Is there such a thing as an occasional vegan?
“An occasional vegan … that’s like … let me think ... that’s like saying you’re an occasional Buddhist."
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People come into Kupfert & Kim, a vegan take-out joint with six locations around Toronto, for all sorts of reasons.
Some are looking for a substantial lunch that’s healthier than typical fast-food fare, while others are seeking lactose- and gluten-free options, said staff member Jesus Rodriguez. But most have one thing in common, he added: They don’t call themselves vegan.
All the items on the restaurant’s menu are free of meat, fish and animal by-products like milk, butter and eggs — what’s conventionally understood to be vegan. But almost everyone who was at the busy downtown location on Tuesday said they didn’t identify with any dietary label at all. Just two were vegetarian.
The customers were “vegan” that day only incidentally or occasionally. Their reasons for choosing an animal-free lunch or snack ranged from, “It’s really fresh and really good,” as one woman grabbing a blueberry smoothie said, to, in the case of customer Jeff Mcleod, simply because he really likes the coffee.
In the eyes of many self-identified vegans, there’s no such thing as an occasional vegan.
“An occasional vegan … that’s like … let me think ... that’s like saying you’re an occasional Buddhist,” said Toronto-based life coach Kimberly Carroll, who has been vegan for 10 years. “Veganism is a philosophy. It’s about eliminating harm to animals as much as possible. It goes beyond diet.”
Carroll doesn’t wear silk (from caterpillars), fur, wool or leather, and doesn’t go anywhere animals are used for entertainment, like zoos or aquariums.
Within the vegan community, the term “plant-based diet” is more commonly used to describe the choice to abstain from all animal products, but not identify with the vegan lifestyle, Carroll explained. (Confusingly, many people who eat animal products once in a while, but are mostly vegan or vegetarian, also say they follow a “plant-based diet.”)
The precise definitions of all these terms, it turns out, are hotly contested.
Oakville, Ont. food writer Angela Liddon learned that the hard way last year. She cooks vegan meals for her family and features them her site, Oh She Glows. But her husband isn’t a vegan, and, she explained in a blog post, her infant daughter Adriana won’t necessarily be either.
In response to the reader question, “Will you raise your daughter a vegan?” she wrote, “I want her to be able to try any food that she wants to, including the food her dad and family members eat,” whether it’s vegan or animal-based.
What followed was a deluge of “hateful and threatening” comments accusing her of being not vegan enough and not doing for the vegan movement, Liddon wrote in a follow-up post.
The experience scared her off the word “vegan” altogether.
“I will keep on doing my thing, but without a personal label,” she wrote.
Judgemental attitudes, like what Liddon experienced, are troubling to Sandra Veljovic, incoming president of the Veg Club at the University of Toronto. Though she’s a strict vegan herself, Veljovic said being militant about labels “makes us seem a lot less accessible and perpetuates the stereotype of vegans being super extreme.”
No one is 100 per cent successful at being vegan, Carroll said, because it’s nigh on impossible to go through life without causing any animal suffering at all.
Case in point: “I did stomp on a centipede once,” she confessed. “I felt bad about it.”
Although she is extremely conscientious personally, Carroll wants as many people as possible to identify with and feel welcome to join the vegan and vegetarian movements, even if their adherence is not perfectly pure.
“The more folks identify as vegans, the better for vegans,” she said, because it will expand the options available and reduce the amount of animal products used. Ultimately she said, “I want animals to not suffer.”
Vegan: Someone who abstains from foods made from animals or animal by-products like dairy, eggs and honey. Many vegans say it extends beyond diet to a philosophy that aims to minimize animal suffering in every way.
Plant-based diet: Broadly, this could refer to anyone who mostly eats foods that come from plants. But more recently, “plant-based” refers to people who follow a diet identical to what vegans eat, but who don’t choose to adopt the broader philosophy of veganism.
Fruitarian: An extreme vegan who follows a high-carbohydrate, low-fat, low-protein diet consisting almost entirely of fruit. This is discouraged by doctors.
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