It’s Beautiful AND It’s Difficult
I have been identifying as a vegan for almost five years now. When I say identifying I qualify that by saying I do not eat vegan on my birthday and if I am at a location where eating vegan is not possible, I will still eat. As someone that studies eating disorders and maladaptive eating and weight control behaviors, the last thing I want to do is condone restrictive eating patterns just to keep dietary rules.
It is particularly important for me that people know that dietary restriction is not the point of veganism and that we need to listen to our bodies when they say we are hungry, regardless of what is available to us.
Putting that pedestal aside, I first became vegan for the environment, for the true belief that we have become a population crippled by our need to eat meat and animal products at every meal. We do not have enough space on the planet to sustain the number of animal products we are currently consuming, not to mention the environmental and animal cruelty effects of trying to do so. Living vegan has also been found to have several important positive health outcomes (Mann, 2014), including:
- Increased fruit and vegetable intake
- Decrease in cholesterol
- A decrease in lipids (fat) intake
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased weight
- Reduced risk of obesity
- Reduced risk of diabetes
- Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
- Reduced risk of cancer
However, if veganism is not done right, it can be very dangerous. Despite the ease that you see on social media, beginning vegans should regularly see their doctors to check for the following complications:
- Calcium deficiency
- Vitamin D deficiency
- Iron deficiency
- B-12 deficiency
- Extreme weight loss
Those complications can be very serious if left untreated. It can be frustrating knowing these complications exist and seeing very few people that feel comfortable freely talking about how hard it is to be vegan. Every time I look on Instagram, or any other social media, I see people simply happy to be vegan – smiling, cooking, celebrating. Don’t get me wrong, it is not that I am not happy as a vegan, but for me, veganism was a choice I made that has not been all sunshine and greatness. It is really hard, especially if you are used to eating meat or an animal product with every meal, to just change overnight and sustain that. It is hard to deal with comments from family and friends and from perceptions you know others hold of you, just by identifying as a plant-based person (Markowski & Roxburgh, 2019).
In my opinion, not talking about the trials doesn’t make people want to be vegan more, but makes people believe veganism is unachievable for them. It makes people believe it’s this exclusive and perfect group, with such high moral standing that only others that are the same deserve to even try to be a part of it. At least that’s how I feel at times, as a vegan, looking at other vegans.
As great as my body feels, as good as my sleep is, and as amazing as the health benefits have been, as well as the low environmental footprint, I still struggle a lot. This is not to deter people from being vegan, but to tell people that struggle IS a part of this journey and THAT’S OKAY! You can still struggle, and even fail, and get back on the vegan wagon!
Research has found that cheese (see Dr. Neal Barnard’s The Cheese Trap) has highly addictive qualities. Therefore, if you are an avid cheese consumer then you may have particular trouble kicking that part of the diet – AND THAT’S OKAY. Even moderate cheese consumers will likely have trouble.
Also, racial and ethnic minority populations (Pickett & McCoy, 2018) or those familiar with southern cuisines, have more access and familiarity with diets high in fat, sugar, and carbohydrates. There is evidence that stress increases our desire to consume foods high in fat, sugar, and carbs (Zellner et al., 2006). This means that in times of high stress we are more likely to crave foods that are not within our vegan diets – AND THAT’S OKAY. It is normal!
For example, eating soul food is more than just the food for Black populations. It is about community and relationships (Airhihenbuwa et al., 1996), and in times of high stress eating soul food with those that love you is a cultural way of coping. This means, for Black populations and other groups with similar coping styles, it may be hard to keep a vegan diet when stress arises. That does not mean that it is impossible! That does not mean there is no hope! It does mean that the trouble you may be having is not because you are weak or cannot do it, but due to systematic and scientific phenomena that outline why some times may be harder than others.
Being vegan IS great! Being vegan and Black is also great! Being vegan, Black, and in graduate school halfway across the country from my family is really really difficult. There are times when I fail, but there are more times when I am successful, and I rely on those positive experiences more than the negative ones to keep me going. I remind myself that those perfect people on social media are likely having trouble too. I remind myself of the science, and I remind myself that no matter what I am, vegan or not, my family and friends love me for exactly who I am – and that is what matters!
Airhihenbuwa, C. O., Kumanyika, S., Agurs, T. D., Lowe, A., Saunders, D., & Morssink, C. B. (1996). Cultural aspects of African American eating patterns. Ethnicity & Health, 1(3), 245–260. https://doi.org/10.1080/13557858.1996.9961793
Mann, S. (2014). More Than Just A Diet: An Inquiry Into Veganism. Anthropology Senior Theses. Retrieved from https://repository.upenn.edu/anthro_seniortheses/156
Markowski, K. L., & Roxburgh, S. (2019). “If I became a vegan, my family and friends would hate me:” Anticipating vegan stigma as a barrier to plant-based diets. Appetite, 135, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2018.12.040
Pickett, S., & McCoy, T. P. (2018). Effect of Psychosocial Factors on Eating Behaviors and BMI Among African American Women. Clinical Nursing Research, 27(8), 917–935. https://doi.org/10.1177/1054773817713420
Zellner, D. A., Loaiza, S., Gonzalez, Z., Pita, J., Morales, J., Pecora, D., & Wolf, A. (2006). Food selection changes under stress. Physiology & Behavior, 87(4), 789–793. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2006.01.014