In this article:
- About 10% of Americans are now following a vegan or plant-based diet, double the amount just five years ago.
- But even with restaurants and stores increasing their plant-based offerings, there’s still a lot of misunderstanding about what being vegan entails.
- From genuine curiosity to outlandish retorts, these are some of the most common questions vegans get — and how you can answer them.
Last year, Google recorded a 5,000% surge in searches for “vegan food near me.” People also searched topics related to climate change, like “how does eating less meat help climate change?” And if you were to Google nearby vegan restaurants, you’re likely to find a couple of newly opened dining spots or plant-based options in your favorite food joints.
HappyCow, the ultimate resource for vegan foodies, reported that more vegan restaurants opened than closed during the pandemic. Ken Spector of HappyCow says, “These were purely vegan restaurants. We’re not even talking yet about vegan options. That is exploding.”
As a vegan, it’s exciting to watch the rise of plant-based offerings — from vegan ice cream to vegan eggs (yes, that’s a thing) — and vegan restaurants across the world. It means there is a bigger demand for vegan food and businesses are trying their best to deliver.
In the U.S., at least, a growing number of Americans are considering or have switched to a plant-based diet over the last couple of years. As of the beginning of 2022, researchers estimate 10% of the 18-and-older population have dropped meat and most animal products from their diet.
That’s double the estimated 5% in 2017. I don’t know about you, but a twofold increase in people changing their diets is worth celebrating.
Veganism is still far from being the norm, however, so expect to get a lot of questions about your choice to not eat meat. Some of them will be curious and engaging, but some will be plain ignorant or provocative.
If you don’t want to end up in an argument with your colleagues over oat lattes, or with your family over Thanksgiving Tofurky, it’s best to be prepared.
Where Do You Get Your Protein?
Look through a bodybuilder’s fridge and you’ll likely find stacks of chicken breast, eggs, and Greek yogurt. It’s no secret that animal products are some of the best sources of complete proteins.
Where to get protein sources as a vegan is a valid question. Is it possible to make gains when you don’t eat meat? The quick answer is: Yes, you can maintain muscle mass on a plant-based diet and also make vegan gains.
In fact, there are many world-class plant-powered athletes who also credit their vegan diet for their sport performance, like Lewis Hamilton, James Wilks, and Morgan Mitchell. For those still in doubt, look at meat-free bodybuilders like Torre Washington and Max Seabrook — their muscle-packed physiques will tell you all you need to know about vegan gains.
Here’s what I will tell you: Protein deficiency on a well-rounded plant-based diet is more myth than reality. Health experts agree that so long as you’re eating a variety of vegan protein sources like greens, beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, you don’t have to worry about eating too little protein. You can get the so-called complete proteins when your plate is diverse and colorful.
If you’re really worried — or want to increase muscle mass — you can take supplements. There are plant-based protein powders made from soy, pea, brown rice, and hemp to help you pack muscle. You can mix it using a shaker or blend it into a smoothie with non-dairy milk, frozen bananas, some nuts and seeds for additional nutrients.
Keep in mind that supplements like protein powders are just that: supplements. They’re not meant to be replacements for your normal diet. Supplements are often concentrated forms of one nutrient, which means they lack the other good stuff you get with eating a well-rounded vegan diet.
If You’re Vegan, Why Aren’t You Thin?
If you’re a vegan, why don’t you look it? First of all, there’s no dictionary definition of what a vegan — or anyone for that matter — should look like. It’s a common misconception that you should be skinny just because you don’t eat meat.
More importantly, food is food and has calories regardless of the source. Vegan ice cream and vegan fried chicken are delicious, but they are not weight loss products. There are people on a plant-based diet for health reasons, and those people usually follow a whole food diet. That’s how they make impressive vegan gains to fuel their training routine.
But there are also vegans who don’t mind eating junk food. That’s your prerogative. Sour Patch Kids, Oreos, and Speculoos are accidentally vegan snacks but have highly processed ingredients. Vegan ice cream is still packed with sugar and if you eat too much of it, just like any other food, don’t be surprised if you gain weight instead of losing it.
Don’t Plants Have Feelings?
The usual preamble to this question is, “Why do you avoid killing animals but have no problem killing plants?” While some are genuinely curious, oftentimes this question is just meant to provoke. Why not go all the way and just eat air, right?
But there is a real answer to this question. Veganism, by definition, is a way of life that avoids, as much as possible and practicable, exploiting sentient beings for food, clothing, entertainment, and other purposes.
Animals are sentient beings and clearly feel pain, but plants less so. While there are some signs pointing to plants’ sentience, or the ability to feel, scientists have debunked the theory that plants are conscious beings.
“For consciousness to evolve, a brain with a threshold level of complexity and capacity is required,” says University of California Santa Cruz professor Lincoln Taiz.
Plants don’t have a central nervous system like animals. They don’t fire synapses to send signals and trigger behavioral reactions, like you do when someone is about to take a bite out of you. So by all means, eat all the plants you can get your hands on.
Taiz says that this might actually be to their evolutionary advantage, adding, “…imagine, for example, the plight of trees during a forest fire. I would not wish to inflict on trees the consciousness and pain of being burned alive.”
Why Don’t Vegans Eat Eggs and Dairy?
Eggs and dairy products are not animals and don’t require killing them, so why do vegans avoid eating them? The easy answer to this is the dictionary definition of veganism. Vegans want to minimize the way society exploits animals and those animal products don’t have animal welfare in mind.
If you want to deepen your awareness on the subject, the 2005 documentary Earthlings narrated by Joaquin Phoenix — he is a staunch advocate of veganism himself — exhibits the many ways we use animals for our gain. Fair warning: while eye-opening, it is a pretty graphic film.
One of the industries Earthlings exposes is industrial dairy and egg production. Milk-producing cows and egg-laying hens may not be slaughtered right away, but they do suffer extreme conditions on industrial farms.
Cows live indoors for most of their lives in cramped pens and are slaughtered once they no longer produce good milk. The same thing happens in industrial egg production. Layer hens are literally stacked in battery cages, where they can barely move, let alone spread their wings. Meanwhile, male chicks can’t produce eggs, so they are killed off immediately after hatching in a process called chick culling.
On industrial farms, you only live as long as you can turn a profit.
While free-range and cruelty-free labels are meant to indicate that the animals were treated humanely, they’re more often than not just marketing labels that don’t mean much, since the producers get to define those terms.
Unless you’re fortunate enough to live next to a local dairy or egg farmer that you can buy your products directly from, it’s difficult to verify if eggs and dairy are produced ethically. So vegans opt to simply avoid consumption of those products altogether.
Why Do You Still Eat Food That Tastes Like Meat?
Impossible Burger, vegan ice cream, vegan egg, and vegan fried chicken — why do vegans eat products that imitate animal-based food?
The biggest reason is that most vegans weren’t raised on a vegan diet. Just 1 in 10 adults in the United States eat the minimum recommended amounts of fruit and vegetables each day, for example.
Of the limited fruits and vegetables they do eat, about half is made up of processed potatoes and tomatoes — think mashed potatoes, ketchup, and so on. So those veggies are drowning in salt and sugar.
Basically: most people are not used to eating vegetables and they’re even less used to cooking with them. If half your vegetable intake before going vegan came in the form of French fries and the sauce on your pizza, it can be hard to figure out what to eat when you first go plant-based.
Lab-produced foods like the Impossible Burger and hip vegan restaurants with fast food options help people make the switch to plant-based while still enjoying the familiar foods and flavors they grew up with.
If you grew up eating ice cream, why can’t you still enjoy a pint of vegan ice cream? If you loved going out for burgers with friends, finding soy-based meats that replicate the taste and texture of animal meat lets you continue enjoying that quality time with friends — just not at the expense of harming animals to do it.
When cooking at home, imitation foods can also make it easier to stick to the diet because you can keep cooking the recipes you already know.
If You Were Stranded on an Island, What Would You Eat?
This is actually a fun question that, until recently, I thought would never be able to answer. If you’re watching the current season of Survivor, you know there is a vegan castaway, Hai Giang, who ran into this exact problem. The show recently made some changes: the tribes no longer get rice or flint at the beginning, which makes the challenge even harder.
A couple of days into filming, some of Hai’s tribemates caught some crabs and, at that point, he hadn’t eaten in five days. Starved and exhausted from the challenges, the castaway made the choice to eat the protein-filled crustacean.
“As someone who loves animals I obviously want to stay true to myself out here, but I’m obviously not going to be able to sustain myself on coconuts alone,” Hai said in an interview.
The situation is a hypothetical one for most vegans, so it’s easy give the righteous answer and say you’ll stick with the diet. But, as Hai found out, it only takes a few days for hunger to strike, which means you have to make decisions quickly.
Survivor contestants who hope to make it to the Final Tribal Council are cast away for 26 days — another change they made this season. And, being stranded on an island gives you no guarantee that you’ll get saved. There are no vegan restaurants or vegan ice cream spots to help you sustain yourself.
Hai ignored his hunger pangs for as long as he could, but five days without food is absolute hell.
Any person, vegan or not, would likely eat whatever food they could find in that dire situation. But that doesn’t mean sticking to a vegan diet under normal circumstances is hypocritical or pointless. Ideally, most of us will never be marooned on an island.
Is It Hard To Stick To a Vegan Diet?
A few years ago, before the rise in the number of vegan restaurants and plant-based options in supermarkets, it would have been harder to maintain veganism as a lifestyle. But today, it’s a joy to go through menus and shelves and find plenty of offerings with a vegan or plant-based label.
These ingredients also make vegan cooking more flavorful and palatable even to those who are skeptical of meat-free food.
It does still take a bit of planning, though. You need to read ingredients carefully, prepare for a balanced diet so you’re getting all the nutrients and vitamins you need, and search for vegan restaurants or vegan options when you go out to eat.
But it’s also becoming more socially acceptable to be vegan. People are more encouraging of the diet and ask thoughtful questions, instead of silly retorts like, “…but bacon.” If you get asked for your list of favorite vegan restaurants, preferred protein sources, or how far you’re willing to go to maintain veganism, hopefully this cheat sheet will help you come up with a good answer.