Why Do Vegans Stop Being Vegan?

Why Do Vegans Stop Being Vegan?

Another high-profile vegan, Alex O’Connor aka Cosmic Skeptic has publicly walked away from veganism. He is just the latest in a long line of vocal vegan advocates — including Jon Venus, Ellen DeGeneres, Yovana Mendoza, Miley Cyrus, Alyse Parker, and Tim Shieff — to publicly perform a u-turn. So, what makes people change their minds and start consuming animal products they had previously, and very publicly, denounced? And do their reasons stand up to scrutiny? 

Alex O’Connor, Former Vegan

Alex O’Connor is a philosopher who has long been outspoken about the need to treat nonhuman animals as morally worthy beings whose interests ethically matter. As a vegan, he truly practiced what he preached, but then in February 2023, he made a surprise statement “re-evaluating [his] ethical position” and saying he had struggled to maintain a healthy plant-based diet.

Citing these two reasons, but giving very little detail about either, he apologized — not to the animals whose lives he is now willing to sacrifice — but to the people he may have inspired to boycott this violent industry. 

Did Alex O’Connor’s Health Suffer?

In his statement, O’Connor gave no information about the health struggles he cited, and we have no idea of any symptoms or deficiencies, which makes his reasoning so vague that we cannot refute it. This may or may not be deliberate, but it is certainly convenient. He knows that a well-planned vegan diet is suitable for all stages of life, including infancy and pregnancy — something that has been verified by the British Dietetic Association, the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, Dietitians of Canada, and the New Zealand Ministry of Health, amongst others. He knows that many doctors and high-performance athletes – from ultrarunners to bodybuilders – are vegan for their health. He knows that a vegan diet has been shown to protect against heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. He also knows that a molecule is a molecule: your body does not care whether the omega-3 it just absorbed originated from algae, walnuts, or the flesh of a suffocated fish unable to evade the dragnet. Suffering is not an ingredient, nor is it a nutrient.

And so, Alex must know that were he to specify a diet-related ailment from which he had suffered, or a nutrient he believed he was unable to find, MDs, dieticians, and other medical experts would be quite able to offer remedies or recipes which did not require animal exploitation. 

Alex O’Connor’s View of Animals

The language used by O’Connor in his statement is particularly revealing. The animals he has been eating “primarily but not exclusively” are animals who lived in water, but O’Connor uses the euphemism “seafood” instead. Why would he do that? 

1.   This term classifies aquatic animals as ‘food’, pre-emptively legitimizing their exploitation and consumption by definition;

2.   It obscures the individuals who are tortured and killed, keeping their lives and experiences distant from our awareness and therefore absent from our ethical decisions.

These combine to strip the practice of killing ocean wildlife of an otherwise obvious ethical dimension. O’Connor’s objective seems not to build a moral justification for animal exploitation, but to avoid the inconvenience of having to morally justify his actions at all.

In short, O’Connor is known for his logical approach to moral philosophy, but instead of using logic to put forward an argument, he is using language to conceal the absence of one.

Tying Himself In Knots

O’Connor states that his opposition to factory farming remains unchanged, as do his views that nonhuman animals are “morally worthy beings whose interests ethically matter”. We note that in his statement, he avoids altogether the sticky issue of the throat-cutting, blood-spilling, and life-taking, and focuses on factory farms, claiming that being vegan may not be the best way to end them. Even if he is right, does that justify our participation in them? 

Take the example of shoplifting. We may have boycotted theft our entire lives, and yet some people continue to steal. Are we therefore justified in shoplifting? Most people would reply ‘of course not’. They would say we choose not to shoplift, not to prevent others from doing it, but simply because we know it to be wrong. The same is true of animal cruelty. The difference is that we have already criminalized shoplifting, whereas animal cruelty on farms, fishing boats, and in slaughterhouses remains legal. But – as he knows – legal does not mean moral.

Doing the right thing might be unfashionable, and it may place you in the minority, but it still remains the right thing to do.

Alex O’Connor Is Wrong: Boycotting Animal Products Works

As for whether boycotts are effective, we should start by considering why animal exploitation happens in the first place: because human decisions create the demand for it. It exists because we pay for it to exist. If we stop paying for it, then it stops.

We should also be clear that boycotts work by motivating the targets of boycotts to protect their reputations, rather than by simply threatening their revenue. As a result, over the past decades we have seen industry-wide welfare improvements for farmed animals, as well as research, innovation, and massive investment in plant-based alternatives by the food industry. Huge wins for the vegan movement abound: battery cage bans, fur farm bans, gestation crate bans, new legal protections for animals, legal recognitions of animal sentience, mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses. The list goes on, in countries all over the world.

The boycott isn’t just about directly changing industry practice, either. It’s about normalizing a way of life which avoids animal cruelty, thereby making ethical living more accessible for ever-larger numbers of people. Vegan alternatives are now more abundant and accessible than at any point in history, with an estimated 5-6 million people having taken part in Veganuary to date.

Contrary to his claim, it seems we are actually rather effective when we boycott animal products.

Jon Venus: The Center of His Own World?

Venus made his name as a bodybuilder and stated that his adoption of an animal-free diet was a moral decision. He was, in his own words, an “ethical vegan”. In 2020, after six years of eating ethically, he decided to abandon his principles and “face the reality of the food I felt was healing me and my family.”

We notice the word ‘felt’. A nutritionist could have advised Venus how to obtain healthy, life-affirming foods that would nurture him and his family without adding to the suffering in the world or compromising the ethics he claimed were his.

Instead, he went hunting and slaughtered a reindeer. He says: “As I cut, ripped, broke & left the cadaver behind in the mountains, I felt no shame, guilt or sense of wrongdoing (as I was expecting). Getting intimate with the blood and flesh of the animal felt natural and peaceful, I remember a deep sense of gratitude for the animal and the sustenance it will provide my family.”

Strangely, at no point, does this former “ethical vegan” discuss ethics; he just centers himself and expresses his own feelings. But being ethical means thinking of others and considering their interests, not just posting a picture of their blood on your hands for likes. Venus says he eats meat every day and lots of it, but he kept his ‘compassion’ tattoo because he loves animals. He says eating animals is ethical because “death is a necessary part of living” which is absurd if we just took a moment to apply that idea to killing people. But then this former “ethical vegan” seems less interested in ethical and logical justifications, and more interested in serving his own desires. 

Ellen DeGeneres: ‘No Real Reason’ for Harming Animals

There seemed to be no real reason for DeGeneres eating animals again after eight years as a vegan. She said that as a vegan: “I was healthier than I’d ever been, I loved being vegan. But in the last year or two for no real reason, I started eating a piece of fish once in a while. Or I’ll eat eggs from chickens I know – if they are in someone’s backyard or are happy.”

We have some questions… Do the chickens being happy matter more than the fish being happy? And how do you know that the birds who laid those eggs are happy when companies such as Happy Eggs keep their birds in appalling conditions like this?

Telling ourselves that at least some of the products we consume did not lead to the harm and deaths of animals ignores the experience of all the other animals we did harm. It’s human nature to think of ourselves as kind beings but to focus only on the happy animals and gloss over all the others is self-delusional. How would this work as mitigation: “I only killed six of the people I saw that day; the others went on to live very happy lives.” 

One issue DeGeneres did raise was how hard it was to order vegan food in restaurants. But she is Ellen DeGeneres! Calling ahead and asking for a vegan meal – or even asking for adaptations at the time – would certainly have yielded the results she wanted. In fact, it works for most of us who are not Ellen DeGeneres! But, how much easier it is to eat a piece of a fish (we say this on purpose instead of ‘a piece of fish’, as she states) than to have your assistant make that call.

Yovana Mendoza: Peddling Extreme Diets 

“Rawvana” Mendoza’s online shtick was to promote a highly restrictive rawfood vegan diet that was making her so sick she stopped having periods. She included dangerous practices like 25-day water fasts, and was recklessly extolling the virtues of eating this way to millions of people while charging $99 for her “detox plan”. Unsurprisingly, neither she nor anyone else – including Tim Shieff who went on a 40-day water fast and drank his own urine, then claimed he felt so unwell he had to eat fish – could remain healthy like this.

Instead of seeking nutritional advice about how to eat a properly balanced whole food plant-based diet – which has all the nutrients we need – and apologizing to others who may have similarly become ill from following her extreme practices, Mendoza started eating fish and eggs, while still pretending not to. When caught out, she claimed doctors had advised her to eat animal products and then rebranded to focus on self-acceptance. The clue here may be the word “self”.

Mendoza’s veganism was purely focussed on herself: not just how foods made her feel, but how (pretending to) eat a certain way brought her financial rewards. Veganism is not just about ourselves but about others too, but Mendoza did not mention the animals whose lives she was taking (just the fats or iron she needed from their bodies) nor did she mention the planetary impacts of her choices. 

Miley Cyrus: Publicity Is Everything

Cyrus was so certain that she would be vegan for life that she got the Vegan Society’s sunflower logo tattooed on her inner arm. That was in 2014 but by 2020, with millions more people becoming vegan and it being easier than ever to pick up delicious convenient vegan foods all around the world, she chose to appear on the high-profile and controversial Joe Rogan podcast to explain why she was no longer vegan. 

Like O’Connor, she cited her health, and specifically that she was experiencing mental fatigue. What she didn’t say – also like O’Connor – was whether she had sought sound nutrition and medical advice from appropriate and credible sources. Instead, she ate a fish and said she felt better, almost immediately, just as Alyse Parker said she woke up the morning after eating meat for the first time in years “feeling more mentally clear, focused, wholesome, and healthy than I had felt in years.” But only placebos work this fast; it takes a little longer for nutrition to impact our physical or mental health.

Perhaps most shocking was Cyrus’s claim that because she cares for a number of animals, she is doing all she needs to do for animals. “Hey, I saved 40, so I can kill however many I like” is hardly an ethical position for this former ethical vegan. 

Setting Fires On Their Way Out

One thing unites these former vegans, and that is instead of admitting they did not seek medical or nutritional advice, or that they could no longer be bothered to seek out vegan foods, or that they just wanted to eat animals again, they instead make very public proclamations about how veganism is too hard, or no longer supports their ethical beliefs, or that it is not possible to be a healthy vegan.

In short, they excuse their own personal decisions by encouraging others to also abandon an ethical, healthy, environmentally friendly way of eating by telling them it cannot be sustained. At GenV, we fully understand that vegans may make mistakes, slip up occasionally, and give in to cravings. We know that the transition to veganism can take time, and that it is not always easy because animal products are ubiquitous, and their marketing by a multi-trillion dollar industry is relentless. 

However, we cannot understand why those who have spoken out against the oppressive and unjust systems of exploiting and killing animals do their best to ensure others either abandon those convictions too, or are dissuaded from making important changes in their own lives.

Four Lessons We Have Learned From These Former Vegans 

  1. When coming to veganism, it’s important to find a reason that does not only center ourselves. Our own health matters, of course, but if no one else matters, it is easy to justify the horrors of factory farming, deep sea trawling, and slaughter simply because we get what we want. Instead, we urge people to cultivate a broad and considered compassion. When we see how our dietary choices affect other beings (both human and nonhuman) and our planet, and we make our decisions accordingly, then we are truly acting ethically.
  2. Do not trust health or nutrition advice from influencers, even if they seem convincing. Mendoza was pushing a restrictive raw food diet on people even after she was so malnourished her periods had stopped. Instagram is not real and influencers often say anything at all if it brings them attention and makes them money. There are plenty of excellent vegan doctors and nutritionists who can offer practical advice and resources to help us stay healthy.
  3. Veganism is an important ethical position; it is not a fashion statement or something to shout about when it is new and unique and then be dumped when everyone is doing it. The animals incarcerated inside farms, our ever-heating planet, and the multiple emerging health crises all require us to be as vegan as possible. The more vegans there are, the kinder, healthier, and safer our societies will be.
  4. Be honest with yourself and others. If you miss meat, dairy, eggs or any products made with them, it is OK to say that. But please don’t hide your own cravings or preferences behind a sweeping (and incorrect) statement that it is not possible to be a healthy vegan. Because it absolutely is. And if one day you choose to no longer be vegan, please don’t encourage others not to try. For the sake of animals and our Earth, we must all be encouraged and supported to do all that we can, even if we cannot do it perfectly.

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