Every so often I hear or see veganism described as a restrictive diet. Unfortunately, this is frequently accompanied by negative assumptions regarding issues of control and mental health, but at other times, praise for the restrictions is offered; self-discipline and admiration for such a commitment to ethical principles are even envied.
Whilst the latter annoy me far less than the former, the concepts still do not sit easily with me, because I question whether restrictive is actually a suitable word to describe a vegan lifestyle. In the sense that vegans need to read lists of ingredients carefully and do not consume everything put in front of them, then yes, there are restrictions, but both philosophically and practically, abstaining from animal products can be quite liberating.
At the risk of sounding arrogant, any elements of self-sacrifice which I experienced as a new vegan quickly disappeared after I considered the suffering of non-human animals. Likewise, although it took some time to re-train my senses, so that the smell of melted cheese, and a few years earlier, bacon sandwiches, no longer made me salivate, the knowledge of how cheese and bacon are produced, and the simplicity of respecting the rights of others, mean that now, it is hard to imagine craving these foods. To me, I am no longer restricting myself from eating cheese and bacon, but rather, I'm taking a basic step towards equal rights and against abuse. Whilst new vegans do deserve recognition and encouragement as they transition and adjust to plant-based diets, the act of rejecting speciesism itself is not one deserving of ridicule, concern or admiration; it's not a restriction, but a natural step.
What about practically? Well, when I was a child, my food was mostly prepared by my mother, who was, and there isn't really a nice way to say this, a dreadful cook! My vegetables were boiled to a tasteless state, and with the occasional exceptions of pasta or a baked potato, the main event of any dinner time was a frozen pie, pizza or, 'ready meal,' heated in an oven or microwave. After giving up meat at the age of eleven, chicken pies were replaced with vegetable ones and cheese pizzas triumphed over pepperoni equivalents, and this combined with the local restaurants having offered little more than fresher versions of the same cuisine, meant that my diet remained limited and boring.
Going vegan at fifteen and having to cook for myself, I had no idea that eating pasta and beans four or five times per week need not be the norm. Prior to meeting other vegans and researching online, I didn't realise that vegetables could be fried in olive oil, or baked or grilled with spices, and I had never even heard of bulgur wheat. I almost gave up on tofu, because I was initially permitted to try it only as a meat substitute rather than exploring its many, diverse uses. I was, 'gobsmacked,' to learn that sushi is not solely fish-based, and to try risotto and cous cous for the first time. Now, over ten years later, my vegan diet is much more diverse than my omnivorous diet ever was, and whilst I still have a frozen meal such as bean burgers occasionally, I know that oven chips and boiled carrots are not the only possible side.
As a bonus, a little research and activism has made it easier to find vegan options in restaurants, whilst learning to bake brownies or biscuits to take to social events not only gives others the chance to try vegan snacks, but means that I'm less likely to spend an entire evening hungry again, fielding off questions about why I don't want to eat a mini quiche or slice of sponge cake.
So for me personally, veganism is not restrictive. It's the lifestyle I adopted because I saw no other option, not for reasons of control, discipline and sacrifice, and it was my key to the door of diverse and delicious foodstuffs. I may not eat everything offered to me, but my no means is that difficult to handle!
Photo courtesy of Curt Fleenor, used under the terms of the Creative Commons license.