As vegans, we are animal advocates, but are we influencing positive change? Here is what I have learned after beginning my journey to being an effective vegan more than 40 years ago.
Veganism is a philosophy and a way of life, based on the understanding that animals are intelligent, sentient, emotional beings who are not ours to exploit or harm.
I've always loved animals. At least I thought I did until the age of ten, when I began to question why I ate them.
Like most American kids in the 1960's, I grew up eating animals. Our evening family meals were often centered around a specific cut of meat on our dinner plates. Fried chicken always included mashed potatoes and gravy. Steak was accompanied by a baked potato topped with sour cream. Pork chops were served with mac and cheese loaded with cheddar and butter. No meal was complete without a tall glass of milk to wash it all down.
Looking back, to say our daily diet was less than healthy is putting it mildly. Worse yet, the food we consumed represented untold suffering endured by the animals from whom our meals were obtained - something we didn't even consider much less talk about at the dinner table.
On the few occasions I broached the subject, the usual response from my parents was either "We need meat to survive" or "Those animals are raised to be eaten". In fairness to my parents, they were kind and thoughtful people, and in retrospect, I realize their attitudes regarding nutrition and the consumption of animals was the accepted norm at the time.
Why One and Not the Other?
Like a lot of households, we had pets - dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, fish - who we truly loved. We celebrated our dogs birthdays, marveled at our cats intelligence and cried when a goldfish died. Each had names, distinct personalities, likes and dislikes. At around the age of ten, I began to question why we would choose to eat animals when we "loved" animals? Why was it ok to love some and not the others?
One day, I asked my parents if I could become a vegetarian. My request was answered by a visit from our neighbor, a physician, who lectured me that a child my age required animal protein for proper growth and development. Discussion over.
As I grew older, I couldn't shake the internal conflict I felt about enjoying foods that were the result of animal suffering. In 1977, at the age of 19, I stopped consuming meat and began my journey to becoming vegan. At the time, I was the only vegetarian I knew. Finding cruelty-free products required a lot of research. PETA and the Leaping Bunny logo were years away. Non-leather shoe choices were either flip flops or canvas sneakers. Suddenly I was faced with the challenge of being the one person at the table who couldn't find a single meatless entree on a restaurant menu. I ate more bland steamed vegetables and white rice than I care to remember. Even my friends struggled with figuring out what to serve me if they invited me over for dinner. More often than not, I ended up cooking.
From Zealot to Zen
Those of us who convert to veganism are keenly aware of the atrocities inflicted on animals. Understandably, we feel compelled to raise awareness about animal suffering.
When I began my journey to living cruelty-free, I opened my eyes and heart to the horrors of animal exploitation. I learned everything I could about the truth of factory farming, trophy hunting, the fur industry, animal testing, rodeos, horse racing, circuses and entertainment animals. I watched documentaries, read books, attended protests, wrote letters and rescued animals. I was driven and frankly, obsessed, to share what I learned with anyone and everyone who would listen, thinking "If I tell them, surely they'll feel how I feel. If I describe the gruesome details of the abuse of factory farmed animals, they'll be as outraged as I am." I felt it was my duty to "speak for those who can't".
Some of the things I learned along the way.
Did I make an impact? Yes, but not necessarily in a productive way. It took me awhile to realize that most people know full well the cheese burgers they eat don't come from ‘happy cows’. They choose not to think about it because, if they did, they might feel guilty about consuming something they enjoy so much. The thought of giving up bacon and eggs would be unimaginable. To have someone like me force them to face the truth about where their food comes from would feel like an assault on their morality and their character. Nobody likes to feel shamed. I re-examined my approach. I thought about how I came to my own decision and realized that enlightenment needs to happen from within. Do I still consider it my duty to encourage veganism? Yes I do. Today, I just do it differently.
One of the first things you should know about becoming vegan is:
There is no single path to follow.
While some people opt for a plant-based diet primarily for health reasons, most vegans embrace an ethical approach - allowing them to enjoy the peace of mind, as well as the physical benefits, a cruelty-free lifestyle offers. Whatever your reasons for wanting to become vegan, you've made a very good choice. Whether you run full-speed-ahead or take gradual baby steps in eliminating animal products from your diet and lifestyle, you are heading in the right direction toward saving animals, the planet, and your own life.
For me, I took the slower route. Forty years ago, I stopped eating mammals. Then birds, fish, crustaceans and mollusks. Finally milk products and eggs. In hindsight, I wish I had transitioned to veganism a lot sooner. The important thing is, along the way, my journey to becoming a vegan positively influenced not just my life, but the lives of my family, friends, and a whole lot of animals as well. Learn more about my story here.
Change can be very difficult for some people to accept, even when it doesn't involve them personally. When you decide to become vegan, don't be surprised if your non-vegan family and friends don't share your enthusiasm about your new life choice. They may feel awkward inviting you to eat with them, not knowing what to serve you or out of concern that you may judge or shame them for consuming animal products. Think about it. Most of us grew up accepting it as normal. No one questioned the origin of the meat in their hamburgers or the chicken in their nuggets. It just wasn't a conversation.
Change Can be Scary
A couple years ago, I had been chatting with friends about vegan living when one mentioned the reason she was reluctant to try making vegan food was because it was scary. Then another friend agreed saying she felt the same way, since she had no idea what ingredients to use or how to prepare common vegan dishes. That conversation led to me teaching my first vegan cooking class and my friends discovering how easy & delicious vegan dishes are to create and enjoy.
Our attachments to food run deeper than just the flavors we enjoy. Family recipes, traditions, sentimental memories and old habits make the idea of giving up favorite meat and dairy recipes that much harder.
Let's face it, unless you were born & raised a vegan or vegetarian, you are most likely a former meat-eater too. It's important not to forget that perspective. It will make your transition a lot easier and your relationships much more harmonious when you can relate to your own experience. As Dr. Melanie Joy from the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy shared in this video called Remember Your Own Carnism "Remembering what it was like before you were vegan, and speaking about that in a personal way, makes it easier to connect with non-vegans".
Becoming an Effective Vegan
It took a while before I realized one of the most effective ways for me to encourage veganism was by showing how simple it is to prepare great meals without using animal products. By creating appealing and tasty dishes that everyone can enjoy, I gained the interest of even the most diehard carnists. Over the years, I've updated many of my family's favorite recipes with all plant-based ingredients and in the process have helped transform others' attitudes and appetites in favor of vegan foods.
Finding Your Own Path
Change rarely happens overnight. Certainly my evolution from omni to vegan was a steady, but not immediate progression. Each step along the way involved conscious decisions on my part. To make a radical paradigm shift from enjoying meat - to finding the idea absolutely abhorrent - had to be my idea. My discovery. Something motivated from within me, not forced upon me. No one had to shame me. No one had to talk me into it. Once I made the connection, I put down my fork and never looked back.
Being an Effective Vegan
Fast forward four decades later. After raising a vegan/vegetarian family and trying every day to live an ethical life - I can now reflect on my own experience. Perhaps one could say I have simply mellowed over time. I believe that I am as passionate as ever in my quest to influence positive change for animals. I have also accepted the fact that it's almost impossible to be a "perfect" vegan. Try as we might, unless you live in a bubble, everywhere you go, you will encounter non-vegan products. Soaps in public restrooms, leather upholstery in cars, even the streets we drive on contain by-products from animal agriculture. You just have to do the best that you can. Supporting cruelty-free, earth friendly companies, and making good choices that favor animals and the planet.
I have learned that I am far more effective living by example than standing on a soapbox. By making my life my argument, I have earned the respect of friends and acquaintances by "walking the walk". I rarely need to initiate conversations about veganism. Instead, I create opportunities for others to ask me the questions. I've learned to practice active listening so that I can understand others' perspectives and respond in a meaningful, not reactive, way. I do what I can to share the positive aspects about plant-based diets and alternative sources of traditional animal products. I continue to use my voice to speak up for the voiceless.
Does going vegan actually help animals?
Easy answer . . . YES! Every day that you don't consume animal products you will save the life of at least one animal. Every dollar that you don't spend supporting companies that exploit animals has a direct effect on those industries bottom lines. In addition, being vegan has a positive and measurable effect on our environment.
Did you know?
- You can save more water by not eating a pound of beef than you would by not showering for 6 months.
- It takes 16 lbs of grain to produce one pound of meat. That is enough grain to feed 10 people a day.
- 20 vegans can be fed from the same amount of land that is required to feed one meat eater.
- 50% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide can be attributed to the livestock industry.
- By not eating meat or dairy for one day, you will save: 1,100 gallons of water, 45 lbs. of grain, 30 sq. ft. of forest, 20 lbs. equivalent of CO2, and one animal.
One person can make a very positive difference for animals and the planet! Learn more here.
As you embark on your journey to being an effective vegan, think about these things:
- Do what you can to help your non-vegan family and friends feel good about your decision too.
- Avoid preaching.
- Learn to express yourself in ways that will open hearts and not build walls.
- Try not to judge.
- Remember who you were before you were vegan.
- Think about what influenced you.
It will be far easier to encourage others interest and support when they witness your own positive transformation. Allow others the space to experience their own awakening to the joy of living an ethical and compassionate life.
Thank you for being vegan. ❤️
Connie Edwards McGaughy is a long-time animal advocate, activist and vegan recipe blogger. She served as the San Diego Coordinator for The Fund for Animals and is a director for the Nsefu Wildlife Conservation Foundation in Zambia. Her recipes and articles can be found at thecarrotunderground.com