You may find being vegan or vegetarian has nothing to do with social justice, lifestyle, or religion
You should ask a vegetarian or vegan why they choose to forgo meat or animal products because the root of their choice may uncover a simple lack of understanding on your part. I'm your case in point.
After reading George Reynold's piece Why do people hate vegans, I felt the need to explain why I think it's possible for warring food ideologies to co-exist. My hope is this piece will moderate what appears to be a planetary war raging between the plant-based tendencies of vegetarians, vegans, and the rest of the world.
I'm a vegetarian. I've been a vegetarian for four years, and it's not for social justice reasons, not for religious, not for environmental purposes, and not even for my health, although all of those might be excellent and valid reasons. No, my wife and I are both vegetarians to keep the balance between the dietary needs and restrictions imposed on us by our two kids.
One girl is a carnivore, the other has a rare metabolic condition called phenylketonuria, or PKU for short.
I'll explain, but first, here's why I am uniquely qualified to talk about diet and nutrition.
I've tried a lot of diets. Keen to understand how to live my life best and get the most out of it I did Whole30, went vegan for a while, was a Paleo convert on my initial fitness journey, toyed but never committed to Keto, was a flexitarian, ovo vegetarian, pescatarian, played with intermittent fasting, weighing macros and a enjoyed 'seefood,' that's when you see food and eat it, doesn't matter what it is. That last one is my favorite and probably the most easily understood.
I've been hooked on diet trends for years, conjuring up the latest ideas to boost muscle growth, improve my brain's performance, and get fitter. I've aggressively slimmed down for fun, drank nothing but coffee with butter in the mornings for several weeks (Bulletproof coffees remember those?), and tried fasting for a day just to see what happens (turns out you get dizzy and the world moves in slow motion). I've had a warped sense of eating too much, not enough, and sometimes all the wrong stuff, because you know, even tomatoes can be toxic.
Not everyone is on a journey of discovering which food is their medicine, but I'm glad I went through all of this. I was having fun in the process until my second daughter was born with PKU four years ago. It's a hereditary disease that doesn't allow her body to break down protein properly. It's the only metabolic condition that is treated through diet alone (as far as I know)!
Her diet is low-protein, and she requires a specialized medical dietary supplement that she drinks four times a day to meet her nutritional needs. She'll never tuck into a steak, a piece of tofu, or anything high protein. She has no choice in the matter as eating these foods leads to a toxic build-up of the amino acid phenylalanine in the brain, causing irreparable damage.
If she sticks to the diet and supplements, she'll lead a normal life, but we need to weigh her food, keep track of it daily, take her blood twice and month, and she's regularly denied certain foods while my older daughter happily tucks in.
My older daughter, well, she loves meat and living in Germany means they offer it at school. The meat counters are stocked, and there's an abundance of choice. I've already said that going vegetarian or, even, vegan is a personal choice, and to keep my integrity intact, I've told my daughter it's her choice if she wishes to eat meat or join us in becoming vegetarian. Her going vegetarian would make our life a ton easier, believe me.
The current setup means our meals can be a complex mix of PKU-friendly foods, which are highly processed, a carnivore's delight on the side, and vegetarian. I've cooked three different meals on several occasions, and we stock a variety of foods most people will never hear about from companies like Mevalia and Loprofin. We live in a mini-cosmos of our own where food ideology has no place.
We have a wonderful friend who is vegan, and he'll come over and cook for us. The kids mostly get something else, but he doesn't chastise my daughter for having her ham sandwich. He can talk to her about his choices (and I'm glad he does), but it's still ultimately her choice.
Unfortunately, food ideologies do clash, and then warring tribes can either find a way to co-exist or fight.
A few years back, before the birth of my child with PKU, a close family member was part of a Hindu clan (we're all Christians, FYI) and became a vegetarian with a twist: she didn't eat onions or garlic (I still fail to understand the reasoning for that but religion doesn't always make sense, right?), or eggs.
Initially dumbstruck, we ignored her needs or haphazardly tried to accommodate her. We eventually started making cakes without eggs, had Thanksgiving without a turkey and Christmas without meat. We were all on the same, weird page for a while. What we learned was that the meal brought us together around the table, the contents of that meal didn't matter.
Kids adjust more readily to the reality they are confronted with. We can learn so much from them in that regard, and when I do manage to dish up a meal that we can all share, it feels special, and my younger daughter's eyes light up. There are more vegetables on the table, which is good. Our mantra is to try to eat real, non-processed food, but even that is hard when your child with PKU requires calories. We have to push French fries instead of fresh veg.
If anything, we've grown to learn and accept that being tolerant of someone's food choice is more important than ideology. This was especially important during the Hindu-clan foray, as not accommodating the person would have driven them even further away. None of us wanted that. The family member in question has since left the clan and once again eats meat. Nothing is black and white, people change.
At home with my two kids, there is no room for tolerance in my youngest daughter's diet, so as parents, we have to lead by example and made a small sacrifice. Going vegetarian was was not just about accommodating her needs and feeling the pinch of a dietary restriction; it was a practical choice. There is usually at least one element on the table we can all share. On a deeper level, it allows us, as parents, to be the balancing force between planet PKU and planet omnivore.
The root of our vegetarianism is building a harmonious family. It's also about breeding openness and tolerance about dietary restrictions and personal choice. You may want to call that social justice, but it's not religious and not environmental activism, or we might require our older daughter to be vegetarian.
Sure, movies like Forks Over Knives and Cowspiracy helped strengthen our resolve to stay vegetarian, but faced with the complexities of dietary restrictions in our family has given us a greater capacity for tolerating warring food-ideologies.
Quirky eaters are always welcome at our table. You know who you are.
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