More on ex-vegans


After the “I”m not vegan anymore” post by Alexandra Jamieson a few weeks ago, there were all the expected reactions: anger, disappointment, insults, and, yes, support. I avoided responding right away because I wanted to make sure my reaction was appropriate and thought out. I like Alexandra. I interviewed her a few years ago for Herbivore and have liked her positive approach to promoting veganism and healthy eating from her appearance in Super Size Me to her subsequent books and consulting services. She’s never been confrontational or insulting, so I want to avoid being the same way.

But, I do feel there is something to be said about her post as well as celebrity ex-vegans and the whole “I’m not a vegan anymore” thing (see also).

I’ve written about my frustration with vocal “ex-vegans” before:

Who I find really difficult to deal with are militant ex-vegans. They are far worse than any so called “militant vegans” I’ve ever met. These are the people who feel they have the experience and, therefore, the right to disparage veganism or vegetarianism because they “used to be one of those.” I don’t know about you, but I can never imagine giving up veganism and I can’t imagine any truly committed vegan ever going back to animal products and disparaging their former lifestyle at the same time. These militant ex-vegans with a chip on their shoulder may not be worth engaging in an argument. Let them blow off their steam and, in turn, look like blowhards to everyone else.

Alexandra doesn’t fall into the militant ex-vegan category. Militant ex-vegans will start web sites telling you why you shouldn’t be vegan and start quoting the Weston A. Price Foundation and Dr. Mercola. Alexandra’s still promoting plant-based diets and feels they can work for many people. However, I read her announcement with more disappointment than I did with someone like Ellen who eats eggs from backyard chickens or Megan Fox who “lost too much weight”. With celebrity ex-vegans, I groan and say, “Not surprised.” We shouldn’t look to celebrities for inspiration any more than we should any random person on the street. But when someone declares “Not vegan!” when their livelihood and own celebrity has come from promoting veganism for many years, I feel like there’s potential for damage to be done to ethical veganism’s acceptance. When a vegan chef, Certified Holistic Health Counselor, and vegan cookbook author denounces her veganism, it has the effect of making veganism seem too difficult for the average person. Or worse, it makes it look like the wrong choice (“If some promoting veganism for that long decided it was wrong for her, it must be for me, too!”)

What I think disappoints me most about Alexandra’s reasoning for making the change are some of her justifications. First, the cravings:

My body started craving the “bad” stuff. Namely, meat.

It used to be that, when a friend ordered a burger out at dinner, I was slightly (though quietly) disgusted.

But I started noticing a different reaction.

Instead of disgust, I started to salivate.

The impulse to order salmon instead of salad with tofu at my favorite restaurant was overwhelming.

And, for me as a vegan, it was confusing, too.

At first, I thought: “I must be mineral deficient. Or maybe I need more concentrated protein. I’ll eat more sea vegetables. I’ll just add more nuts and hemp seeds and drink more green juice. Then the cravings will stop.”

I denied these cravings and tried to “talk my body out of them”.

I hid my cravings from myself, and my community.

I ate more sea vegetables in order to add more minerals to my diet as I had told so many of my vegan-curious friends to do. I chose more protein-heavy plant foods on a regular basis. I avoided sugar and drank green juices by the pint, all in an effort to give my body the nutrition that I thought my body was asking for.

I tried for over a year.

I felt ashamed. If I was “doing it right” I wouldn’t have these cravings, would I?

And still, the cravings persisted.

I’ve never given much value to “cravings.” To me, food cravings aren’t indicators of anything terribly substantive. I don’t think they’re indicators of “something your body lacks” like iron, protein, or some other random vitamin or mineral. Research backs me up on this. That’s not to say that cravings aren’t real feelings. They are. But rather than your body “telling you” that you’re not getting enough protein so you should eat a steak, I think it’s simply that you miss the taste, texture, or memories associated with the food you crave. Most vegans will tell you that they didn’t stop eating meat because they hated the taste. If that was the case, meat analogues wouldn’t be so popular. Vegans stopped eating meat for ethical reasons, health reasons, or some combination, and a craving for a food they used to eat simply means they want something like that again. Every so often I think, “I miss Philly Cheesesteaks.” But does that mean I’m going to go out and order a dead cow with cheese slathered all over it? No – I’ll grab some sliced seitan, fry it up all Pat’s (or Geno’s)-like, and pour some nootch-filled cheese sauce all over it. It does the trick. I think food cravings as a reason for returning to eating meat, dairy, or eggs is simply an excuse, a justification for something that feels wrong at its core.

The other part that really bothered me about Alexandra’s piece is the set of conclusions she comes to at the end. The ones that struck me as particularly bothersome:

I believe you can love and care about animal welfare and still consume them.

I believe humans are animals. And some animals need to eat other animals to be healthy. Some do not.

I mean. For real, though?

But, I do give Alexandra credit for being honest. Certainly, it wasn’t easy for her. And I sincerely hope that as she continues her journey, she looks more deeply at the reasons she’s no longer vegan and reconsiders her stance down the road.

So, rather than continuing picking the post apart (because, really, I don’t want this to come across as a personal attack), let me instead share a few other pieces that I think get it right:

First, I urge every single person reading this to read “Facing Failing Health as a Vegan” by Sayward Rebhal. This may be one of the most important pieces about veganism ever written. (I’m boldfacing that because I feel that strongly about it.) Sayward discusses her own health issues, the internal struggle it caused, and the ultimate, happy resolution where she was able to overcome her difficulties while remaining a vegan. She is proof that if the animals and veganism are really important to you, you can make it work.

Secondly, Jack Norris, RD has a couple of responses well worth reading. Jack can always be counted on for good, even-handed analysis.