A Twitter row between two well-known faces is hardly an unusual occurrence, but one between ex-reality TV star Lucy Watson and Great British Bake-Off finalist Ruby Tandoh did catch my eye.
The former Made in Chelsea cast member is a long-time advocate of veganism, having released a vegan cookbook last year. Tandoh, now an established food writer, has published Eat Up – a book which she says is “about making peace with food, nourishing yourself and eating up as much of this big wide world as you can”.
A tweet by Watson, on Thursday, read: “If you’re against animal cruelty, like most people, then you should be vegan.”
But as Tandoh pointed out in a series of tweets that followed, there are various economic and class barriers to sustaining this diet, as well as its unsuitability for some who have experienced eating disorders and those with certain medical problems.
The discussion spiralled rapidly, with Watson accusing the food writer of taking offence because her cookbook contained meat and dairy recipes, and Tandoh retaliating by saying that Watson’s “sweeping statements” were “unhelpful”, before slamming her for speaking from a position of privilege.
Watson is right that many of us choose to turn a blind eye to questionable practices in the food industry, as well as the environmental impact of meat eating, in exchange for enjoying a burger.
It’s also true that some people do experience health benefits after taking the leap, and the fact that from 2006 to 2016, it’s estimated the number of vegans in the UK jumped from 150,000 to 542,000, would suggest that such a diet has become somewhat more accessible.
But I take issue with blanket statements, and while it was probably well-intentioned, Watson’s attitude fails to take into account a world outside of her comfortable existence where it may be difficult to sustain such a restricted diet.
While no one would suggest that veganism is directly or solely responsible for disordered eating, I think it is right for Tandoh to highlight that the inevitable restriction that comes from adopting the diet could be catastrophic for some.
It’s also important to remember that veganism requires a certain amount of free time for meal preparation that not everyone is able to spare. Extra thought is needed to substitute in the protein the body requires. Single parents, working parents, those in jobs with antisocial hours, those from a low-income background, are just a few examples that spring to mind as social groups that may not be able to spend time researching alternative products online, or travelling to a different store selling vegan products instead of their local Tesco.
Arguably, the diet is easier to commit to if you work from home, part time, or indeed, don’t work. It may be possible to be vegan and work long hours while juggling childcare, but I for one won’t judge someone who reaches for easy to prepare, quick-in-the-oven tray of nuggets for their kids at the end of a long week.
Watson’s black-and-white view on meat eating is also interesting, given that as a society, we often compromise on our ethics out of convenience, particularly with regard to environmentally-friendly practices. You can be in favour of saving the planet but still travel by plane for your holiday, massively contributing to your carbon footprint.
That’s not to say it’s right for us to be such hypocrites, but perhaps it’s up to each of us to simply do what we can – whether that’s reducing plastic waste, recycling, or forgoing meat as in Watson’s case.
Plus, veganism doesn’t automatically mean you’re having a more positive impact than a carnivore anyway. After all, we heard recently that the perennial vegan favourite, the avocado, has travelled hundreds of miles across the world to our plates here in the West, pushing up prices in its countries of origin. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as we would like.
Ultimately, being a vegan works for some and not for others – it’s a personal choice. While Watson’s commitment to animal rights is laudable, she is wrong to lump all carnivores into the same box. Some of us really could do better. I for one have next to no reason not to at least give it a go. And we should continue to push for sustainable food practices which minimise animal suffering to the greatest possible extent.
But we should be wary of those who push restrictive diets as a universal solution for all, particularly at a time when society’s obsession with “clean eating” fads has such potential to cause lasting harm. Many of Watson’s online followers will be young, impressionable girls, and her preaching about there being only one “right” way to eat is, I believe, dangerous.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies