No matter what side of the farm’s fence you sit on, everybody these days has an opinion on veganism. As the cruelty-free diet and lifestyle grows in popularity around the world, there are two conflicting trends that are emerging: data shows people are more likely to stick to a vegan diet than, say, keto or intermittent fasting; and yet, the vegan blogosphere is seemingly crumbling.
Recent research by BodyNutrition.org, which conducted a study on American dieters, revealed that 41.5 per cent of people who had adopted a plant-based diet stuck to it, a higher figure compared to intermittent fasters (26.8 per cent), people on a Paleo diet (25 per cent) and those who opted for keto (29.8 per cent).
Why people tend to go vegan
In order to comprehend why the diet has staying power, you first need to understand the reasons why people go vegan. These are mostly four-fold: to prevent cruelty to animals; to save our planet; for health reasons; and, more and more, to become a better athlete. There’s a big difference between people who are “plant-based” and those who are “vegan”, as the former refers to a diet, while the latter is a lifestyle.
Dubai food blogger and chef Zendy Marsam says she chose the diet for its health benefits, but after a one-month trial it became her way of life. “Veganism is an ethical lifestyle adopted by people to minimise the harm caused to animals,” she explains. “So being vegan is not a short-term dietary choice – it’s a way of life. And that’s why I believe people adhere to it for longer.”
Nada El Barshoumi, a blogger from Abu Dhabi, known as One Arab Vegan, has a similar story. She stopped eating red meat and poultry when she was 12, and has been vegan for eight years. “After discovering a newfound passion for vegan cooking, I read every book and blog, and watched every documentary I could find. I learnt not only about the health benefits of a vegan diet, but also about the horrors of factory-farming and the impact of animal agriculture on our environment.”
Where it falls apart
As the interest in veganism rises – the Vegan Society reports the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2018, while The Economist states a quarter of 25- to 34-year-old Americans now identify as vegan or vegetarian – so does the number of vegan influencers peddling "perfect" lifestyles on social media. And that's where things seem to collapse.
Last month, a video of famous raw-food advocate Yovana Mendoza, better known as Rawvana, started circulating the internet. In the five-second clip, the unthinkable was visible: Mendoza was eating a piece of fish – and obviously trying to hide it. She later admitted that she’d been pescatarian for the past two months, in an attempt to remedy health concerns she’d developed in the six years since she’d been vegan. Fellow plant-eaters were critical, as meat champions rejoiced, and trolls posted fish emojis on her social media feeds, referring to the scandal – somewhat unoriginally – as “fishgate”.
Two months earlier, YouTuber Bonny Rebecca posted a video titled Why I'm No Longer Vegan, explaining it was mostly because of her extreme digestive issues. "I've been vegan for a long time, and I think a part of me wanted to believe in this diet so much – because I had such a strong ethical connection to it – that I was turning a blind eye to my problems and to the severity of my health issues," she says. "This was a huge slap in the face for me."
The pressures of social media
In the UK, a similar thing happened last year when Pixie Turner, whose Instagram handle had formerly been @plantbasedpixie, turned her back on the diet and changed her screen name to @pixienutrition.
Turner, who's in her mid-20s, became a "wellness influencer" early on, in an attempt to prevent the onset of a genetic disease. "[Wellness bloggers] looked radiant, healthy, beautiful and successful," Turner told Grazia just after she changed her Instagram name, a move that lost her thousands of followers. "Their posts told me that I could be healthier, all I had to do was eat like them. So I did." That's when she developed orthorexia, a medical condition in which sufferers develop an unhealthy obsession with eating foods they consider "good" – and avoiding anything else they deem harmful.
“I went from eating everything to cutting out meat, fish, gluten, dairy, eggs, soy and refined sugar. I used #eatclean and stated how wonderful I was feeling now that I wasn’t eating all these things. It was a constant pressure every day to post the perfect food, and I ate so many things I didn’t like, just for the ‘gram’.”
That’s one of the biggest issues with social media today: it often doesn’t reflect real life. As a result, impressionable young people end up being too restrictive with themselves, as influencers often lie to their audiences about what they’re really doing – or eating. After all, let’s not forget that many of these bloggers and vloggers stand to make thousands of dollars out of the brands they’ve built.
So how to stick with it?
As the advice on the UK’s NHS website states: “With good planning and an understanding of what makes up a healthy, balanced vegan diet, you can get all the nutrients your body needs.” Yet, if you look closely at some of these influencers’ diets, you’ll find they’re excluding important food groups (such as soy, which, unless you’re allergic, is an important protein source for vegans), or they’ve developed an eating disorder, like Turner.
“I’ve never had any health problems because of my diet,” says El Barshoumi, adding she’s met many vegans who have reversed chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and high cholesterol. “On the contrary, going vegan – and more specifically dairy-free – has improved my health. I used to suffer from chronic sinus infections and these cleared up within just a few short weeks of eating a whole foods plant-based diet. I also get sick less often, my skin is clearer and my digestion [is better].”
It’s easy to pinpoint bloggers and influencers who have turned their backs on veganism, simply because they’re in the spotlight, El Barshoumi adds. “The truth is the world is filled with vegetarians and vegans who return to eating animal products every day. Diet, like any part of our lifestyles, is fluid, and it is bound to evolve as our health, tastes, lifestyle choices and values do.”
Some people choose to return to eating animal products for health reasons – “often at the advice of a doctor, many of whom are unfortunately biased against plant-based diets”, adds El Barshoumi – while others succumb to peer pressure from friends and family. “Ultimately, I think that one has to have complete conviction. Once that wanes, whether due to health concerns or a simple craving for a piece of meat, it’s only a matter of time until you retreat to your old ways,” she adds.
Easing into it slowly
Marsam, who recently launched a vegan brunch in Dubai at Rove Healthcare City, agrees that it’s not always easy to follow the diet, but everyone is on his or her own journey towards veganism. “I like to focus on the positives that even a small change can have. Every influencer or restaurant adopting vegan ways is a champion in my view – irrespective of how ‘pure’ they are.”
That’s the other thing: when people first adopt a vegan diet, they feel the need to be strict, going from carnivore to herbivore overnight. While some can handle such an extreme lifestyle change, others can’t. And while some people’s digestive systems can handle a fully vegan diet, others find their body responds better to a flexitarian diet, at least in the initial transition phase.
“You don’t have to be 100 per cent from day one,” Marsam says. “Just start making small changes. A transition is always easier than a sudden change, and tends to be more permanent. Being vegan or plant-based should be inclusive – not a competition.”
Most importantly, adds El Barshoumi, you need to be honest with yourself. “Ask yourself why you first went vegan, and try to remember what your ultimate motivation to make the switch was. Is that still the case? If not, what has changed, and how is it affecting your ability to stay vegan? If you’d like to stay vegan, try to determine what the current barriers are for you and assess how you can tackle them.
“For many, myself included, the path to veganism is not a straight line and progress is not always linear. It’s OK to struggle, and aim for progress, not perfection.”