This Vegan Life: An Interview with Lisa Dempster

In the past week, we’ve heard from vegan-turned-ecotarian Cristy Clark and interviewed passionate food lover Charlotte Wood on how they frame their ethical approach to how they shop, cook and eat.

Today, in the last of our series on ethical eating, we talk to committed vegan Lisa Dempster, food blogger, former editor of the Veg Good Food Guide and director of the Emerging Writers' Festival.

You’re a passionate vegan. What are your reasons for not eating animals or animal products?

I became interested in veganism for environmental reasons. It’s hard to be a meat-eating environmentalist, as the saying goes! I’m disturbed by the amount of meat we eat and the impact it has on our planet. Additionally, I am disgusted by most modern farming practices and the increasingly inhumane direction our production of meat and dairy has taken. After five years, veganism does just kind of become second nature as well. As a vegan I feel energetic and I eat a huge variety of delicious foods, while knowing that my diet is compassionate and environmentally friendly. That my diet is in line with my ethics just feels really right for me.

I read that Peter Singer inspired you to become a vegan. How did this happen?

In reality, my transition to veganism started several years before I turned. I was reading all sorts of books on food production, like Not on the Label and Fast Food Nation, and becoming increasingly aware of the impact that our diets can have on the environment and on our bodies. So I had been thinking about, and trying to make, ethical food choices for quite a while. I had never really considered veganism because I’m not particularly radical. But then I read Peter Singer’s The Ethics of What We Eat, which sent me into a tailspin. It made me think again about how I felt about the foods I was eating, and examine my diet closely to see how I felt about it. And I didn’t feel great about it. So even though I had previously discounted veganism as ‘not for me’, I decided that I couldn’t justifiably knock it till I tried it … so I decided to go vegan for a month to see what it was like. I found it really easy, and when the month drew to a close I just stuck with it.

How did you make the transition to veganism? And how hard was it?

I had a really easy transition actually, despite the fact I went straight from omnivore to vegan. After I tried it out for a month, I just kept going. The test run worked for me because it eliminated the mental barrier of ‘becoming vegan’. Although my commitment to veganism was intellectually there, I didn’t picture myself as a vegan and was worried that it would be hard. By giving it a trial run, I was able to try veganism on for size without feeling any pressure. When I decided to commit to veganism at the end of 30 days I was already living the lifestyle, so I didn’t have to worry about making the switch.

'If you don't want to eat animal products, as I don't, it's not much of a challenge to avoid them.'

'If you don't want to eat animal products, as I don't, it's not much of a challenge to avoid them.'

A common misconception about veganism is that it must be really hard to maintain such a restrictive diet. But actually, if you don’t want to eat animal products, as I don’t, it’s not much of a challenge to avoid them. The hardest bit I guess was that you start spending a lot of time reading labels – and getting shocked about what kinds of things have animal products in them! So it’s time consuming at first, figuring out what stuff in your shopping is vegan or not, but you soon get quicker at it.

The vegan food community seems a close-knit one; you’ve written about making new vegan friends since your transition to veganism. What are the advantages of being part of the vegan community? And how are these connections forged?

When I first turned vegan I was blogging about food a lot and then I edited two editions of The Australian Veg Food Guide, and through those channels I got to meet a lot of vegans, which was fabulous. A group of vegan food bloggers started having potlucks together, and we became good friends. When I was a new vegan, having those support networks were critical. In addition to sharing information about where and what to eat, it’s just a relief to hang out with people who get it.

Now, with social media, it’s easier than ever to connect with other vegans in your city, which I always recommend new vegans do. I don’t know about the vegan food community all being close-knit, though we often tend know each other. Being vegan is kind of like being in a weird club – you soon find out if anyone else is a member. I’ve been lucky to meet loads of vegans through my blog and by doing vegan food writing, and we’re a pretty diverse bunch. Vegans in Melbourne are punks, they’re professionals, they’re athletes, they’re academics… we’re kind of everywhere. I call us the Vegan Mafia!

You became a vegan for ethical reasons. Are there health benefits too? If so, what benefits have realised?

There are a few common misconceptions about veganism – one is that vegans are all health nuts, the other is that vegans are all sick, frail and weak. It’s quite funny. In fact, veganism in itself is not inherently healthy or unhealthy, though studies have shown that vegetarianism reduces your risk of developing things like bowel cancer, obesity and heart conditions.

I’m pretty healthy, but I know plenty of junk food vegans, which is possible in Australia, when you consider that things like beer, Barbecue Shapes, Oreos and Baker’s Delight are vegan. I’ve had people, on hearing that I’m veg, tell me about a sickly vegan that they know. I can’t help but laugh: I’ve cycled across the Nullarbor on a vegan diet, hiked 1200 kilometres in Japan, I ride my bike about 200 kilometres a week, I work out at the gym … I’m the opposite of frail. I have loads of energy, which I put down to the variety and abundance of foods that I eat – my diet is way more varied now than it ever was when I was an omni.

'Getting drawn into arguments is not pleasant, especially when you’re eating, so I tend to keep my politics off the table as much as possible'

'Getting drawn into arguments is not pleasant, especially when you’re eating, so I tend to keep my politics off the table as much as possible'

What are the challenges of being a vegan?

There aren’t many, really. It’s just a habit for me now and in Melbourne it’s possible to be vegan with no real hassles; travelling can be a bit more challenging. The only difficult part is dealing with other people, sometimes. People can be pretty intense when they hear you’re vegan. Some get defensive about it, like you’re judging them, others go on the offensive and try to argue with you or tell you what you’re doing is wrong. Or they try to ‘catch’ you eating something non-vegan, which is actually kind of funny.

I’m fairly inured to it these days, and am good at defusing any given situation or shutting it down outright. I have a policy of not policing what anyone else eats and not letting anyone else police me; getting drawn into arguments is not pleasant, especially when you’re eating, so I tend to keep my politics off the table as much as possible.

Lisa Dempster is the director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival and author of Neon Pilgrim. She blogs at www.lisadempster.com.au.

Join us tonight for our Intelligence Squared debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, at Melbourne Town Hall at 6.30pm. Speakers will include ethicist Peter Singer, chef Adrian Richardson and the Age’s Veronica Ridge. Tickets are $20 or $12 concession. You can book online.

All food photographs on this page are taken by Lisa Dempster.