Friday, November 06, 2009

in praise of gluten and other yummy things.

I want to sound a battle cry today. This is something that's been rattling around in my brain for a long time, and I've been wanting to address it for a long time, but dietitian Virginia Messina has done it much more masterfully on her blog.

The issue? What vegan means, and what it doesn't mean. First, read her article,
No Need for Vegans to Give up Fat, Gluten, Soy or Cooked Foods Obviously, Messina is speaking from a nutrition stand-point, making the point that unless you are allergic to gluten, there is nothing wrong with it, that fat is essential to our bodies, that soy is quite nutritious, and that certain nutrients are more, not less, bio-available through cooking.

However, she has inspired me to make a list of my own.

Vegan DOES mean:
  • a diet and lifestyle free of animal products, or as free as humanly possible
  • a life of compassion and respect for all living beings
  • ...THAT'S IT!
Vegan DOES NOT mean:
  • gluten- or wheat-free
  • soy-free
  • raw
  • organic
  • low- or no-fat
  • sugar-free
  • alcohol-free
  • health food
  • certain brands or companies
  • free from refined foods
  • free from junk food
  • caffeine-free
  • salt-free
  • whole foods or whole grains
  • a diet in the sense of a weight-loss strategy
  • activism, at least activism of any particular sort
  • environmentalism (being vegan is the best thing you can do for the environment, but not all vegans have to be environmentalists or even care about it)
  • religiousness, or lack of religiousness
  • limiting foods for the sake of limiting foods
  • food snobbery
  • orthorexia
  • disordered eating
  • a fast or "detox" of any kind
It's bad enough that people think that because I'm vegan that either I or my diet are rigid, limited, closed, or unexciting. It doesn't help that so many vegans themselves seem to conflate these issues. Again, if you have Celiac disease or have a true allergy or need to lose weight, etc. I completely understand. You can be vegan AND gluten-free, but not because one automatically means the other. I myself have been known to integrate my veganism with an effort to eat healthy, eat for the health of the planet, or for the health of my community.

However, I think it's about time that we clarify, to ourselves and to society at large, that veganism is not a blanket term for "diet" or "healthy" or "activist" - it's just an effort to reduce animal suffering through judiciously removing animal products and exploitation from our food and lifestyle choices.

Now, I'm off to make dinner: pizza. Delicious chewy sourdough crust (gluten! white flour! cooked!), vegan cheese (soy! processed food! salt! fat!), lots of olive oil (fat!), tempeh sausage (soy!) tomato sauce made with wine (alcohol!) ... still badass, still vegan.

Whew! What say you?



Ash said...

Very interesting post and thanks for the link to Virginia's as well.

I appreciate what you're saying and really believe that people need to do what's best for them. I eat gluten free and vegan because it makes me feel good and keeps my Crohn's in check. I don't drink alcohol because it doesn't agree with me and I try to stay away from too much sugar and soy.

Intolerances aside (gluten & dairy), I actively make those choices because they make my body feel good. Period. I don't expect others to eat this way (except my partner who doesn't have a choice much of the time because I do all the cooking)

I do however get frustrated when restaurants or other vegan establishments or events lack fruits and veggies and instead focus on soy or processed faux foods. There are so many fantastic reasons to be vegan and I love when fruits and vegetables can be the main stars. I personally don't have huge issues with soy, but I don't think that any *one* item should make up the basis of anyone's diet, vegan or not.

I hope I've made some kind of sense in this hugely long comment. I should have just written my own post about it methinks!!

aquale said...

Amen. I think certain vegan food blogs that are orthorexia-tinged have furthered these misconceptions. Thank you for writing a blog that I can count on to represent the 'vegan' I to which I can relate.

VeganView said...

You have pretty much just summed up a post I have wanted to express for so long! I want to link this to my blog if that is ok? You said it all perfect! I am vegan but I love my fried tofu, my vodka, and my frozen meatless balls just as much as my trips to the farmer's market every week for fresh produce. I do eat almost all organic and whole foods but so many people don't get how much other goodness there is to be enjoyed in a vegan diet. It's not about restrictions, it's what works for you to enjoy life while doing your part for animals and the environment and your own health at the same time.

bazu said...

Ash- as I said, I completely respect what everyone chooses to eat or not eat. I know that certain foods don't leave me feeling very well after I eat them, and so I try not to eat too much of them. I also agree that no ONE food should comprise the bulk of anyone's diet- as much as I love soy, I love to vary up my milks, for example. As much as I love peanut butter, I love to switch up my nut butters. It's just that none of those things have anything to do with veganism.

aquale- I totally agree.

VeganView- link away! I'm glad you liked this post.

andy w said...

Why include ethics in the notion of veganism?

Not all vegans are compassionate.
Not all vegans have respect for every living being.

Veganism does not imply any sort of philosophy or belief system. The causation is the other way around. There are many reasons why people are vegan (and you list most of them in this post), but none is essential or uniting.

bazu said...

andy w- that's a really good question. It made me think- and what I have concluded is that ethical veganism is exactly what this post is about. You can be vegan for health reasons only, or have no philosophy or compassion, but I actually think that would be exceedingly rare and unsustainable. For example, if you are vegan for health reasons, what's to stop you from buying leather shoes?

joanna said...

i love this post. like you, i'm annoyed whenever someone makes assumptions about me based on the fact that i'm vegan, even if the assumption turns out to be true.

Gena said...

Hey Bazu,

Thought-provoking post. I do think it's fair to take issue with certain foods that are typically a part of a vegan diet on one's own ground -- for example, I don't believe that processed soy products are ideal. But I do believe that tofu and tempeh in moderation are fine for most people.

And while the diet I espouse is perhaps quite unlike that of many other vegans, it also bothers me very much when I see certain eaters self-diagnosing allergies, or avoiding common allergens simply because they've read that many others are doing so. This is also a common behavior among those who suffer from eating disorders, and an unnecessary source of stress and distress.

A complex topic, but glad you started a dialog.

andy w said...

Bazu, you make a good point about leather. I think you're right that strict veganism almost always implies an ethical aspect.

However, I think in this post you are imposing an additional assumption on veganism, namely that it be strict! Does veganism really have to be all or none?

I don't think it does. I call myself a vegan. I don't eat meat or dairy. I don't buy leather. I don't eat eggs, unless they are from happy chickens (pastured and free-range). I don't eat seafood, unless I am traveling and vegan options are non-existent.

Is there room in your definition of "veganism" for people like me, who eat a vegan diet most of the time?

I think the underlying problem is similar to that of stereotypes in general. In order to understand a large group of diverse individuals, we make assumptions and use language to categorize. Inevitably, we lose track of the subtle differences that make individuals unique. When it goes too far, stereotypes are harmful and offensive. Understanding is sacrificed for simplicity.

Your blog post resonated with me because I think it was a noble attempt to strip away the false assumptions that accompany veganism. I definitely want to encourage you in this endeavor. I just don't think you went far enough.

BTW, off-topic but I have to mention: your blog is a big inspiration! I always want to eat what you're eating! :)

Amey said...

yeah, I'm interested in the same things Andy caught on to... Technically, I think veganism is simply not eating any animal products. Because my aunt's boyfriend is a VERY strict vegan - 100% based on health reasons. He is a devout Eat To Live person, and his day job is trapping and killing gophers in people's gardens. He is always offering to catch the naughty gophers in my yard (no thanks!). I find the whole thing totally trippy. I think he's a more staunch and uptight vegan than I am, but it's definitely not coming from a "compassion & respect for living beings" angle. It's pretty fascinating.

I, naturally, am in your camp however.

theONLYtania said...

Hey Bazu,
I've always felt that an all-or-nothing approach is pushed by the "hardcore" vegans, which is just such a turn off. I think.. to each his own. We could just do away will all labels. I don't eat meat, eggs, dairy, but I have leather things. So by your (and others) definition I'm not vegan. I'll just be me. And that's OK.

Tami (Vegan Appetite) said...

Great post, Bazu. I think you're right on the money here. It's crazy what people can assume or misconstrue either intentionally or accidentally.

And please pass me a piece of that pizza!

Amey said...

also, he eats no oils and no salt, and has recently requested that all the foods I cook for family dinners be salt-free and oil-free. It's interesting how much I struggled with that request. Partly it's because I don't want all the non-vegan family members who have taken SO many years to win over to respecting a vegan palette - to suddenly think that vegan = no salt, no oil. Sigh.

What with one recently diagnosed celiac and one soy-intolerant kiddo (a new girlfriend's daughter), and one devout Eat to Live person... family meals should now be soy free, gluten free, vegan, salt free, and oil free, and appeal to 15 people from ETL to my brother's family who love meat and fast food. Oh dear, my spirit grows weary every time I think of it.

bazu said...

andy w- ok, I took out the part about compassion and respect! I'm comfortable defining vegan as just not eating/using animals/animal products!

I certainly don't want to come across as judgmental or assumptive. I personally don't view eating happy eggs or seafood, or purchasing leather goods as vegan, but I'd rather have a big tent. Why? Because I'd rather have everyone in the world be vegan the way you or Tania or Amey's aunt's boyfriend define it than a small percentage of the world be 100% "perfect" vegans.

This is subject to further re-thinking, everyone be warned!

I love this conversation, please keep all your comments coming! As you can see, I'm pretty much the least judgmental person ever.

bazu said...

That having been said, I'll be really upset if someone expects me to eat eggs or seafood because they've met people who call themselves vegan who do so!


caro said...

I'm glad you are less judmental than I, the minute I read someone called themselves a "vegan"
that sometimes eats fish I was like whaaaat? I've been a vegetarian for 40 years and the last few months with the great recipes on all the vegan blogs cutting out dairy, eggs, etc....phew.. its good! thanks

Lokar said...

I started reading and then got fed up, but the truth is basically this:

If you eat a vegan diet, then it's likely not for ethical reasons (as you can eat a vegan diet and eat leather). However, eating a vegan diet does not make one a vegan.

If you _are_ vegan, then it is very likely for ethical (or religious, I suppose) reasons, as somebody who _is_ vegan, rather than just eating a vegan diet, will not buy leather or other animal products - this is clearly not for health reasons.

Lokar said...

andy-w: veganism means.. well, veganism. If you eat a vegan diet most of the time, then you .. eat a vegan diet most of the time. That doesn't make you less of a person, but does mean you're not vegan.

There is no space in my definition of vegan for somebody who sometimes eats eggs - as if a vegan can sometimes eat eggs, then veganism clearly doesn't mean avoiding _ALL_ animal products (which is the definition of the word).

It's not a case of "strict" vegan vs vegan, it's a case of vegan vs somebody who is often vegan.

Lokar said...

Ooh, a triple post.

First, in post 2, I meant buy leather, not eat leather. Obviously.

Secondly, by my own definition I am not vegan. I sometimes buy vintage animal products - I have my wonderful 100 year old wool coat. I feel completely justified in wearing it, as buying a brand new synthetic coat would do more damage to the environment and animals than a 100 year old wool coat. Is it vegan? No.

bazu said...

this is the thing. I think a distinction between being vegan and eating a vegan diet can be useful. The latter is a strict vegetarian, who is still doing a lot of good for the animals and the world in her/his own way. The distinction is helpful because we vegans already have a hard enough time with people asking us- what if the chicken's a pet? What if it's happy meat? What if it's organic dairy? What if...? It's the slippery slope problem.

That being said, I'm not even vegan by that definition! I eat honey in things, and am not as vigilant about, say, checking the ingredients of bread or pasta when I'm eating out.

Whew! We might need a second post on this topic!

Lokar said...

This is how I handle things:

Eating a vegan diet = not consuming animal products.
Being vegan = avoiding animal products wherever possible, for any reason.

The word "diet" makes all the difference. If I were to start meeting people who got confused, I suppose I would change "Being vegan" to "having a vegan lifestyle".

It's impossible to be truly vegan as we all know, but it's actively trying that is important.

Laura said...

OH MY GOD! This is awesome!!! I have been so pissed about all the orthorexic blogs out there I can't even stand it!! I am a registered dietitian AND a vegan and it breaks my heart, both from a nutrition and food standpoint. I work in an inpatient eating disorder treatment facility and i go through this every single day. Fat IS GOOD. Salt IS GOOD. carbs ARE GOOD. If you aren't allergic to wheat, it's ok to eat pasta for goodness sake! you don't always have to have spaghetti squash! sometimes it's good, but c'mon.
bless your little soul, bazu, for this post!! amen to real food and real cooking and amen to kindness to all living beings. amen.

kittee said...

Thanks for linking to the original essay, Bazu. I think this is all very interesting. Personally, most of the vegans I know, could use a little nudge in the healthier eating department, but I do understand where you're going with this. By healthier I don't mean a shove towards orthorexia either(thanks for linking to that too, i had never heard of it before), but maybe laying off of so much white food, processed foods and fat. I know a lot of vegans that replicate the SAD, but with vegan alternatives--still bad.

KathyF said...

I'm going to carry around a copy of this. Someone in class last week, after learning I was vegan, said "That must be pretty boring!"

My reaction was confusion. Boring?! My meals?! I gave her the link to my blog.

Next time I'll give her the link to this one.

The Voracious Vegan said...

FABULOUS post! It bugs me to no end that people think I must be an absolute health nut if I am a vegan. Umm...hello? I run a vegan bakery, where I use plenty of sugar and fats and oils, etc. NOT a health food fanatic over here!

Don't get me wrong, I adore my raw veggie salads, and my green juices, but I will often follow those up with a sugar laden cupcake and a deep fried pakora or two (or twenty seven!)

Veganism is about not hurting animals. Other than that, I eat what I want without guilt! Bring on the soy, gluten and fat!

Theresa said...

Great post, bazu!

Anonymous said...

"I'm comfortable defining vegan as just not eating/using animals/animal products!" Amen to that.

Catherine said...

Bazu, I think you're brave, trying to define a "label" that so many people use, that means so many things to so many different people.

Orthorexia creeps me out -- and I have a friend who scares me a little bit in regards to this. Fat is good for you! Salt is a requirement for human life! When did we grow so scared of the foods we eat? Michael Pollan talks about this in his books -- when we grew so disconnected from our food/food production, we grew scared of our food. Hello folks, food is required to sustain life!!!!!! Food is not the enemy!!!!! :)

Your pizza looks fantastic, by the way! When's dinner??? ;)

Lokar said...

Oh, and I came up with a perfect analogy.

You're not sexually abstinent if you have sex once a week. There is no such thing as "strictly sexually abstinent". If you have sex, you are _not_ abstaining.

The same applies to veganism.

Liz said...

Great post! I hate it when the vegan option at organized events is something like plain lettuce for a salad(no dressing...because why?) and then more plain vegetables for an entree. Like vegans don't enjoy spices or flavors or oil or salt just like the next person.

Love that "food snobbery" is not a requirement for veganism! I just like being both!

pixiepine said...

Well said.

Tofu Mom (AKA Tofu-n-Sprouts) said...

LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! I'd like to link to it too!

Jeannette said...

Thanks for this list. People dont seem to understand that the list of what we can and do eat is so much longer than what we dont eat.

Veronica persica said...

I don't want to be harsh (from the non-vegan's POV), but I believe you're right to begin with. "Vegan" was a word made up by an ethical vegan (Donald Watson). Anyone else (who doesn't care about ethics) is "eating a vegan diet". The origin is clearly based in compassion, and it's fine to say "vegan diet only" to indicate that, but it's quite natural for someone to assume that vegans care about ethics.

I am like, you, though. I care, but I won't do things that stress me out, like avoid products with some honey, or check restaurant bread for whey. I guess the point is avoiding the big obvious things, and doing our best for the rest. It is pretty clear what the big obvious ones are. There are also those "freegans" who would never kill animals or buy meat, but will scavenge it. Similar intent but still a different term.

c said...

Love this post! I made pizza tonight. Go Vegan!

Hase said...

Awesome! Thank you for this post!!

Luciana said...

I'm just in it for the cupcakes. Seriously, though, people ask me all sorts of questions about what I can and can't eat...what I believe and don't believe, when really, all "vegan" means is that I don't eat or buy animal products.

Yes, I love kale, lentils, tofu, and salad, and I definitely eat more of them now that I'm vegan, BUT I also love cupcakes and greasy chili cheese fries.

Anything else people attribute to veganism is personal.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear.

I have no interest (at this juncture) in going fat-, soy-, gluten-, sugar- or any other "free," but I am becoming more interesting in integrating my veganism with local and seasonal farming and eating.

be'ershevaboheme6 said...


FoodFitnessFreshair said...

People tend to think vegan and vegetarian diets are so limited, when in fact they actually offer more choices than most meat-based diets consist of. Vegetarians tend to eat a much wider range of grains, beans, and produce than meat-eaters, making for an exciting and varied diet. I hate the misconception that vegan means boring.

Melisser; the Urban Housewife said...

THANK YOU! Someone needed to say this. There's so many scary blogs out there who make veganism look like a crazy diet. No one wants to see that all you eat is steamed vegetables.

Monique a.k.a. Mo said...

This post is hilarious! I like that the distinction is made. One can be vegan and be any of those other things, but veganism is not synonymous with being anything except animal-free.

When I first went vegan, I was all about recreating stuff I grew up on, but I love how varied I am now. I love colorful food and don't mind raw, gluten-free, or soy free. I also love fatty, monochromatic, decadence! All I see is that veganism opened me up to a world full of options I never thought about before. So it's good to see it being said.