet primarily built around plants, even if they are frozen or canned, you should reach this amount just from enjoying a varied, whole foods diet. On top of this, many faux meat products are fortified with iron, as are many cereals and plant milks. If you track your daily iron intake using any nutrition app is it likely that it will show you that you already get enough, but if you don’t incorporating any plant foods high in iron should be relatively easy for most people.

Omega 3 is raised fairly often by people as something that vegans “can’t” obtain, and point to how many vegans are deficient in Omega 3 as a way to attack veganism. The issue with this logic is that it assumes Omega 3 is a vegan issue, when it is more of an issue with modern diets in general. Studies on the issue are sparse, but most estimate that 60% of Americans are deficient in Omega 3 and others put the number at 90%. None of this means that it isn’t possible to get enough of this as a vegan, the recommended daily amount is for Omega 3 is 1.6g/day for adult men and 1.1g/day for healthy adult women.  This amount can easily be obtained with just a small handful of just about any type of nut or seed. Beans, legumes, and wheat germ are also high in Omega 3.

B12 is bought up more often by people who are a little more knowledgeable about veganism and where the main nutritional difficulties lie. B12 is another vitamin of which a high proportion of the general population are deficient in. B12 is produced by a microbe which primarily exists in soil; we used to get this from all vegetables naturally, but modern hygiene practices means that the usable amount of vitamin B12 in our diets is much lower. Experts disagree on this, the convenitional wisdom has been that no foods now naturally contain B12, though  Dan Reeter, at Bio-Systems Laboratories in Coloradoholds that plants grown in organically-managed soil make significantly higher levels of usable vitamin B12, and that B12 is present in wild fruits and wild and home-grown plant foods. Fortunately, most plant milks, specialist products like yeast flakes and faux meat products are fortified with high levels of B12, the same way dairy is, meaning that a single serving of most will be 200% of your daily requirements,

Despite the fact that it is more than possible to achieve a full and balanced diet as a vegan, I would still suggest taking a supplement just to be safe. Specialist vegan supplements are common in many supermarkets, and The Vegan Society offer a great one called Veg1 which can be found on their website or on amazon, these contain all the vitamins discussed above. These should not be used in place of plant based sources of any of these vitamins, they are meant to supplement a healthy diet and provide extra intake of nutrients you may have fallen short in over the course of the day. If you have any specific dietary requirements and need more support in catering a vegan diet to your needs then please feel free to get in touch, I would be more than happy to talk through any issues and suggest potential food options or meal plans.

“Veganism is not sustainable.”

This is a point which is primarily raised by those who acknowledge the strength of the moral argument for vegansim, but want to insist that despite the cruelty inherent in animal agriculture industries, it would not be sustainable for the world to go vegan. This assertion is demonstrably false, and a little research into any of the positions of reputable environmental organisations and environmental reports is enough to discount it entirely.

The first issue with this argument is that it is critical of a change in our lifestyles on the basis that it would not be sustainable, but ignores the fact that what we are doing now is completely unsustainable. Animal agriculture is responsible for roughly 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions; cows alone produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day, with a global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 on a 20 year time frame. Livestock is also responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide, which stays in the atmosphere for approximately 150 years. All of this means that even if we cut all other CO2e emissions to zero immediately, we would still exceed our 565 gigatonnes limit by 2030, solely from raising animals for food. That isn’t even accounting for the vast swathes of rainforest cut down to make room for animal feed and grazing land for cattle. This, and the systematic destruction of wild species by farmers, ranchers and animal agriculture corporations contributes towards animal agriculture being one of the biggest contributors to global species extinction.

When people talk about sustainability, they don’t always mean global emissions, but our ability to feed our population with the land and resources that we have. In  terms of land use, a full 1/3 of the planet’s land surface and 2/3 of available agricultural land is used for farming animals. If we look at cows, for example, it takes 12 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef.  Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef cattle 54:1, lamb 50:1, pork 17:1, turkey 13:1 and milk 17:1, according to the ecologist’s analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. This means that if we took a 2.5 acre piece of farmland the number of people whose food energy needs can be met by this land would be 23 people if producing cabbage, 22 for potatoes, 19 for rice, 17 for corn, 15 for wheat, 2 for chicken, and just 1 for eggs and beef. The USA is a stark example, though the population is approximately 321.1 million, the amount of grain fed to US livestock alone would be enough to feed 840 million people who follow a plant based diet.

As for the sustainability of water use, water consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually. Approximately a fifth of that water consumption is from animal agriculture alone. It has been conclusively demonstrated that the water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of a wisely chosen crop product with equivalent nutritional value. To demonstrate this, 1L of soya milk has a water footprint of about 300 L, whereas the water footprint of 1L of cow’s milk from the same country is more than three times bigger. The water footprint of a 150g soya burger produced in the Netherlands appears to be about 160L, while the water footprint of an average 150-g beef burger is nearly fifteen times bigger. Almond milk is often criticised for how water intensive it is, but even in California, where 90% of the world’s almond’s come from, only 10% of the state’s water use goes to almonds, whereas meat dairy alone account for a massive 47%.

There are of course environmental issues with the growing of crops to feed humans, nevertheless, it is undeniable that the meat-based food system requires more energy, land, and water resources than a vegan diet does. Pointing towards unsustainable crop farming as a way of dissuading people from moving away from the current system and towards plant based diets makes very little sense, since our current system is far worse than the alternative being offered. It is for these reasons and many others that even the UN has urged a global shift towards a meat and dairy-free diet. Far from being unsustainable, it is thought that a global shift away from animal products is essential to curb the worst effects of climate change.

If the world moved away from animal agriculture, not only would we be able to feed more people with less energy, less crops, less water and less animal suffering; but we could also save approximately 8.1 million humans lives in the process. We could free up energy reserves, increase our food security, re-wild land deforested for animal grazing and create new national parks and protected land. With the money saved from treating the health issues associated with our excessive consumption of animals we could fund urban farming programs, eliminate food deserts and comfortably feed everyone in the process. Taking tax subsidies away from animal products and instead subsidising plant based foods would mean that everyone would have access to cheap, accessible and healthy food, and farmers would be able to make a living from growing crops alone while paying their employees a decent wage.

Those who claim that a vegan world is unsustainable resort to this argument simply because they can offer no defence of the status quo beyond trying to convince people that things cannot be any other way. But our dependence on animal products is not some law of nature, and our fast-food, factory farm driven food system hasn’t always existed, and doesn’t always have to. A well-fed world doesn’t have to come at the cost of our environment and the lives of trillions of animals, most of us have the option to choose a way of living which is healthier, more sustainable, less resource intensive and far kinder.

“Vegans exploit crop workers.”

This argument will be a familiar one to any vegan, it is less an acknowledgement of the inherent issues with crop farming and more an attack specifically levelled at vegans. It is used more often than not as a “gotcha” card, a way to point out that vegans cause harm too, and that being vegan isn’t morally any better from eating animals. There are of course several issues with this argument and the way it is commonly used.  Continue reading ““Vegans exploit crop workers.””

“Other animals eat meat too.”

This is a very common argument used against vegans, the basic idea behind it is that since animals also eat each other, us eating them cannot be seen to be immoral, because we are just doing what all other creatures do. This is often followed with rhetorical questions about whether vegans would force a lion to go vegan too, or why we aren’t protesting lions and wolves. Some people even have the bizarre idea that the ultimate goal of veganism is to stop animals eating meat too, since we view all animal death as inherently bad.

This argument stems from a basic understanding of what vegans actually believe. The assumption is that vegans are against any animal being killed for any reason, and that we view any animal dying as an intrinsic evil. Though this assumption is understandable, it is completely inaccurate. Vegans oppose animal exploitation and the unnecessary slaughter of animals for human benefit. The issue for us is that exploiting and killing animals is placing our desires, taste preferences and convenience over their right to be alive, and placing the interests of humans as inherently more important than those of any other animal, even when their needs are clearly greater than ours.

Necessity is the key concept here. The vast majority of humans can be perfectly healthy while avoiding killing animals, doing so is therefore a choice, and like any choice, it is open to moral criticism. For wild animals however, eating other animals is a matter of survival, they do not have the option or the capacity to make a moral choice to avoid harming other creatures. There can be no moral judgement about an act if the being performing it could not have chosen otherwise, and this counts for humans too. It should be self-evident that a lion hunting gazelle because they and their cubs will starve if they do not, and a human buying pre-packed meat from a supermarket containing hundreds of other options is in no way comparable. An obligate carnivore hunts for survival and because they cannot exist in any other way, and therefore places their survival above that of other animals, not their taste preferences.

The point that we cannot compare obligate carnivores and omnivores with modern humans is an important one, because it is something that we as a species vehemently believe in every other context. We justify our exploitation and consumption of animals on the grounds that we are higher than they are, and we deem any comparison between us and them as anthropomorphism. Moreover, we routinely deny that they experience pain or emotions the same way that we do, or that they are capable of thought in the way that we are. How then, can we justify eating animals on the basis that they eat other animals too? It seems to me that we compare ourselves to other animals only when it is convenient for us to do so, and the rest of the time we enforce a strict moral and intellectual distance between us, and baulk at the mere suggestion that humans and animals should be treated equally on the grounds that they are not like us. Either we are better than animals and we use that to justify the cruelty we inflict upon them, or we are the same as them and thus cannot be expected to behave better, but we cannot be both.

This is all part of the completely contradictory way we view animals. We are so utterly opposed to the notion of similarities between humans and animals that any comparison is deemed sentimental and unscientific, and despite decades of research on the topic, a good portion of us still will not accept that animals experience emotions in the same way that we do. We think of farmed animals especially as mindless, unfeeling automatons whose preferences do not need to be taken seriously, yet at the same time we use arguments like this one which rely on the assumption that these same animals are capable of moral agency, of weighing up decisions against one another and choosing which is the most ethical option. We think of ourselves as so much better than animals, yet we use their behaviour as our moral baseline and to justify our own actions. We make these comparisons very selectively too, taking our behavioural cues from obligate carnivores like lions, while ignoring the fact that many of our closest animal relatives are primarily herbivorous. We are also highly selective of which  behaviours to emulate and which ones to ignore; animals routinely commit incest, killing for territory and infanticide, yet no one ever uses this behaviour in animals to justify it for humans.

Few humans seriously entertain the notion that we should imitate the behaviour of lions in any other context besides eating meat, and even fewer genuinely made a moral decision to start eating animals on the basis that carnivores in the wild do it too. We eat animals because they taste good, because we were raised that way and because it is convenient, not because we saw a pack of hyenas bring down a wildebeest and decided that this looked like the most ethical way for us to live. What is natural has no moral relevance whatsoever, and the fact that a specific behaviour is exhibited by other animals is certainly no indication that it is something that we should be doing ourselves.

Comparing obligate carnivores hunting with nothing more than their wits and their claws with modern humans living in an industrialised, consumer-driven society is so far-fetched that it almost sounds like satire.  Justifying the consumption of animals on the basis that other animals eat meat too is nothing more than a convenient excuse, and the notion that behaviour is justified so long as it is performed by other animals is an argument which would not be taken seriously in any other context.

“How do I deal with cravings for animal products?”

Cravings can come from any radical change in diet, and is a natural part of any shift away from a previously enjoyed food. Not all people who go vegan will experience cravings but you shouldn’t feel bad if you do, what matters is whether or not you act on them. Cravings generally pass on their own, but in the meantime there are a few things you can do to help alleviate them.

First of all, recognise what it is you’re actually experiencing. It isn’t a moral failing, it isn’t an indication of any defiency, it is a purely psychological urge for a food you used to enjoy and which you body is not used to being deprived of. When we crave specific foods, it’s seldom the case that our body is actually craving the food itself, it’s much more likely that what’s happening is that we require something which we usually obtain from that food. If you body needs something fatty, high calorie or high in protein then it will signal to you that it this is what it needs, so you will crave the foods which usually satisfy those requirements, animal products certainly tick all three of those boxes. The key is associating the fulfilment of those needs with foods which aren’t animal products, but this “re-wiring” does take a little bit of time.

So for example, if you are craving red meat, instead eat something else which is high in protein and is high calorie, something like hummus, nuts or acacado would fit the bill. These foods are of course nothing like red meat, but they will fill you up and will meet the same requirements as red meat does. This may not feel very satisfying at first, but over time your brain will learn to associate a craving for fats, protein or calories with these plant based replacements, rather than with red meat. Most people reach a point eventually where they not only stop craving animal products, but just don’t really see it as food anymore. People often cite 30 days as the time it takes to break a habit, and I’d say in my experience that’s about right, by this time most people will at least see a significant reduction in the intensity of their cravings.

In the meantime, there are all kinds of products which do a great job of imitating animal products, and you can find a vegan version of pretty much anything you enjoyed before. If you expect these products to taste exactly like their animal derived counterparts then you’ll be disappointed, so don’t go into it expecting that. The purpose of these products is to be pretty close to the real thing, but also to just provide the same function in a meal. If you’re craving bacon sandwiches, you can do that with soy bacon too, it won’t be the same of course but you’d be surprised how quickly you’ll stop craving meat and just start craving the vegan alternative instead. Some of these faux alternatives are surprisingly close to the alternatives, butter, fish, chicken and beef are probably the easiest to imitate, and there are a massive variety of pretty realistic vegan cheeses to choose from, so you’re bound to find something you like. You may choose to avoid faux meats altogether and that’s fine, you just need to replace those items you’ve given up with something else, because if you don’t then veganism will always feel restrictive, which makes it less likely you’ll keep it up.

These methods will help most people manage their cravings, but it may be that despite all this you still crave animal products, and that’s perfectly okay. What matters is that you don’t give in to those cravings and go back on your values. Eventually you will just stop seeing these products as food, that’s what happens to most vegans over time, but every individual is different and the time that takes is going to vary. In the meantime, as unhelpful as it sounds, you do just having to tough it out and stick with it. Keep engaging in animal rights material, watch the videos, read the books, and remind yourself why you’re doing this. Most of the time when people go back to eating animal products they’ve allowed themselves to become disengaged, and they lose that cognitive connection they’ve made between the food, the animal and the suffering required to obtain it. So stay educated, keep yourself inspired and never lose sight of why you’re doing this.

So long as you are always willing to put your values before your pleasure, then you won’t give in to these cravings. This isn’t to say that mistakes don’t happen, but if you mess up then the important thing is to treat it as a learning experience and to get right back to it. Just remember that ultimately it isn’t really about you, how you feel or what you crave, it’s about reducing the harm you cause by withdrawing your support for this incredibly exploitative industry. No one is saying that animal products don’t taste good or that you’re not allowed to crave them because you’ve gone vegan, the key is that you place the lives of animals above your personal desires and preferences. After all, no taste, tradition or habit can ever be worth taking someone’s life for.

“Can my pet be vegan?”

This is a highly controversial topic, though it tends to be a more sensitive topic for people who aren’t vegan than those who are. Relatively few vegans feed their pets a vegan diet, but those who do are often accused of animal abuse and are the subject of a lot of derision. Since many vegans do disagree on this, I can’t claim to speak on behalf of all vegans or even on behalf of mainstream veganism, all I can offer is my own, unqualified perspective on the matter.

Firstly, it is important to understand the context in which discussions on plant based diets for pets take place. Many, I’d in fact argue most, meat based pet foods are made from low quality meats which are often leftovers from slaughterhouses, or parts of animals which humans don’t generally eat. Some of this is not only incredibly low quality and nutritionally poor, but dangerous and unsanitary. Pet food recalls due to the use of dangerous meats or “ingredients of undeclared origin” are still shockingly common, and the use of non-slaughtered animals is a recognised concern in the industry. In this context some will argue that whole foods, plant based diets for omnivorous animals are in fact less risky for their health than meat based commercial foods are.

The most pressing concern for vegans however, is an ethical one, mainly regarding how the food they are feeding their companion animals is contributing towards the meat industry. Though many of the meats used in commercial pet foods are leftovers from slaughterhouses, purchasing this meat nonetheless does help make the rearing and slaughtering of animals a profitable concern. Vegans want to boycott the meat industry, so some will extend that to everything they purchase, including purchases made on behalf of their pets. The environmental concerns behind feeding the vast number of domesticated pets meat based diets is also not inconsiderable, and this will factor into many pet owner’s decisions on what they choose to feed their animals.

In terms of the suitability of these diets, the least controversial animals are those who are already primarily herbivorous and those who are completely carnivorous. In the case of herbivorous animals, or those who can and do survive herbivorously in the wild, feeding your pet a plant based diet will cause no issues for their health. I would caution doing your research before acquiring an animal you think is herbivorous, as there are some misconceptions around the diets of certain animals, especially in the case of reptiles. For carnivorous animals like cats, it is fairly uncontroversial to say that these animals cannot and should not be fed on a vegan diet. Though synthetic alternatives exist, they should only be used in cases of diagnosed health issues and under advisement from a vet. There is no significant research to suggest that cats, or indeed any obligate carnivore, can be healthy on a vegan diet, and no responsible animal care professional will recommend it for a healthy carnivorous pet.

More controversial is the case of omnivorous animals, such as dogs. It is important to acknowledge that whatever views you have on dogs being fed a plant based diet, some dogs do subsist on diets like this and they are by all appearances and blood work, healthy animals. Vegans who claim to look after vegan dogs who have been healthy for many years are not just lying, nor are the vets who monitor these animals. The claim that it is impossible for an omnivorous animal to survive on a plant based diet is therefore a falsehood. Vets can and do recommend plant based diets for certain health conditions, and there are fully tested and nutritionally balanced plant based dog foods available online and in many stores, a short list of the best selling brands can be found here. If your vet has approved or even suggested a plant based diet for your dog and you are making sure that they are having frequent checkups and blood work  then there should be no cause for concern.

However, whether they can eat plant based and whether they should are different questions entirely. While anecdotal evidence and testimonials from vets shows us that at least some dogs can be healthy on plant based diets, there does not yet exist a significant body of research to suggest that there is no risk involved in this, or that it will be appropriate for all breeds of dogs at all life stages. That it has worked for some dogs is no guarantee that it will work for yours, or that there will be no risk of causing them real harm or discomfort. In the absence of any significant, peer reviewed research on this there absolutely is still a risk involved in any significant alteration of your pet’s diet, which is why I cannot recommend that it be done unless under the advisement of a veterinary professional.

Regardless of my own views on the matter, I know that this is something many will still choose to do, so I just want to take the time to emphasise that significant changes in diet must be discussed with your vet before you begin the process, not just to make sure there has been no harm caused after the shift has already taken place. If your vet advises against doing it, then please listen to them, they are likely far more qualified in animal nutrition than you are, they know the condition and needs of your specific animal and you should trust their advice. If you are set on doing this and have gotten the support of your vet, then take care to follow these guidelines set out by Pets WebMD:

  1. Never feed vegetarian or vegan diets to puppies and kittens or to dogs and cats you plan to breed. (Though as a vegan you shouldn’t be breeding any kind of animal regardless).

  2. Only consider or feed commercial diets that have gone through feeding trials and meets the requirements for AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) compliance.

  3. Consult with a veterinary nutritionist who can analyze your commercial or homemade vegetarian pet diet and make recommendations for additional health safeguards.

  4. Schedule more frequent wellness exams, including blood work, with your family veterinarian — at least twice a year, even for young pets eating vegetarian diets.

As pet owners, our primary concern must be the welfare of the animals in our care. We have a moral responsibility to look after their best interests, which includes providing them with a balanced, nutritionally adequate diet, irrespective of our feelings on the matter. If you are already feeding your dog a plant based diet, they are clearly healthy and are being monitored closely by your vet then you are properly looking after their welfare. Choosing a diet which is in their best interests is ultimately your responsibility and your decision to make. If however, you are in some way uncomfortable with feeding your companion animals meat and have no intentions of doing so regardless of what your vet might advise, then my suggestion would be to adopt or rescue a herbivorous animal instead, so that there is no chance of your moral objection to animal products compromising the health of an animal in your care.