Veganism | The Limitation of Labels

Photo | Scotto Kim

Photo | Scotto Kim



Words | Zachary Koval


You are what you eat.

But in the eyes of much of the world, if you’re vegan, you are what you don’t eat. The conversations and questions around veganism often revolve around, “What can and can’t you eat?”

My answer?  Anything I like. 

It’s not a question of can or can’t, but of choice. The distinction is both subtle and profound. In a world of should and shouldn’t, rules rule all and guilts abound. 

Everyone is on a diet. Paleo. South Beach. Low fat. No fat. Jenny Craig -- is that still a thing? All with restrictions and rites around what one is allowed to eat. And the thing with diets is they don’t work. The sheer force of will and the guilt and shame agents only produce results until one falls off the wagon. That’s why diets have cheat days -- to allow us to loosen the pressure release valve to let out the steam that builds up over a week of dieting. 

The rules and restrictions of diets are outside-imposed. Even when self-determined, they imply a need to restrain a part of ourselves that’s seen as out of control. Whereas a lifestyle contains choices coming from an internal sense of integrity and responsibility, rules cage us in and don’t allow us to trust ourselves. Personal choices set us free to allow autonomy and self-respect.

The dictionary defines “vegan” as one who does not eat or use animal products. Defined in the negative. 

When has abstinence ever been appealing?

Personally, the thought that I can’t have something invites the toddler inside me to stubbornly want it more. So in a world of can and can’t, I either ignore the impulse by willing it away or give into the craving and feel the guilt of breaking a rule. Neither is a sustainable option.

Change can come about in two ways -- by force or by choice. With force, we have will (our own and other’s) and guilt. These two tools may produce a change with more speed than personal choice, but with an equal amount of burnout. Choice can be a slower option as it works one step or decision at a time, but also builds within itself, or oneself, a self-sustaining fire and drive.

The label, “vegan,” is used to denote one who steps away from the carnivore cultural norms of consuming animals for food, clothing, entertainment, or any purpose other than the animal’s own inherent purpose of living. As with any label, it creates a line. This is what a vegan is, this is what it’s not. 

The “vegan” label created a movement. It built awareness, it named and opened eyes to a belief system within our culture. And as a culture, even those who consider themselves #NeverVegan are seeing choice where none was before. To consume. Or not to consume. To eat or not to eat.

The label also created a slight paradox of Zeno’s proportions, as all labels do. What does it mean to be vegan? If vegan is a noun or a thing then one either is, or is not. Black or white. Good or bad. Ethical or not ethical. But the world is much more nuanced than that. 

Vegans come in all shapes and sizes and with varying internal guidelines and motivations. Health focused, environmentally focused, for the animals, for the people -- with endless combinations and variables therein.

What begins to shift when we view the world (and eating) from a platform of choice? When we see veganism as a framework and journey rather than a final destination. The means versus the ends. Choosing to take a deeper stand within ourselves to be aligned with our own values and beliefs, whatever they may be.

If I choose to have a cookie, I accept my decision and any consequences (positive or negative) of that choice. I ask myself if it’s in alignment with what I want for myself and from the world, rather than if it follows some contrived, prescribed commandment that I’m told to follow.

Perhaps it’s time to open up the doors of our “members only” vegan club, dispose of the hard rules, provide guidance along the way, and allow one’s process to unfold naturally. 

Everyone going vegan cold-turkey (cold-tofu?) would be great, amazing, and something that most vegans wish would happen, but not something that is going to happen tomorrow. Or the next day. And even if it did, we’d have a large number of “ex-vegans” a week later, their wills exhausted. What if we instead allow people their process and extend the compassion we show to non-human-animals to human animals and witness our journey within them? 

There was a time before I was vegan, a time before I was vegetarian. To get from there to being vegan for eight years has been a journey of steps and choices. One choice at a time, one step at a time.

Each bite or purchase becomes an opportunity to choose, invite pride, and reinforce one’s own personal values. 

I not only am what I eat, but now I eat what I am.


top 5 - Protein Power Veggies


1-cup, cooked (18g protein)



1/2 cup (9g protein)



1/2 cup, cooked (7.6g protein)



1/2 cup, cooked (7.3g protein)



1/4 cup (7g protein)


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