Ethics, logic, health, and sustainability – But only until 6pm

I try to make it quite clear throughout this blog that I am an advocate for healthy, balanced, happy and sustainable lifestyles. I avoid extremes, I avoid rules, I hate diets and I especially hate hype. So I was really excited when the thoughtful people at Sativa Shakes contacted me to ask if I would participate in their debate around the new VB6 diet. I already had strong thoughts on the matter so got writing straight away. Please be aware that this is purely an opinion piece – my wider thoughts on the benefit of a vegan diet, and the risks associated with the consumption of animal products, can be found throughout this blog. I hope to tackle the debate from a slightly different angle than the usual pro-vegan vs anti-vegan battles, so I hope you enjoy reading this piece.

VB6 cover

Has anyone else noticed that all the latest diet trends – from what I can tell, everything that has gained popularity since summer 2012 – are based around a sort of “on and off” model? I’m talking intermittent fasting (eat nothing for two days, eat what you like for five), interval training (train at maximal intensity for short bursts, do virtually nothing in between), and now – Vegan Before 6pm.

Of course, the key to all of these programmes is that they promise big results from small commitments – and fast results in exchange for a very small amount of time spent.

I am no sociologist so I shall spare you my hypothesising on the link with divorce rates and the rise of single-parent families, economic crisis and uncertainty, unemployment, and the increase of social media and constant and immediate connectivity – but it seems we are a generation of commitment-phobes.

We know that Facebook friends aren’t real friends, that New Year’s Resolutions are made to be broken, and that crash diets are a recipe for all sorts of disasters. But we have tried over and over again to start making our own food, to shop more locally, to cut back on alcohol and saturated fats, to get into bed at a more reasonable time instead of spending an extra two hours refreshing Twitter… And we know it “just doesn’t work for me”. So every so often, some genius comes up with a new model of “Do this just a few times a week, and live the rest of your life however you want”, and we all go for it. This is why I think we are so attracted to these plans: on the one hand, we like to work for our results – we are (thankfully) suspicious of quick fixes and the promise of gaining something for nothing, we have been taught to work hard and to make sacrifices, and we like to think we have strong willpower – on the other hand, none of us have time to do everything we want to do anymore. We are all working too hard, cities are too big, we have too many friends and contacts and acquaintances and evening classes to attend. Plus, we don’t like to admit that we worry about our health, that we have no control over our weight or the bags under our eyes, and even less that we care about the environment, let alone animal welfare. So we have finally understood that a healthy, balanced, sustainable lifestyle is never going to be our priority. Add that to the education system which has taught us how to jump through hoops to generate a sense of achievement, and we have a market for the “tick-in-a-box” diet that is characteristic of these last few years.

Obviously, as somebody who makes the effort to make virtually all of my own food, to buy in bulk in advance, to train regularly and consistently, to get to sleep at the expense of answering another email, and as a vegan, this isn’t something that I sympathise with – but it is something I understand, and have to accept.

Besides, many of these theories are a great way to achieve significant results – virtually all of my training is interval-based which saves a lot of time and boredom; intermittent fasting (when done properly… but that is a whole other post for another time) has been shown to achieve startlingly positive results in a relatively achievable way for your average time-pressed career-driven commitment-phobe.

So why does Vegan Before 6 – or VB6, the acronym being a sign that this diet is most definitely a product of the 21st century – make my skin creep?

As someone who would readily and enthusiastically encourage anyone who swaps so much as a non-vegan snack for a vegan equivalent, why does it bother me that people are being encouraged to spend the majority of their day eating plants rather than animals?

I can think of just a few reasons, but they are such deeply logical reasons that I am shocked that Mark Bittman, who I held in reasonably high regard, has not worked around them.

  1. Semantics – I know you are already rolling your eyes so I won’t spend too long on this. The word “vegan” signifies someone who, according to the Vegan Society, “tries to live without exploiting animals, for the benefit of animals, people and the planet“. I apologise for the crude analogy, but if you lead a normal life six days a week, and one day on a week go on a murderous rampage, it doesn’t make you any less of a murderer. All of the other examples I can think of are equally extreme, and the fact is that vegans believe eating, using, and abusing animals is wrong. So if a “vegan” engages in this activity at any point, it renders their ideology meaningless. So while I encourage people to eat plants and plant-based meals as often as they can or want to, I will never, ever, encourage them to call themselves vegan. Apart from being borderline insulting to people like me who live their lives by these principles, how does this reflect on the validity of VB6? Well, I believe that anyone who uses the term in the context of this diet, shows so little regard for the meaning, purpose, and benefit of a plant-based diet that I would doubt how much they would gain from trying to follow it.
  2. Fashion over function – leading on from the above; people who follow this diet don’t understand what veganism means, but they want to be a part of it. This worries me. They are clearly only doing this because they have been told to, and/or because it is fashionable in some circles. Again, anyone reducing their consumption of animal products for the right reasons understands that it is something that they do consciously, swapping one choice for another, for their own reasons, and they don’t need to call it anything. Those who need to be given a book and a label, well… They’ll be buying the next book that their favourite celebrity endorses.
  3. Sustainability – I don’t understand how any of the above adds up to a sustainable diet. If you don’t understand why you eat a certain way, you won’t keep doing it when times are a little harder – when you are stressed, tired, hungry, out in the cold with no other options, in a bar with work colleagues to whom you are embarrassed to explain that you don’t want to eat animals. And the problem is that the commitment-phobes tend to adopt the “all or nothing” attitude (hence why they are afraid of commitment – they are scared of a small failure which would mean they would have to give up everything they had committed themselves to thus far) – so once the VB6 model is broken, it’s just another failed diet.

I am so surprised that Mark Bittman has come out with this, as he understand sustainability. He has turned a really good message, “Swap animals for plants whenever and however you can”, into yet another superficial claim, “Do this and you will finally be a better person”.

This not only dilutes the message of veganism, it clouds people’s understandings of what it takes to build a healthy lifestyle, and diverts their attention from the issues that need fixing such as, Why do we not have time for the things we know matter?, Why can we not commit to the issues we care about?, and Why do we care what other people think about what we eat and how we live our lives?.

I think that is the core of why reading about VB6 – it is turning veganism into a fad diet, whilst also creating a new fad diet. It is the (unfortunately more literal than proverbial) snake which eats the alligator and explodes. There is nothing wrong with the diet itself – I cannot make that any clearer – but there is everything wrong with the promotion of it.

Of course, this is the view of a vegan. I am virtually certain that every other vegan in the world would agree with me, but what do the non-vegans out there think? Drop me and/or Sativa Shakes a line to let us know! And if you are a vegan who doesn’t agree with me, please do let me know also!

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2 thoughts on “Ethics, logic, health, and sustainability – But only until 6pm

  1. Alex says:

    Hi Claire,

    This is an interesting blog. There’s a lot I agree with here, and just so that people know I am a non-vegan. Firstly, your bit about our desire for quick fixes, too many ‘commitments’ (yet because we have so many we can remain uncommitted to any of them and thus avoid any deep, meaningful progress in any of these areas) is spot on. There is a dominant culture at the moment (at least as far as I see it) that promotes a superficial approach to life with very little focus. I am someone who wants to do it all, there’s so many thing I would like to do, achieve and see in my life but the most important thing I have learnt over the last 2 years is that in order to really experience anything and to really achieve anything you have to focus. So that means filtering out the things that you’d like to do and only pursuing the things that you feel like you have to pursue. Otherwise I would be like many others out there, just drifting from one thing to another without ever really giving anything a real go. I’m digressing slightly here, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently, and I can’t remember who said this, but it was said in the early 20th century by an American, he was worried that people are losing their ability to discern differences in feel, touch, sight, smell, taste etc. And I think that is down to the same thing you are saying – which I suppose can be summarised by saying that we are too concerned with quantity over quality nowadays…

    So then, the VB6 diet, yes you are right the flavour of the month is definitely do what you like for X . As you say, it appeals to our current demands of non-commital relationships, we want to be able to do whatever we want most of the time (even though I think most people spend little of their time doing what they actually want…), it’s certainly an easy sell at the moment. I like Mark Bittman too, he says a lot of good things, and the development of Meatless Mondays, people eating less meat etc. is in part down to his work in popularising these things. Being a non-vegan I was interested to read that being vegan is more than just a choice of how to eat, it’s a choice of how to live – I mean I knew that but don’t always put the two together. So by that definition, I can see why vegans in particular might be offended by his use of VB6. On the other hand, I am all for people doing things gradually so that they can become sustainable habits over time. Maybe this provides that? I’m not sure.

    On the whole I’m not a fan of diets like this – they are fads that will pass, and like you say it gives people a way of saying “oh being vegan? Yeah I’ve done that it doesn’t work for me…” when in reality they haven’t fully committed to being a vegan. This is a latest trend that will inevtiably die out shortly (last year it was all about the Dukan diet) so it’s a shame that Mark has gone for this approach as well – may well be that the marketing company have persuaded him this way? At the end of the day I’m all for getting these ideas out there into the mainstream but it has to be done in the right way. There’s a balance that must be met where you appeal to people enough so that they try it but in the process you don’t ‘sell out.’ It can be tricky.

    Finally, and I haven’t fully looked into the diet yet, can people just go wild after 6pm and eat/drink whatever they like?! In which case that would defeat the object of eating healthily all day…

    I should end my comment here, because it’s turning into a mini-blog but yes on the whole I agree with what you are saying here! Great blog!

    • greatveganexpectations says:

      Thanks Alex 🙂 I’m glad you see where I am coming from – it would be too easy to demonise VB6, to point the finger and draw the line between “them” and “us” when in reality than won’t help anyone. It’s really good to hear your view as a non-vegan, so thank you very much for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

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