08/08/2012 06:56 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2012

Being Vegan Enough

Veganism will never, in my view, be a widely-accepted lifestyle choice. Not because it isn't a gorgeous way to live (because it is...), not because it is a deprived and grim way to eat (because it isn't...), and not because it's too weird or left of center (okay, I'll give you that one...). No, veganism will never thrive because a lot of vegans will not allow it.

Now before you get your organic cotton panties in a twist, hear me out.

I was reading an article recently, written by a good friend of mine, someone I love and adore, respect and admire. It doesn't matter what or where. That's not the point here. I was so upset by what I read that I thought my head would explode. Maybe it's me, but the attitude he displayed in the piece showed me arrogance and intolerance underneath the supposed compassion he professed.

The article was all about the word vegan and its proper use. You may say, huh? I did. I often say that I am not "vegan enough" for most vegans. Sadly, it may be true. Apparently, you may only use the word "vegan" to describe yourself if you choose this compassionate way of living in order not to contribute to cruelty to animals. (It's apparently okay to be mean to people, just not animals.)

And before anybody goes nuts and writes me about compassion and animals, I am all in for that, activism and all, so save your breath.

The article said that according to Donald Watson's description of veganism (he being the founder and definer of the movement that splintered off from vegetarian groups over the use of dairy foods) vegans are those who choose this life to prevent, or at least not contribute to, cruelty to animals. To this line of thinking, the article went on to say that if you are choosing vegan living for personal health or environmental causes, then it would serve better to say that you eat a "plant-based diet" and leave the word "vegan" to those who are truly committed to the cause. And why? Because you might change your mind and give veganism a bad name... or so that was implied by the tone of the piece.

Here's my beef (yes, I know...) with this thinking. I am a long-time teacher of vegan/macrobiotic cooking, and many of the students who have come through classes were not looking to change their thinking completely. Most of them were just trying to get a bit healthier, and since I make this look so easy, delicious and fun on television, they wanted to give it a go. Most of them didn't know what they were getting into, but many of them changed their lives and now embrace vegan living, compassionately in harmony with the world around them. Some chose to eat a vegan diet, but not embrace activism. By this author's thinking, I should have turned them away, advised them to take a different approach and come back to me when they had their priorities in order. After all, it's only about the animals if you are vegan, right?

To ignore personal transformation and to discount the idea that transformation begins with the physical is silly and arrogant, to say the least. If some vegans remain aloof and exclusive, shunning everyone who doesn't embrace the cause of animal rights, they don't get to wonder why people are not flocking to join them. They seem to forget that change, true change, has to occur at the most primal, visceral level... in the form of physical transformation.

When people are drawn to plant-based eating, it is most often for personal health, but how else can we truly transform our thinking, our hearts, our very beings if we do not first make our bodies healthy and strong and feel for ourselves the power of natural plant-based food? From that physical transformation, the human psyche is freed to think about loftier ideals and to contemplate the plight of the world and all the living beings in it.

We all have to start somewhere. If personal health is what draws you to vegan living, then I welcome you with open arms. By virtue of mere diet change, people who choose veganism for all the "wrong reasons" change themselves, reduce cruelty, grow more compassionate as their bodies heal and strengthen, and they leave a lighter footprint on our fragile planet... oh, and they care for the welfare of animals.

It seems to me that some of us vegans have lived too long in a bubble, surrounding ourselves only with people of similar thinking. Many have lost touch with the idea of reaching out, in compassion, to other humans and helping them along in their path of life.

Buddha said that the responsibility of each man, woman and child is to make the lives of those around them better and to aid each living being we meet on its path to enlightenment. Each person we meet is a gift to us and we a gift to them. But if we push them away because they make choices differently than we do, then how can we ever inspire them?

And before you get all up in my face about veganism being something we should all aspire to, well, maybe it is. Being vegan doesn't make you better or smarter than anyone else, but it allows you to live a bit lighter on the planet, which is a good thing. Properly balanced, it helps you live a healthier life so you may not be a burden on our health care system. So... maybe it is something we should aspire to being.

But if being "vegan enough" means shunning the brilliant humans I meet because they choose their vegan lifestyle for health, then I think I am happy to fall short of the standards set by this exclusive sect. I prefer to welcome all people, students, friends and family to my lifestyle and see how physical change transforms them to live lives of compassion and peace. Semantics mean little to me when health, peace and the lives of living things are at stake.

For more by Christina Pirello, click here.

For more on veganism, click here.