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Being vegan is hard

Cognitive load, negative emotions and choice

By The Food GuyPublished about a year ago 6 min read
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Vegan meal - miso & peanut butter roasted aubergine, seasoned potato wedges and salad.

Being Vegan

Being vegan for 4 years is exhausting.

I started this challenge by learning about nutrition, food processing and labelling. Preparing to answer questions like: why don't you just eat meat/real food? And, why call vegan food meat names? Followed by “Where do you get your proteins?” and “Animals die because of you during harvesting, how are you still vegan?” Topped with “Plants can feel pain too” and “Bacteria are alive and you eat millions of those in one spoon of kimchi, murderer.” I made the last one up but you got the feel of the carnivore status quo.

In the meantime, I would regularly have to use extra brain powers to search for options in restaurants and shops and apply my deduction to figure out if I can eat certain things, especially when unlabelled. New options on the menus are always a puzzle that needs solving - I’m looking at you, hummus burger. Is hummus a sauce or a main ingredient in this case, and most importantly WHY?! With trivial personal struggles to say extra words, vegan-this and vegan-that, explaining my beliefs and making myself heard at the expense of annoying everyone around me.

Is it worth it? Is being vegan worth the continuous struggle of learning, talking and living an empathetic and kinder life?

Cognitive Load

Cognitive load is a concept of how brains are adapted to accept and learn, process and retrieve information from memory. Understanding cognitive load theory is essential for teachers and students to learn in the quickest and simplest way. Everyone benefits from better focus, minimising distractions and using appropriate information pathways.

In my experience vegans routinely require to use a higher cognitive load. In other words, to be vegan we have to remember to check the labels, ask questions, remember what products we can and cannot have, restrict certain cravings and focus on both the taste and nutrition.

For a person like myself, who likes all fruits and vegetables, eating a balanced vegan diet is no trouble at all. However, for someone with particular aversions and preferences, veganism causes headaches at every meal.

Based on the cognitive load theory information for learning needs to be presented in a simple way - shown, pictured, described and discussed without distractions, and where possible repeated with previously known information to cement a second layer of memories on the foundation.

I have to spend extra “brain power” to remember what I eat and don't eat, where to find all of the information and how to sort through it, and when it comes to judgement I have to be bold and brave, and then make the choice that satisfies my needs. And when something I know changes, the product reformulation or change in the menu, I cognitively speaking, have to learn everything again. Every time I am in the supermarket I need to find where the plant-based products moved, navigate through complex layouts of unsustainable products through the unreasonably priced stuff, and God forbid I encounter someone, tell them that I am vegan.

Dealing with negative emotions

How can I not sound difficult if I need to know more and ask more of others, where their cognitive load increases to meet my needs?

Having to do extra work is always associated with negative headspace. I imagine it as uncomfortable as learning a new thing or solving an unexpected puzzle. And I am the riddler. It means that for the goal of being empathetic and kind, I have to be unkind to people on a regular basis. This is a very common vegan cognitive dissonance.*

*Cognitive dissonance - It’s an uncomfortable state of mind when someone has contradictory values, attitudes, or perspectives about the same thing. The degree of discomfort varies with the subject matter, as well as with how well the person copes with self-contradiction. - psychiatrist Grant H. Brenner MD, FAPA, co-founder of Neighborhood Psychiatry, in Manhattan

Easing the load

Here is the fun part, how do I deal with the never-ending scrutinising vegan questions and make it out of the cognitive trap?

I prepare for the questions. And at the time of answering, I ask myself whether the person wants and needs to hear the truth or should share my pain. In the end, there is no difference between them asking me difficult questions and me asking them if they have even thought about what they are saying. I have to disregard ignorance until they are ready to learn. I want people to become vegan and live consciously, yet I need to make sure they choose that. If I am going to invest energy beyond what I already do to maintain my position, I have to prepare all parties for a game of cognitive loads and dissonances.

Learning and knowing my values is the most important factor in elevating personal pain and the pain of complex answers. My wisdom will come at the price of listening. Until then we will have to accept the bearable level of discomfort in dealing with other people’s beliefs.

The moral implication of choice

Being vegan is as hard and as easy as you want it to be. It’s a worldview based on carefully distilled values that can be followed to achieve inner peace, learn more about the world, and make it a better place for everyone. Here is a definition of veganism provided by the vegan society - "Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals."

Note that it is a philosophy, first, and a way of living, second. To me, it means that thinking and answering the hard questions yourself is necessary. Thinking, talking and debating it’s a worthwhile goals to elevate the lives of animals and humans alike. I must use my brain to identify the ways animals are exploited and suffering, question current beliefs and systems, and stop it whenever possible. In this way, I will start living the idea that I have developed. I will look at the practical ways I can stop exploitation and suffering, and I will commit to building my life around my moral choice. Sharing the answers with those who seek new perspectives.

The perspective

In conclusion, I think being vegan is as hard as you make it be. The cognitive load eases with time yet parts of it never go away. Travelling, and dealing with people of different generations and cultures never gets easier as our beliefs clash and we come to a standstill disagreement. At the same time, understanding someone else as I want to be understood, is the first step to removing the pain barrier. After that, I choose to follow my truths and seek understanding, and the way to do that is to ease the cognitive load of others when they are ready to learn more about the current state of veganism and by extension sustainability, moral choices, health and the future of food.

I think it is easy to agree that if animals are suffering and feel as we do, it is worth a proper try to reduce their pain. Like we reduce ours.

If I am able to have thoughts about the suffering of others. When pain is real, it is my responsibility to act with respect to those thoughts. The hard part is to make every choice fit the belief system I chose. I think they are the right choices and it’s easy for me to wake up every day and find practical ways to implement them.

-TheFoodGuy (find more on - FoodEdd.com)

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About the Creator

The Food Guy

I read about food politics like it's a Harry Potter.

Eating my way through culture and cooking up the future.

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