One of the most frustrating things about being chronically ill is all the little choices you don’t realise you no longer have until somebody guilt-trips you for not making them. And yes, this is (partly) about veganism.
Look, I’ll put it out there before I start: I have some good friends who are vegans, and I respect their choices. Hell, I even admire them, and occasionally envy them. This is not a post saying that veganism is bad, because I don’t think that. But the reason those people are still my friends is that they’ve never told me I ought to feel guilty for not making the same decision, unlike people I encounter on the internet.
I have coeliac disease. I’m lactose intolerant. I have pollen-food syndrome, which means I react to nuts and fruit. There are also a bunch of other things I don’t eat (like mushrooms), because of sensory issues and anxiety. I walk a narrow line between having my somewhat restricted diet under control and slipping into disordered eating habits, and I’m very aware of that.
What I don’t have is much choice about whether or not my food is ethical.
Veganism? Impractical. Boycotting unethical brands? Rarely an option. Reducing plastic packaging? Only if I want to get poisoned. There are so many factors that people overlook when guilt-tripping others about the choices they make as a consumer, without considering that for some people it’s not really a choice.
Could I go vegan? No, not really. It’s not physically impossible — I already eat a lot of lentils and don’t eat red meat — but the nutritional deficiencies I would suffer as a result would be significant. Not eating nuts rules out a lot of vegan food, especially dairy alternatives and proteins, and not being able to eat fruit seriously limits my options (especially for desserts). Not to mention the fact that being coeliac is extremely expensive already — and it’s also nearly impossible to go out for a meal as it is. Certain dietary changes might be possible if I did more baking from scratch, but I have fatigue and chronic pain, and spending a long time preparing meals just isn’t an option.
Like I said, I don’t eat red meat. I eat very little dairy these days beyond lacto-free milk and cheese — when I buy biscuits and cakes, I have to go for the dairy-free options. But chicken and eggs are an essential part of my diet and the reason I’m not more severely B12-deficient than I already am.
Do I feel bad about this? Yeah, sometimes. I used to think about going vegetarian, but these days a chicken breast with potatoes is quite often the only thing on a restaurant menu I can eat. Leaving aside animal cruelty, I’m aware of the environmental impact of a meat eater’s diet, and while my consumption isn’t nearly as high as some people’s, I still feel bad about it.
I try and buy ‘cruelty free’, although for me that means a lot more than just the absence of cruelty to animals. When I buy meat and eggs, I buy free range, RSPCA-assured brands. I also buy fairtrade tea and sugar, although I can no longer buy exclusively fairtrade chocolate because a lot of the main fairtrade brands aren’t safe for coeliacs, and an autoimmune disease trumps principles.
That’s just how it is, you see. I have principles, but I also have an autoimmune disease. I have morals, but I also have allergies.
I read packets; I try and reduce air miles and to always buy the more ethical option, when I have a choice… but I so rarely have a choice. Usually, the sole factor in my decision about food is, “Is this physically safe for me to eat?” A choice between destroying the lining of your own gut and protecting a few animals is not a choice at all. After all, humans are animals too! Causing yourself to suffer for the sake of a cow kind of defeats the whole point.
I get frustrated when people say that everyone should try and be vegan, but it’s almost worse when they concede, “Oh, well, you’ve got a valid reason not to.” Because it makes me feel more disabled. It’s another exception that has to be made. It’s another standard I can’t reach. It’s another area of life where special considerations have to be made.
Disability is often social, and imposing standards that not everybody is physically able to reach is exclusionary.
(And although it’ll never happen, let’s imagine a world where everyone went vegan except for those with medical reasons not to. Suddenly there’s no market for food those people need, and they’re even more excluded. They can’t eat at social events; their food costs five times as much. Is that really an improvement?)
By imposing a dietary standard that you know from the start I can’t reach, you are creating further disabilities for me. You are isolating me. You are making me feel like a failure for something I can’t help.
I can’t win, either. I posted a recipe for gluten-free, vegan flapjacks on Twitter and before long there was someone in my mentions telling me I shouldn’t use Flora dairy-free margarine because it was made of palm oil and bad for the environment. I am trying, my dude. I am using a vegan margarine that doesn’t set off any of my allergies and which actually works for making flapjacks, unlike one of the alternatives they suggested which isn’t sticky enough. Telling me that it still isn’t good enough isn’t convincing me to join your crusade.
I already have to take a whole bunch of supplements to make sure my diet is good enough; I’m not about to cut any more essential nutrients out.
But it’s not just about veganism.
There’s the packaging question too. People often criticise pre-cut vegetables packaged in plastic as being wasteful and for ‘lazy’ people, ignoring that many disabled people need pre-pepared veg if they want to have a balanced diet. The obvious solution is to find a more biodegradable packaging, of course, but it goes beyond that. I’ve seen people argue that all supermarkets should sell grains and pulses in those big Whole Foods-style vats where you bring a jar and fill it, but do you have any idea how bad that would be for people with allergies? I have to use a separate toaster to my parents because a crumb or two of gluten can make me sick. But sure, just go and get flour dust all over my lentils, I’m sure that won’t be a problem.
My food has to be sealed, especially bakery items. Maybe you can buy bread fresh from a basket, but I need plastic wrappers so that I don’t get sick. I hate it and I feel guilty about it; the amount of packaging used for gluten free food was one of the first things I noticed about it. But I need it.
Or what about boycotting supermarkets because of how they treat their workers? I read articles about how people shouldn’t shop in certain places because they don’t pay their workers enough and I’m with you! I agree that it’s bad! But they also sell the only version of a certain food that I can eat, so I have to shop there. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.
I want to be ethical about my food. When I was twelve I used to campaign for companies to go fairtrade and boycott those that weren’t. I want to be able to make decisions based on what has the least plastic wrapping, the fewest air miles, the minimum harm to animals. I’d love to boycott brands when they don’t treat their workers well. I want to have choice about what brands to buy, what supermarkets to shop in.
But I can’t. I don’t have that choice. Because I’m chronically ill.
And I am fed up of people on the internet who ignore that not everybody’s experience of food matches theirs. I’m now auto-blocking any guilt-trippy vegans on social media because there comes a point where it goes beyond annoying and becomes ableist and privileged. (Even beyond just the general truth of ‘specialist diets tend to be more expensive’.)
To all my vegan friends who aren’t like that: great! You do you. I admire you, honestly. I’ll bake you evil palm-oil-based vegan flapjacks. But to the others: maybe consider that your ‘ethical’ diet is a luxury, not only in monetary terms, but because your body will let you make those decisions.