Devin Ellsworth

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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.


Leave a Comment!

Thanks for the comments guys!

Alex, you bring up some great points. In response to your question of why I don’t respond with “I don’t eat much meat,” I really do believe that this statement would remove any questioning of the thought behind my decision, and I would be missing an opportunity to educate someone on the very real issues surrounding meat eating.

The statement, “I don’t eat much meat,” is so casual that I think the vast majority of people would simply assume, “oh, he must just not like the taste very much.”

But, if I say, “I don’t eat meat,” period, then I am about 100 times more likely to get follow up questions about why I chose this, and for me, that’s what excites me most, because then I bring people into the conversation, and for a lot of people it is the very first time they’ve considered the impact of their dietary choices. There is a difference between doing this at a table and removed from a meal too, of course, and I prefer not to do it at a meal, but after, or later.

Another factor, and this is really for another blog post, is that for whatever reason, people really do view fish as very different from other types of meat. We can ponder this question for now, since, like I said, it is really a topic rich enough for it’s own post, but it is interesting nonetheless. Even though when I clarify and say, “but I still eat fish,” and people do change their expression, they still treat me like a vegetarian going forward. Maybe because other forms of meat are more ubiquitous, and I have opted out of 90% of the meat Americans eat. In a fish eating community elsewhere in the world, I wouldn’t have a strange diet at all. Or maybe it’s that fish are the only widely consumed wild caught food left. Who knows; but to most, it is different.

The final point that I find troubling is the judgment. It is something I get a lot from people and I find is so strange. “You aren’t gong to judge me if I eat meat, are you?” People immediately get so self conscious. I never judge those for their dietary choices, especially at the table. But why do people get so self conscious? Do they know, on some level, that there are real issues surrounding meat eating, issues they would otherwise not even address, but with a vegetarian at the table they suddenly feel shame? There shouldn’t be a reason to feel shame if one is perfectly comfortable with their choices. These are all good questions probably suited for another post soon.

Thanks again for all your comments, I really appreciate them!

This is a great question to be asking Devin. I have some thoughts on why people seem to demand definitional purity from those who label themselves. (And this probably goes for all labels, not just dietary labels) I think there are three things that factor in to this sequentially: definitions, stigmas, and egos.

Labels like “vegetarian” and “vegan” seem to offer specific information. They are terms with commonly understood definitions, so it is assumed that if you use the terms, you are using them to mean what people understand them to mean. But this alone does not explain the struggle taking place with these labels – people are not just simplistic dictionary police.

Dietary labels are also loaded with social stigmas. One thing undoubtedly associated with them is an air of superiority and enlightenment. When someone announces their adherence to a conscious lifestyle, all those who do not adhere to some similar discipline feel implicitly labeled as “unconscious” and thereby feel judged. This is the root of the tension I believe, where the ego takes over and things start to get tense.

Once labeling has been brought to the dinner table, there are rewards and penalties for what you label yourself. A form of credit is given to those who claim to follow a specific plan with healthy sustainable aims. Before they fall too far behind in the credit game, all those who have no label need to test those who have labeled themselves. Have they earned it? Do they really deserve the credit they are being given? Do I really need to take on the shame associated with having an “unconscious” diet? So they press for details and get hung up on technicalities.

Of course the ego is not only at work in those without labels. The labeled eaters are also aware of the credit and shame at stake, and may perhaps be exceptionally aware of another form of judgement being passed around the table: the label of the “weirdo”. Sharing food is a very basic human expression of community and relationship, and when someone passes a dish with no explanation, it stands out. If you are going to only fill your plate half way while the rest of us gorge ourselves, you have some explaining to do. Vegetarians and vegans certainly know this, and perhaps dread meals with new people because of it. But they have a trump card in this dilemma – the label. The label clears their name, and then some. I suspect labels get used with gusto for this reason.

To people with labels, like yourself Devin, I ask this question: When asked why you didn’t take any turkey, why don’t you respond with “I don’t eat much meat”? Is it because you want full credit for the maximal extent of your dietary choices? Or more nobly, is it because you want to be spreading awareness of your reasons for your choices? Either way, you are asking for tension between you and the unlabeled.

And to those who give you a hard time for not being the perfect technical picture of your labels, I say “Geez, settle down. Since when did a single word fully describe the nuances of a person’s lifestyle? Why do you care anyways?”

I Dig your flow. Realistic Vegetarianism/ practical flexivore. It seems to me what your getting at is a bit of old school Jainism modernised. Respect