Recently, I wrote a post about the risks associated with a vegan diet, and compared these with the risks of eating the standard American diet. One of my readers left a very thoughtful comment which brought to my attention a few risks I had not addressed—some, in fact, that I had not even considered. She also pointed out that in comparing a vegan diet to the standard American diet, I had in effect lumped together everyone who is not eating a vegan diet—painting close to seven billion people worldwide in monochrome, with a ridiculously broad brush.
Clearly, nonvegans represent a wide array of approaches and choices, from utterly unhealthy, unconscious eating, to very conscious eating, with close attention to detail. Many people are, and have been for some time, trying to do right by their health and the environment, and I am certainly not in a position to criticize their choices, especially since their diets may be working very well for them. Some have had few health problems—or none—so they’ve never had cause to question their dietary choices. Others have run into trouble and may have only recently begun considering the diet-disease link. Many, I think, would agree wholeheartedly with my dismal assessment of the standard American diet, yet regard a strictly plant-based diet as somewhat extreme, and possibly even dangerous. I see a bit of myself in all of these people, and have no wish to criticize any of them.
But what really hit home about the comment that reader left me was the fact that I had obviously fallen prey to the most dangerous risk of a vegan diet—indeed any diet, but especially this one. The hidden risk that has nothing to do with what we eat or don’t eat, nor any aspect of nutrition itself.
The risk I’m referring to is the possibility of becoming arrogant. We’re very often under its spell without the slightest inkling that anything is amiss. It can creep into any of us at any time, and no one is immune to this affliction. So why do I suggest that among diets, a vegan diet especially presents this risk?
Unlike other diets, which are primarily about health and pleasure, the vegan diet is primarily about an ethos, an ideology that rejects the exploitation and cruel treatment of animals. Diet is only one component of veganism. Whereas vegetarians may feel comfortable consuming honey or dairy products, for example, since no animals are purposely harmed or killed in the process, vegans are vehemently opposed to this. I have no argument with them, because I understand—even admire—their commitment.
However, that risk is slippery. Impassioned by the plight of helpless animals, some vegans are vulnerable to judging people who don’t share their perspective, and often appear to deny nonvegans the praiseworthy compassion they feel and express for nonhuman creatures. I’m sure that all of these people are sincere and mean well, but to nonvegans, animal rights activism can be confusing. Why all this love for other species, and such disdain for carnivorous members of their own?
Most of the vegans I’ve met are very kindhearted people, doing their best to live well and do no harm. But ideology has an insidious way of creating divisions between people. That tribal “us and them” syndrome doesn’t generally lead to compassion and cooperation.
This is the hidden risk I see. I have no wish to judge anyone—myself or others—but I can’t deny that I have at times, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, felt superior to people who eat unconsciously, daily gorging on highly refined, degraded, process-damaged food that is actively sickening them, fattening them, hardening their arteries, indeed killing them. I may be right in my observations, but my arrogance is self-defeating because it makes me believe the lie that I am in some way better than someone else. I’m not, and I cannot afford this delusion. I need truth in my life. So here’s a sobering, important bit of truth: I’m not a vegan. I’m a human being like every other human being, trying to live well and be happy, just like every single other creature on Earth.
Thank you, Siri, for your insightful comments that made me stop and reflect.