Interviews with Vegan Veterans is an ongoing interview series where I get to pick the brains of long-time vegans and give the world access to the knowledge, wisdom and understanding that they have spent decades accumulating.
It's not often you get to chat with someone who's never tasted animal flesh.
AJ is a vegan-veteran who grew up in London and now lives in Perth, Australia with his wife and 4-year-old girl, who are both vegan as well.
Here AJ shares his unique perspective on himself being raised vegetarian from birth, his later transition to veganism, and his experience with raising his own child vegan from birth.
AJ and his all-vegan family in London.
I understand you were brought up vegetarian?
I was born into a Hindu family so our family have been vegetarian for generations. Our Hindu community was also vegetarian so we never had any issues with people questioning our dietary choices from babies upwards.
Some people would say it’s not fair to place that kind of dietary restriction on a child...
If someone was to tell me now that kind of dietary restriction is not fair for my child, who is a vegan from birth, I would tell them that veganism is in no way a restrictive diet, we are merely eliminating inflammatory, unhealthy foods from my child's diet and replacing it with a variety of healthy foods instead, of which we are blessed to have access to an abundance of.
I know a lot of parents have reservations about bringing up vegan kids - I assume mainly because they themselves are not 100% certain it's healthy - so would you have any advice or anything you’d like to say to them?
I only have 1 child. My 4-year-old daughter is VfB [vegan from birth].
Firstly, I can assure anyone that it is 100% healthy and far healthier than diets consisting of animal products. Do not listen to government guidelines. They are bought by big dairy and meat and egg industries. Consequently, the government guidelines would promote meat dairy and eggs. Go with what the science says and the fact is that a diet consisting of fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes is the healthiest diet for optimal human health.
Personally, we breastfed our baby for as long as we could, about 12 months was when she weened and we saved another 3 months worth of expressed breast milk. After 6 months we introduced blended fruit then a week after blended beans, lentils, sweet potato, oats, cereals, then gradually some greens. Once breast milk finished we used organic soy milk for her cereals. Then introduced tofu nuts seeds. She now eats pretty much what we eat.
We have been taking B12 and once she had been weened we gave her some B12, algae-based DHA, iodine and Vitamin D3. She is totally healthy, never had anything more than a cold, never had a temperature or a fever, no glue-ear or any other issues.
We ban her from eating sweets, chocolates, crisps and cakes, which helps. She has the occasional vegan cake / choc etc, like we all do. She is slimmer and lighter than other babies which is only natural as she has not been given bovine milk. In our culture, both Hindu and western, big fat babies are considered healthy. I don't believe that at all. Slim, fit, light is the way to be.
Are there many strictly vegan Hindus in your experience? Cows milk seems to be pretty big in that religion.
There weren't a few years ago but now we are a small number. Cow milk is huge in Hinduism for some reason.
I am not religious myself but a lot of my friends and relatives are and animal cruelty is transparent to them. They don't care. They are only interested in following their religion which I find weird because if they really thought about their religion it preaches kindness to all animals.
These Hindus conveniently forget that and continue consuming dairy, wearing and using leather etc. I even forwarded a few people videoes of dairy and leather and still, they chose to ignore it.
However, a small number are moving towards veganism because of health and animal welfare, so there is hope yet.
AJ's and his wife's happy, healthy, vegan-from-birth little girl.
How long have you been vegan?
Being born a vegetarian I found it easy to become vegan. However, it has been a very long journey for me.
The reason for this is because I did not know about the horrors of the dairy, leather, down feather, wool industries etc really until a few years ago and mainly due to social media.
I first decided to stop drinking cow milk 25 years ago because I did not think it was natural for humans to drink milk from another species. Other animals do not so I saw no reason for humans to. I still ate cheese and consumed milk products like milk chocolate bars etc. I stopped eating cheese a 3 years after that because of the health reasons.
In 2001 I followed Robert Cohen aka the NotMilkMan who has a website notmilk.com. This website has a wealth of information and I stumbled across it 16 years ago. It made sense to me so I eliminated more dairy from my diet. The only reason why I still ate products containing dairy is because back then there were not a lot of options as there are now. However, I stopped eating milk chocolate bars etc and became stricter soon after.
I stopped buying leather 15 years ago. I always hated leather couches but I still had leather shoes because 15 years ago there were no vegan shoes around.
About 9 years ago I stopped buying wool mainly due to social media and PETA campaign against wool. And now due to social media, I consider myself a strict vegan as once you know the cruelty of meat dairy fish fowl and eggs leather wool down etc you cannot justify consuming it.
Would you classify your current diet as anything additional to vegan?
I try to eat as much WFPB [whole-food plant-based] as possible. I try to cut down on processed and fried foods. I do have cheat days. I also fast for 36 hours twice a month and calorie-restrict a few days a month also.
What does your usual diet consist of?
I normally have either fruit for breakfast, or 2 toasts with jam/almond spread, or healthy cereal with soy milk.
Lunch mostly fruit like banana apple oranges blueberries or any leftover veggies I might have in the fridge like cucumber celery.
Dinner may be a cooked meal such as curries (either lentil beans or veg) or pasta, sometimes just a big salad, couscous, wraps, vegan sausages, tofu, Chinese there really is no limit.
This hasn't really changed over the years apart from consciously eating more fruit and veg during the past 5 years.
Do you take any supplements?
I take B12 since 2014. Since I gave up dairy in the year 2000 I believe I ate foods containing B12 such as fortified milk, marmite etc. However, since 2014 I take B12 tablet just as a precautionary measure.
I also take Vitamin D3 from algae during the autumn, winter and spring seasons. I take iodine drops as well.
Before taking any supplements I was fine and never had health issues. I had my blood tests and all good except Vitamin D was a little low.
The only reason I am taking these supplements now is for precautionary reasons.
Why did you turn vegan initially?
I cannot stand cruelty of any kind. It sickens me. Once you see it and know that it exists I cannot justify being a part of it.
Why do you think you stayed vegan for this long while others didn’t?
I don't see it as a time thing. Once you go vegan for your reasons there is no reason why anyone would go back to a meat dairy diet.
I agree completely. I have been researching “ex-vegans” on the internet a lot lately... Have you known anyone over the years who’s gone back to eating meat?
My work friend was vego years ago but he wasn't serious about it and was not doing it for animal reasons. He still eats a lot of veggies but also meat maybe once a day. Other than that I don't know anyone else who has gone vegan then back to meat again.
Have your views on veganism changed since you started?
Yes, they have become much stronger due to social media campaigns.
A lot of ex-vegans say that they got really "sick" on a vegan diet. Has veganism has ever resulted in you getting sick or a disease?
Absolutely not. I consider myself to be quite healthy.
Have you ever had an eating disorder?
Have you ever had any thoughts of eating dairy products again?
I would never want to eat dairy again. I hate the dairy industry.
As you were brought up Hindu I’m curious as to your thoughts on Ahimsa, the so-called “cruelty-free” cows milk?
There is no such thing as cruelty free or Ahimsa milk. It is just another way for people to justify using and abusing animals for their own gain.
I visited the Bhaktivedan Manor in Watford UK and saw mother cows in sheds with their babies in another pen separated from them. The calves had ropes around their mouths. Regardless of what people think, separating mothers from their children is wrong, and Ahimsa milk allows this.
Whilst there I was wondering to myself just how much of an effort it was to keep cows, breed them, separate them from their babies, milk them, the land and water/food they need and just the huge amount of effort and resources required for dairy milk when they can just easily switch to plant based milk instead. Its cleaner, uses less resources, and has less cruelty.
Whats the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced with being vegan?
Raising a vegan baby from birth. A lot of research has to be done to ensure that the baby is growing well.
That's not to say that if the baby did eat meat/dairy etc that no research is necessary, as I believe research is required regardless of diet.
Would you have advice for beginner vegans on how to deal with awkward social or work situations?
At work, there are a lot of meat-centric people constantly talking about meat. I ignore it.
At home, it was more of a dairy situation. They have known about my hatred of dairy for many years. I used to forward articles about how bad dairy is, it was mostly ignored but now one of my brothers is vegan as is his wife. My wife and child are also vegan.
AJ is not the only vegan in his family, his wife and child are also living cruelty-free.
Have you ever been bullied or made fun of because of your veganism?
Do you have any non-vegan friends?
How do you feel your relationships with them have been affected by your veganism?
It hasn't really. We go out, they eat kebabs and shit, I just sit. But make no mistake about how I feel they live their life is absolutely wrong.
A guy at work, an old man used to be a farmer. He used to farm animals, take them to the market and slaughter them horrendously. Once he told me he had some pigs in the truck it was a hot day he could not sell them so he had to slaughter them in the truck. Horrible. Even he found it awful which was saying something. I get along with this guy but that does not mean I have to support what he does.
This is great. One of the reasons some people leave veganism is because they feel their social circle gets restricted, for whatever reason they can’t or don't want to maintain relationships with non-vegans. Even though I understand their struggle and feel it myself, I think it’s very important to not let our veganism negatively affect our personal relationships. As someone who doesn't have this problem, what would you say to a vegan who only associates with other vegans?
If they are only restricting it on the basis of veganism, I would say that that is not a good policy to take. There are many people who are good people but still consume animal products, maybe because they are brainwashed into thinking it is OK to do so (cognitive dissonance) or just believe that humans are superior to other animals so we can use them for whatever we want. No, that looks like a contradiction, how can they be good and still exploit animals? The answer is quite simply they cannot be, but they can still be good to you. The simple fact is that non-vegans outnumber vegans many times over so we have no choice but to live amongst them and be friends with them. So we might as well get along with them. Making enemies makes no sense.
Would you classify yourself as a militant vegan?
I am a closet militant vegan because as far as I am concerned, a person is either for cruelty or against it. There is no middle ground. I cannot abide by the wilful suffering imparted on animals and the planet just for convenience.
I am a closet militant because obviously, I cannot show my true feelings otherwise I would be a pariah. I fully understand militant vegans as they see an injustice and fight it. However, I also understand how this could be seen as detrimental to the vegan movement as it would push people away.
I agree with you that vegan activism done wrong can definitely turn people away.
I watched an inspiring Earthling Ed speech last night on facebook where he said something like, “Going vegan is not the moral baseline, being a vegan activist is.” He then made an interesting analogy about walking past a man beating a dog with a stick. The man says to you something like, “hey, come help me, this dog sucks." You would then have three options: 1) grab another stick and join him, 2) tell him he’s wrong to do that, but walk past and not stop him from doing it - which is supposed to represent going vegan, or 3) to physically go over and stop him from beating the dog - which is supposed to represent vegan activism.
While that may be inspiring to hear, I don’t think the analogy is entirely accurate considering the economics, and I’m wondering your thoughts, as you said "I cannot show my true feelings otherwise I would be a pariah. “ I imagine Ed would say to this, “are your feelings more important to you than animals suffering unnecessarily?” How would you respond to that?
LOL!! I saw that speech. It was the big march through London. I don't agree with it. It is a poor analogy. Vegan activism is not the baseline.
Not everyone can be an activist. Not everyone can speak in front of large crowds or talk to people or engage with strangers. Veganism is the baseline. If everyone was a vegan we would have a much healthier planet.
Activists like Earthling Ed, James Aspey do a great job and I look up to them. However, by just being vegan you are automatically doing so much good by not causing, or causing as little harm to other beings as possible.
I support vegan businesses as much as I can. I am a member of the AJP. I vote AJP. I donate to charities and sanctuaries. There are so many ways to promote veganism if being a full-on activist is not possible.
Also, I have a job and a family to look after. Quite frankly if I were a full-on activist I would have to give that up.
If Ed said to me are my feelings more important to me than an animal suffering? I would say yes they are because you have to look after yourself before you can help others. How is losing my job and not being able to take care of my family going to benefit animals? I will draw the line at animal cruelty. If my only means of income was to slaughter animals I would prefer not to live.
As for the analogy, if I saw a man beating a dog I would call the police.
Do you personally partake in any form of activism?
I do social media and recently I have attended a cube event. I plan to do more in the future.
I also don't donate to human or cancer charities. I believe if you solve the animal problem of systematic cruelty then this will automatically benefit all humans in terms of physical and mental health.
If you could say one thing to yourself when you first went vegan, what would it be?
Never forget the abuse humans inflict on animals.
I don’t see how it’s possible to not be vegan while remembering that. It’s great to hear someone who’s been vegan as long as you say it.
Some vegans don't like to see the realities of this world saying that they are already vegan why should they see animal abuse? I see some stuff on my facebook newsfeed from animal freedom fighter etc showing horrific abuse because it serves as a reminder of just how bad the world is and there is always much work to do. I will not be happy until every animal is free to live as nature intended.
Do you have any other advice for newer vegans or anyone thinking about making the transition?
Follow social media groups about health and animal suffering. There are some great vegans out there on social media who provide great information and inspiration.
My personal favourites are Nutritionfacts.org, Mic the Vegan, PCRM, Dr Neal Barnard, Dr Alan Goldhamer, Tim Shieff, Plant-Based News, Plant-Based Science London, Earthling Ed, James Aspey and many more.
Ignore the haters. There will always be people who want to knock you down or argue. These people will never change.
Don't be a junk food vegan. Eat healthy. But you can have cheat days where you can indulge in cakes fried foods etc, just don't eat those unhealthy processed foods often.
Thanks for your time, AJ.
Thanks, this has been really interesting. Nobody has ever asked me stuff like this before.