Friends & Family
In this chapter, we’re going to consider the influence your dietary choices may have on your friends and family. It’s all too easy, especially as a new vegan, to come off as a freak to the people closest to you. So in this chapter we will look at how to present your eating habits in the most favorable light.
If possible, you should avoid talking about vegan topics when you’re still new to the lifestyle, because early on you probably won’t yet be knowledgeable enough to discuss the issues convincingly. And if you present the issues badly the first time, you often don’t get a second chance. So before you talk to others about how and why to be vegan, it makes sense to read a few books on the subject. The more informed you are, the more effectively you’ll be able to talk about your diet—whether your audience is your parents, your spouse, your co-workers, or your classmates.
Books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and Singer and Mason’s The Ethics of What We Eat offer a solid background on how to speak about the ethical issues surrounding diet. And my own book Meat Market offers a more detailed and research-heavy overview of animal agribusiness than what I offered in the first two chapters of this book.
Because so many people are more concerned with health than with ethics, it also makes sense to read some health-oriented vegan books. I’m a huge fan of Rip Esselstyn’s The Engine 2 Diet, which provides a lifelong eating and fitness approach to staying trim and healthy. Rip’s father, the Medical Doctor Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., has also written an extremely important book: Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier in this book, I strongly recommend you read everything at Jack Norris’ VeganHealth.org site. The stuff there is rock solid in terms of credibility, and this collection of articles offers a thorough overview of all issues related to vegan nutrition. Jack also blogs regularly about nutrition at JackNorrisRD.com.
After you’ve read all this material, you’ll know more about food than 99 percent of Americans. And as a result, you’ll be able to discuss the issues surrounding vegan food choices with a level of expertise that will surprise and impress the people in your life. When it comes to winning people over to thinking favorably of vegan eating, there’s just no substitute to becoming well-versed in all of the primary ethical and health issues connected to diet. Acquiring this breadth of knowledge will make your discussions with family, friends, and co-workers smoother, easier, and vastly more productive.
Everything I just said about reading several books goes double if you’re still living with your parents, and it goes triple if you’re under age fifteen. I became vegetarian when I was nineteen, and when I broke the news to my mother, you would think from her reaction that I had just announced my intention to become a professional skydiver. Happily, in short order I was able to convince her that I was taking my nutrition seriously and therefore wouldn’t get myself in any trouble.
For most kids who become vegan, their parents’ worries stem from knowing little about nutrition, and wrongfully believing that veganism is an inadequate diet that will lead to stunted growth and health problems. So if you’re a child or adolescent, it may be worthwhile to trot out the 2009 American Dietetic Association’s position paper on vegetarian diets [PDF link]. This document concludes that a well-planned vegan diet is appropriate for every stage of life, including pregnancy, infancy, adolescence, and old age.
If you can get your parents to read vegan advocacy books, they’ll likely become supportive of your food choices. You can also give them some Vegan Outreach brochures. These are short, full of photos, and highly informative. Always be sure that any literature you offer speaks to your recipient’s interests. If your mother is a big animal lover, it makes sense to give her literature that talks about factory farming. If your dad doesn’t care much about animals, but has heart disease on both sides of his family, it would be appropriate to get Caldwell Esselstyn’s book into his hands.
No matter how receptive your parents are, living at home can still lead to problems, especially at first. I spent my sophomore year of college living at my parents’ house, and my mother did most of the grocery shopping. One day she came home with a half dozen cans of vegetable soup. But when I checked the label I saw these soups contained chicken stock. No problem. I just telephoned the vegan police and they came right over, arrested my mother, and took her to a vegan re-education camp. I have no idea of what she experienced at the camp, but I must say that after she returned, she was always super vigilant when it came to thoroughly reading the labels of anything she bought for me.
In all seriousness, my parents have become quite understanding and supportive of my vegan diet. And while they haven’t gone vegan, my mother often has vegan days. The amount of animal products they eat today is substantially less than what it used to be.
Many of the ideas I’ve just expressed about dealing with parents apply similarly to romantic relationships. It’s important to realize that if you’ve been with your partner for a while and have just become vegan, he or she is likely to feel somewhat threatened by or resentful over your change of diet—something along the lines of: “Hey, I never signed up for this.”
Here, however, you’ll have more leverage than a teenager has with his or her parents. Any relationship ought to be based on having concern for the interests and values of your partner, so, if you’ve just become vegan, it’s your job to clearly express why it’s important to you. As I mentioned at the start of this chapter, it’s wise to defer these conversations until after you’ve had a chance to read a few books, so that you can introduce the subject in an informed and convincing manner.
It’s hard to accurately predict how your partner will respond. Some partners—most often men—view the entire veggie concept with hostility and distrust. They’ll actually go out of their way to be unaccommodating. To me, hostile reactions like this, particularly if they accompany ridicule, have no place in a relationship. If you find yourself in this sort of situation, the issues surrounding diet are likely to be the least of your relationship’s concerns. You’ve got to wonder about the overall health of the relationship, and unless kids are in the picture I’d recommend putting some thought into whether to ditch the jerk.
Many partners, however, are simply fantastic. They’ll realize that your change of diet is greatly important to you, and take it upon themselves to do the requisite reading. Often, after exploring the subject, they’ll jump right on board and become vegan too. If this is the reaction you get, marry this person.
And finally, there are partners who’ll bend halfway. They might be willing to go veggie or even vegan in the house, and when you eat out together they’ll make a point of not ordering the ribs in front of you. One vegan I know is married to a man who is mostly vegan apart from one night a week when he dines omnivorously with friends at a restaurant.
Let’s finish off this chapter by considering how to create the most productive impression among your friends concerning your food choices. The most important thing I can tell you is to avoid putting yourself at the center of this topic. It’s not about you being vegan. It’s about the delicious food you’re eating, it’s about heaping scorn upon a corrupt and brutal factory farming industry, and it’s about making the healthiest possible food choices.
As with every other interaction we have, we influence people most when we listen closely rather than talk. By discovering which areas of interest are of greatest concern to the people in your life, you can figure out exactly what sorts of information each person would be most responsive to.
There are some other tricks you’ll learn along the way. Never agree to eat out with friends if it means that you’ll be at a place where your meal will look meager or unappetizing compared to your companions’ omnivorous choices. If you love to cook and are great at it, invite your friends over for a special meal based on a sensational recipe you’ve already mastered. See, at every turn you’re presenting your food choices as fun, delicious, healthful, and carefully thought out.
It’s not like all your friends are likely to go vegan overnight, but when you’ve read deeply into the literature and can present your diet in a positive manner you can expect to have a tremendous influence among the people in your circle. Rather than being looked at as freakish for your food choices, the decisions you’ve made about diet will instead seem admirable and worthy of emulation.
If you present things correctly, it’s amazing the influence you’ll have. Over the years, many of the people closest to me have become vegan. And those who have not gone vegan have nevertheless made substantial changes to how they eat. I don’t think there’s a single person left in my life who would set foot inside a McDonald’s or KFC. And all of this has occurred without any confrontation, any proselytizing, or any hard feelings.
As we’ve seen, if you become well-versed on the subject of vegan eating and learn to talk about it effectively, you’re likely to become a positive and powerful influence on how your friends and loved ones eat.
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