“It’s not a phase, it’s a lifestyle”

Whether it be for aesthetic, health or moral reasons, many of us have thought about changing our diets. Changes can be hard to commit to and external temptations certainly don’t help. Ever had that drunk friend who stretched cheat day by proposing Kapsalon at 3am? Or remember that holiday where you just had to try the wonderful traditional cuisine, hunting for delicious saturated fats, ignoring the disservice to your own body? Food is great and it floods your brain with endorphins, brings people together and feeds nostalgia.

Anything to do with food should be light-hearted and fun, but what happens when your diet clashes with your culture and traditions?

Traditional cuisine is an integral aspect of many cultures and some people don’t take kindly to questioning or modifying it, something I learned the hard way.

In my early teens, I swapped my Mediterranean diet for vegetarianism. I continued to consume animal products daily but for ethical reasons I chose to not eat meat. My aunt felt the need to question me continuously about my choices: “what about protein?” or “you can’t supplement all your needs with pills.”

This came from a place of love, a fear that I would suddenly collapse to the ground due to a supposed “lack of nutrients’’. But the constant questioning made me feel uncomfortable and patronised and I reverted  to a Mediterranean diet. Essentially, I gave into peer pressure.

Having failed miserably on my first attempt, I was curious to know how my friends dealt with the transition to veganism, and how they confronted this peer pressure. I asked two friends who practice a vegan lifestyle to share their experiences and insights, as well any tips and tricks on how to respect culinary traditions whilst staying true to your own beliefs.

Of Turkish descent, Serra was only 14 when she became a vegan. Coming from a huge meat and fish-eating culture, her family was very resistant to letting her change her diet in such a significant way. Her mother eventually agreed to a one-month trial, after which Serra would have to get her blood drawn to make sure all of her stats were in order.

One month later her blood work came back close to perfect.

“My results came back significantly better than my brother’s,” she jokes.

Though she was in perfect health and was feeling great about her new lifestyle, she quickly realized that being the only vegan in a meat-eating household was starting to take its toll. She was teased and provoked by her brother and family members. To this day, four years later, she still struggles.

Oda transitioned from vegetarianism to veganism over the past year. Oda first became vegetarian while living in Norway and found the transition harder than expected. “My country is wonderful, it is extremely modern and progressive under many aspects, but it is curious to see that, when it comes to alternative diets such as vegetarianism or veganism, the process of making vegan-friendly foods readily available to the public seems to be slower than in other european countries”.

In her experience, most people from her hometown have little knowledge about veganism, which makes it hard for aspiring vegans to be understood and respected. Many people assume it is just a phase. Oda responds, “it’s not a phase, it’s a lifestyle that puts compassion and understanding first”.

Though there are many alternative diets, few have attracted the levels of attention veganism has in the last 20 years.

In many cultures of the world, elders prepare traditional dishes to be shared and enjoyed by family, friends and sometimes entire villages. So how do vegans approach situations where their diet might be seen as uncomfortable or problematic?

To refuse meals may be considered ungrateful or disrespectful. Most of us have been invited over to dinner with a friend and discovered that the meal their grandfather took ages to make is something you straight up don’t like.  Most rebellious guests are judged for being picky-eaters, but what if it is your morality at stake?

Considering the prevalence of animal products in most cuisines, how do you reconcile veganism with culture? Both Serra and Oda have encountered uncomfortable situations where they were judged for their dietary choices. Both agree that, regardless of your own views, it is important to be respectful of other people’s opinions. But these opinions will not stop them from standing up for what they believe in.

On their journey to veganism, Serra and Oda have developed different strategies to counter peer pressure and ignorance.

Serra, a vegan since the age of 14, has grown accustomed to criticism regarding her diet and usually lets it slide. Most of the criticism comes from her extended family but because she knows Turkish culture might view her diet as odd or unhealthy, she tries not to take misguided criticism personally. She doesn’t wish to hurt anyone’s feelings by refusing to eat home-cooked meals, so she sometimes  chooses to keep the peace by telling a half truth:

“I just tell them that I am allergic to meat! ironically, no one ever questions your choice in diet when it seems to be recommended by a doctor. In a way it is true: if I were to consume animal products after all these years it would undoubtedly make me feel ill.”

On the other hand Oda, , having been a vegan for about a year, is eager to share her new experiences with others, though she knows there might be a backlash. She is in love with her new lifestyle and isn’t afraid to let others know. She tries to inform those who are curious and stands up to those who criticise. To both the curious and the critics she says:

“Veganism is a lifestyle that puts compassion and understanding first. I have no interest in making others feel bad about their choices, I just wish for people to be more respectful of mine.”