Your ID, Please.

I am a vegetarian.  No, wait, but the majority of my meals are vegan, so.. I am a vegan.  But hold on, I occasionally eat seafood (mostly shellfish), so I am a pescatarian.  Or am I a flexitarian?  Or are none of these words real because they receive the red dotted line of a misspelled word when typed?  Does any of this even matter?

This is something I have grappled with for awhile.  Do these definitions matter?  Outspokenly, I have for a long time felt that they do not matter that much.  However, internally it is a whole different struggle.  I have debated a stint with veganism for the better part of 2 years.  I have been vegetarian for 4 years now.  But the whole time I have maintained my seafood eating ways, generally indulging once a month or so.

Most of the time, when addressed, I will tell people I am a vegetarian.  At any given meal of mine there is a 99% chance of it being a vegetarian meal.  So for me, that working definition is one I am comfortable with.  However, at the slightest bit of pressing, and often without any at all, I will admit, “but I still eat seafood from time to time.”

Instantly I notice a change in the person I am talking to, from one of, “oh I could never give up meat,” to, “oh, so you’re not really vegetarian.”  Even though a good 99% of my food intake is completely meat free, in the eyes of everyone from a typical omnivore to a hardcore vegan, I am not actually a vegetarian.

And I am ok with this.  I have my reasons for eating seafood.  However, there has been a part of me that feels hypocritical too.  I buy into it as well.

To make matters more complicated, my resolution this year was to follow the Mark Bittman diet of going “vegan before dinner,” or essentially eating two out of every three daily meals entirely vegan (so now I am at least 67% vegan on top of being 99% vegetarian – confused yet?).  That has been both really easy and really enjoyable, as I have learned just how callous I was about dairy products, and how ubiquitous they can be in all sorts of processed foods.

But there is a lingering urge to go fully vegan.

After examining this feeling, I realized something.  I am comfortable with the way I eat – I enjoy it.  I think there are plenty of reasons to go vegan, and I will probably always grapple with them, and may finally take the plunge.  But for now, it felt like my number one reason was so that I could say that I am a vegan.  And that is entirely the wrong reason to do anything.

I believe this is a problem that plagues the entire movement to eat fewer animals and animal products, and live a healthier and greener lifestyle.  We demand purity.  Society demands purity.  As if somehow, even though you don’t eat a single animal product all year, but have turkey at Thanksgiving that you don’t have the conviction necessary and thus your argument is not remotely credible.  It’s almost as if giving into temptation once and a while is the same as giving in on a daily basis.

No other movement in health or environment demands such purity.  Most environmentalists are opposed to fossil fuel use, and try themselves, sometimes quite earnestly, to cut down on their personal use.  There are degrees – from buying a hybrid to committing to a largely car-free lifestyle.  Yet it would be an absolutely absurd demand to require that anyone serious about climate change NEVER AGAIN use a car, or any fossil fuel burning vehicle.  People would scoff at that notion.  It’s impractical.

I admit that dietary changes are less drastic than going completely fossil fuel free, but nonetheless I think the analogy remains to the veg movement.  It is counter productive to put so much emphasis on the identification of the way you eat, and it is exclusionary.  This purity test excludes otherwise interested people from the movement, who think to themselves, “well I could never go fully vegetarian, so I might as well not try.”  Equally so, those who do come close to eating vegetarian somehow don’t get any street cred for their reductions in meat consumption, simply because they haven’t committed to a meat-free lifestyle and the best ID they can come up with is “flexitarian.”

For me, the “flexitarian” diet is the ideal.  Do what works for you, but do something.  Reduce your meat consumption by however much you see possible.  But you have to think about it, you can’t just sit by the sidelines anymore.  Don’t worry about the terminology, but if you do, call yourself whatever you feel fits best.  I don’t really like the term flexitarian, I don’t think it means much to most people.  Call yourself “mostly-vegetarian,” or “vegan at home,” or whatever.

If being vegetarian or vegan works for you, that’s wonderful.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see everyone eat this way.  But if the one thing holding you back from being a vegetarian is that you really like hot dogs at baseball games, or the occasional burger at a barbecue, don’t sweat it.  Just don’t rely on meat as a crutch.  That’s the key.  Don’t eat it without thinking.  It is quick and delicious, but at a huge cost.

The more you restrict your consumption, the more you will discover the wonderful world of foods out there that get unfairly labeled as “sides.”  Beans, rice, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, foods that fill you up and give you energy.  People often wonder what I eat as a vegetarian, and this question boggles me.  “What don’t I eat?”  is generally how I answer.  I don’t feel restricted at all, and in fact I appreciate the diversity of foods available to me.

My call to those hoping for a vegetarian or vegan world is this; keep fighting, keep educating, but also keep including those who have made an effort to reduce their consumption.  They are one of us, too, no ID necessary.