Activism

The Real Reasons I’m Not a Vegan

(Trigger warning for anorexia and diet talk.)

Amazing what a little teasing can do.

When I was fourteen I had a friend in my Girl Scout troop who was a vegetarian. For months she responded to my affectionate teasing with more rational teasing comebacks for which I had no response (“I didn’t climb my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian!” I’d shout, and she’d respond, “Oh, so you did all that climbing yourself, huh? Did the human race thank you?”) until I eventually told her I was out of excuses and I decided I wanted to be a vegetarian too. She recommended a great book for me, Vegetables Rock!, and my mom told me I should probably learn to cook (with her help). I had a lot of fun. I felt good about not eating animals, as I’d always been an animal lover, and I took to meatless cooking like a fish to water.

Then, a few months later, a guy in my class at school grabbed a hunk of the pubescent jiggle on my hips and laughed, “Still got that baby fat!” I was furious, and decided it was time to take action and lose some weight. I became a vegan.

It wasn’t hard. I knew that veganism was, for a select few, a natural progression from vegetarianism, and I’ve never been one to half-ass things––after all, this was the same line of thinking that would one day lead me to say, “I can run 6 miles. Why don’t I sign up for a marathon?”. I knew that being a vegan would force me to skip most cookies, desserts, baked goods, and restaurant meals (this was Buffalo, New York, of chicken wings and beef on weck fame). I knew from my reading that teenage vegans had to worry about getting enough calories. So I knew I’d lose weight––and I suspect I knew, deep down, that while my family and friends might challenge me if I announced I was going on a “diet,” they wouldn’t be able to argue with the ethical reasons for veganism.

And I knew those arguments backwards and forwards. If anyone asked––and they did––I could talk about how poorly animals in egg and dairy farms are treated. I could talk about the environmental impacts of both industries and the fact that most people in the world have difficulty digesting milk, yet the dairy lobby in America has made it out to be nutritionally imperative. I could make case after case for a plant-based diet. And I had to, all the time, and with every argument I uttered I became more and more convinced of the importance of what I was doing.

I lost weight. First, ten pounds, My then-boyfriend said I looked amazing. I got to buy smaller clothes. I was doing karate and running every day, too, and I was excited to get in better shape for both sports.

Fifteen pounds. Twenty. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. When I got together with friends for a party or social gathering, I either didn’t eat or requested steamed vegetables. When there was a vegan option, I ate it, but usually there wasn’t. My friends must’ve thought vegans were pretty sad people; however, despite being hungry all the time, I took a little personal pride in being able to say no to things they couldn’t. Like the stereotypical frog in a slowly heating-up pot of water, before I realized what was happening, a voice that wasn’t mine had formed in my brain and taken charge of my thoughts. And the voice didn’t honestly give a damn about vegan principles or ethics or a better world, but saw the lifestyle as a perfect means to an end. Because I seemed so firm in my convictions, and because most people can’t actually argue with the cruelty or negative impact of factory farming, I was getting away with what could have ended up being my own murder.

Forty pounds later, in outpatient treatment from three different doctors for anorexia, I was told that veganism wasn’t good for me. As I slowly started to get better, with the help of antidepressants and phenomenal nutritionists, psychologists, and therapists, I came to understand that the boundaries I’d set for myself were like a hamster wheel (thanks to author Geneen Roth for this perfect analogy, by the way) that my obsessive brain had become convinced was necessary in order to be in control, and I’d been running in the same circle for two years. Now the wheel was gone and I could run anywhere; I could eat whatever I wanted. It was terrifying. Anorexia is primarily about control, not necessarily thinness, at a certain point, and I had no confidence in my ability to control my weight without the constraints of veganism.

After a tenuous stabilizing period in college, I spent the next several years trying to reward myself for the two years of hell I’d been through. I started eating lots of meat and drinking a lot. I started writing about food. I made fun of vegans. My chef friends, hearing that I’d once been a vegan, joked, “I’m so glad you got over it.” (Anthony Bourdain, foodie icon and hero of food writers and chefs everywhere, famously wrote, “Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”) Friends I hadn’t seen in ages were thrilled to see me eat charcuterie, ice cream from the carton, cheese. The message I heard from my social circles was clear: I was a lot more fun than I used to be. And whether that came from them or from me, or a little of both, I’ll never know.

I felt good about my weight on two occasions. Both were brief periods of time when I went vegan: one, for a month in early 2011, and the other, this fall when I moved to Madison. I immediately lost weight and felt wonderful. Then, both times, I ended up with a stress fracture, which my doctors chalked up to calcium and vitamin D deficiency. They scolded me for not taking better care of myself while I cried in their offices and agreed to months of rest from training. I had to miss a marathon this fall. Veganism failed me again.

When I read articles like this recent Rolling Stone piece, I’m not hearing anything new. I know how bad the world is for animals. I believe in veganism. I love animals and feel compelled by the many reasons not to eat them. I tell people I’ve tried to be vegan and it didn’t work out for my health; if they’re close friends, I might mention that weighing 90 pounds and having absolutely no memory of an entire year of my life wasn’t something I want to repeat. And they get it. No one asks questions after hearing that.

But here’s the thing I need to get off my chest: it’s all bullshit.

My eating disorder was an eating disorder, not a failing of veganism. My stress fractures were a failure on my part to get adequate nutrition during marathon training, not a failing of veganism. Veganism didn’t force me to have a bottle of wine and some crackers for dinner many nights, or restrict my calories, or even become calcium deficient––plant-based sources of calcium include orange juice, leafy greens, fortified soy and almond milk, and tofu, all things I can eat, afford, and even enjoy. My vegan friends are by and large healthy, well fed, and happy with their diets. The existence of vegan athletes across the board of professional sports is evidence that veganism isn’t inherently detrimental to physical health.

I’m not a vegan because I’m scared. I don’t know how to do it in a healthy way––I fall into my old patterns of restriction and deliberate lack of self-care immediately. And because my loved ones have been through this with me, repeatedly, I’m scared of being “less fun,” causing “drama,” and, ultimately, losing their love. And I’ve never admitted that to anyone before. Is it rational? Probably not. But that doesn’t make it easier.

Food justice is complicated, and we live in a world in which the use of animals for human profit is taken for granted, often invisible, and ingrained culturally (I just realized there are at least three animal-marginalizing expressions in this post that I wouldn’t have used when I was a vegan). I don’t begrudge anyone what they choose to eat, or not eat, anymore. I respect vegans and I will continue to try to find a place where my values and my health are both satisfied. But I’ve learned that food is so much more than just food––for some, due to health concerns, it’s an enemy. For others, it’s love. For still others, it’s power and control. And for far too many people, it’s an unmet need.

So that’s what’s going through my head when I talk about veganism. It’s not a punchline and it’s not a higher moral plane, for me. In some ways the vegan diet is like an abusive ex with whom I still have to work or co-parent children. Sometimes it’s like a safe haven from the demons in my head. Sometimes it’s like a little bit like a drug, or maybe a security blanket. I don’t feel entirely right about jumping into it again, given my history, and I don’t feel entirely justified leaving the principles it espouses behind. But I don’t tease anyone about the way they eat these days. And if you’re a food writer or a chef or a PETA copywriter or anyone who likes to make jokes at the expense of people who don’t eat the way you do, please remember that food doesn’t exist in a vacuum in this world, and we all have a story behind our choices.

juliagulia

juliagulia is a wine professional and freelance writer with an interest in labor issues, culture, and the intersections of wine and politics. She has been known to drink Grenache with PB&J.

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30 Comments

  1. Wow. An amazing story.

    It’s interesting to me that it’s only recently (relatively speaking) and only in certain countries, that people can choose what to eat. In some places, there is food there (whatever it might be – bugs, rice, raw fish, whatever) and that’s what there is. No choices. So in the USA and certain other countries today, people are facing a sort of demon that was never really there before. I hope it gets easier for you, and that you are able to go vegan without any repercussions to your health.

    I personally am not vegan. I live on a farm, I raise dairy goats. They are like my friends to me, and I make many sacrifices in my life to give them the best life I can. I can’t imagine getting up in the morning and not spending time with them, caring for them, thinking about them all the time, making cheese and so on. So my food choices are very different from yours, but I honor your choices. I wish it were less complicated, but it really is complicated.

    1. Farms like yours are the kind I like to support––it’s obvious you care about your animals and how they live. I wish raising animals humanely was the standard, rather than the exception, and I wish more people had access to responsibly farmed food. And your point about food choices as privilege is an excellent one; “foodie” privilege is something I’ve thought about a lot, as a food writer, and when I got to college and started traveling more, I realized how small a segment of the world has the kind of food choices we do (is there anything more #firstworldproblems than a complaint about one’s voluntary diet being inconvenient?). Many vegans see their choice as more healthy for the planet, and a way of using their privilege for good. I also know a lot of vegetarians who eat meat when traveling abroad, because it’s the American factory farming machine rather than the killing of animals that they find problematic. Complicated, for sure. Thanks for reading.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. My 16yo daughter became a vegetarian about a year ago (the rest of the family are not). Unfortunately, she isn’t devoting a lot of attention to nutritional requirements. So if left to her own devices, she would probably not get enough of what she needs to stay healthy. The best I can come up with as a solution is to make sure we eat fish at least once a week and require her to eat it with us. I’d be happy to let her be completely vegetarian, but she going to need to be a bit more responsible if that’s going to happen.

        1. Why am I a brat? Because I care about my daughter’s health, but don’t have time to cook her a separate meal that meets her nutritional needs? I’ve told her that if she wants to stop with the fish, all she has to do is present me with evidence that she is getting the nutrition she needs with her own food choices. Ultimately, it really is her choice.

          Still think I’m a brat? if so, please enlighten me!

          1. I think forcing a 16 year old to eat fish when she wants to be a vegetarian (not even a vegan!), and then calling it an ‘undue burden’ … is … reactionary and out of proportion.
            It’s really not that difficult for vegetarians to eat a nutritionally balanced diet. Millions of people all over the world manage. Really.
            How do you force a 16 year old to do anything, anyway?
            It’s your family, obviously, none of my business, but I don’t get it. Why do you think not eating meat is some kind of nutritional deficiency all on its’ own? It’s ludicrous and uninformed and you’re infantalising a kid in her late teens. Do you monitor all her meals? Do you make all her ethical decisions? How does eating fish once a week make any difference at all?
            Your stance is genuinely baffling to me – is it some kind of power play with your daughter?

          2. Punchdrunk: Oh Man, Because I like SteveT’s commenting…and I hate people to jump on someone’s parenting when we don’t know the circumstances, I am going to delurk. Maybe she does have some sort of dietary concern/deficiency/need, or lack of access to those types of well rounded dietary items etc. It is hard to say where Steve lives, what their lifestyle includes etc. Maybe it is a powerplay or more likely a complicated situation that involves many facets. Also, I think it is tricky with kids. I know from my parenting style, my daughter gets a say on somethings, but other things she just gets to participate with the family on until she is grown and do her own thing, and in this case maybe it is getting her own groceries and showing responsibility in healthy food choices. Each family is different in how they handle just such sort of situations. From Steve’s comment I didn’t see a powerplay, Steve didn’t say he disrespected his daughter, but instead commented on his concern for her welfare and what they are doing.

          3. Since the nested comments limit prevents me from replying to your comment directly, punchdrunk, I’ll respond to myself.

            Let me be perfectly clear. I am not “forcing” my daughter to do anything. I have made it abundantly clear to her that she is free to choose whatever dietary restrictions she wishes, as long as they provide the required nutrition. My wife and I make all the family meals (we all eat dinner together every night), and it would indeed be an “undue burden” if we were required to ensure that the non-meat part of our meals was providing sufficient protein/etc for the single vegetarian. We do make an effort to accommodate her in our cooking, but since the rest of us haven’t chosen her path, we don’t feel that it is our responsibility to do her research for her. I’ve told her that if she ever wishes to stop with the fish, all she has to do is show me (with data) that she will get adequate protein/etc via her meal choices. Of course I realize that it’s “not difficult for vegetarians to eat a nutritionally balanced diet”! But they can’t just do that by eating just pasta, bread and potatoes, which seems to be what she would eat if I left it entirely in her own hands right now. At least with the fish once a week I know she is getting at least SOME protein on a regular basis. I don’t kid myself into thinking it is anything more than a token, but it’s my way of trying to get her to do what she needs to do to be a successful vegetarian. What I am asking from her is not really that difficult, just a bit time consuming at the start. Right now, she’d rather eat the fish than spend the time needed to come up with the complete meal plan.

            Is that less baffling?

          4. SteveT, I think marilove was not calling you a brat but the person who called your daughter a brat.

            In response to greenstone123, while I agree that we don’t fully know the circumstances, SteveT brought up an aspect of his parenting and I think it is fair to criticize it given what we do know. If there are extenuating circumstances, he is certainly able to raise those in his defense. But the thing is, if you live somewhere that you can regularly get fish from a supermarket, you can probably also get meatless products that will fulfill the same nutritional requirements. Many products like Gardein, Boca, Tofurkey, and similar meatless “meats” are pretty ubiquitous nowadays. I’ve even found them at supermarkets in rural East Texas. Not the biggest selection, sure, but they’re out there. Not only that, but you can get those same nutritional requirements from many other sources aside from meatless “meat” products. In fact, she may even be getting the nutrition he thinks she’s not getting by not eating meat if he has not educated himself on non-animal sources of nutrition in a plant-based diet. If he wants to be respectful of his child’s choices, perhaps he should educate himself and his daughter and encourage her to try various vegetarian options that are nutritional rather than forcing her to eat animals.

            I also echo punchdrunk’s question of how eating fish once a week actually does anything for her nutritional needs. It seems a rather uninformed view to me.

          5. Ah, we posted at the same time.

            The thing is, your original post stated that “the best you can come up with” is to “make” (not “force” though, huh?) her eat fish once a week unless she does all the research and educates you that she’s getting nutritional requirements that…you don’t even seem to really understand yourself when you only require her to get a source of protein once a week. My problem with that whole scenario is that I don’t think it’s really the best you can come up with. I think it’s the least you’re willing to do. So, be honest about it and don’t try to make it seem like that’s THE BEST you can come up with to respect your daughter’s choice to be a vegetarian.

          6. I understand meeting dietary needs – I have two teens, and if I didn’t cook, they’d live on Hot Pockets and Ramen noodles.
            I’m veg, my kids aren’t. I wish they were, but I’m not forcing them not to eat meat. Maybe that’s why it seems so strange and heavy handed to me?

          7. Greenstone and Will, thanks for your comments. Navigating the shoals of parenting is a tricky process, and I’ve had my share of crashing into the rocks. That being said, ultimately I feel it is my daughter’s responsibility to be the educator on how to be a good vegetarian. Sure, I could do the research for her, but she’s old enough to do it herself, and it will be more valuable to her if she takes the lead. That’s really what I am trying to do here. She’ll only live with us for another two years and then she’s off to college. Before she goes, I want to make sure that she has the tools she needs to be successful, including in what she eats. I’ve already ordered the book Julia recommended, and will ask my daughter to read it (I will also). When she’s done we’ll have the discussion again about what she needs/wants to do about her diet. Our family has already incorporated a lot more vegetables into our diet because of my daughter’s choice, but in the end this needs to come from her, not us.

          8. Thank you, punchdrunk. I could have done a better job of choosing my words in my original response to the post. I think that would have helped avoid some of the back and forth. In any case, I’ve learned not to be too touchy about what people say on this site. Communicating this way is imprecise, and it’s easy for complex ideas to get glossed over. Many of the arguments here seem like they wouldn’t happen (or at least not get so severe) if we were all sitting in the same room talking to each other face to face.

        2. I wasn’t calling you a brat. Mr Mercury poisoning was being a brat. Thus ….the irony.

          But it does seem rather unethical to force a vegetarian to eat meat against her will. Being her parent doesn’t make it any better. Perhaps it makes it worse. And as others have said, there are other options.

          1. My apologies for misreading the comment nesting. Sorry for sniping at you!

            I think the word “forcing” is way too strong for the situation at hand. It’s much more of a negotiating point than anything else. Her concerns about the humane treatment of fish are far less serious than for more traditional farm animals. Thus being a pescetarian seemed like a reasonable compromise (for both of us) until she decides to go full veg.

          2. Yeah, I read your other comments, and long as you are activity encouraging her to research and figure out what she wants her diet to be, I don’t see a big problem with it. But ACTIVELY, and doing it *with her* — she’s only 16. You are her parent and you are her guide. You two really should be researching and figuring out together. And, no, it’s not your diet choice, but she’s still your daughter and you want her to have a healthy diet — obviously — and she wants to be vegetarian. I’m not vegetarian and have no plans on being such, but I think it’s your parental duty to support her in this, because it’s a commendable and, really, normal and healthy thing for anyone to do.

            Also, the more she AND YOU think about healthy nutrition together, the better equipped she’ll be as an adult. My parents were and are great and very supportive in many other ways, but nutrition was seriously not a big thing in our house and I sort of wish it had been. I’m terrible at eating properly. Just terrible at it. The more you SUPPORT your daughter and work WITH her, the better her diet will be.

            And personally I think fish is very, very good for someone who is not willing to give up meat totally. I should be eating more fish. I actually don’t eat much meat, tho. It’s a pain in the ass to prepare sometimes and I’m lazy lol

    1. Thanks for reading. Most people aren’t particularly tuned in to their nutritional needs, and teenagers in particular have way more on their minds than ensuring they’re getting enough legumes and B12. I highly recommend Vegetables Rock!, the book I linked early in the piece above, for your daughter––it presents solid, science-based nutrition advice in a fun and friendly way, and the recipes are excellent and easy to make. There’s good advice for navigating the school cafeteria, teasing from peers, and other social issues, too. It was actually written by a mom whose teen daughter became a vegetarian, and because they couldn’t find a good book on the subject she went ahead and wrote one.

      1. Thank you, Julia (same name as my daughter, by the way)! That book sounds like an excellent resource. I will definitely go pick up a copy. Perhaps if we read it together we can work out a solution that meets her nutritional needs without being an undue burden on the rest of the family.

        1. Actually… I think quietmarc has hit upon the basic of a cool idea.

          When my brother and I still lived at home, we used to have food-themed dinners. Essentially: Mondays would be beef night, Tuesdays would be poultry night, Wednesdays would be fish night, Thursdays would be vegan night, Fridays would be Shabbat dinner, which was usually either brisket or chicken depending on how much money there was in the budget for that night (my family was Jewish), Saturdays were up to my brother and I (sometimes we tag-teamed in choosing/cooking, and sometimes we switched off), and when my brother and I were old enough to start choosing our food (and then eventually cooking it), Sundays were “do-whatever-you-want” nights because we were all occupied with dreading the week ahead; or, if enough money was in the budget (which was extremely rare, maybe only a few times a year), it was “eat out night” or “pizza night”. This set up lasted all while we lived at home because it was set up for convenience, so even when my brother and I were older (he moved out at 21, I moved out at… um… 25… heh… and yes, I’m the older brother, by 4.5 years), we still used it. In fact, I think Mom and Dad are still using it because they like having menus planned for dinner…

          Maybe y’all could pick a day of the week as “vegan night” for the family and help your daughter in planning out the meal? It’d be up to her, but with your guidance? In giving her some sort of control over the menu (but with certain expectations), you could teach her how to feed herself, how to ensure she gets all the nutrients she needs, and so on. It could actually end up being a lot of fun for her, and eventually she could even finally prove that y’all have nothing to worry about!

          Just a suggestion, of course, and as I have no kids of my own I really have no clue of your situation, so feel free to take it with a grain of salt.

    2. When I was a teenager, I became a vegetarian (it lasted a decade, and I eat a lot of meat now, not ethically, and I’m not entirely comfortable with that), my step-mom and I had many of the same conflicts. Then I watched it happen again when my half sister (16 years younger than me) became vegan when she was a teen.

      The solution to your daughter not understanding how to eat healthily isn’t to force her to eat foods you approve of. Why not, as a responsible parent, research vegetarian diets yourself and role model how a vegetarian should eat for her? Show her that you take her choices seriously, and demonstrate that anyone has the tools to eat responsibly for the world and their bodies.

      This is not to say that you need to become vegetarian yourself, but there are literally hundreds of ways to make meals that work just as well with meat and without. If you, as an adult, were forced to eat something you thought was ethically wrong, you would resist. Your daughter is learning how to be an adult now: how do you think she feels, and how do you think being forced to eat something will affect her opinions on her self, her body, her choices, her autonomy, and her relationship with food and her family?

  3. Thanks for sharing your story Julia. I’ve cautioned family members about the aspects of our psychology that restrictive diets play on – in their case raw food and gluten-sensitivity – but I hadn’t considered how veganism (or vegetarianism, my diet) could trigger those same psychologies because, as you say, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for the diet. Thanks also for sharing your struggle with simultaneously wanting to, thinking you should, and fearing, returning to veganism. Though I don’t have the same level of struggles with my food choices that you do, I can still empathize with your concerns about not being any fun, being mocked and teased, and being seen as causing drama. Those same fears have kept me from going vegan when I know I should, rationally, and the dissonance between my beliefs and actions isn’t pleasant.

  4. I liked reading the story. Like cptnmidnite I grew up in the country raising our own animals. Most of my friends raised their own animals for food, and sold some and raised their own veggies. Meat and animals products, by products didn’t go to waste and we were with our animals several times a day, as they needed much care. I felt a close connection with my food. I currently live in the city and my lifestyle is for now different. I miss having that connection to my food. Eating and food prep is such a large part of our lives and I feel so removed from the process. We eat many more beans and nuts now, and have changed our lives to better suit our now situation, but a vegetarian I am not. I like what was said in that there are all these stories behind people’s relationships with food.

    Also I wish you the best with your struggle with food choices. My sister has struggled with anorexia her teenage years and young adult life. What a challenge it has been for her. I witnessed her struggles to eat anything at all. She also tried vegan-ism and vegetarianism and I know for her, to control what she is eating like that is a trigger for her too. I believe that she is now on a similar path as you. Thanks for sharing your story and providing yet another view on a complicated issue.

  5. Will, I understand what you are saying here. You have raised good points on protein alternatives. And if possible, (if buying fish from the store), might as well go with an alternative. Also, I agree that Steve did comment on their family situation himself, but I think punchdrunk’s questions were a little over the top. I don’t think I would take those fired off questions about child rearing well. They didn’t sound like they were coming from a kind nor caring place, unhelpful to a parent who is trying.

    But we may diverge in what is allowed as a choice for kids or teenagers. I understand what you are saying about respecting his child’s choices, but on the other hand she is living as part of a family. I don’t know the situation there. I know for us, somethings my daughter just has to get inline with until she is able to take on the brunt of responsibility. If she is a savvy sixteen year old who is capable of making good choices and is willing to start taking on this responsibility of a diet outside of the family’s then it sounded like Steve was fine with that. If she is not able/capable/willing then I would probably make the same choice as Steve, in that I would be accommodating as best fits all of my family and their needs.

    Or maybe once a week it is a meal that they all can sit down as a family and eat together that ‘they’ have all agreed is acceptable and is nutritious. Just throwing some things out there that I know would come up in our family. Again, this is a point we may diverge on, but I respectfully offer this post.

    I do like these discussions though, they do affect how I go about doing things in my personal life. Thinking about how best to handle situations with friends and family, before they come up, understanding where people are coming from etc. :)

    1. Once again, thanks greenstone. It sounds like we have similar approaches to parenting. It can be such a tricky balance between letting children make more and more of the choices for their own lives as they grow older, and imposing some level of outside control on issues where they may be lacking all the necessary maturity. All I’m ever certain of is that I get the balance wrong as often as I get it right. Hopefully it evens out in the end. When necessary, I always apologize to them and we start again.

      Ultimately, what I want for my children is that they go out into the world as healthy, happy, functional young adults. So far, so good. My kids are wonderful. They are brilliant, kind, empathetic, and funny. No family meal passes without at least one bout of howling laughter. I am a far-from-perfect father, and I know that. I make a lot of mistakes. I’m sure I could be doing this vegetarian thing better, but I’m confident we’ll figure it out in the end. I appreciate all (OK, most!) of the dialogue here. Even the stuff I don’t agree with helps me see more clearly.

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