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  • Writer's pictureJenna Movsowitz

I would go vegan, but I can't live without cheese

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

“I would go vegan, but I can’t live without cheese.” This phrase and its many variations are all too familiar to vegan or plant-based eaters. Whether it’s cheese, Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia flavored ice-cream, the Double-Double from In-N-Out, or turkey on Thanksgiving, there is often a “but” that is claimed as an obstacle to changing one’s diet. To some vegans or plant-based eaters, these words can feel harmful (is your charcuterie plate more important than the environment?) But this phrase can also be an opportunity. Project Eat Less Meat doesn’t see an occasional indulgence as a barrier. We see it as an invitation to a conversation about what “less” really means -- and how you can still make an impact without totally sacrificing the food or traditions you love.

Here are a few reasons why we embrace the “something-over-nothing” approach to plant-based eating.

1. Perfect is the Enemy of Good

If a casual runner started training, nobody would tell them to begin with 20 miles. Likely, they’d be encouraged to start slowly: 1-2 miles at a time and work their way up. Similarly, someone who is eating several meat- or dairy-centric meals a week shouldn’t be encouraged to go vegan cold turkey (ha). The all-or-nothing approach to veganism creates pressure to be perfect, which often leads to failure -- like trying to run 20 miles on one-miler legs.

Rather than expecting someone to completely overhaul the diet they grew up with, a more practical approach for sustainable behavior change may be encouraging a more digestible reduction in consumption of animal products, such as meatless Mondays. This is especially true for self-proclaimed meat-lovers; research shows that one of the greatest barriers to adopting veganism is simply the enjoyment of eating meat.

A partial approach to a plant-based diet presents an opportunity for flexitarians to experiment with flavors and adapt to the taste of plant-based meals, without associating these meals with animal product withdrawal.

2. Avoiding the Fear of Stigma

Perhaps one of the larger barriers to adopting a plant-based diet is the fear of stigmatization. In a recent study of 150 university students, researchers found that non-vegans consistently distance themselves from vegans both physically and verbally. When asked what it might be like to be vegan, non-vegans reported that they would probably be stigmatized and viewed negatively. In other words, they’d be seen the way that they see vegans themselves: ostracized from social circles. Ultimately, the study concluded that “vegan stigma is a barrier that inhibits dietary shifts toward a plant-based diet.” But what causes this stigma in the first place?

Additional research concluded that societal disapproval and exclusion of vegans can be partially explained by the communal food hypothesis, or the perceived importance of sharing food with friends and family. In other words, people are afraid of the social isolation that would occur if they couldn’t share meals with their social circles. It’s true: one happy hour cheese plate isn’t more important than the environment. But the flexibility to indulge in a few non-vegan meals with friends helps avoid the vegan stigma, while still allowing an opportunity to adopt an otherwise plant-based diet.

3. Accommodating for Convenience

While vegan- and vegetarian-friendly restaurants have been on the rise in many major cities, this vegan boom isn’t representative of much of the United States. The prevalence of vegan restaurants in rural areas is minimal, and is representative of the overall accessibility to vegan items in these regions. In fact, approximately 23 million people in the US live in food deserts: rural areas that are more than 10 miles from a supermarket. Their options are limited, and it is difficult to find fresh produce and nutritious food, let alone alternative proteins. This makes it nearly impossible to adopt a restrictive diet -- particularly a diet that revolves around produce.

On top of the physical inaccessibility of vegan or plant-based food, one of the largest barriers to adopting a vegan diet is time and convenience. There is a steep learning curve attached to vegan cooking for someone transitioning from a standard American diet. Relearning how to cook healthy meals with new restrictions requires time and resources. Rather than pushing an inaccessible diet onto consumers, easy, accessible, and inexpensive plant-based meals (like lentils and rice) could be introduced to their weekly meal plan.

There are many perceived barriers to adopting a fully vegan or plant-based diet. At Project Eat Less Meat, our mission is to reduce meat and other animal product consumption through understanding these hurdles and radically empathizing with our audience’s values, beliefs, and lifestyles. For many Americans, meat and dairy meals are positively associated with culture and tradition. A diet containing animal products is often seen as convenient and affordable, the primary way to take in protein, and a social “norm.” We cannot eliminate these biases, nor can we ignore them.

But we can make plant-based eating more approachable. We can welcome the reducetarians with open arms. We can encourage a world where less meat is consumed, where a something-over-nothing mentality is celebrated. We can educate consumers on the immense impact they can make on the environment from their kitchen. After all, if every American went meatless for just one day a week, we would save 100 billion gallons of water and 1.4 billion animals every year - and that’s certainly something.

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