Food Militancy, and Food Moderation

In food, just like in politics, there are extremists and moderates.

There are, sadly, lots of people out there who are truly militant about what they eat--and often, equally militant about controlling what you eat. "You aren't going to buy those chicken breasts, are you? They most likely came from a CAFO that fed them antibiotics and tortured them. Oh, and that coffee you're pouring me? It better be fair trade and local."

I rarely run into militant proselytizing vegans or vegetarians, but when I do, I enjoy their company about as much as I enjoy drinking rotten mayonnaise. And keep in mind, for every militant vegan there's probably four or five steak-loving nuts who will squirt rotten mayo at you if you try to take away their meat.

So why are people so militant about their food choices?

If you were to ask my favorite psychology blogger to explain food militancy, he'd probably say that people use food--as well as control over other peoples' food--as a way to seek validation. It's a shortcut that lets us view ourselves as ethical and good. Further, it's a shortcut to finding at least some degree of meaning and control in what seems like an increasingly meaningless world.

Lisa: Oh, the earth is the best! That's why I'm a vegetarian.
Jesse: Heh. Well, that's a start.
Lisa: Uh, well, I was thinking of going vegan.
Jesse: I'm a level 5 vegan -- I won't eat anything that casts a shadow.

Here's the thing: not everyone wants to be a Level 5 Vegan. Not everybody wants to swear off meat, or sugar, or gluten, or HFCS, or carbs, or refined foods, or white foods, or cooked foods--or whatever--for the rest of their lives.

Here at Casual Kitchen, I probably have a few Level 5 Vegans among my readers. But the vast majority who visit here are normal people who have no problem eating things that cast shadows, and who have every intention to remain normal and moderate in their food choices.

So, as a food blogger who wants to help readers eat healthy and spend less money, I have a choice. I could repeatedly and forcibly persuade my readers to become vegetarian and maybe succeed in persuading 1% of them. Or, I could help the "silent majority" of my readers take the far more palatable step of switching to veggie meals just 2-3 times a week.

Which approach do you think will be more effective? Which will piss off fewer readers? Which do you think has a better chance for success? And which would result in a more significant reduction in agregate meat consumption?

The bottom line is this: there is a large, and largely silent, majority of food moderates out there that we can either 1) help motivate with our ideas, or 2) drive away if we are militant or won't concede middle ground.

In food, just like in politics, the center drives everything. If you can gently pull the center in one direction or another, you can have an enormous effect on overall eating behavior. But to attract and influence that silent center, you need to be thoughtful and reasonable, not strident, condescending, or militant. We food writers--and food readers--must grasp this.

Readers, where do you stand?

Related Posts:
Organic Food, Chemicals, and Worrying About All the Wrong Things
The Do-Nothing Brand
Understanding the Consumer Products Industry
On the Benefits of Being a Part-Time Vegetarian

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kensingtonkitchen said...

Our food purchasing/consuming guidelines are

1) Keep the price down
2) Shop at local stores
3) Replace pre-packaged/processed foods in favor of homemade (a version of Pollan's "eat anything you want if you make it yourself")

From these three guidelines, meat consumption goes down, veggie consumption goes up and we avoid fillers/presevatives/coloring. We're not concerned with organic or locally grown. We just try to support our neighborhood, eat less and eat cheap.

It works for us, and we don't beat ourselves up if we stray from the path once in a while.

Anonymous said...

I've tried vegetarianism, and it really, really doesn't work for me. Really. I know it works for a lot of others, but I find I do better health-wise with meat in my diet.

I respect that others have found the food choices that work for them and get pretty irritated if someone insists that their experience is my experience. Your mileage may vary on any particular diet.

Stuart Carter said...

those who insist on berating you for your food choices are no better than those who do the same about your political, beverage, or sports choices - they are bullies, boors, and jerks.

If someone wants to win me over they can do so by laying out *facts*, and not by concealing opinions as such.

So... when trying to persuade people to make healthier choices, provide the *facts*, lay out the impact of the choice you prefer, then stop. Allow the person you are talking with to make up their own mind. At the end of the day, I am responsible for me, not for you, and I resent it when others try to make themselves responsible for me.

summerific said...

While I'm fascinated by vegetarianism and veganism, I'm just not there. And I don't know if I ever will be. That being said, I love the wealth of information out there to help me cut back on meat and processed foods! Thanks!

chacha1 said...

I am extremely moderate. Heh. I eat everything from foie gras to spinach. If I don't eat something, it's because I don't like it, not because I have "ethical" objections to it.

I'd love to say I don't eat veal because I disagree with keeping calves in boxes, but honestly, if I liked the way it tasted I would probably eat it too.

I'm not a fan of proselytizers of any type, but my least favorite is the food proselytizer whose own choices are clearly unhealthy - the vegetarian with 30 pounds of belly fat, or the "fitness freak" who lives on Muscle Milk, or the Atkins aficionado who scoffs at all carbs.

I believe that *usually* people who are very strident about their food choices are people who feel a lack of control in other areas of their lives. People who actually feel in control and balanced generally don't feel the need to preach all the time. The preaching is more about reinforcing their own dogma than trying to educate anyone else.

Jenna said...


Moderation in all thing, including moderation.

Which to me, means - I try to buy as much local, sustainably grown/raised, healthy foods I can - but will happily treat myself to an occasional high sugar, high chocolate, gods only know grown where, treat from time to time with absolutely no guilt.

I buy local and humanly raised meat - but will eat with a smile and a grateful heart the meatloaf a friend makes from the mega-store mystery meat mix. (Granted, when the sales hit - I'll offer a trip out to the good meat market if they are interested!) I keep my grocery budget as trim as I can - but when the rare 'need' for something more exotic/expensive/esoteric hits, I don't worry too much about putting it into the cart because it's a rare treat.

And I'll even cop to being a bit of a food snob - I eat less meat for all sorts of ethically sound reasons if I wanted to "explain" myself... but at the end of the day, eating less meat and lower on the food chain more often simply translates into "Monday & Tuesday are cheaper because what I want on Wednesday is costlier". Eating more veggie means I can have 'nicer' meat meals, just less often.

So honestly - less moral, more greedy.

Rhiannon said...

So I am trying to find a place to live and I've been looking on craigslist.

One ad said (and I kid you not) "If I find non-organic food in the house I will throw it out. You're not to eat that."

Now I have a really strange diet. And I've lived with a lot of people with even stranger diets. Including people who can't even breathe gluten. Which was difficult to live with back when I ate gluten.

But I will never voluntarily even go near someone who wants to throw away my food because they know better than me what's good for me.

Autumn said...

I'm pregnant, and boy do people get preachy when being around a pregnant gal and her food choices. I'm a pretty moderate kind of girl (politically and foodily) and usually I just smile and nod. Since my position ins't their's I'm going to be wrong no matter what I do.

When our good friends went "cold turkey" vegan, they were pretty militant about it at first, but then they got over it, and now actually are only vegan at their own home, and vegetarian when out. They actually treat dairy cheese as a rare treat now and enjoy it more. It seemed like they were trying to convince themselves they were excited about being vegan, rather than convincing us.

cardamomandcastiron said...

I'm moderate now. I used to be vegan, and before that I ate plenty of meat. Now I try to eat from local, sustainable farms as much as I can but don't mind buying that box of mangos on sale from the big international grocery down the street, or the bananas for 49 cents a pound that came from... somewhere not around here. The only thing I insist upon (now) is that I know where my meat/dairy/eggs came from. I may not be veg anymore, but I still care about CAFOs. Now I do what I can, and don't fret about extremism. The end result is that we eat about 90% vegetarian and I'm happy with that.

Joanne said...

I'm seriously considering being a pescetarian for the long term but absolutely refuse to announce it on my blog because of attitudes like this. Who knows, maybe I'll really seriously be craving a steak one day and I'll make it and post about it...and I just don't want to have to answer to any of the crazies out there who'll jump down my throat about it. Instead, I'll continue to eat what I want...99% vegetarian and I won't force it down anyone's throat but my own. Seems fair, right?

Little steps are the only way to major change and I love your approach of recommending that people merely decrease the amount of meat they cook rather than get rid of it all together.

Sunny said...

Hi! New here! I've been into "Intuitive Eating" for about 6 weeks now...and am morphing it further. Through a little research, I've discovered "Flexitarianism"...basically, being mostly vegan/vegetarian, but allowing occasional meat/dairy to enter our lives. I think that's going to work best for me. But woah nelly, what an uproar it's caused already. LOL

Daniel said...

Some really interesting input so far.

One insight (thanks Stuart!) is that people often struggle to distinguish between facts and opinions, so we have an obligation to help our readers (or listeners) understand the difference.

And as Chacha says, there is nothing worse than a militant hypocrite. Except maybe Rhiannon's example of the psychotic-organic roommate. Wow. Just wow.


Lo said...

We're dabblers, so we're always in danger of offending someone.

I'm a firm believer that bodies react differently to different foods -- and that we each have to discover our own paths.

I've adopted practices from veganism, vegetarianism, macrobiotic cooking, traditional foodism, and the like... and we adopt the things that work best for us.

I definitely have opinions, and I'm always happy to share information with people who are interested, and I'll sometimes offer tips on our blog -- but I try not to be judgmental. After all, decisions about food are personal. And they shouldn't be taken lightly.

Diane said...

Food is to be enjoyed and shared with others. I eat everything in moderation, cook from scratch and don't eat processed foods if I can avoid it. I don't make food into an argument. People can eat what they like as long as they enjoy it and find that time eating enjoyable.

Sally said...

I'm moderate and tend to be suspicious of militancy -- no matter what the subject is. I do think that well-intended folks scare people off with talk of vegetarianism, veganism, clean eating and even "healthy" food. Just make tasty dishes from food -- don't advertise it as heathy or meatless or anything else. Just good food.

Chef Shawn said...

While I am a really active locavore (I hate that word, btw), and hope that some day we can get back to a more decentralized food system, I realize this isn't going to happen in the next 10-20 years. Ideally, I just want to help people make better choices, and take small steps towards better health.

Most of America is in the middle, and all the in-fighting and proselytizing pushes that middle, I think, farther away from making healthier choices. Education and moderation are, IMHO, the way we're going to get Americans to be healthier.

What a lot of militant food people don't seem to get is that their militant stance is actually pushing people away from their cause. There is a lot of middle ground where everyone could come together and educate about good choices, moderation, etc.