Ask some vegans what question annoys them most and you will probably hear “If you don’t eat meat, where you get your protein from?” The runner-up question is probably, “If you don’t drink milk, where do you get your calcium from?”
And why are these questions so annoying to many vegans? Probably because they are asked these questions by almost every non-vegan person as soon as they reveal their plant-based diet and that means explaining the answers over and over again. Then one question leads to another question and another question and it can begin to feel like an interview or an oral exam.
A lot of jokes go around where vegans come up with sarcastic answers to these questions but what’s the point of that?
For me, asking where I get my protein from is the best question anyone can ask me. Why? Because it means they are interested. It means they don’t know all the various sources of protein and they want to know. Because it gives me a chance to educate someone and share the knowledge I had to learn myself.
Four years ago, if someone had asked me where I got protein from, my answer would have been meat. That would have been my answer for iron as well. And I would have said calcium came from milk because after all, “it does a body good,” right?
Why would I have known differently? I only knew what I had been taught all my life – the information that gets passed down from generation to generation and the misinformation that gets passed down to make food industries rich.
Having gone to medical school didn’t make me any more knowledgeable about nutrition since it’s not part of the curriculum. Having never been exposed to farmed animals, I knew nothing about what happens to them. Like many people, I thought cows just always had milk to give. I even heard somewhere that if the cows weren’t milked, they would be in pain. Eggs were just unfertilized products of hens, not baby chicks. It never dawned on me that most of the animals killed for food were female so neither did the question of what happened to the males.
My point is that I would have had all the same questions if I had ever even thought to ask them. Maybe if I had met a vegetarian or vegan, I would have asked these same questions long before I gave up animal products. Once I did switch to a vegetarian and then vegan diet, I did have these exact same questions. And if the answers I received had been sarcastic or impatient, imagine how much harder my journey would have been.
When someone asks a vegan a question, how that answer is delivered might mean the difference of whether the person (hopefully) asks more questions or whether they turn away, thinking vegans are mean, standoffish or weird. And even though it might be the gazillionth time you have been asked those same questions, it’s most likely the first time the person is asking them.
To me, this is no different than when I teach my classes. Just because I know all about psychology, my students do not. They come into my class not knowing even the simplest theories and facts about human behavior and even more, with misinformation and myths I have to debunk. Wouldn’t it be wrong of me to expect them to come to class the first day already knowing the material? Not only do they not know the answers to any of my questions, they don’t know enough to have questions of their own yet. It is up to me to teach them how to postulate questions and then answer them with patience, encouragement and enthusiasm.
The same applies to veganism. We all had to learn where our protein was going to come from when we gave up meat. We all had to learn where our iron, calcium, Vitamin B12 and other nutrients would come from on a plant-based diet. And probably, there are some of us who are still worried that we don’t get enough or the right nutrients and vitamins. I would bet there are plenty of vegans who don’t know the answers to all of the questions either and I really hope it’s not because they are afraid to ask.
Another joke going around is “As soon as you tell someone you’re vegan, they suddenly become an expert in nutrition.” People know what they have been taught. Becoming vegan doesn’t automatically make one an expert in nutrition either. It’s up to each of us to ask questions and once we learn the answers, it’s up to each of us to share that knowledge willingly, patiently and with kindness.
I couldn’t imagine a better conversation than someone saying to me, “Wow, I didn’t know you could get all that calcium from eating greens?” and my smiling reply, “I know! Neither did I! Now please, please ask me where I get my protein?”