Being vegan says so much more about you than just your ethics

Being vegan says so much more about you than just your ethics
Credit: James Gillray/Wikimedia Commons

Revered French gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin coined the phrase: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are." He wasn't wrong. If you're someone who thinks about your food choices, its probably in terms of health or ethics. But they are also intimately connected with identity, class, and ideology.

Kosher and Halal foods are a signal of religious affiliation. Caviar and gold leaf hint at wealth. The enjoyment of wine has as much to do with what it's served in as its taste.

But what of meat? Due to its cost, in Western societies has been linked with higher status, power, wealth and masculinity for centuries.

In medieval England, peasant diets would be almost wholly vegetarian. Meat was the preserve of royal and aristocratic households, where the hunt became part of male rites of passage, but also power over the natural world. This gendered and class-based structuring of access to meat continued well into the second half of the 20th century, since the best cuts were reserved for the patriarch of the family.

In many ways, challenges these traditions. Vegans, for instance, are more likely to be young and female than old and male. The lifestyle also challenges traditional norms of masculinity. And instead of the hedonistic consumption associated with the upper classes, veganism is associated with restraint and discipline.

Yet, this restraint comes with its own social implications. As our new research shows, plant-based diets come with burdens—and successfully navigating them can help vegans to promote an image of upward mobility in contemporary consumer society.

We first studied how veganism was represented in more than 2,000 articles in the UK media. Then we conducted 20 in-depth interviews with middle-class consumers who were either vegans or closely acquainted with vegans. We mapped how they perceived veganism, including its relationship to class and character. Analyzing data from the interviews and the media together, we identified five key burdens associated with the vegan lifestyle, and the social signals that successfully navigating them sends.

Vegan burdens

The first burden relates to knowledge. Vegans generally need to be not only vigilant about ingredients, but able to unpack their meaning for animal welfare, climate change, sustainability, and personal health. The accomplished vegan therefore signals a wealth of knowledge in a society where educational attainment has high social value.

Financial wealth is useful too. Vegan products and replacement ingredients are often expensive, and not within every household's budget. It is possible to eat vegan cheaply, but doing so costs time for a diet that is already time-intensive–both in terms of shopping and food preparation. Navigating these demands signals that you have at least a little money—or at least time—to spare, as well as efficiency and time management skills, which are desirable qualities in the world of work.

Finally, veganism often requires fortitude and discipline—both to deny oneself short-term hedonistic pleasures in the commitment to , and to fend off the typical perception of vegans as troublesome or challenging guests. Managing these emotional and social burdens signals resilience and goal-seeking behavior in a competitive environment, and the likely presence of a strong social network support.

Crafting the vegan self

Consumers are rarely actively pursuing social goals when going vegan. But at a sociological level, it does present opportunities to communicate personal attributes that are considered useful in contemporary society: knowledgeable, disciplined, able to support oneself, but also able to form social connections. Rather than only engaging with food for pleasure, our respondents recognized that the challenges of veganism can be used to signal social status and, if originating from a lower socioeconomic class, an upward trajectory in one's fortunes.

Of course, the ethical and environmental aspects are still—for many people—the major motivation to be vegan. But as other recent research of ours shows, thanks to recent celebrity uptake of the diet, veganism is no longer a purely moral movement at the periphery of society, but also a desirable lifestyle choice considered trendy in mainstream culture. Indeed, Beyoncé's undertaking of a 22-day vegan challenge helped interest in veganism to explode–despite her wearing leather and fur to a restaurant during the challenge.

The ethos of veganism itself is an admirable and strongly held altruistic conviction among many of its practitioners—but it also plays an important role in curating your personal image. Perhaps Brillat-Savarin's dictum should now read: "Tell me who you want to be and I will tell you what to eat!"


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Meat consumption is changing but it's not because of vegans

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Citation: Being vegan says so much more about you than just your ethics (2019, September 6) retrieved 18 September 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2019-09-vegan-ethics.html
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Sep 06, 2019
Among other things, the use of the trendy term instead of the legitimate term "vegetarian" means someone is a witless insipid. It also suggests someone doesn't understand the world around them or is moved toward levels of charity, or "charity", so unnecessarily extended as to indicate guilt for extreme personal vileness!
The lack of familiarity with the nature of food in early society also demonstrates a tendency to believe anything they are told. Early society was close enough to nature that everyone could hunt at least small game and fish, and many had stocks of, for example, chickens and such. Nor was meat kept from women. The article refers to the "best cuts" being reserved for the men. Even a goat has enough meat that a "patriarch" can have a best cut at a meal with enough left over for everyone else! And, note, all the meat had to be eaten at one sitting since they didn't have so many preservation methods, so there seems no reason any didn't have any!

Sep 06, 2019
a desirable lifestyle choice considered trendy in mainstream culture. Indeed, Beyoncé's undertaking of a 22-day vegan challenge helped interest in veganism to explode–despite her wearing leather and fur to a restaurant during the challenge.

Every time I encounter such drivel as this article, without fail, within the first paragraph, I scroll up to confirm that it's from The Conversation.
Oh world, lament us poor suffering vegans. Why must we endure, such burden? How else, could we pat ourselves on the back and heap scorn on those murderous, meat greedy hogs.
Tell me you eat, vegan and I'll show you who you are; a witless, self aggrandizing, charlatan.

Sep 06, 2019
While it may be true that more Vegans are young and female, how does that change anything, I'm still old and male.

Julian, you are wrong, vegetarian and vegan aren't synonyms, vegetarians don't eat meat, vegans eschew all animal products, including milk and cheese.

Still I'm not offended since I assume you were talking about someone else, probably young and female, not me.

I find myself at a loss, neither identifying with the article or the negative reactions to it. I'm vegan because it was a requirement to join a vegan cycling club I was interested in. There's some kind of ethical component? Wow, ok. Oh well, carry on folks, carry on.

Sep 07, 2019
Early society was close enough to nature that everyone could hunt at least small game and fish . . . Even a goat has enough meat . . . all the meat had to be eaten at one sitting since they didn't have so many preservation methods


In most of Europe the wild game was reserved for royalty, in some areas poaching carried a death sentence.

Chickens? If you want to eat chicken once a week you need a flock of around 30 birds, and how many peasants could afford that much feed? You might slaughter a goat or pig for a fiesta or wedding, but it certainly wasn't something one ate every day or even every week.

My great-great-grandparents homesteaded in the wilds of northern Michigan, five or six days a week their diet consisted of cornmeal mush in various guises, sometimes flavored with a scrap of meat or bones. I've lived in Peru, I've seen how people eat. If you're a poor farmer you're probably mostly vegetarian

No preservation methods? Holy carp, even Neanderthals dried meat.

Sep 07, 2019
Julian, you are wrong, vegetarian and vegan aren't synonyms


Julian tends to be wrong about a lot of things.

I was a "financial vegetarian" for five years, I couldn't afford meat. Didn't miss it much. When I got my first paycheck from a new job I celebrated by eating lunch at the burger place down the street. By the time I got back to work I was so sick that I had to go home!

Sep 07, 2019
Julian tends to be wrong about a lot of things.

I was a "financial vegetarian" for five years, I couldn't afford meat. Didn't miss it much. When I got my first paycheck from a new job I celebrated by eating lunch at the burger place down the street. By the time I got back to work I was so sick that I had to go home!

Yeah, speaking of being wrong. That wasn't meat in that burger.

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