(NOTE: I originally wrote this post for Psych Central’s Exploring Veganism blog.)
As a vegan, you get pretty accustomed to being the butt of jokes.
Some are just plain offensive, like t-shirts boasting, “PETA: People Eating Tasty Animals”… because mocking compassion is apparently humorous? Others are often rooted in stereotypes about vegans. Like all stereotypes, they are, at best, gross over-generalizations— and at worst, harmful myths.
Before going vegan two and a half years ago, I will admit that I believed most of the stereotypes I heard about vegans. But once I fully educated myself and became part of the community, I cringed at how erroneous my assumptions were. Hence, the truths shared in this post are ones that I wish my past self would been exposed to and recognized sooner. Since I can only cover a few in a single post, I’ll follow up with a “part two” in a couple of weeks, exploring some additional myths.
Myth #1: Vegans get no enjoyment from food, and mostly subsist on tofu and kale.
Don’t get me wrong — I love a good tofu stir-fry. Though finding good variety was more challenging 10 or 20 years ago, vegans have long-since had access to a broad array of foods that go well beyond the stereotypical assumptions about what we eat. For instance, did you know that Oreos, french fries, many items at Taco Bell, a lot of movie theater popcorn (including the “butter”), and most Clif Bars are all “accidentally vegan”? We are incredibly fortunate to be living during an unprecedented expansion of creative and delicious foods that are intentionally crafted without animal products.
When I made the decision to go vegan for ethical reasons, I knew I could do it because it wasn’t a question of whether I’d have to “give up” many of my favorite foods like queso, pizza, tacos, and ice cream. Instead, it became a mission to find the best animal-free versions of these foods. From a psychological perspective, it is absolutely healthy to enjoy and derive pleasure from food, as long as it’s not consistently your primary or only source of pleasure; and vegans have access to lots of pleasurable foods.
Myth #2: Being vegan is basically an eating disorder.
As a person who’s been in recovery from an eating disorder (ED) for over a decade and has specialized in working with ED clients, I understand why this myth exists. People who eliminate groups of food from their diets don’t always have healthy motivations for doing so. And despite its lack of formal inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (also known as the DSM-V), orthorexia(extreme and rigid focus on “healthy” eating) is very real and becoming increasingly prevalent.
However, as an ethical vegan, I also find it incredibly frustrating that veganism is often just assumed to be disordered, even if there are no other indicators that a person has an unhealthy relationship with food.
At a networking dinner during my first year as a vegan, I nervously disclosed my recent change to an ED dietitian sitting next to me. The restaurant had been graciously accommodating and prepared special options for me as an alternative to their signature seafood. The dietitian said to me, “I wouldn’t tell people that if I were you.” I’ll never forget that moment, and while I know that her feelings are not representative of the entire field, it’s not the only time I’ve heard comments like this.
I am determined to raise awareness within the field, and encourage clinicians to carefully explore this with each individual in order to distinguish between disordered behaviors and choices made for ethical reasons, and direct treatment accordingly. Look out for a longer post fully dedicated to this topic soon — but I couldn’t resist also including it here, as it’s an especially egregious myth.
Myth #3: All vegans are thin.
Some aspects of being immersed in the ED field have been wonderful, such as becoming an advocate of the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement. HAES teaches us that you can’t assess someone’s quality of health or quality of life based on their size or weight. Many would take it a step further to say that “being healthy” is not a rent that must be paid in order to be a worthy and lovable person.
Some of my vegan friends in larger bodies have a desire to lose weight, and others are unapologetic and proud of their bodies, self-identifying as “fat vegans”— reclaiming “fat” as the neutral, descriptive term it is, rather than the derogatory connotation that our fat-phobic culture has assigned it.
Because of myths #1 and #2, people are often surprised when they learn that someone in a larger body is vegan. It’s important to keep in mind the many factors we can’t know just by looking at someone: are they content with their body? Might they live a full and active life, with no more health complications than the average thin person? Do they have health conditions affecting weight that might be invisible, such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)? Just like someone’s size doesn’t tell you whether or not they have an eating disorder, it doesn’t tell you whether or not someone is vegan, or whether that choice is or is not “healthy” for them.
I hope this first batch of mythbusters has been helpful and informative. If there are particular stereotypes or myths that you’d like me to speak to in part two, please leave a comment here or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!