When asked what he eats, the host of NPR’s Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam, laughed that it’s unfortunate he’s a vegetarian. He described a reputable study that found it’s not just sitting together while eating that engenders trust and cooperation, as important as that is. It turns out that trust amplifies when we’re all eating the same foods.
Of course, the odds that a vegetarian or vegan will be eating the same foods as everyone else aren’t great. No wonder Vedentam laughed at the irony. As a vegetarian, he’s not exactly poised to maximize trust and cooperation by sharing the same food with his colleagues and friends. And for vegans and other plant-based eaters, it can be even more of a challenge.
Sharing Food with Others: The Good and Bad
As Alice Julier observes in her book, Eating Together: Food, Friendship, and Inequality, sharing food is often a crucial component of all kinds of gatherings, from political campaigns to union drives to religious events. Whether conscious of it or not, these organizations are creating feelings of connection and solidarity through the sharing of meals.
But when you don’t eat the same as other people do, these situations can prove isolating rather than uniting. And even more so if your dietary preferences are outed and people hesitate to invite you either out of a sense of guilt or exclusion since “there’s nothing you can eat.”
In situations where camaraderie and cohesion have already been established, differences in food choices are usually more navigable. Your friends and family love you, and while they may not understand your choice to avoid or limit certain foods, they probably aren’t going to stop loving you because of it.
Our closest friends and family may know about our distinctive food choices, and they may have even accepted them and adapted to them on our behalf. Perhaps they have gone so far as to join us in eating some of the same foods, or maybe they are always sure to provide food options that work for us when we join them in a meal.
But our business contacts, colleagues, and new acquaintances don’t know how we eat unless and until we tell them. And it can feel fraught to do so, especially if our diet is radically different from the standard American diet (SAD) or the animal product-laden foods that are the norm in many countries and cultures around the world.
Navigating Food Choices and Feelings
Years ago, when I ate the SAD diet, meal invitations were easy to say yes to and easy to show up for. In fact, I often felt some excitement knowing that I’d get to try a new dish and enjoy the connection and bonding that results when people come together to share food. But that was when I ate like most other people.
Of course, sharing my food choices is a risky endeavor because others can feel like I’m looking down on them for not doing what I do. I can’t tell you how often people say to me that just because they eat animals doesn’t mean they don’t love animals.
What I’ve come to see is that while I’m feeling self-conscious, and sometimes even lonely in my food choices, those around me are often experiencing guilt and even shame for theirs. The truth is that many people don’t feel great about the food they eat or how much of it they choose to consume. In fact, according to a 2019 survey, nearly a third of all food Americans eat makes them feel guilty.
Realizing how many people feel self-conscious about their food choices gives me more compassion and understanding in regard to why they might not always be fully supportive of mine. In the moment, they very likely have a subconscious desire for me to eat the same foods as them, so they won’t feel so bad about what they’re eating. They may feel that if I join them in eating those foods, they will be better able to enjoy those foods.
Now that I eat differently, a simple invitation to eat together can send me into a nervous tailspin, as I try to figure out how I’m going to navigate this ancient ritual of “breaking bread” together. Especially because some people can be downright hostile about plant-based eaters.
The Reality of the “Lonely Vegan”
While writing this, I hopped over to my Facebook page and was horrified to see a recent post from a colleague, quoting Anthony Bourdain: “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”
To my horror, a hateful volley of comments ensued as the omnivores applauded Bourdain and attacked a lone vegan with the audacity to join the conversation. This post came from someone I know and have networked with. I literally felt sick to my stomach with shock and grief. But it was also a teaching moment because it helped me see that those feelings of loneliness and isolation don’t occur in a vacuum.
And by the way, that obnoxious quote from Bourdain appears in his book, Kitchen Confidential, where it is immediately followed by this sentence: “But as a professional, the post punk concept of vegetarianism as a dietary alternative was always an interesting one to me.”
Bourdain was a chef and television personality who was known for his unfiltered and provocative opinions. But he acknowledged the importance of vegetarian and vegan diets and respected those who chose to follow them. In some of his interviews and writings, he said that he understood the ethical and environmental reasons behind vegetarianism and recognized that vegetarian dishes could be creative and delicious.
But it can be lonely being a vegan or a vegetarian. Research has linked loneliness to dietary restrictions of any kind, whether due to food allergies, religious prohibitions, weight reduction, vegetarianism, veganism, or anything else. Even children with food allergies can experience isolation due to their food restrictions. About one-third of all children with food allergies experience bullying just because they don’t eat the same foods as other kids.
So, despite the heartwarming reality that plant-based options have enjoyed a dramatic recent surge in popularity, plant-based eaters can still navigate feelings of loneliness and isolation. There are often threads expressing that sense of isolation on Reddit and Facebook groups with the words “lonely vegan” in the title.
So what can whole foods, plant-based eaters do?
Leading by Example
In general, I prefer to live by example. And hopefully, my health and vitality will speak for themselves.
As I age, it seems that my diet and lifestyle are enabling me to avoid many of the chronic health conditions that impact my friends and colleagues — even those who are ten to twenty years younger than I. It’s sad for me to witness their decline when I know that changing their diet would make a huge difference in their health, quality of life, and longevity.
But I also know that they know, or will soon learn, that I eat very differently than they do. I would rather allow them to come to me to ask how I am achieving my good health and emotional well-being than to preach at them and risk adding to their suffering by creating even more feelings of shame.
Even when people do seem genuinely curious to learn, sadly, the truth is not always greeted with enthusiasm. I’m thinking of one family member who wanted to know the details of my diet, so she could also enjoy the same good health. But when I shared my food choices with her, she quickly realized she was not ready to give up some of her favorite foods. And sadly, she continued to get sicker and sicker.
I also know that allowing those I love the dignity of their own choices is important, both to preserve our connection and to respect their decisions about their bodies — just as I wish for them to respect mine.
Eating with Others Is Beneficial to Your Health
What’s most important to remember is that there are advantages to eating together even if you don’t consume the same foods.
It’s well-established that social bonding is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. As research from The Big Lunch and University of Oxford’s Professor of Psychology, Robin Dunbar, illustrates, social eating boosts happiness, feelings of well-being, and one’s overall satisfaction with life. In fact, research has shown that having a good social support network is every bit as impactful as giving up a 15-cigarette-a-day smoking habit. And interpersonal social networks may be more crucial to physical health than exercising, or losing weight if you are obese.
The bottom line is: Our health depends upon social connection with others.
Not only that, but time with friends also feels good! Social bonding releases feel-good hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. In turn, those hormones have many beneficial effects on our health.
Get Out There and Spend Time with Others
What we eat really matters, but so does our lifestyle. And it’s important that we spend time with other people, even if they don’t eat like we do. You may prefer to socialize while doing non-food activities, as I do. But I think the advantages of eating together are powerful enough that it makes sense to also find ways to bond with others through social eating, even when we eat differently.
Some people are meeting online to share a meal through social media, Meetups, and even online forums. You can also meet like-minded eaters at health food stores, CSAs, farmers markets, and the like, where there may already be clubs or events centered around plant-based eating.
But some of my favorite social events don’t even include food. I love to go on hikes with people, paddle boarding, or take a walk with my dogs. If I must attend a food-centered event, I prefer potlucks.
Potlucks take the focus off what I specifically eat and allow me to bring a dish that meets my needs but that others can enjoy, too. The fact that I am not eating a lot of the other foods provided doesn’t stand out as much in a crowd — that is, unless one person is particularly attached to my trying the meat-based dish they brought with them. When that happens, the uncomfortable feelings return while I look for a gracious way to either change the topic or share why I avoid animal products.
But when I eat with people who don’t share my food choices, I find it’s far more enjoyable if I can explore what I have in common with them besides food. And it can also sometimes be an opportunity to share my favorite vegan dishes with people who may be convinced that I only eat salads (not that there is anything wrong with salads — I love them!).
You’re Never Truly Alone
It may feel isolating at times to follow a dietary path that deviates from the norm. And it can be tempting to either avoid certain social gatherings or to eat food that you know isn’t right for you. But it’s important to remember that you can share meals with people whose food is different from yours, without compromising on your dietary goals.
Embracing a whole foods, plant-based lifestyle may set you apart, but it also supports your emotional, mental, and physical well-being — while serving as an example of what is possible for those you care about. Keeping your heart open to positive social interactions and enriching experiences with both strangers and loved ones also supports your long-term health. And if you remember that most people feel some discomfort around their food choices, you can lead the way towards less judgment, shame, and isolation for all of us, regardless of what we eat.
Tell us in the comments:
Have you ever felt lonely or isolated after changing your diet?
What ways have you found to navigate eating with others who don’t eat like you?
How do you connect with other plant-based eaters?
Featured Image: iStock.com/Kiwis