Have vegans given themselves a bad rap?

November 13, 2015

At the time of year when we are thinking about gratitude and compassion, this weighs heavy on my mind. I was talking to someone I love and adore, respect and admire. I was so upset after our conversation I thought my head would explode. Maybe it’s me, but the attitude he displayed showed me arrogance underneath the supposed compassion he professed.

He went on and on about the word vegan and its proper use. You may say, huh? I did. I joke about not being “vegan enough” for most vegans. I think it may be true, sadly. Apparently, you may only use the word “vegan” to describe yourself if you choose this compassionate way of living in order not to contribute to cruelty to animals. (From my conversation, I got the impression that it’s apparently okay to be mean to people, just not animals…). Hang on. Before anybody goes nuts and writes me about compassion and animals, I am all in for that, so save your breath…please. I care deeply for the welfare of all living beings.

He said that according to Donald Watson’s description of veganism (he being the founder and definer of the movement that splintered off from vegetarian groups over the use of dairy foods) vegans are those who choose this life to prevent (or at least not contribute to) cruelty to animals. He concluded that if you are choosing plant-based living for personal health or environmental causes, then it would serve better to say that you eat a “healthy diet of plants” and leave the word “vegan” to those who deserve to use it.


Here’s my beef (yes, I know…) with this thinking. I am a teacher of vegan/macrobiotic cooking and many of my beloved students have come through classes not looking to change their lives completely. Most of them were just trying to get a bit healthier and since I make this look so easy, delicious and fun on television, they want to give it a go. Most of them didn’t know what they were getting into, but many of them changed their lifestyles and now embrace compassionate, plant-based living in harmony with the world around them. Some chose to eat a vegan diet, but not embrace activism. By my colleague’s thinking, I should advise them to take a different approach and come back to me when they had their priorities in order. After all, it’s only about the animals if you are vegan, right?

To ignore personal transformation and discount the idea that transformation begins with the physical is silly and arrogant, to say the least. Some vegans remain aloof and exclusive, shunning everyone who doesn’t embrace the cause of animal rights and then scratch their heads in wonder when people don’t flock to join them. They seem to forget that change; true change begins at the most primal, visceral level…physically.

When people are drawn to plant-based eating, it is most often for personal health, which makes sense. How can we truly transform our thinking, our hearts, our very beings if we do not first make our bodies healthy and strong and feel for ourselves the power of natural plant-based food? From that physical transformation, the human psyche is freed to think about loftier ideals and to contemplate the plight of the world and all the living beings in it.

We all have to start somewhere. If personal health is what draws you to plant-based living, then I welcome you with open arms. By virtue of mere diet change, people who choose to ditch animal products for all the “wrong reasons” change themselves, reduce cruelty in our world, grow more compassionate as their bodies heal and strengthen and leave a lighter footprint on our fragile planet. Oh, and they care for the welfare of animals.

It seems to me that some of us live in a bubble, surrounding ourselves only with people of similar thinking. We can lose touch with the idea of reaching out in compassion, to other humans and helping them along in their path of life.

Buddha said that the responsibility of each man, woman and child is to make the lives of those around them better and to aid each living being we meet on its path to enlightenment. Each person we meet is a gift to us and we a gift to them. If we push them away because they make choices different from ours, then how can we ever inspire them? Or they us?

I can’t imagine shunning the brilliant humans I meet daily because they choose their plant-based lifestyle for health…or don’t choose it at all. I love to welcome all people, students, friends and family to my lifestyle and my table. Semantics mean little to me when health, peace and the lives of living things are at stake.

I am grateful for every person who crosses my path, who comes into my life for a moment or a lifetime. Each one of us is responsible for all and for the opportunity to affect change, we must all be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!