Okay, I admit it, I’m a failed vegan. Over the past eight years, I’ve tried multiple times to give up all animal products, yet I continue to relapse, again and again. It’s not for lack of trying, or that I don’t love animals enough to shift my food choices, or that I even particularly like the taste of cooked flesh. I gave up eating all land animals seven years ago, and thanks to all the books I’ve read and the videos I’ve watched (I still can’t un-see what I witnessed in the documentary “Earthlings,” no matter how hard I try), I have no problem keeping their tortured bodies off of my plate.
But when my husband went on the Keto diet and I “slipped” and started eating pasture-raised eggs and wild-caught salmon again, I noticed almost immediately how much better I was feeling. I’d been taking tons of vitamins and supplements for years, so it wasn’t like I wasn’t trying my hardest to make sure I could get everything I needed from non-animal sources. Still, as I began loosening my dietary restrictions, my energy and muscle tone improved, and I felt healthier and stronger. Great on the one hand, but upsetting on the other.
Besides being an animal activist, I’m a competitive ballroom dancer, yoga practitioner and overall fitness addict who trains at least 15 hours per week. So while I have legitimate reasons (some might say “rationalizations”) for slipping back into the vegetarian zone, I feel bad about it. Like a failure who has let the animals down. A total hypocrite. I used to have no problem sharing information (as opposed to preaching) with anyone who asked why I eat this way (“but how do you get your protein?” Ugh!), about the suffering farm animals endure in intensive farming systems, and how we humans can live perfectly healthy lives without harming anyone. Since I believed that to be true for me, why shouldn’t it be true for everyone else? I assumed that people who claimed they had tried and failed to give up animal products were just rationalizing their unwillingness to give up the foods they enjoyed.
But here I am, right in that same camp, feeling like a judgmental, hypocritical jerk. What right did I have to judge anyone, and was I really going to “convert” someone to veganism by making them feel guilty about their food choices? Probably not. All I did was alienate people, particularly those who didn’t want to be “enlightened.” Although you have to admit, willfully ignorant people can be incredibly triggering for those of us who give a damn…
Anyway, as someone who believes that animals have a right to their own lives, admitting that veganism doesn’t “work” for me has been a horrible realization fraught with many difficult emotions. Our diets directly affect the lives of non-human animals, who, like us, are highly complex, sentient and social individuals capable of experiencing joy and suffering. The animal agriculture industry would like us to ignore this fact, but when I began looking at the terrible realities that farm animals face, it became clear to me that adopting a vegan diet was the only genuinely humane choice for me. I no longer wished to be complicit in the torture and murder of 72 billion land animals and more than 1.2 trillion aquatic animals per year. So while there are clear environmental and health benefits to veganism, for me, the most compelling argument for removing animal products from my diet was an ethical one.
It’s such a quandary: I choose to be enlightened about where my food comes from so I can make responsible and humane dietary choices, but at the same time, I have to think about my health and make sure I get the nourishment that my body needs to thrive. Some people – even athletes like me – can do extremely well on a strict vegan diet, but I guess I’m not one of them, as painful as that is to admit. Although I’m not one who likes labels, I guess “flexitarian” could best define my eating habits now.
So what’s a passionate animal lover to do? How do you still show that you care about animal welfare if being vegan isn’t realistic for you? How do you support the end of factory farming and the humane treatment of all living creatures, while supporting your own wellbeing at the same time? And must they be mutually exclusive? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few ideas for cutting back on meat if you’re not ready (or able) to go full-on vegan.
These three practices have worked well for me:
- Becoming a “reducetarian.” Since I fell off the vegan wagon, I make sure to eat a very limited amount of animal products, and very infrequently. For example, I eat maybe about four pasture-raised eggs per week, a small piece of wild-caught salmon twice per month, and a teaspoon of ghee (clarified butter) in my coffee every morning.
- Slowly eliminating one animal product at a time. Do this while simultaneously bumping up your consumption of plant-based foods. Start with the easiest and leave “barrier foods,” i.e., the ones you will likely have the hardest time giving up, to the end. Continue until you’ve eliminated all (or most) animal products from your diet. And don’t worry about going hungry or feeling deprived – there are tons of amazingly delicious and satisfying vegan products in the marketplace now that can help you adapt to eating fewer animals.
- Making more “humane” product choices. I read labels to find out where the item came from, then do my research to make sure that those farms are certified by a legitimate certifying body and that they’re actually doing for the animals what they claim to be doing. Check out this great article to help you navigate all the confusing labels out there and what they mean (and no, there is no such thing as “humane slaughter” – there is nothing “humane” about killing someone who doesn’t want to die).
If all else fails, I am doing my best to be the most compassionate, ethical human being I can possibly be. No one (unless you’re a sociopath) wants to be a “bad person” inadvertently harming others. So maybe the best approach to this whole conundrum is to not try to be “perfect.” Maybe being an animal-loving human who isn’t able to take animals off their plate completely comes down to eating as consciously and responsibly as possible, keeping animal products at a minimum, and just doing your best. Because at the end of the day, aren’t we all just doing the best we can with what we know? I think most of us are, at least, I hope so. The animals need us to care, no matter how hard it hurts to give a damn.
Have you struggled with maintaining a vegan diet? How are you balancing your dietary needs with your animal activism and advocacy? If they’re constructive and positive, please feel free to share your thoughts – I’d love to hear from you!