Dear Non-vegans: It’s Not That I Can’t Eat That—It’s That I Won’t

“Oh, I’m sorry—you can’t eat that, can you? It’s one of the most common and well-meaning lines vegans hear, and it’s time we cleared something up. It’s not that we can’t eat animal products; we won’t.

This is an important distinction, because many people see being vegan as akin to having a food allergy or intolerance, like being gluten-free. While it’s true that many people go vegan for their health—and that most people are indeed lactose intolerant—most vegans don’t abstain from eating meat, dairy, and eggs because we are allergic or in some way “can’t. No, we choose not to participate in a cycle of suffering.

Admittedly, when people kindly (if condescendingly and almost pityingly) throw the “can’t eat that line at me, I rarely correct them, mostly to be polite and not be “that humorless vegan. But from now on, I won’t let this line go uncorrected. As I’ve written before, we’re not doing ourselves or the animals any favors when we hold our tongues and let misconceptions slide. We can easily and politely correct this one: “I can eat that, I just won’t. You might be slightly uncomfortable for a second, but the reminder that veganism is not a lifestyle of deprivation but of conscious and empowered choice is key.

Before I went vegan, I was nervous that it would feel like being on a constant diet. I imagined I’d feel endlessly tempted by the animal products placed before me and worried I’d constantly crave the many foods no longer in my diet. In reality, once I learned the truth about how animals used for food are treated, I ceased to see them as food. I wasn’t tempted by animal products anymore, because I had completely changed my associations.

I also found that all the foods I thought I’d miss have a vegan version, from fettuccine Alfredo to pizza to Buffalo wings to the richest ice cream imaginable. So yes, I can eat delicious sushi. I just choose not to eat sushi made from the bodies of tortured fish from polluted oceans. That’s gross to me now.

So the next time someone sympathetically throws this line at you, don’t be afraid to correct them with a smile. Every day those of us who are privileged enough have the choice not to eat destructive and unethical foods. And because we appreciate the freedom to make that choice—and care about those who don’t enjoy the same privilege—we don’t feel deprived or need anyone’s pity.