When dietary changes make you a social outcast

By Tracy Brighten

Vegetarian sandwich

Make a decision to lose weight, change career, or have children, and friends and family generally meet the change with excitement and words of encouragement. But tell them you no longer eat meat, fish, or dairy, or even that you’re just thinking about it, and you find yourself being interrogated!

If your reasons for dietary changes are health based, you risk the usual ill-informed response that you can’t be healthy without meat. But if your reasons are ethics based, be prepared for an even rougher ride. Overnight, you will have become a tree hugger, a bunny hugger, an animal activist, pigeon-holed with all the negative and often unjustified associations.

What’s your reason for not eating meat then?

If this question invites healthy discussion, then take up the opportunity. But if you sense you’re the defendant in court, it’s probably best to decline. You shouldn’t need to defend yourself as though you’ve committed a crime. Your actions are motivated by morality not immorality!

The animals will die anyway and we’ll eat them, so what does it matter how they’re treated?

This reasoning is used to justify large scale farming of animals as though they’re inorganic, without sense or feeling. We’ve been guilty in the past of treating older people or people with disabilities with prejudice, placing a value judgement on their life compared to others. But understanding and empathy helps us give everyone equal consideration. This compassion and equal consideration can be extended to animals. However short an animal’s life may be, we can still respect that life.

One person won’t make any difference, so why bother?

You’re presented with the pointlessness of your perceived sacrifice – the world isn’t going to give up eating animals. But if we wait for others to act, change will come even more slowly. There’s power in numbers. If more people consider the ethics of how their food is produced and make dietary changes, demand will increase for organic or free-range meat and eggs, as well as plant-based foods. Producers will respond to the trend, or risk being left behind. Governments may even stop subsidising factory farming and give more support to sustainable environmentally-friendly food producers, especially in light of the Paris climate change agreement. The world will never be vegetarian, let alone vegan, but every person who makes dietary changes to eat less meat and dairy is good news for animals, human health and the environment.

The environment isn’t our problem. We’ll be dead before any crisis affects us

This response is often given to the suggestion that a plant-based diet is better for the environment. I’m not sure if people are truly this selfish, or if it’s just indicative of their apathy towards changing their lifestyle, even in small ways. Surely we have a responsibility to future generations, so that future people may enjoy the life we have. Factory farming is thought to be a major factor in climate change, more so than fossil fuels. Eating fewer animals and dairy products shows we care about future people.

Aren’t you a hypocrite? You used to eat animals and you still wear leather shoes

You find your imperfections are under the spotlight instead of the positive steps you’re taking towards living a more ethical life. You’ll be expected to renounce ALL connections with ANY products that have ANYTHING to do with animals. It isn’t enough that you’ll never buy leather again, yet prefer not to send existing items to the landfill until they’re worn out. And don’t ever sit on a leather sofa. All or nothing is demanded of you. You can’t call yourself a vegan if you don’t meet the criteria. It doesn’t seem to matter that you don’t call yourself a vegan, that you don’t aim to be perfect and that you’re simply making choices you feel more comfortable with.

There are people suffering and dying and you’re concerned about animals. You should get your priorities straight

If you care deeply about animals, there seems to be an automatic assumption that you don’t care about people. But in my experience, people who care about animals do care about people. They care about all life forms. A healthy world needs healthy people and healthy nature. We can’t care for one while ignoring the other. And those people who present this as a case for not caring about animal welfare are often those who do nothing to reduce the suffering of people.

What will that mean for us?

Your family is concerned you’ll disrupt mealtimes with your fussiness and friends are irritated that catching up over dinner will be even more difficult. Vegetarian was bad enough but now you’ve really upset the apple cart. Rather than being understood for living a life in line with your values, you are chided for your inconvenient choices.

People who evaluate their lifestyle based on newly acquired knowledge and then make choices to live more ethically aren’t motivated by joining any holier-than-thou movement but by the desire to be a better person. Socrates lived by his philosophy “an unexamined life is a life not worth living.” Unfortunately for Socrates, Athenian society leaders weren’t so enlightened and he was sentenced to death. Luckily, most of us won’t be on trial for our beliefs – at least not by the rule of law!

In making ethical decisions and living with a clearer conscience, we practise self-discipline and show conviction and integrity that can help us in other areas of our life. Whether our critics come round or stand firm is out of our hands. But don’t be discouraged. Choosing a plant-based diet is becoming more popular for health, environmental and ethical reasons. Remain true to yourself, connect with like-minded people for friendship and support, and live the life that’s right for you.

Image credit:
Vegetarian Sandwich on The Stocks (Creative Commons Licence CC0)

You may also like to read these articles on ethical choices:
The one word doing the greatest harm of all to animal welfare by Jane Dalton.
Vegan quibblers hinder positive change by Tracy Brighten.

2 thoughts on “When dietary changes make you a social outcast

  1. What an excellent summary of the questions and objections that vegetarians and vegans receive – and, more importantly, good advice on how to tackle them. I think the implied criticism arises because people feel very defensive and confused, and it’s their way of saying, “I couldn’t be veggie/vegan because…” Well, now there’s no excuse. And thank you for the link to my own piece.

    • Thank you Jane, your feedback is much appreciated. I agree that people might criticise as a form of self-defence, which is unnecessary and also unfortunate because being better informed and less defensive could open up a healthy debate.

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