Is It Bad to Have Non-Vegan Cheat Days?

With many diets, it’s common is to include a “cheat day” or “cheat meal” about once a week. It can help you tolerate the restrictions for the rest of the time. But there is controversy about whether this applies to veganism because being vegan is often based on ethical principles.

So, is it bad to have non-vegan cheat days? If you are vegan for ethical reasons, it likely doesn’t make sense to have non-vegan cheat days. But if you’re vegan for health reasons or are vegan for a flexible reason, there is no problem with allowing yourself cheat days.

Let’s explore some of the different factors to consider when deciding whether you want to allow yourself non-vegan cheat meals or cheat days. It’s really an issue that comes down to what veganism means to you, so it can be pretty interesting to dig into the details.

“Vegan Cheat Days” Can Mean Two Different Things

I used the term “non-vegan cheat days” in the title of this post. That’s because the phrase “vegan cheat days” can mean both of the following, depending on how it’s used:

  1. Eating non-vegan food (meat, dairy, eggs, or other animal products).
  2. Eating vegan junk food (like soy ice cream with sugary toppings).

The first definition is what I’m talking about in this article. But I just wanted to be clear about this, because if you’re looking up “vegan cheat days,” you will find information about both!

Since many people are eating a vegan diet for health reasons, or since many people are on an especially healthy vegan diet (a whole-food plant-based diet or WFPB diet), it can still be seen as “cheating” to eat vegan processed foods and sugary stuff. But no one is morally opposed to this kind of “vegan cheat day” since the only thing you might be negatively affecting is your own health.

The controversy exists about eating non-vegan food because concretely speaking, that food required animal killing and/or confinement to produce.

Many people go vegan specifically because they are morally opposed to the killing and confinement of animals, so it might be seen as morally inconsistent and wrong to be “flexible” about when and how you apply this moral principle.

Vegan Except For Holidays? … and Your Birthday? … And at restaurants?

A common way for people to have non-vegan cheat days is being vegan except for holidays. This is actually explicitly mentioned as an option by some of the vegan-friendly doctors who promote plant-based diets, such as Dr. John McDougall.

Dr. McDougall specifically mentions that it’s okay to have some animal foods for Thanksgiving or your birthday since it will not impact your health negatively if it’s only once in a while like that.

Dr. Joel Fuhrman, another vegan-friendly doctor who writes diet books, usually promotes flexibility with about 10% of your calories, so you could eat up to ~200 calories of non-vegan food per day on his plan.

But again, these suggestions are based on the health side of the diet—this is not getting into the ethical reasons for why someone would be vegan.

In practice, I think many people who are looking to have “non-vegan cheat days” or be a “part-time vegan” are not just thinking about holiday meals—they’re also thinking about when they’re eating out at restaurants or eating at a friend’s dinner party.

In many cases, there could come to be so many exceptions to the vegan diet that it doesn’t really resemble a vegan diet at all anymore. It can be a slippery slope toward just not being vegan at all.

Are You Really Vegan If You Have Non-Vegan Cheat Days?

Whether you can call yourself a “vegan” if you have non-vegan cheat days really comes down to your definition of being vegan. I’ve written in several of my posts about the fact that veganism means different things to different people.

Sometimes, people will cite the original definition by the Vegan Society of the UK. I do like that definition. But in practice, the word “vegan” has been used broadly by many different people, meaning different things. So I think it can be disingenuous not to recognize that.

If You’re Vegan Only For Health Reasons, Then Non-Vegan Cheat Days Are Fine

The only real objections to non-vegan cheat days are all based on the ethical principles of veganism. So, if your only reason for being vegan is to improve your health generally, then the answer is pretty clear: Yes, you can have non-vegan cheat days or cheat meals.

Even if you’re just a health vegan, there may be some debate about how many cheat days you should have. If you’re eating animal foods multiple days per week, or even on most days, then your diet may start to lose some of the benefits of being plant-based.

If you’re going vegan with hopes of reversing your diabetes or heart disease, I’d encourage you to follow a plan more closely, working with a dietitian or a physician, since you have specific health outcomes to monitor.

Doctors who advocate whole-food plant-based diets for reversing chronic disease tend to be pretty serious and strict. So I would recommend adhering more strictly to the all-vegan diet in those cases.

But if you’re just trying to improve your health overall, then I think there’s no need to be 100% vegan all the time. As I cited above, Dr. John McDougall and Dr. Joel Fuhrman both allow some non-vegan foods occasionally on their fairly rigorous plant-based diets.

Should You Call Yourself “Plant-Based” If You Have Non-Vegan Cheat Days?

What is the difference between “vegan” and “plant-based”? The term “plant-based” is becoming more common. It is used by many people who don’t necessarily agree with the moral judgments associated with being “vegan” but who still want to eat a diet excluding animal products.

“Plant-based” also has a connotation of eating more whole plant foods. This stands in contrast to the term “vegan,” which most people interpret as just avoiding animal products, even if it means eating french fries and beer. Typically, “plant-based” means eating a diet centered around whole plant foods.

Since “plant-based” doesn’t carry the moral/ethical connotations that “vegan” carries, people who want to have non-vegan cheat days may feel that “plant-based” fits them better.

By calling yourself “plant-based,” you don’t have to get into arguments with militant vegans (“the vegan police”) who say that you’re distorting what “veganism” means or that you’re not a real vegan.

Selective Vegan? Chegan? Part-Time Vegan? Apologist Vegan? What Are all these Terms?

These are all words you might see that try to address the issue of how strict your commitment to veganism is.

A “selective vegan” is basically the vegan equivalent of a “flexitarian,” which is someone who is mostly vegetarian but not always. Being a “selective vegan” means, of course, being vegan at select times and not being vegan other times.

“Part-time vegan” means the same thing as “selective vegan.” And “chegan” is short for “cheating vegan.” Basically it means the same thing.

This is in contrast to a “hardline vegan.” The term “hardline vegan” originates from the “hardline” straight-edge vegan hardcore subculture. It’s used more generally to refer to strict adherence to vegan principles, as well as moral judgment about strictly adhering to veganism.

When someone refers to “hardline vegan,” they’re usually casting judgment toward these strict vegans, maybe criticizing them or expressing that they disagree: “I’m vegan, but I’m not hardline crazy about it.”

“Apologist vegan” is a term that carries moral judgment in the other direction. People who are more strict about their own veganism might call part-time vegans “apologist vegans.” Being a “vegan apologist” could also mean being a vegan who says it’s morally okay not to be vegan.

I would probably be called a “vegan apologist” by some strict vegans because of how I accept that different people have different definitions of veganism and I think that’s fine.

So even though I’m quite strict with my own adherence to a vegan diet, I could still be called an apologist vegan because I’m not advocating for the universal moral principles of veganism very hard.

Having accidental non-vegan slip-ups does not make you anything besides a normal vegan. Slip-ups are completely out of your control in this world, and they suggest nothing about your beliefs or what label you can use.

Does It Feel Bad to Cheat on Your Vegan diet?

One of the issues to consider when looking at whether to incorporate non-vegan cheat days into your otherwise-vegan diet is: Why would you want to?

Generally, I think the answer is pretty clearly because non-vegan food is often delicious, often convenient, and sometimes healthy in a specific way.

But will you even feel good breaking your vegan diet to eat a convenient and delicious non-vegan meal? That’s a question for you to consider. No one can decide for you. Some vegans would feel serious guilt about having a non-vegan cheat day. But that’s not all vegans!

What Is The Ethical Principle of Veganism Exactly, and Does It Make Sense to Flexibly Apply It?

If killing is wrong, then wouldn’t it make sense to never kill, to the best of your abilities? Why would you still kill sometimes if you think it’s wrong to kill?

This is why some vegans say it doesn’t make sense to have non-vegan cheat days as a vegan. If you’ve decided that it’s wrong to support the meat industry, then wouldn’t you want to completely remove your support?

I think there are different ways to look at this issue. It actually has a bit of a parallel to the issue of “freeganism.” Freegans are people who eat non-vegan food that they got by dumpster diving or other free vegan food—but they refuse to pay for non-vegan food.

Freegans seem to identify the ethical utility of veganism in its being a consumer boycott. And so this is a very practical view: You’re committed to removing your financial support from non-vegan industries…

But that doesn’t necessarily stop you from putting animal foods in your own body. Especially if those foods were going to be wasted anyway, you might feel totally okay about eating them if you’re a freegan.

What Is The Point of Veganism To You? Questions to Consider

So, the question is, where do you personally identify the ethical point of veganism (if you’re an ethical vegan)? Here are some more questions to help you figure out your own views:

  • Is your veganism about the ethics of each individual action you’re taking? Or is it about acting in ways that could most predictably lead us toward a vegan world in the long term?
  • Is the ethical utility of veganism solely in removing financial support from animal agriculture companies?
  • Is there a risk that our eating non-vegan foods in any context may be taken as us “condoning” the killing of animals? Does it send a message to people around us that we don’t actually believe it’s seriously wrong to kill other animals to eat them?
  • Is it helpful, especially in the presence of non-vegans, to express that you are appalled or grossed out by non-vegan food, so maybe you will persuade some of them not to eat meat around you (or at all)?
  • Or is it more helpful to express understanding to non-vegans so they don’t become alienated by us “crazy vegans” who they can’t relate to?
  • Is it wrong to benefit from the killing of animals by eating any meat, even if that particular piece of meat was going to waste otherwise?

Vegan In-Fighting Over How Strict Your Vegan Diet Should Be

I’m not going to give you any real argument about what I think the answers to those questions are. Here’s what I will say: I respect that different vegans feel differently about these issues.

And honestly, I get a little irritated when one vegan gets all judgmental about how other vegans are being vegan.

A lot of strict vegans get judgmental about flexible vegans, and a lot of more flexible vegans get judgmental about the strict vegans. I think both approaches can be completely logically consistent and useful.

How strictly you approach your vegan diet depends on your answers to the above questions (and some other ones). People have different ethics and values, so of course, their approach to questions like vegan cheat days will differ.

Either way, I respect people for following what they personally believe is right.

For Many Vegans, Non-Vegan Food Starts to Seem Gross.

A practical issue when asking about non-vegan cheat days is that, for many vegans, non-vegan food starts to seem gross.

If you’re a brand new vegan, you will likely still have urges for non-vegan food and temptations to indulge in it. Even for some experienced vegans, the scent or sight of certain non-vegan foods will be tempting. But for many of us, it honestly starts to seem gross to eat animal foods.

Meat is literally dead animals. So that can really start to seem gross after you’ve stopped eating it for a while. There is literally blood in the package when you buy raw meat—there is bloody water, yuck!

And dairy gives you that thick feeling in your throat. Do you know what I’m referring to?

It looks like maybe the statement “dairy produces more phlegm” is a myth, but from experience, we all know that feeling in your throat, right? As a vegan, it’s awesome that you don’t need to have that anymore. And so, for many of us, it’s not tempting to go back.

Do Most Vegans Cheat?

When I was researching this topic and checking what other bloggers had written about vegan cheat days, I noticed that one of the suggested searches on Google was “most vegans cheat.”

Do most vegans cheat? Without having done research into the subject, I’m going to say that this is something bitter meat-eaters want to be true. They want to be able to call vegans hypocrites for not following their own moral code. But I haven’t seen evidence of it. The majority of vegans I know do not cheat.

What Does Cheating On Your Vegan Diet Say About You?

When I see a vegan who “cheats” on their veganism or has vegan cheat days, I just think they probably do not believe in the ethical reasons for following a completely vegan diet.

Maybe they follow a mostly vegan diet for health reasons. Maybe they follow a mostly vegan diet to reduce their carbon emissions. And that’s totally fine.

Another possible explanation—they do believe ethically in veganism, but they are not emotionally in touch with that belief right now. Maybe they saw a slaughterhouse video a few weeks ago, got upset, and went vegan for a while. But now the video is less fresh in their mind, so it doesn’t feel like a big deal to eat some dairy.

This doesn’t seem particularly noble since it means you’re acting out of line with what you believe is right—but it’s completely understandable.

A third explanation—they do believe it’s wrong for humans to be violently exploiting animals, but they don’t think that individually refraining from eating animal products will make a difference.

Maybe they don’t believe in consumer-based boycotts as a form of effective activism. Maybe they believe the responsibility is on factory farms or the government to change farm conditions, not consumers.

Why I Personally Do Not Have Non-Vegan Cheat Days

Personally, I choose not to have non-vegan cheat days. Being 100% vegan seems to be the most consistent with my beliefs, and it feels good to follow those beliefs as well as I can.

Since my health seems great on a vegan diet, the only reason I’d have to cheat on veganism would be for access to convenient and tasty non-vegan food. But putting my access to non-vegan convenience foods above the suffering and death of another animal is not something that will ever feel right to me.

And as I mentioned above, non-vegan foods now seem gross to me—so they’re not much of a temptation anyway.

I also think being 100% vegan is easier than being 95% vegan. If I allowed myself occasional non-vegan food, I imagine it could become a slippery slope. I might feel significantly less in control of my diet and my life.

I like making black-and-white decisions about what’s acceptable for my life. It’s easier to follow a clear rule than adjusting what I allow myself to do based on my feelings each day.

So Is It Okay to Have Non-Vegan Cheat Days?

It all depends on why you are vegan and what it means to you.

Generally, if you are vegan for ethical reasons, it probably doesn’t make sense to plan to have non-vegan cheat days. But as we covered above, there are many different ways to see this issue.

You should think about what your own values are, and what would feel most fulfilling and most sustainable for you.

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