Not too long ago, an organization that promotes the vegan diet for ethical reasons admonished another non-profit which feeds homeless people steaks by correctly arguing that in trying to assist one group of individuals in need of a helping hand, they were hurting another. We couldn’t agree more. Why should helping people involve harming cows? It shouldn’t. But when the group was asked what should be fed to the homeless instead, the group suggested a “cauliflower steak.” Now, you can say many things about cauliflower and you can call it many things. You can even ponder if anyone would miss it if it disappeared from the Earth (we’d guess no). But a steak?
We spend a lot of time in the animal rights movement trying to convince people to philosophically embrace veganism and animal rights. It is often the backbone of our activism. That’s because, ultimately, eating animals is wrong, and the harm caused by the practice is so great that that fact alone should be enough motivation for everyone to embrace a more ethical diet. But, unfortunately, while many people may agree with the message that harming animals is wrong, many of those same people will fail to do what is right if they perceive that doing the right thing is difficult, inconvenient, or unappealing. As disappointing and frustrating as that fact might be for those of us who simply have no appetite for the products of animal exploitation, we ignore this reality to the animals’ continued peril.
Today, becoming vegan in a culture like ours—predicated as it is upon animal products—requires adjustments that many people find daunting. We may win their hearts, but taking on their stomachs is a much more difficult proposition; which is why it is imperative that we don’t create even more roadblocks that prevent average Americans with average American diets from embracing an animal friendly way of eating. Unfortunately, too often, vegans do just that.
In a country in which the discussion of health problems resulting from a diet based on animal products has become relatively common, veganism has come to be identified not only with an “alternative” lifestyle, but healthy eating. As any vegan can tell you, the confusion about this relationship is commonplace, and rears its head virtually every time a vegan reveals their diet to a non-vegan. “Oh, so you avoid gluten” or “I could never be vegan because I couldn’t live on vegetables” are just some of the responses which reveal how confused most people are about what, exactly, it means to eat vegan and how unappetizing or restricting they assume such a diet must be.
Lower in pesticide residue, lacking cholesterol and entirely plant-based, the vegan diet does have many significant health advantages over the typical American diet. Yet unfortunately, many within the vegan community have seized on these benefits to the detriment of all the others, including veganism’s inherent versatility and ability to accommodate a wide array of palates and preferences, from the raw food foodie to the junk food junkie. Today, the vast majority of people regard veganism not merely as a diet that shuns the products of animals, but one which includes only those foods which meet a variety of requirements that are entirely unrelated to whether or not they are of animal origin—such as whether the foods are “processed,” “gluten-free,” or “sugar-free” to name just a few. As a result, new vegans often internalize these restrictions, not only potentially hindering their own ability to sustain veganism for the long term, but when it comes to those vegans who possess an evangelizing streak, they even begin to promote a type of veganism that furthers this misperception themselves—on their blogs, Facebook pages, and in the exploding number of vegan cookbooks. The result? A self-perpetuating misperception of what veganism is all about, one that greatly undermines veganism’s more widespread appeal.
What do we owe the animals suffering and dying by the billions every year because most people can’t imagine giving up animal products? We owe them the promotion of an alternative diet that has the widest appeal to the widest number of people. Food free of all animal ingredients—whatever it’s other characteristics—is still vegan, and that means that even those vegan foods that are highly processed and high in fat, sugar and salt are just as kind to animals as a flax seed, gluten-free muffin, made from Amaranth or some other grain common in a now extinct civilization.
Statistics reveal that the number one reason people attempt a vegan diet is concern for animals and not their health, so why do so many vegans promote a version of veganism that undermines that most worthy of goals by teaching people that to achieve it, not only do they have to give up animal products, they have to embrace “health food,” too?
If people want to eat healthy, fine. More power to them. But we are not going to win over people who love steak and potatoes, hamburgers and hot dogs, chicken nuggets and French fries by offering what amounts to an oxymoron: cauliflower steaks. Nor will we win people over by offering mini puffed quinoa cakes with avocado frosting:
Or a turmeric flavored smoothie with pumpkin seeds on top:
Or whatever this is:
And yet, all these foods and many more as equally strange, unfamiliar and lacking in visual appeal to the average American have all been promoted to non-vegans by vegan advocacy bloggers, groups, and magazines.
How do we get the middle-aged sports Dad, his soccer mom wife and their McDonalds-loving kids excited about eating vegan? We keep it simple, familiar, and most important of all, appealing, like this:
Indeed, rather than teach Americans that they must give up their favorite “foods” to be vegan, we just need to teach them how to make those same “foods” differently. Reducing and eventually eliminating the body count of animals requires that the greatest number of people give up the greatest number of animal based products as quickly as possible. To achieve that, one of our mandates as animal activists is clear: teach non-vegans the art of vegan substitution: how to replace three key ingredients—meat, eggs and dairy products—with their increasingly abundant, convenient, delicious, and familiar looking humane doppelgangers instead.
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