We Are Not Vegans, Part II

A couple years ago, I wrote what turned out to be quite a controversial posting titled, "We Are Not Vegans." I'm not linking to it here because if I were writing it today, I would write it differently. But it's easily found by searching on my blog site or even easier by just picking it off of the list of "Most Popular Blogs" in the right hand column of my blog site. It's still in the top ten of all-time most read blogs that I've written.

But with the publication of John Mackey's book, The Whole Foods Diet, with Dr. Alona Pulde and Dr. Matthew Lederman, the question of being vegan has come up again. As most of my readers know, John Mackey is the founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market (and Dr. Pulde and Dr. Lederman are the doctors in the documentary Forks Over Knives). John Mackey does not eat any animal products. But he sells animal products in his stores, and he allows for some animal products in his new book. To be fair, so does Dr. Campbell in The China Study and so does Dr. Greger in How Not to Die.

So, a friend of mine asked me, "How can John Mackey be called a vegan when he operates a chain of grocery stores that sell animal products?" And that's a fair question that gets to the heart of today's blog posting. Mackey addresses that question in his book, although not really to my satisfaction. The point I want to make today, as I did in my earlier posting on the subject, is that eating whole food, plant-based is not the same as being a vegan. Being WFPB is not being vegan and being vegan is not necessarily eating whole food, plant-based. The two are entirely different concepts, and it's important to recognize the difference. I'll address here why it's important from both sides --- from the side of the vegan and from the side of the WFPB eater.

First, I'll point out that being vegan is about much more than what you don't eat, and it says nothing about what you do eat. That's because veganism is not about food. Being vegan is about not exploiting animals. It is about having a compassionate attitude towards all animals. As Gene Baur told me on the Holistic Holiday at Sea cruise, being vegan is about kindness. It's about being kind to all forms of life, both to animals and to our fellow brothers and sisters in the human race (another subject I touch on further below).

Vegans don't just not eat animal products. Vegans also don't do a lot of other things that exploit animals. For example, vegans don't take their children to the zoo or to the circus or to watch captive dolphins splashing around in confined spaces. Vegans don't go to southern cities like New Orleans or Charleston or Savannah and take horse-drawn carriage tours of the city. Vegans don't wear any wool, silk or leather clothing. Vegans don't have leather car seats. Vegans are aware of personal products, likes soaps and shampoos and perfumes that are made with animal products and they don't buy those products. Vegans don't buy products that are the result of animal testing. None of this is any small measure. There are animal products in everything from condoms to wine and everything in between. Even organic vegetables are usually grown in manure that comes from feedlots that exploit animals for their food. But there are farms cropping up for vegans that grow organic vegetables without using animal manure.

The point is, being vegan is not about what you eat or don't eat. Being vegan is a lifestyle. Being vegan is a commitment to being kind and compassionate. The fact that you don't eat animals is just one part of being vegan.

On the other hand, being whole food, plant-based, while it can lead to becoming a vegan, is not in and of itself being a vegan. Being whole food, plant-based is about nutrition. The fact that it is also good for the environment, good for mitigating climate change and good for animal welfare, among other things, are really side effects of the movement. And they are good side effects as well as compelling arguments for going whole food, plant-based. But the overall message of the WFPB way of eating is for our nutritional health.

I always say it's not about what you don't eat; it's about what you do eat. A person can eat whole food, plant-based and have good health and still occasionally eat a slice of pizza with cheese or an egg omelette (as examples). It's how you predominantly eat that counts and makes a difference toward your health. Being WFPB emphasizes certain foods like dark green leafy greens, beans, berries, nuts and seeds, whole grains, fruits and so forth. It minimizes processed foods, oils and animal foods. But it's not vegan.

I think this is important because I hear so many people who are eating whole food, plant-based calling themselves vegan, when in fact they are not. And when we go into a restaurant and tell the waiter we are vegan and ask him to bring us something vegan, we are not at all assured of getting anything that is whole food, plant-based. We might get fried zucchini for example. That could be vegan, but it's certainly not WFPB. So, saying that we are vegan to the waiter is useless.

We need to say that we are whole food, plant-based. I know the argument that waiters understand the word vegan, but they don't understand the words, whole food plant-based. That's a cop-out. The word vegan didn't always exist. It's not a word that's written into our DNA. In fact, the word vegan is only 3 years older than me; it originated in 1944. Certainly, in 1944, if you went into a restaurant and told the waiter you were vegan, they would look at you quizzically. Nobody knew what it meant. It had to be explained.

So, why can't we do the same? Why can't we explain what it means to be whole food, plant-based? Instead of co-opting a word that means something entirely different from what we are, why don't we use our own terminology and explain what it means? Then eventually, just as the word vegan came to be universally understood, so will the words whole food, plant-based.

There's another reason for shedding the word vegan. That is, vegans don't have a good reputation in the general population. Don't get me wrong, there are many fine vegans who are kind and compassionate towards all. But there are a few who are not as kind and compassionate toward their fellow human beings as they are towards animals. And that leaves a bad taste in the average person's mouth. Getting in someone's face about how they eat or what they wear and attacking their morality does not win converts to your side. But it does leave a sour taste, and it results in a bad reputation for the vegan movement in general.

This is unfortunate because animals truly are being exploited and put into positions of pain and fear. It's a terrible situation, and as I've said before, we should all strive to be as vegan as we can be.
And even push ourselves to go further than we think we can go in that regard. But we also need to recognize that we live in a culture that has exploited animals for a long, long time, and that's not going to change overnight. People's attitudes about it are not going to change overnight. There are deep religious convictions about the role of animals in our world for many people. There are deep cultural traditions that dictate how people eat. There's peer pressure. There's what's taught in schools. There's the influence of big business. There's just a lot that goes into people's attitudes toward animals.

Vegans get a bad reputation when they don't recognize that complexity, when they don't show compassion and kindness toward others. Just as vegans accuse others of speciesism, so can they be accused of speciesism when they show compassion and kindness toward other animals but not towards the homo sapiens species. And the bad taste that people get towards vegans can turn them off to trying the WFPB way of eating if they are given the impression that it is a vegan diet.

In conclusion, be what you are. If you are truly a vegan and don't exploit animals in any form (a very honorable and ethical person to be and one I strive to be), then be a true vegan and show kindness and compassion to all species, including homo sapiens. But if you are eating whole food, plant-based for the nutritional benefits, then don't call yourself vegan because it won't necessarily get you what you want in a restaurant and it may turn off others from trying this way of eating. Call it what it is --- a whole food, plant-based way of eating.