Thursday, 28 March 2013

Vegetarian misconceptions

Let me clarify why I’m writing this post. It’s not for the people who don’t support my choice to be vegetarian and who never will. It’s not for the people who take it upon themselves to be vocal about all the reasons why being vegetarian is silly or unhealthy or just another way to be a pain in everyone else’s backside. We all know those people, and if they’re not looking for feedback (which they usually aren’t), then they’re not going to receive it especially well anyway.

Really, I’m writing this post for another group of people, who have been an important part of my life. I’m writing this post for people who want to support my choice to be vegetarian and who (with every good intention) sometimes don’t know how to behave so that I can peacefully make the choices I need to. It’s for the well-meaning people who want to understand more and who simply haven’t been exposed to some of these ideas, and for that reason, can seem disrespectful without knowing it (or meaning to).

Everything below is a documentation of real conversations I’ve had with loved ones in my life, who have been kind and supportive, but who have sometimes lacked the information they  needed to help make my journey as a vegetarian simpler. Hopefully there’s something helpful in here for you guys, and thank you for reading.

Telling (guessing), rather than asking, why I’m vegetarian

“You’re an animal lover, aren’t you?” I get this all the time. Thing is, people are so diverse and unique that there’s no way to filter each vegetarian into one of a select few categories. The common perception is that there are three reasons: animal rights, health benefits and the environment. It follows, then, that if it’s not one of those reasons, they’re not vegetarian. I personally decided to become vegetarian for all three of the aforementioned reasons, plus one much more spiritual one (if you’re curious, feel free to ask me sometime). I also know someone who’s vegetarian primarily because she doesn’t like the taste of meat.

It’s really hard to assign a category to people, and people don’t tend to like it very much, either. It feels a little like you’re being told that you have to choose between A, B and C, when maybe they feel like 92 is the answer. In my experience, asking goes a really long way. Something as simple as asking, “What was it that led you to making that choice?” can be deeply respectful and very informative all at the same time.

What vegetarianism actually is

One of the recurring conversations I have had with a great number of people is the idea of what I can and cannot eat. Sometimes this is a dialogue, which opens with a question like, “So what does it mean, exactly, that you’re vegetarian?” Other times, it’s people trying to assist me in figuring out what is and is not on my menu. I went to a party one day at a friend’s house, and he had cooked the most amazing spread of food. I remember standing at the table and looking at the item he’d just put down and asking myself out loud (because I almost constantly talk to myself), “Can I eat this, I wonder?” It so happens that a really nice girl who I consider a mutual friend (we’ll call her Sam) was standing at the table beside me, and she heard me ask. Thinking I was asking her, she let me know, “Yeah, it’s fish, so you can eat that.”

Sam is a really, really lovely person, and so by no means was I about to inform her that I would decide for myself what I can and cannot eat, thankyouverymuch. So I simply smiled at her and said that I wasn’t feeling like salmon at the moment.

This is a conversation that happens on a regular basis. Maybe most often, of all conversations I have. Don’t get me wrong; vegetarianism is diverse. Some people eat fish but consider themselves vegetarians, while others avoid all animal products completely. I’d suggest that the general rule of thumb be that if someone identifies as vegetarian, they probably don’t eat fish. There’s another word for that: pescetarian (from the same root as pisces, being fish, if you were wondering). It’s a fancy word, and some won’t bother using it, but when in doubt, there’s always the option to ask, rather than tell.

Choosing restaurants

It can be really hard, eating out as a vegetarian (I don’t eat vegan in restaurants, largely for the reasons I’m about to outline). The food industry is becoming more aware of the needs of their vegetarian clientele, but more in some types of restaurants than others.

I’m not especially a health nut, but I do like natural and wholesome food. Most of the time, wholesome restaurant food is designed around the idea that the protein will be either meat or fish, unless you’re at a particularly hippie restaurant. Where do most of my (university student/young adult) friends usually want to eat? A pub. It’s relatively cheap and has lots of nibbles and what you might call comfort food. But as a vegetarian, there are two main types of foods I can eat in pub: salad and things that are deep-fried.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend had a birthday and we went to a pub for dinner. I crossed my fingers and opened the menu, instantly finding the usual suspects: nachos, fries, and salad. While the two vegan girls in the corner had already picked out the french fries as their best option, I had hoped not to go down that road. The girl beside me asked me what I was going to eat. When I told her I was vegetarian, and still trying to figure out my options, she did what almost everyone does in that situation: she suggested salad. Now, please understand that I like salad, and I especially like how nutritious salad is. But I have a few reasons why I don’t eat salad when I go out for dinner.

1. Salad is a side dish, not a meal.

More or less the only kind of salad that is actually a meal is something with chicken thrown on top. If you eat a plate full of greens, you’re hungry an hour later. Maybe try to think of it this way: in what circumstances does an omnivore order a salad? In my experience, it’s when they’re not very hungry, or they’ve been eating so much garbage that they need to “behave” and eat something really nutritious. I get a lot of vegetables as a vegetarian, so the latter doesn’t apply. And as for the former...check out the title of point #1!

2. When I go out to eat, I want to be pampered a little.

I can make salad at home in under 5 minutes, including a homemade dressing. What’s more, with the amount of experience I have with making salads, I can make one that’s better than any salad that I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant. When I go out, I look forward to the treat of having someone else do the work for me and prepare me something beautiful. Salad is kind of like the main-course equivalent of getting excited for a luxurious dessert and then being served an orange.

3. The price.

I don’t know who decides that just because lettuce is served in a restaurant, it’s worth 5 times as much, but this is my experience. Typically restaurants charge a minimum of $10 for a “meal-sized” (if you’re wondering about the quotation marks, check out point #1) salad, which I could make at home for under $2. I sort of have a moral aversion to paying 5 times what something is worth just because a business knows that as a veggie, my hands are kind of tied.

I don’t expect people to just know these things, or stop to think about them, so I certainly didn’t fault the well-meaning girl for suggesting salad, and I actually ended up eating fish to avoid the deep-fried trap. But this is a conversation that is really common and not especially helpful for vegetarians. And if you’re planning to go out one night with some vegetarian friends, something as simple as thinking about whether the restaurant has a nice vegetarian curry, a black bean burrito, or even a pasta primavera means a lot to your vegetarian friends. Trust me!

Jumping (halfway) on the bandwagon

I know a lot of omnivores, and I even know people I would almost call carnivores because they so adamantly refuse to eat vegetables in favour of meat. And I don’t give a hoot how much meat they eat. You know why? Because it’s not my life, and how valuable people are to me is not defined by whether or not they make the same lifestyle choices as I do.

After the question about whether or not I eat fish, the next most common attitude I get when people find out I’m vegetarian is this idea of, “Oh yeah, you know, I don’t eat much meat, really...” It’s quite amazing how many omnivores that are super supportive feel like they have to justify their lifestyle to me. The reality is that they don’t. I don’t give a crap what anyone else eats, as long as I’m allowed to decide that eating a cow isn’t my thing.

It’s actually almost offensive to feel like you have to justify eating meat. It suggests that I expect everyone to share my values, and that would be really arrogant. Imagine you’re a Christian and you’re talking to a Buddhist. The Buddhist tells you what faith he identifies with and you say, “Oh yeah, you know, I only go to church once a week, really...” How judgemental do you think the guy is? What does he care whether you go to a Christian church or worship pagan deities in the middle of the woods? He probably doesn’t. To think he does is to project unfair assumptions on him. We don’t do it on purpose, but it is something that I’ve sometimes experienced even with the best-wishing and most supportive people. I wish they wouldn’t feel self-conscious, because I accept them for who they are, and am pretty sure they do the same for me.


  1. I have run into a lot of these things as a vegan. And I'm not even a fan of salad.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Ashi. You know, since I wrote this, I've eaten much less salad than I used to, because I've just found that there are so many other really interesting vegan dishes I can enjoy, both in restaurants (usually vegetarian ones) and at home!