This essay was originally published on Ecorazzi.com
Carrying the headline “I went vegan for five days, and I was shocked at how many things I couldn’t eat,” a recent article by Lisa Ryan of Business Insider paints a depressing picture of veganism as a restrictive and “hardcore” diet defined by deprivation. Curious about veganism, Ryan sets out to learn what it’s like to be vegan in five days.
The TL;DR version of this essay is that she never found out for the following reasons:
a) She tried it on sale-or-return;
b) She treated it as a diet;
c) She approached it with the mindset that it was restrictive and deprivative, and so created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Near the opening of her article, Ryan cites Donald and Dorothy Watson’s definition of veganism as a way of living that excludes all forms of animal exploitation, and she informs us that that some vegans choose to merely avoid animal products in their diet while others refuse to wear clothes* or use any substances (including cosmetics) that include animal products. However, Ryan fails to see that these two statements are at odds with each other: one cannot be a vegan (who excludes all forms of animal exploitation) while merely avoiding animal products in one’s diet.
Ryan commits to experimenting with “dietary veganism” (or, as vegans call it, “all-plant eating”) to understand what impact the lifestyle has on a person’s day-to-day life. Of course, that’s an impossible task, since the earliest period of adjustment is when one is learning, and it’s therefore unrepresentative of the ease with which seasoned vegans implement the behaviour that their ethical system dicates. Ryan foreshadows what’s to come by informing us how hard it would be to find foods she could consume. Remarking how most of the foods she eats contain animal products, she asserts that “my normal diet had to go.” Depicting veganism as a complete overhaul, Ryan doesn’t mention that she probably already consumes plants in some form or other and could therefore merely opt to increase her portions of the same with no overhaul necessary.
Ryan’s first morning of her trial begins with a trip to her local deli where she discovers that not only do they not serve plant milk but that the coffee itself (which she drinks black this time) tastes unpleasant. Now, rather than choosing a different beverage or another coffee shop, bringing some plant milk along next time, or asking her deli to serve plant milk in future, Ryan ends this vignette with a sad photograph of a polystyrene cup of filtered coffee and with the sense that being a vegan involves sacrificing one’s resourcefulness and freedom of choice and having no option than to drink something that “actually tastes really bad.”
Twice in her article, Ryan narrates her need for protein after intense workouts. Implying that an all-plant diet provides insufficient protein, she first gets a smoothie with some “extra protein” (presumably from plants, proving that their amino acids that are building blocks of protein are not, in fact, a figment of our imaginations). Her second post-workout refuel takes her to Chipotle where she orders a burrito “which provided me with at least some of the protein I needed” (Ryan is vague here on how much she actually needs and how much she consumed, because the running theme of the piece is “deprivation”).
Ryan also attends outdoor events—a farmers’ market and a street food fair—where she finds tht she can’t eat most of the things that are available. The converse of this, of course, is that she could eat some of the things that were available, but that doesn’t fit with the clickbaity headline. At the fair, she eventually finds vegan vegetable rolls and asserts that they were delicious. Still, veganism is hard and life is unfair, as the next scene will reveal.
Paradoxically, Ryan craves some chocolate (“badly,” she tells us), but can’t find any chocolate, so she eats some chocolate instead. Allow me to elaborate: she craves chocolate after work and can’t “have any, since it’s completely packed with dairy”(even though there were probably a few different types of dark chocolate in the nearest supermarket that were actually suitable for vegans). Yet, she was saved from the terrible fate of being without chocolate by the vegan bakery near her home in Brooklyn where she purchased a chocolate cupcake, which, she tells us, “tasted just as great as a normal cupcake” (as though food made without products of exploitation is abnormal). So, while she bemoans the fact that she couldn’t get chocolate, she actually did get chocolate. In a vegan bakery. Near her home (just let that sink in: vegan bakery. Nearby. Which you can visit in your pyjamas at 3 am after a Netflix binge).
Ryan is surprised that there is only one vegan wine in her local store, according to the clerk. Presumably, Barnivore is down for maintenance, that wine is utterly unpalatable, and there are no other liquor stores nearby. Now, I can find at least five different types of suitable wine in my local petrol station in rural Ireland. But either way, Ryan clearly interprets “some options” as “too few options,” and, even when those options are (in her words) “delicious,”her five-day trial is still a disappointment.
Ryan reiterates how challenging it was to find food (we’ll let the fact that she lives near a vegan bakery slide; no one wants to live on salted caramel cupcakes…or do they?). Yet, a quick Google search reveals over two hundred vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants in Brooklyn (where Ryan lives) and Manhattan (near the offices of Business Insider). And as if that’s not easy enough, there are plenty of reviews of each of them online, as well as lists of the best in each area.
Ryan attends an art event at which she is able to drink a couple of different types of alcoholic beverage. Yet she laments the “ton of beer and soda” that vegans can’t drink because they contain animal products, neglecting to mention that many beverages are vegan. Then again, it makes for a more interesting story if you’re led to think that not only are vegans protein deficient and naked (haven’t you checked my footnote yet?), but they’re also permanently thirsty.
By Wednesday, Ryan finds that “being vegan was getting annoying,” presumably because she was focussing on what she couldn’t consume rather than sampling several of the hundreds of vegan restaurants nearby or trying out some new recipes (or buying another salted caramel cupcake from the vegan bakery. Near. Her. Home). She mentions feeling hungry, and although many of the details of the story point to her being financially secure and able to access food, she does not seem to embrace the obvious solution of eating more or more often. She also mentions missing dairy products, but she doesn’t have the moral perspective that would make that minor inconvenience redundant; nor does she give herself time to get over those cravings. Instead, we’re left with a picture of veganism as calorically inadequate, frustrating, and full of longing. The sense of deprivation culminates when Ryan’s coworker brings some nonvegan banana pudding and Ryan must go without. She instead tries “to compensate” by eating some office snacks only to find that they too are unsuitable. Finally, she consults Google about whether the raisins—shrivelled like her hopes of a piece of pudding—are vegan instead. Her audience heaves a sigh of relief with the screenshot she includes in the essay to prove that they are!
With that small victory in hand, Ryan “scours” her local deli (presumably the same one that serves the bad coffee) for vegan food, which she finds to be “severely lacking.” Yet, instead of looking elsewhere, she resorts to some Indian dumplings—another disappointment: she’s already had them before. “But I was so burned out from vegan food,” she tells us, “I didn’t even enjoy them.”
Now, being burned out from vegan food in my experience, is when you’ve eaten way too many avocado sushi rolls, or gorged yourself on deep-dish homemade pizza, or accidentally fallen on an Indian samosa burger and swallowed the whole thing in surprise. It doesn’t sound to me like that’s what Ryan meant.
Undeterred (not really; she was deterred before she even started, it seems) Ryan opts, the next day, for a vegan “chicken” sandwich, with vegan “cheese” and vegan “mayo.” Those derisive scare quotes are important because they foreshadow the inevitable disaster: “the fake meat had a weird texture, and the cheese tasted like paste.” It’s likely that Ryan has had this experience at least once before in her pre-trial days where she was disappointed with some food she’d tasted, but mentioning that doesn’t make for good copy.
A night out with friends leads to a tipsy trip to a pierogi place in the East Village. But on arriving, Ryan realises that pierogi dough contains eggs. She illustrates her dejection with a picture of the side plate of steamed broccoli, cauliflower, and baby carrots with which she’s stuck as her friends enjoy their meal. Yet, another quick Google search indicates that not only are there several other vegan restaurants in the area, that pierogi place serves quite a few vegan or vegan-adaptable options. Nevertheless, the theme of the piece, as I mentioned before, is “deprivation,” and nothing sums that up like a few steamed vegetables drizzled in salad dressing.
Ryan’s final day of being vegan takes her to a farmers’ market where again she bewails the fact that most of the products (this time, the pastries) aren’t vegan. But even though Ryan lives near a vegan bakery (it’s the last time I’ll mention it!), her experience of veganism is one of deprivation, utter hopelessness, and despair. You know that feeling when you really want a pastry and can’t have one right now? That! Heart-rending stuff indeed.
Ryan concludes by telling us that “Spending five days hunting for foods with no meat, dairy or eggs was tough.” We’ll forgive her for her poor choice of words, but it’s hard to imagine that plant foods are unavailable or even limited in an area of Brooklyn that is so gentrified as to have its own vegan bakery (okay, I lied. This is the last time I’ll mention it) and the Flatiron district. She tells us that she hated how restrictive it felt to be vegan, and we must sympathise: after all, there are only tens of thousands of edible plant species in the world, and if one tries a new one every day things would start to get boring after several decades. Ryan remarks that there were several observable health benefits (she hints at the fibre intake), and concludes “But all in all, the diet was such a hassle, I won’t be going vegan again anytime soon.”
Ryan never went vegan at all, no more than did my Uncle Bert when he last ate an apple. Without an ethical perspective that compels a person to live in a way that avoids harm to nonhuman animals, eating plants will only ever amount to eating plants. No amount of salted caramel cupcakes from the vegan bakery near one’s home (I can’t help myself) will ever change the reality of that.
* This confused me for a while as I imagined a naturist vegan contingent traipsing through Co. Leitrim in the depths of winter, until I realised that the phrasing was ambiguous.