Does Vegetarian Mean All or Nothing?

I became a vegetarian as my New Year’s Resolution in 2010. I did it for a variety of reasons; heart disease runs in my family and I wanted to be healthier, I learned more about the factory farming system and was grossed out by it, and I knew I would be reducing my negative impact on the environment.

When I first started, I went Lacto-Ovo vegetarian, meaning I still ate cheese and eggs. A few months in, I started dating a vegan, so I spent close to 6 months eating vegan out of solidarity. I even started a vegan food blog for people (like me) who want to cook vegan at home with simple and delicious recipes. Eventually, I decided it wasn’t for me – I love cheese too much.

Over the years, I have added fish back into my diet. It made it easier to eat over at friends’ houses and out at restaurants, and I also just really like fish. I eat it sparingly, but my favorites are smoked salmon, shrimp and crab cakes. Also, every once in a blue moon, usually, when I’m back in the states visiting my family, I’ll eat a little bit of meat. Throughout this evolution of my diet, I have been amazed and bewildered by the reactions I get from non-vegetarians when I tell someone I’m a vegetarian.

“You’re not a real vegetarian then, you eat fish sometimes.”

“How can you call yourself a vegetarian if you eat aborted chicken fetuses?”

When I ate vegan, the criticism (again, from non-vegans) increased.

“Yeah, but do you still drink wine or beer? A lot of that isn’t vegan.”

“When are you going to throw away all your leather and non-vegan cosmetics?”

“You know that means you can’t eat honey, right?”

Why, all of a sudden, were people who don’t alter their diets berating me for not fitting into their idea of what mine should be? I had never felt criticized by fellow vegetarians; in my experience, this community respects the varying degrees of personal choices that come into play when making a lifelong commitment to a plant-based diet.

I was a meat-eater for 23 years; becoming a vegetarian literally meant changing the way I had eaten my entire life. We don’t have these extremely high, all-or-nothing expectations for any other major lifestyle change. When I quit smoking, for example, after 10 years as a smoker and would have half a cigarette when I had a few drinks, no one criticized me. In fact, many expressed their own difficulties in quitting smoking and told me not to be too hard on myself.

When little kids are learning to stop sucking their thumb, I’ve never seen an adult berate them for going back to it for a night. Hell, I still see adults on the subway picking their noses. There are a number of habits that are maybe bad for you that people struggle to change, but we don’t seem to hold it against them. Why should eating meat/fish be different?

Where did this purist, all-or-nothing view of vegetarianism come from? How exactly do my eating habits affect your life, anyway? I know there are some hardcore vegans out there who use their diet as a status symbol, trying to out-vegan each other, but that’s not an excuse to hold an inquisition with everyone who has a diet different from yours. Mostly, this isn’t coming from vegetarians or vegans but from meat-eaters and omnivores.

Vegetarians have a wide range of reasons for choosing to eat the way they do. Maybe their reasons are ethical or spiritual. Maybe it’s for health. Maybe it’s because they love animals. Maybe it’s because they don’t like meat! It doesn’t matter. These people have made a commitment to eating the way they want to eat, and that fact in and of itself deserves respect.

I self-identify as a vegetarian, and – for me – that means 95% of the time, I eat fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and dairy. Every once in a while, I eat bacon. Deal with it.

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