A few months ago, fitness writer Craig Ballantyne wrote a post for Zen Habits called 12 Rules to Live By that I really liked.
I was inspired: just as Craig intended, his list made me examine about my own life rules, borrowing from his where I found them useful. The point was not to say, You should follow these rules too, but rather:
These are my rules. Have you thought about yours?
As an exercise, I put together my own, narrower list, just around the topic of veganism (distinct from healthy eating, for which I have another list). I’ve gotten here gradually over the course of about six years, beginning with the day I decided I was going to cut just the red meat out of my diet — and that was a big deal! So it’s interesting for me to look at the rules I now eat (and live) by, many of which didn’t form consciously but instead resulted from habit, grooves that just kept wearing deeper over time.
(Note: Trying to go vegan? Start with our go-vegan app, which includes a coach to help you navagate all the tough situations.)
Like Craig with his list, I have no intention of this being a “here’s what you should do” post. Nor is it final or comprehensive — I’m still progressing, still figuring out how I want to eat and what I want to be my “policies” as they relate to food.
But I do hope this list achieves one result: opens a few eyes to the fact that vegan doesn’t have to mean militant and inflexible. More than ever, I’m fed up that vegans and vegetarians are perceived as extreme, preachy elitists who think we know what’s right for everyone and that the world should be forced to eat like we do. I’m even more fed up that we bring that stereotype upon ourselves — for example, by creating sites like exvegans.com, as portrayed in this article.
As most readers of this blog probably already know, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can be laid-back, easy-going, accepting, and vegan all at once. What I hope is that my rules demonstrate just one way to do it.
My 8 Rules for Life as a Vegan
[Update: After a conversation with my friend Javier in the comments, I’ve decided that my reasons for rules #2 and #3 (which I adopted several years ago), and the sometimes-exception to rule #1, are outdated and inconsistent with my current beliefs, so it’s more sensible for me not to consume any animal products, regardless of circumstance. So, those changes all start now. Thanks, Javier. :)]
1. Don’t eat animal products.
Obvious. But even this one still has exceptions, the most common being that every once in a while, I still knowingly buy and eat something with honey in it. Under normal circumstances, if I see honey on an ingredient list, I don’t buy the food. But if it’s a rare situation where the kids are going nuts, we’ve got nothing at home, and we decide on pizza with vegan cheese, then when I run out to the store and the only frozen crust they have has honey in it, I let it slide. I’m working on this, because I’d like not to eat honey ever, if for no other reason than consistency.
“Don’t eat animal products” (besides breastfeeding) applies to our kids too — 3 years and 3 months old — but deliberately less strictly. Our toddler eats vegan at home, but every once in a while gets a bite of something non-vegan (but not meat) from the grandparents. Which is totally fine with me; I want him to try different things so he can one day make an informed choice about his diet. And I know that in the years to come, there will be plenty of birthday parties and other opportunities at friends’ houses where he’ll want to eat non-vegan foods, meat even … and we’ll leave that up to him.
One day I’ll write a more in-depth post about how we’re raising our kids, but you can get an idea about it in this old post.
2. Don’t turn down non-vegan (but vegetarian) food that’s offered at a friend’s house.
It happens. You go to a friend’s house, a friend who has graciously offered to host you and prepare you a meal. You tell them you’re vegan and don’t eat animal products, but they overlook something — butter (most often), sprinkled cheese, eggs. In this case, I eat the meal and be grateful. Meat, though, I don’t think I could eat. That situation hasn’t arisen yet, thankfully.
3. If a restaurant messes up my order and serves non-vegan (but vegetarian) food, either find someone to give it to or eat it.
If it were an entire pizza with real cheese on it, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it — in that case, I’d give it away. If it’s a little bit of cream sauce drizzled over enchiladas, I’d eat it (and have). The animal has already suffered, and I don’t think you honor the animal any more by wasting the food — and at this point I think I’m doing more for veganism by eating it than by making a scene.
Note that this is not about convenience — if a restaurant simply doesn’t have vegan options, I don’t eat there. Or if I’m running a race and the aid stations don’t have vegan food, I don’t make exceptions (I’ve learned to bring my own food). But when it’s an unforeseeable mistake, I think it’s better to use than to waste.
4. Don’t make a scene.
I understand that many vegans believe exactly the opposite — that the more visible they can be, the more they can raise awareness by attracting attention to their choice not to eat animals. It’s sort of like the “there’s no such thing as bad press” idea.
I disagree completely. In my own life I’ve noticed that people are far more interested in my diet when I don’t say anything about it — when they see that I can live pretty darn normally and still be vegan. I think being perceived as weird, while nothing to be ashamed of, does hurt your ability to spread the message because most people erect fortresses when they get a whiff of weirdness. So whenever possible, I blend in, quietly making my choice not to eat animal products, right alongside those who do.
5. Don’t complain about not having options.
Being vegan is a choice, and one that a tiny percentage of the population makes. When you choose it, you accept that in many situations and at many events, you won’t have food to eat unless you bring it yourself. So eat ahead of time or bring food, and accept responsibility for your diet choice. By complaining, I’d give vegans a bad name and sour people on the lifestyle.
6. When someone asks about healthy eating, don’t pounce.
If someone tells me they’re trying to eat healthier, closer to vegetarian, and they eat fish or even chicken a few times a week and want to know what I think, I say, “That’s great — if you’re going to eat meat, I think that’s a really healthy way to do it. Focus on whole foods and you almost can’t go wrong.”
And I believe it, as far as health goes. I don’t want to get into a discussion about ethics.
I became vegan very gradually, each incremental diet change bringing me closer to the next. So that’s the route I wish for others, and I don’t find it necessary to mention that they might want to go further with it over time. But of course, when they’re ready, I’m thrilled to help.
7. Don’t argue about diet.
I hate arguments about diet. Especially with the Paleo versus vegan one, nobody budges on either side: even when you try to ignore ethical aspects and just talk about health, there’s too much emotion tied up in the discussion about whether eating animals is natural or unnatural, much less right or wrong, to make it productive.
Much, much better than arguing, I think, is to persuade by example. Be the best and healthiest and most athletic vegan you can be, and if you do a good enough job of it, somebody will want the same results and consider copying your diet. That’s the way I’m influenced, so that’s the way I hope to influence. (See The Quiet Theory of Influence, one of my favorite-ever posts of Leo Babauta’s.)
8. Don’t buy anything that’s leather, wool, or made from other animal products, where I can avoid it.
While certainly par for the vegan course, paying attention to clothing and other non-food goods is a step beyond choosing not to eat animal products. I didn’t start paying attention to my clothes or other non-food products until a few months after I became vegan. But even after I made this shift, I didn’t throw away things I currently owned that weren’t vegan (again, I don’t think wasting something is any better than using it), so I still have a leather wallet, for example. But as my leather shoes have worn out, I’ve replaced them with man-made versions, and I’ll do the same with anything else I still have leftover from my pre-vegan days.
If it’s a gift, I donate it. New Balance gave me an otherwise great pair of leather sandals at their event I attended a few summers ago, and I’m sure they probably made someone in need very happy.
There are plenty of other things made from animal products — very often the glue that holds a running shoe’s sole to its upper is animal-derived. In cases like this where I know it’s common, I’ll do some research (Brooks has advertised that their shoes are vegan-friendly, except their walking shoes). But sometimes I forget to ask (I didn’t ask about my Hokas before I bought them, and I still don’t know), and with other products where I have no idea — furniture, kid shoes and toys, countless others — I don’t ask. Do the best you can, I say.
Finally, even though they’re foods, I put beer and wine into this category too. Since they don’t have ingredient labels, it’s hard to know if they’re made with animal products. And many are. Barnivore is a great resource for this, and as soon as I find out a beer isn’t vegan-friendly, I stop drinking it (Guinness, for example). But if I’m at a bar or see a shiny new brew in the craft beer store, I don’t go out of my way to check to see if it’s vegan before trying it. Only if I start drinking it regularly do I bother to look it up, and if I find out it’s not vegan, I stop drinking it.
These Rules are Subject to Change!
That’s my list, and again, I want to emphasize its fluidity and incompleteness — I haven’t even touched circuses or zoos or keeping animals as pets, all things that I wouldn’t have batted an eye about a few years ago but that I now have second thoughts about (actually circuses are beyond just second thoughts; I wouldn’t go to one or take my kids to one). But I feel like I’m still defining whatever my rules are there, so I left those out. And as I said in the intro, I’ve moved gradually but steadily toward “pure” veganism over the past few years, and I can only imagine that trend will continue.
I’m eager to hear your rules, if you’ve thought about them. I’m sure many people will have rules very different from mine, and I’m open to hearing them and learning from you.