Omnivore, Vegetarian, Vegan and the Gray Area In Between

I’m fully aware that I risk kicking the hornet’s nest with this topic, probably more than anything I’ve ever published here on my site. I certainly don’t intend to stir the pot, though I realize this topic evokes lots of strong emotions, and not everyone will agree with my views.

But you know what? That’s okay. So many of us live our lives continuously seeking the validation of people around us (family, friends, and even total strangers) that we often don’t speak our true minds. Just like with all the other information I share on my site, I feel it’s important, otherwise I wouldn’t be sharing it.

What really got me thinking about this was a question I was asked in response to the food posts on my Instagram becoming increasingly focused on meatless meals. Not surprisingly, I was asked if I was going vegetarian or vegan – a totally logical and valid question.

Before I go on, let me mention the many factors behind why people choose to forego eating animals and animal products, which include any or all of the following: animal rights issues, environmental concern, meat industry sanitation concerns, and – of course – for better health. I really, truly, encourage everyone to look into it and seek truth. I certainly can’t write this post without expressing that there are many things wrong with the way our meat industry operates, and with the way we as Americans view eating meat (especially red meat) in our collective diets.

So, I sat and gave this question some thought before I answered, because I didn’t believe saying “no” was the correct answer. However, giving a “yes” would be very misleading and dishonest. There are times when I jokingly call myself “Vegan In Training”, but to be honest, I don’t foresee myself ever becoming a full vegan or vegetarian. However, I likely will move closer to it over the next year or so than I stand today.

So, in crafting my response to that question, I did some reflecting on the topic. It bugs me that society tends to make this topic black or white (as it so thoroughly loves to do with potentially polarizing topics). You’re either vegan or you’re not. You’re vegetarian or you’re not. Well, what about all the gray area? There’s plenty of it, you’ve just got to look for it.

Check out this diagram, which is actually way less complicated than it looks at first glance. It’s just one example in a sea of very similar others floating around online. It illustrates the different types of vegetarians based on what they eat. Basically, if you don’t eat any red meat, but do eat poultry or seafood (or both?), you’re a semi-vegetarian. You’re a vegetarian if you eat dairy and eggs, but not seafood, poultry, or red meat. To further narrow it down, you’re an ovo-vegetarian if you only eat eggs, or a lacto-vegetarian if you only eat dairy. Finally, if you eat no animal meat or animal by-products whatsoever, that makes you a vegan. (It’s not listed here, but there’s another further level, the raw vegans.)

(FYI, being a bona-fide, strict vegan is very tough, and takes a big commitment. Animal by-products hide in zillions of places you’d never guess, due to the way food is processed. For example, you can un-vegan a peanut if you process it with gelatin – whoops! For more oddities like that, here’s a list I found of things that are surprisingly not always vegan.)

vegetarian
Image Credit: VeganUSofA.com

{Funny Side Note: When I look at this diagram, I kind of can’t help imagining the Land of Oz. Dorothy’s house crashes down in Semi-Vegetarian Land, and she has to make her way through all the various lands in order to get to the Emerald City (made of every green vegetable or fruit known to man) located in Vegan Oz. I could go on with my little creative analogy, but I’ll spare you.}

Anyway, even though it seems like this diagram should cover all the bases, on an everyday functioning level, there’s even more gray area than this, and that’s what I want to dig into further.

So, back to the original question: Am I going vegetarian or vegan? As I alluded to earlier, it’s not cut and dry, not black and white. Compared to The Average American, I look damn near vegan. Compared to an actual vegan, though, I’m far, far away. By definition, I guess it looks like I fall into semi-vegetarian status, but that doesn’t tell my whole story.

As I mentioned, my Instagram shows that I’m heading in the direction of more and more meatless meals, and am happily incorporating healthy meat substitutes at every turn (e.g. black bean veggie burgers and white bean “meatballs”). Here’s where I currently stand:

  • Red Meat: I don’t eat any – no beef, no bacon, no pork, nada. This right here is probably the single biggest difference between me and The Average American, so I’m happy to say it.
  • Seafood: I don’t eat much due to the cost of quality seafood, but I eat all types. Most commonly, I eat canned tuna, roughly twice a month. I buy Natural Sea Chunk Light Tuna. It’s water-packed skipjack tuna (the healthiest type) with no salt added, which is responsibly caught by pole-and-line methods and bears the Certified Sustainable Seafood logo.
  • Poultry: Turkey isn’t huge in our diet; in the average month, I’d estimate we eat deli turkey once (maybe twice) and ground turkey twice. Chicken is a tougher one, but the good news? I’ve cut back a lot. I used to eat chicken breasts 2-4 times a week, now down to usually just once, sometimes twice. (Other than for the sake of eating less meat, I’ve cut back because the chicken I buy, while high-quality, isn’t organic. I know I should buy organic, but it’s so darn expensive.) I buy The Fresh Market chicken, and contacted corporate to learn that their supplier is one of only a handful in the U.S. certified by the American Humane Association. Their chickens are cage-free**, antibiotic-free, and fed vegetarian feed that avoids GMOs wherever possible, and always undergoes rigorous pesticide testing.
  • Dairy: I no longer buy cow milk, in favor of almond milk instead (see my post on that), and have zero plan of ever going back. I’d love to get away from all dairy products entirely, which is definitely foreseeable (especially with so many great vegan dairy products on the market now). So far, I’ve drastically reduced my consumption of the types I still eat (organic cheese, yogurt, sour cream, butter), limiting it to very small quantities when I do, and only eating dairy several times a week at most. (So, an average week? Cheese once or twice, plus yogurt maybe once.) Butter, geez, we use it just a couple times a month, only in instances where it’s not suitable to sub olive oil or coconut oil instead.
  • Eggs: I eat them 2-3 times in an average month, and use the occasional egg in baking. From a health standpoint, I don’t eat the yolks, which helps. From an animal rights standpoint, I try to be as responsible as I can, buying free-range** organic eggs when possible.  You can also look for the Certified Humane logo or search their database (hit Ctrl + F on your keyboard to do so quickly). Best-case scenario is getting eggs from a local farmer so you can observe how the chickens are treated, or raise a couple chickens yourself. I hope to one day!

**Note that “cage-free” and “free-range” are not legally defined or enforced terms. “Cage-free” doesn’t automatically mean comfort – it can still mean chickens crammed into barns with no space to move. However, in this case, Fresh Market’s supplier provides more space than the AHA requires for humane certification – kudos! “Free-range” means access to pastures, and is better than “cage-free”, though it shouldn’t be taken to mean that chickens spend time exclusively outdoors, as that’s usually not the case.  It’s important to remember that, by law, any chickens whose eggs or meat are sold as certified organic must have outdoor access – another reason why buying organic is a more responsible choice. As I mentioned, looking for 3rd party certifications (AHA, CH, or others) are also ways to ensure that a supplier is living up to the words on the packaging.

So, you see, I certainly can’t be classified as a vegan, but I do have some vegan-esque habits forming. Compared to where I was even a couple years ago, it’s a huge difference. And compared to The Average American, well…apples to bananas, you know?

If you’re familiar with my blogs and my mantra that every change counts, you probably won’t be surprised to hear what I’m about to say. However unpopular this view might be, I don’t believe that being a full-fledged vegan/vegetarian is the only way to make a difference in animal rights, the environment, or in your own health. Yes, it’s true that you won’t have the same level of positive impact that a true vegan/vegetarian does, but it all counts! All of this falls in that gray area between vegan/vegetarian or not, which is exactly why I say that it shouldn’t be as black and white as it often gets made out to be.

I’ll say it again: Every. Change. Counts. If a person stops eating even one type of meat, that’s a positive change. Take me, for example. By not eating cows and pigs, I’m making a difference. By not drinking milk, I’m making a difference. Even by drastically reducing my consumption of dairy products and chicken, I’m making a difference! And, of course, by making more responsible buying decisions, we’re helping send a message that we will not accept anything less – which will encourage more suppliers to adopt better practices.

I see vegans of all different mindsets on social media, and some would certainly offer praise for my progress, while some others would openly berate me (regardless of my progress) because I continue to willingly eat animals (seafood and poultry) and animal products (dairy and eggs) and don’t plan to give up everything. It’s not uncommon to see vegan-on-vegan fighting, rooted in differences in levels of vegan strictness (i.e. one vegan deems another “not vegan enough” because the other vegan still consumes or uses honey, for example, or some similar point of contention).

When I see that, I just think to myself that people have to stop putting others down for not making changes as drastically as they want. Of course, there are some people out there who make up their minds and are literally able to go cold tofurkey and become vegetarian or vegan overnight. But that doesn’t work for everyone. Nor does it work for everyone to be as strict of a vegan as others.

Some vegans push for people to give up all meat immediately, but by providing an unrealistic ultimatum (“either give it up or don’t”), it sends an unwelcoming message and creates sides. But reducing meat consumption is also a great way to make change, and it helps bridge the gap between vegans/vegetarians and meat-eaters, simply because many more people would be on board with reducing rather than giving up entirely. As a result, meat industry farmers will produce less when expected demand drops, which is the goal. The bottom line is getting overall demand to drop, regardless of what percentage comes from people who give up meat entirely versus people who’ve reduced meat consumption.

Don’t get me wrong though, there are plenty of vegans who agree that every step in the right direction counts, even ones made by meat-eaters! The rise of social media’s “#MeatlessMonday” has been a big hit, reaping the benefit of getting people to commit to even one meatless day of the week. Similarly, there are many vegans who don’t necessarily push for giving up everything. Many are more than happy to respond to people who say, “I’d go vegan, except I can’t give up ___” with the simple answer, “Then go vegan except for ___”.

The moral of this story, I say, is that you’ve got to decide what you feel is right for you and your body, and go with it. Do your research on all fronts, including the health benefits of reducing consumption of animal products. If you do decide to go vegetarian or vegan, more power to you! If you do continue to eat meat, make responsible purchase decisions, and consider reducing where you can. Recognize that it’s not black and white, and realize that every change you make has the capacity to generate positive impact somewhere, and feel good about it. Then when you’re ready, keep pushing for even more positive change!

As always, wishing you healthier, happier days!


An Afterthought… 

Being me, being what I stand for, I have to mention is that the quality and nutritional value of “vegan food” matters just the same as it does for omnivores and vegetarians. “Vegan food” isn’t inherently healthy by virtue of being meatless, and can still be guilty of being junky, heavily-processed, chemically, and downright unhealthy. (Onion rings are vegan. French fries are vegan. These candies are vegan. See what I mean?)

I have to stress the importance of a vegan or vegetarian also being an organic vegan/vegetarian, as much as possible. The more fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans you’re consuming, the greater your exposure to the synthetic pesticides that permeate conventional (and especially GMO) produce.

Now, please don’t mistake that as an attack on vegan food, goodness no. For every one junky-eating vegan, there are handfuls of vegans who eat very, very well. It’s those vegans who are steering the boat and showing people how diverse, healthy, and beneficial a vegan diet can be. And, they’re coming up with kick-ass recipes that the likes of me and others can enjoy. Cheers to that!

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7 thoughts on “Omnivore, Vegetarian, Vegan and the Gray Area In Between

  1. But more and more vegan I met in my practice they are the one who are suffering from autoimmune disorders and other issues. They actually are not well informed about how to balance the macros and micro nutrients in their diet. All the women patients suffering from hypothyroidism in my practice found to be vegetarian, it can be a coincidence. 90% of my patients who come to me found to be vegetarians with worst diet. I found people eating meats and poultry are mainly suffering from dyslipidemia and minor issues. They are more healthy then their vegetarian people except in terms they indulge in alcohol consumption twice or thrice weekly which predisposes them to more cardiac issues in near future as seen by their laboratory reports. I too follow a kind of semi vegetarian diet by eating poultry or fish twice a week.

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    1. I’ve heard about another subset even past veganism and raw veganism. It’s called “fruitatarian”. I’m sure you probably have heard of it already, but if not, look it up. That one really has me worried. I just cannot imagine what one is missing out on nutritionally by shunning vegetables. Green and leafy vegetables especially are such a nutritional powerhouse for us. To me, that is just taking things way, way, WAY too far!

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  2. Very thoughtful article. I tried vegan for a week. I felt great! I believe I had better energy. I relied on carrots a bit too much and turned a little orange. I was inspired by a book titled, “A Diet for a new America.” Which, I recommend. Anyway, I’ll start thinking and planning more before I eat. Thanks. I tried to post this comment, but I failed.

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    1. Hmm not sure if you tried before this one, but this one came through fine. It doesn’t show up in the comment section right away because it goes into my comment approval queue first. No worries!
      I’m sorry, I just had the mental image of you turning carrot-esque like Violet Beauregarde turns into the blueberry in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory…
      Kudos to you for trying it out! Many people wouldn’t be willing to even try, so I gotta give you some street cred for that. 😉 It sounds like you might be a really good candidate for seeing positive change by eliminating some categories and reducing others, if that’s something you feel would be sustainable.
      I definitely suggest checking out recipes on Pinterest. My palette has broadened so much over the past year, due in big part to trying (and loving) new recipes. It’s truly amazing how much protein, calcium, and other necessities you can get from plants and beans – Google, Google, Google!

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  3. This comment is about “junky vegan”. Just yesterday, in a restaurant, the waitress mentioned that she needed to lose weight (about 10 lbs.) I said to her that I knew she was a vegan. How did she gain this unwanted weight? She replied “I eat too much “Junky Vegan foods.”

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    1. Yes, perfect example! To capitalize the most on the benefits of being vegan, people need to also be organic vegans (or vegetarians).

      Going vegan shouldn’t be done willy-nilly. While going vegan does have plenty of health benefits for us (especially in managing chronic diseases), if it’s done improperly it can result in nutritional deficiencies. (Though really, how does that differ from the majority of Americans not even eating enough fruits and vegetables? I don’t know.) Anyone going vegan really should do a ton of research at least, but at best should consult with a licensed nutritionist.

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