Not Everybody Wants to be Vegan or Plant-based -- Respecting Their Boundaries

Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported on a study that was done of people with heart disease eating a vegan, plant-based diet versus another group eating the diet recommended by the American Heart Association. As those of us who are whole food, plant-based might have guessed, the people eating the vegan diet slowed the progression of their heart disease whereas the people eating the American Heart Association diet did not. But that's not the point of this article.

Instead, there was something else that intrigued me about the study reported on by the article. And that was that the study was delayed in starting because they couldn't get enough heart disease patients to be willing to go on a vegan diet. And furthermore, of those who did, many went back to a non-vegan diet after the study was over, even though they had seen beneficial results from being vegan. To me, that points out one thing: Not everybody is interested in going vegan or plant-based, even when their health can be shown to improve by doing so.

It's like the friend I had in my house once. He picked up a copy of The China Study that was laying on my coffee table and started leafing through it. Observing this, I casually mentioned, "You read that book and you'll never eat meat again." He immediately put it back down and said, "Then I don't want to read it."

Food means many things to people, and it's not all about sustaining life or energy. Food has huge connections with social and family occasions and traditions. Many of us have fond remembrances of something lovingly cooked by our mom's that we like to replicate. Or there's the uncle's house we liked to go to who would slow roast a pork butt in the backyard. It's not just the taste of that pork butt that we remember, but the taste of pork today can bring back fond memories of great times at that uncle's house.

It's hard to change those images in people's minds. I spent my entire life having turkey at Thanksgiving. Having turkey brings back happy memories of Thanksgivings growing up and of Thanksgivings visiting my wife's family every year as an adult. The first year I was plant-based and went without the turkey seemed strange to me. As good as it was, and as proud as I was of myself for doing it, it also made Thanksgiving a little less like the Thanksgivings I had grown up with and known all my adult life as well.

Like many people, when I first thought about going whole food, plant-based, I didn't think it was something I could do all the time. There were foods that I couldn't imagine giving up. There were foods that I believed were still important to eat from a health standpoint (primarily salmon and olive oil because every dietician I knew of insisted on the importance of those two foods), and so I kept eating them pretty much during the entire first year of being WFPB. Early readers of my blog site may remember me saying I was 90% vegan and 95% vegetarian. Because I couldn't imagine being totally vegan, I started with a book by Mark Bittman called VB6. The idea behind his book was that we may not be able to go totally vegan (and Mark Bittman is by no means totally vegan as he will readily tell you), we ought to be able to go vegan most of the day. So, he proposed being vegan all day except for one meal, and at that one meal, you can eat what you want to eat.

That seemed like a reasonable approach to me, and it seemed like something I could do. I wanted to get healthier and I knew that dietitians all recommended eating nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day. On the diet I was on (basically the standard American, low-carb diet), I didn't see how that was possible. As a result, that was one of the things that did attract me to the whole foods, plant-based lifestyle. It seemed to offer a way to meet that recommendation of nine servings a day of fruits and vegetables.

At the same time, I had no interest in being a vegan. My image of vegans was of young kids vandalizing property and throwing paint at women wearing fur coats. Or worse. Vegans never presented a very attractive image of themselves in my mind. While today, I understand that better, there is still 95%+ of the population that views vegans in a very negative way, as I once did. And while today, I can cite all the health, environmental, economic and ethical reasons for being vegan, I also think that vegans can be their own worst enemies when interacting with the general public. I believe that more people are turned off by their encounters with vegans than are convinced to become vegans.

The important thing I think is to recognize that we are all at different places in our life's journeys. And we all have our reasons for our beliefs, attitudes and the foods we eat. I can't force anybody to eat the way I eat. And truthfully, I can't convince someone to do so through logic alone. Our connections to the foods we eat are too strong for that. On the other hand, I have seen a lot of people change their diets to a whole food, plant-based way of eating and have seen them getting healthier as a result. And many have done so because they have seen the change that it has brought about in me. I know that because they have told me so. My best statement to people is to tell them what eating this way has done for me.

But still, most people have foods that they aren't ready to give up, don't plan to give up and will not give up. And they have negative images of what it means to be vegan. And they can't imagine going into a restaurant or sitting down to a family meal and not having a piece of meat on their plates. All of that takes time to change, and people have to come to it on their own. What we, in the WFPB movement need to do I think, is to accept people where they are at. We should be able to articulate what a whole food, plant-based way of eating is and why we eat that way, but we should be careful about evangelizing others to do the same.

Instead, we can let them see the changes in us. We can answer their questions when they have questions. And they will have questions. I have found that I can sit down to eat and not say a word about how I eat, and yet people will notice and they will ask me about it. Many people know they should be eating a more plant-based diet and when they see someone doing it, they will ask questions that might help them to move in that direction in the future. In such instances, we can encourage them when they tell us they want to do something. But we need to also respect their boundaries. And if their boundary is that they are going to continue to eat eggs for breakfast or salmon twice a week or whatever it is, we can respect that while at the same time encouraging them to eat whole food, plant-based the rest of the time.

Seeking perfection never works. Meeting people where they are at and giving them gentle encouragement without nagging or badgering can pay dividends though. I'll leave off with the words of Dr. Greger from page 265 of his book How Not to Die:

"Sometimes people's diets take on a religiosity of their own. I remember a man once telling me that he could never go 'plant-based' because he could never give up his grandma's chicken soup. Huh? Then don't (give it up)....I told him that enjoying her soup shouldn't keep him from making healthier choices the rest of the time. The problem with all-or-nothing thinking is that it keeps people from even taking the first steps. The thought of never having pepperoni pizza again somehow turns into an excuse....We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good."