Exchanging Alternatives: Vegan to Non-Vegan

by Sophie Haxworth

In the years I have spent shifting my eating habits around, trying to fit into a perfect snug space in the earth's curvature where I could just exist, prosper and do no harm, it is an uncomfortable realisation that much of that time was used in defence, explanation, moral struggle and guilt. I first began considering how my diet affected the wellbeing of both myself and everything around me, in some invisible yet palpable ripple of influence, in response to my oldest friend, Lucy. She ‘went vegan’ at 18 after a stint of vegetarianism, and I switched from meat to plants shortly after seeing the change it had on her happiness. But while she has remained steadfast in her lifestyle choice, I have fluctuated.

Only recently, I found the comfort of existing in my own way, even if it didn’t quite match up to the serene human-and-earth-as-one image on which I thought I could model my life years ago. So, I wanted to talk to Lucy: vegan to non-vegan, yet united by a fundamental care for the effect we have on the world. Open conversations are too often unseated by antagonism, and even those labels 'vegan' and 'non-vegan' represent a false binary that only fuels it. The discussion we have is an incredibly fruitful one.

On diets, lifestyles & labels

For Lucy, the term 'vegan' is purely functional. "I follow a diet that features a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, lentils, etc, and avoids products that come from animals — but I prefer the term 'plant-based'. I know that can seem alienating, so I’d describe myself as a vegan to someone who didn't quite understand. It's become such a useful word, more widely recognised and handy when it comes to food labels." But her preferred definition is a positive one that focuses on the goodness of the plants she puts on her plate, rather than what she restricts from it: "When I first went vegan I was having the same meals I would have been eating, just taking away the animal products without doing any research around what I could replace them with. But it's not about taking things away anymore; 'plant-based' encompasses how I now approach the lifestyle."

'The very reason Lucy finds a word helpful is the reason I find it a hindrance.'

For me, labels have only represented unachievable ideals. I feel increasingly hostile towards them; explaining my diet to Lucy is a patchwork task of irregularities and exceptions. "The majority of what I eat is plant-based and the rest is pescatarian, but those aren't rules and I often make my decisions based on locality and waste and, essentially, context." The very reason Lucy finds a word helpful is the reason I find it a hindrance. I explain, "because these rule-based terms exist, people expect and want to be assigned to them, so when you don't fit, you still have to explain yourself in relation to those terms — like 'vegan, but..' — which is unsatisfying and already sets you up in a mindset of failure. Now I try to express myself in as rule-free a manner as possible."

Even then, labels creep back in — 'flexitarianism', for example. While we agree these can be motivating for people to feel like they belong to a movement, our inner critics can't help but find them troublesome. Lucy mentions the negative stereotypes surrounding vegans and environmentalists as "judgemental” of others’ choices. I rail against the recent surge of labels because I want to get to the substance behind the name: "we say a surface level word and never investigate far enough to realise that it holds a completely different meaning and significance for different people."

On ideals and priorities

That significance is revealed by our individual motivations. There are a number of main reasons for changing your diet: health, the environment, or animals. "I have a very clear list of my own priorities,” Lucy explains, “which always starts with the animals as number one. That's why it's so easy to make such a definite cut of animal products, because it's a moral stand. If it was for my health I wouldn't be so regimented."

"It's the process by which food lands on the table that I'm averse to, not the act of eating it."

"For me," I say, "it's the planet and environment first, but I find the different categories interesting; it feels like they all naturally fold into the planet anyway. We're all part of the earth, our health and the animals included. We are also animals. I don't eat meat, but I think if we still lived as hunter-gatherers with a more personal connection to the food chain, I would be fine with that as the more 'natural' way of doing things. It's the process by which food lands on the table that I'm averse to, not the act of eating it." Lucy is more grounded in the context we speak from, pointing out that in our Western culture, our relationship with food has moved away from the hunter-gatherer model: “I don’t think we can necessarily consider it the natural thing it used to be, because that’s not the situation we live in.”

While I see my attempted lifestyle as semi-spiritual, based on a stewardship-esque ideal of harmoniously living with the earth, Lucy sees hers as a baseline morality. When I ask how her choices affect her general sense of positivity, she says "I don't see it as doing a good thing or a revolutionary way of thinking. I see it as the norm. I don't pat myself on the back for it just like I don't congratulate myself on not stealing something from a shop. Doing otherwise seems like such a ridiculous concept now — I see meat on the same level as if someone told me to eat, say, this water bottle. It's not food."

We find that this fundamental difference in our priorities permeates through the rest of our lifestyle decisions, so it is interesting exploring how that underlying 'why' differs again for the people we know. We aren't two sides of a binary, we are two in a whole range of ideals. For example, I bring up a past friend whose entire 'vegan' diet was based around minimising waste — everything he bought was plant-based, but if he was eating out with friends who didn't finish their meals, he would eat the meat from their plates. Zero waste was such a clear principle in his mind that if it was the bin or his belly, the answer was obvious.

'you change the world by paying for the version you want to see'

"But I hear so many people saying, 'it's already dead in the supermarket, I can't save it now,' whereas in reality you save future animals by not buying off the shelves, thereby creating less of a demand. So what would he say to that?" Lucy asks. I agree completely, as did my waste-not friend. All the emphasis was on what he paid for, supporting an economic form of the vegan movement — you change the world by paying for the version you want to see. But eating was a different matter; there were many scenarios where animal products that he had no part in paying for were wasted.

We both find the idea fascinating. The world-views we put our money towards are undeniably divergent, but equally clear in their central principle of care.

On action

For many lifestyle choices, money and action are thoroughly intertwined. "I've loved watching the knock-on effect of people becoming more conscious about the impact of their decisions as the movement has grown," Lucy says. "I respect people who don't have the same values as me a lot more when they have learnt about the realities of slaughterhouses and come to an informed decision about it, rather than ignoring what they don't see and eating things anyway just because it's the 'norm'."

In a way, we are both suggesting an interrogation of anything considered the norm — that old Hume-ian philosophy that 'is' does not mean 'ought' — before acting however you see fit. "It's easy not to question anything," Lucy continues, "because there's such a distance between where something comes from and where it ends with us consuming it. I used to keep chickens and then go and eat a chicken sandwich without ever connecting the two. It’s difficult to start to address that."

And once you do, it's difficult again to completely overhaul your diet to reconnect it to your values. I mention the many people who want to make a change but already have restrictions on what foods they can eat — equally those with a huge attachment to specific foods.

"you have to find a balance where it's realistic for you and makes you happy."

Lucy always returns to her positive outlook. "If you’re miserable eating a rule-based diet, or can't follow some rules for any reason, you have to find a balance where it's realistic for you and makes you happy. It's not a diet, it's a lifestyle. Find your priorities, and then find a balance that is achievable and go from there. When friends message me saying 'I've just switched to oat milk', I think that's amazing even if they haven't changed anything else. I wouldn't want anyone to feel judged by an all or nothing approach."

I agree, recalling the many people “who imply, ‘I could never give up cheese, so I will buy this beef' as if one logically follows from the other." Lucy exposes this inductive leap for what it is, saying “you can eat a plant-based meal and then put cheese on top, that still makes a huge difference." This anti-perfectionist attitude is crucial in helping small changes gather momentum; I think back to imprint’s conversation with Less-Waste-Laura, who said “not everything can be perfect... but if you pick one thing to focus on each weekly shop, you’ve changed 52 things by the end of the year.”

It all returns to the idea of planet-friendly, animal-friendly lifestyles: what does that word 'friendly' mean, and how could it ever translate to self-punishment? Our enjoyment of life is just as important as our physical health.

Food, food, food

One element that impacts our levels of motivation and enjoyment is focussing on the wonder of food itself. We find we're both lucky to have found pleasure in cooking, spending lots of time experimenting in the kitchen.

"Learning to cook when I first changed what I ate," Lucy says, "was discovering a whole world of other ingredients I never considered. It was great because if you're looking at a recipe that doesn't happen to fit with your diet, it encourages you to be more spontaneous, go with your instincts about what you could use instead, what would work well in a dish."

'If going vegan hadn’t urged me into learning to cook, I would have remained mostly ignorant towards food'

The idea resonates with me. In a recent audio essay, Alastair Hendy argues that we don't have much of a food culture in Britain anymore. What defines a food culture is a connection to seasonal food, cooking from scratch and recognising culinary harmony without needing to consult every step of a recipe. Recipes function instead as flexible sources of inspiration. If going vegan hadn’t urged me into learning to cook, I would have remained mostly ignorant towards food; setting myself those parameters was thus incredibly beneficial in the long run. I may not have stayed vegan, but it cultivated a relationship with ingredients that will last forever.

But when I talk about encouraging people to explore seasonality, Lucy helps me recognise my bias. Living in the countryside means I have easy access to local farm shops, and I naively assume that others are as excited by food as I am.

That's where the plethora of food replacements — the vegetarian sausages, the cashew cheeses, the soy-based chicken wraps — become a convenient way to ease the transition. Lucy says "if someone doesn't like cooking or feels overwhelmed by all these new unrecognisable ingredients, I always point them to the many swaps you can make where you can hardly taste the difference. Then, once you are used to those small changes, you'll gradually get more comfortable branching out." In the long run, however, learning to accept plant foods for what they are is far cheaper than tricking yourself into thinking you are eating meat with replacements.

Lucy cooks for other people as a way of subtly opening them up to other possibilities — even if it's just encouraging them to try a little of her meal alongside their own familiar one. "It's the best way to introduce them to something that's a bit different, a bit out of their comfort zone. It makes people much more open minded."

The idea is compelling — what is tangible, what appeals to the senses, is always going to win over cold, removed facts.

On cynicism

When Lucy asks what I find most difficult in my endeavour to live in an environmentally friendly way, I say that it's the ever-present knowledge that I could always be doing more, though I realise it’s an unreasonable expectation: "Everything we do is going to be detrimental, in some way, to something,” I tell her. “Just watch the most recent David Attenborough. There doesn't seem to be any perfectly wholly sustainable path in the world we live in. I understand why some people get very cynical, thinking if they can't make a difference then why bother at all?"

"Every small change you make builds up," says Lucy, "but no, if the reason behind your change is to save the world, you are never going to have the same fulfilment." She avoids this by thinking, "it's first and foremost my own thing, my own black and white — it wouldn't make a difference to my own actions whether it was just me or everyone in the world doing it."

'Nobody is super-powered, but everybody has the ability to live in a way that feels right to them.'

I can see how Lucy's approach makes the cynicism melt away. "I'm starting to consider it more personally," I say, "I know how I see myself, and I know the world-view I want to live in; why don't I just live in it? Nobody is super-powered, but everybody has the ability to live in a way that feels right to them."

Notes for change

I come away from our conversation feeling like we've made some sense of a messy landscape. It's not a clean-lined answer for everyone, but what's lovely about veganism is the structure it provides in some very muddy waters. Of course you can make unhealthy and unsustainable choices with any diet, but veganism usefully removes some huge detrimental practices while still allowing an individual to stay healthy. Let that idea empower you to shape your lifestyle accordingly, finding your ideals and then thriving within them. Not everyone's lifestyle will look exactly the same, but I'd like to think the aggregate would resemble something positive — culturally, environmentally, or simply an image of many individuals who have taken ownership of their lives. Perhaps if we came together more often to talk about our abundant perspectives, the world — and our plates — would seem a little more colourful.

Sophie is a poet and all round words-enthusiast who particularly enjoys using them for good, but can also be found using them to spout nonsensical musings or attempting to start serious conversations about art at social gatherings. Follow her doing all of the above on instagram @haxwordth, and check out her previous works, I am Full of Leaves and Speed.