Two of my most popular blog postings, and also among the most controversial were We Are Not Vegans! and We Are Not Vegans, Part II. I believe that both postings make an important point. While we in the whole food, plant-based movement share with vegans the fact that we don't eat animal products, that commonality does not in and of itself make us vegan. Nor does it make vegans to be whole food, plant-based. That distinction becomes important when we eat because there are a lot of vegan-manufactured foods that are not whole food, plant-based. There are fake meats, fake cheeses, fake mayos, fake buttery spreads, fake yogurts, fake ice creams and on and on. They are all processed foods, containing too much salt, oil and sugar as well as chemicals for which we have no idea what they are. While theoretically plant-based (I personally think of them more as chemically-based myself), none of them are whole foods and none of them have a place in a WFPB diet.
Some will argue that these processed foods have a place in transitioning to a WFPB diet or to a vegan diet. I would disagree. If you had an alcoholic family member who drank beer to a stage of being drunk every night, you wouldn't propose that family member give up beer by drinking wine instead. You wouldn't classify wine as a transition food. Both are prohibited foods for an alcoholic. But yet, we in the whole food, plant-based movement, remove one prohibited food (animal-based products) and replace that with another prohibited food (highly processed foods) and we then call it a transition food. What sense does that make?
In his book How Not to Die, Dr. Michael Greger on page 259 gives the yellow light to unprocessed animal foods. But he gives the red light to ultra-processed plant foods. In other words, from a health standpoint, it may be healthier to eat the real meat from an animal than it is to eat these highly processed foods. When given the choice between a grilled chicken breast (an unprocessed animal food) or an oil-based fake mayo (an ultra-processed plant food), it appears that Dr. Greger is saying the healthier choice is the chicken breast.
I'm not saying this to say that we should start eating chicken. We should not. I'm saying this to point out how significantly unhealthy processed foods are. And when we refer to them as transition foods, we're saying we want to replace one thing that is unhealthy with something that may be even more unhealthy. That doesn't make sense to me.
So, instead of thinking of ourselves as vegan, which we may well be (although there's more to being vegan than how a person eats), we really need to think of ourselves as being whole food, plant-based. And I would argue that vegans should think that way too (see more on that below). Not eating animal products is only one aspect of being WFPB. Other aspects include avoiding highly-processed foods, which as Dr. Greger points out are among the unhealthiest foods on the planet.
Just remember the old adage --- If it comes from a plant, eat it; if it is made in a plant, don't eat it.
But there's more than health reasons for avoiding fake animal products as well. And some of this may be the Buddhist Christian in me coming out. But it's hard for me to understand wanting to eat some being that I profess to love. Our thoughts are what lead us to the kind of world we want to live in. And what we enjoy eating is part of our thoughts. Our cravings and our desires for certain foods originate in our brains. So, as long as I salivate over the taste of some animal, whether I eat that animal or not, I believe that I am perpetuating to some degree the continuation of violence in the world.
That's because the world will not change until our thoughts change. As Henry David Thoreau said, "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." That statement has application to so many places in our society today, but let me suggest how it applies with respect to compassion and ethical veganism. Giving up on eating animals is worthy, but I believe it is hacking at the branches of evil. It's pruning the bush, but because it's not getting to the root of the bush, the bush keeps growing (and we need to keep hacking). The root of the evil, in our society, is our way of thinking. We live in a world where we think of animals as subservient to us. We live in a world where we think we are a superior species. We live in a world where we think it's okay to treat animals cruelly.
And when we choose to eat foods that imitate what animals taste like, then we are continuing to live in a world that thinks it's okay to eat animals. And the argument that we still might crave the taste of animal foods really holds no water in an ethical world. It's like saying we're married but we still enjoy having romantic relationships with other people. Wouldn't that say there was something wrong with the marriage? A newlywed wouldn't tell their spouse to transition into the marriage by only having romantic relations with old girlfriends or boyfriends. Just don't create any new ones. That would certainly be atypical. What we need to do is learn to restrain our previous ways and to instead seek out the new and better flavors of the plant kingdom. There are lots of wonderful foods to enjoy and try without going for the manufactured fake foods that perpetuate our desire to eat animals.
In closing, I'll quote from The World Peace Diet by Dr. Will Tuttle. In that book, he says, "As long as we remain imprisoned in the maze of self-oriented thinking, we can easily.....continue on, rationalizing our actions and blocking awareness of the reality of our feelings and of our fundamental oneness with other beings." For health reasons and for reasons of compassion and ethics, let's learn to think of our diet as being whole food, plant-based and for reasons of ethics and compassion, let's learn to think of ourselves as being vegan in the rest of the way we live. There's still a whole lot more to being vegan than in how we eat.