As someone who hangs around with enough veggies to occasionally forget that it isn’t massively strange that my girlfriend eats meat sometimes, I’ve seen quite a few people make a massive change in their diets for ethical and/or religious reasons. And I’ve seen a pattern that some people go through that I think is massively unhelpful for them.
It goes something like this: A person, let’s call them B, comes to some conclusions about their personal ethics and realises that eating certain foods and buying certain goods do not fit within their ethical system. So, B decides to make radical changes to their lifestyle – particularly their diet. Having decided to make such changes, B expects to be able to start straight away. They remove any remaining “unethical” foods from their living space and make one or two meals for themself with the remaining “allowed” foods. They feel great! They are really proud of themself for making the change and see themself as a good and wonderful person.
THEN something happens. B feels sad and wants bacon or ice cream. Or B goes to their favourite restaurant only to find they can no longer eat there. Or they rush into a sandwich store after class with a growling stomach and find nothing they can eat. B no longer feels like a good and wonderful person. They feel like a bad and terrible person for wanting the forbidden foods. They feel ashamed and upset.
LATER having got bored of the small number of “allowed” meals B knows how to make, B finds themself hungrily eating and even enjoying a forbidden food. They quickly feel guilty and conflicted. They wonder how they can be such an awful person as to want and enjoy food that has come about through suffering and pain. They feel like they have failed.
Over time, this cycle repeats, with B each time vowing to try harder. Eventually B will either succeed or give up on their new diet.
Is B you or someone you know? I have some words to have with the Bs of this world. Please, please give yourselves a break.
Seriously. Change, any change even the most desirable and wanted change, is hard. It is scary and difficult to make huge changes in our lives. It’s okay to take things slowly.
If you’re trying to go from omnivore to veggie, try cutting out particular meats first until you don’t eat meat and then try cutting out the gelatine and questioning whey powders and food colourings after that. If you’re moving from veggie to vegan, try cutting out eggs before cutting out pre-made things with egg in, find a milk substitute you like and can easily obtain before cutting out milk, try being vegan at home and veggie out of the house until you really know what you’re doing cooking-wise… In general, try to take things slowly and consider not taking something out of your diet until you’ve got something to replace it with. The replacement need not be a direct analogue – I’ve replaced the bacon-shaped hole in my diet with salty foods like crisps, with protein-y foods like chickpeas and with chilli, garlic and onion flavours. Simply cutting stuff out with no real plan on what you’re going to eat now is a recipe for stress.
But Ethics! I hear you cry. Yeah, I know. But surely *reducing* the amount of meat / dairy / non-organic / not free trade / etc food you eat will have some of the effect that ceasing to eat those foods altogether would have? That’s still something. Please remember that you’re living in a society/world which is actively trying to normalise the consumption of foods made from animals / made by exploiting people. You are surrounded by the foods you have decided to avoid and by people and companies whose job it is to entice you to eat them. Resisting isn’t futile but it is difficult, changing your diet to one that isn’t supported by the dominant cultures around you will be hard and cannot be done in a day. It might take months or even years to get yourself used to and able to manage the kind of diet you think you should follow. It will take time and effort and planning – not measuring your worth as a human being against what you eat. Using that metric you will initially always find yourself lacking and that’s just not good for you.
I know you’re doing this because you want to minimise suffering. I just ask of you to consider the suffering of one more animal: YOU. The stress of constantly measuring yourself against a perfect ideal of what you should eat and what you should *want* to eat will hurt you. You can’t go from one diet to a much more restricted one in one step without slipping up at least sometimes. Accept that you won’t do it perfectly straight away and stop beating yourself up when you do. You’re not a terrible person. You’re a human being trying to do something very difficult, trying to unlearn years of messages about what is and isn’t food. You’re only human and that’s okay.
To end: it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. If you want to, try to cut down on what animal products / otherwise unethical foods you eat. Maybe you’ll never quite get to vegan (I didn’t yet!) but trying is still something. Meat only occasionally is still something. Pizza in an otherwise dairy-free diet is still something.
Look after yourself, take things slowly if you need to. This is difficult but it gets easier. No one would begrudge you eating animal products if you had to for your physical health – let’s take your mental health just as seriously.
EDITED TO ADD: there’s now a follow-up post here