Debate on a plate

What does a vegan look like? If asked to picture one, is there a particular image that comes to mind?

How about a meat eater? What do they look, sound, act like?

It is human nature to stereotype people based on identifiable factors.

Diet is no exception.

A 2022 research paper found that vegans who chose their diet based on animal ethics were generally perceived by omnivores as arrogant, overcommitted and less socially attractive than those who ate meat.

This perceived lower social attractiveness also resulted in omnivores being less likely to reduce their own intake of animal products.

Victoria Pavy worries high profile activists have impacted the perception of vegans. Photo: Orla Latawski.

Victoria Pavy has eaten a vegan diet for the past five years.

People who are vegan choose not to eat or use any animal products or byproducts.

She says the broader community can have a particular perception of vegans that is not always accurate.

“I’m actually really scared of other vegans,” Victoria says.

“When I hear someone is vegan, I wait and make sure that they’re chill before I say ‘me too’.”

“I do not want to be associated with [the extremists].”

Victoria is referring to high-profile vegans like Tash Peterson who have been known to stand outside restaurants playing noises of animals being slaughtered and shouting abuse at diners.

These activists argue animals are being treated inhumanely and call for an end to industries producing animal products.

Professor Dora Marinova believes eating meat is ingrained into Australian culture. Photo: Orla Latawski.

Dora Marinova is a Professor of Sustainability at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute.

She says there are many reasons why Australians should reconsider their relationship with meat.

“Meat has been associated with colorectal cancers and many other cancers,” she says.

“We are burdening the health system and that should be treated in a similar way to how we treat tobacco.”

The National Health and Medical Research Council acknowledges these risks and in recent years has promoted the benefits of reducing meat consumption.

The 2022 Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend adults eat a maximum of 65g of lean meats per day to maintain a healthy diet.

Recent data shows men on average are consuming almost double that amount.

Jimi Brennan regularly eats meat. Photo: Supplied.

Jimi Brennan has always chosen to eat meat and says it plays an important part in meeting his daily nutritional needs.

“I settled on this [diet] because it hits all the macros,” he says.

“Macros” is short for macronutrients, which describe the nutrients your body needs in large amounts, specifically carbohydrates, fat and protein.

“For me, it gives me something to achieve on a daily basis and when I achieve it, I feel great about it,” Jimi says.

“Meat is just the cheapest and easiest option.”

Research from 2019 shows only 12 per cent of the Australian population eat an almost completely vegetarian diet.

Professor Marinova says this is likely because meat is considered an integral part of the Australian identity.

“We culturally accept that it’s ok to have a democracy sausage or a Bunnings sausage sizzle,” she says.

“There is a social division between people who are vegan or vegetarian and people who are meat eaters.”

Professor Taru Lindblom says diets are influenced by culture. Photo: Maarit Kytöharju.

Professor Taru Lindblom studies the relationship between food and culture.

She says the culture and environment that a person grows up in play a significant role in influencing their diet.

“People’s taste for particular types of food is stratified according to their socioeconomic indicators,” she says.

“People who are pro meat quite often have the argument that it’s traditional, natural and it’s always been the way we eat.”

“[They argue that] the industry that produces the meat is a very core essence of who we are.”

Professor Lindblom says she’s noticed diets becoming increasingly polarising in recent years.

“This meat and no meat discussion is very heated,” she says.

“If you feel you’re in a minority, you have to fight for your rights.”

Vegan alternatives are now commonly found in supermarkets across Australia. Photo: Orla Latawski.

Jimi struggles to see common ground between meat eaters and vegans.

“I think there could be common ground achieved but because of the way the discourse has happened so far, there’s genuinely not going to be anything for the foreseeable future,” he says.

Victoria hopes more people consider the impact their diets have on the environment.

“It’s important we all reduce [our impact] but it doesn’t look like perfect veganism for everyone,” she says.

“My food choices reflect my values, and they reflect who I am.”