Quick recap: I was a vegetarian for 6 years (vegan for 5 of those years) and have since returned to eating meat. I am also a lifelong cultist. Though my vegetarianism and cultism were two separate struggles, I believe the two informed each other.
My intention in writing this post is to illustrate how manipulative cult leaders can (and often do) take advantage of their followers’ virtues and empathy. I am also going to explain why I think food restriction is often a major component of thought reform.
My theory is that some cult leader, looooooong long ago, figured out that vegetarians were easier to psychologically manipulate than non-vegetarians — and if I’m correct, this would explain why vegetarianism is peddled as an ideal way of life in many cults to this day (not naming names).
On principle, I do not label groups/movements as cults. I might say there are cultic characteristics to them, or that they make high demands of their members, or have toxic group dynamics… but I won’t straight-up call them cults. Partly because of liability issues, and partly because I’ve found it counterproductive to cult discourse. The word “cult” is highly stigmatized and tends to put people on the defensive, making reasonable conversation close to impossible. So when I refer to “vegetarian cults” from this point onward in this post, you fill in the blanks.
(One more thing: I’ll be using vegxn as a catch-all for both vegetarian and vegan.)
I’ll get the difficult stuff out of the way first:
I know, I know. Vegxns hate being reminded that their lifestyle choice is a high-maintenance one. But the fact is, vegxns are at a higher risk of numerous nutrient deficiencies than non-vegxns. As a diet, vegxnism requires more forethought, careful planning and mindfulness than a standard diet that includes meat. It’s possible we’ll have supplements and meat substitutes in the future that will allow for a lower-maintenance vegxn lifestyle — but for now, vegxnism is high-maintenance relative to non-vegxnism.
On to my point: Vegxns aren’t at risk for just any deficiency, but for very specific deficiencies of nutrients and minerals that assist in brain function.
You know, the brain? That organ responsible for critical thought and logic and reason? The organ that suffers the most damage when someone’s victimized by a cult? Yeah, that thing.
Most common nutrient deficiencies in vegxns:
Notice the hyperlinks I added? Check them out. Each of these deficiencies impact brain function in the following ways:
- brain fog (poor focus, lack of mental clarity)
- poor memory
- emotional dysfunction
- dementia (long-term)
^ If I was a predatory leader, this is exactly the diet I’d want my followers to adopt. A diet that negatively impacts mental clarity, memory storage and mood is perfect for grooming someone into ideological submission.
I can already hear the vegxns defending themselves. I take supplements! I get regular blood tests! My brain is fine!!!
Okay, cool. I’m not talking about you, then. Notice how I said these symptoms come about from poorly planned vegxn diets. And remember, we’re talking about vegxn cults.
Cult members are prevented from making the majority of their own decisions, regarding everything from what they wear, to what words they can say, to how much sleep they get, etc. In many of the nameless vegetarian cults I’m alluding to, adherents are discouraged from taking supplements or from choosing their own meals, so their vegxnism is poorly planned by virtue of their being in the cult. They are encouraged instead to take an all-natural approach (meaning no supplements or meat substitutes), because “nature provides everything you need.” Some cults go as far as to convince adherents that nutrient absorption directly correlates with one’s degree of enlightenment — so if you aren’t able to obtain the proper amount of B-12, iron and calcium from a 1-month water fast, it’s only because you’re an unenlightened sinner. Now go meditate for 5 hours.
If it seems like I’m just hating on anyone’s lifestyle for no reason, please keep in mind that Jack Norris, the founder of Vegan Outreach, a registered dietician, and a vegan of over 20 years, says the following:
Many vegans believe that a vegan diet is the most natural and, therefore, the healthiest, and so everyone should stop harming animals and live an Eden-like existence. I understand the appeal of this, but the evidence that humans evolved as vegans is simply not there, not to mention the important fact that what is “natural” is not necessarily what is the healthiest.
I have my reservations about veganism ever since it tore my body (and bank account) to shreds. But if you truly believe that vegxnism is a diet you should adhere to, then supplement! Don’t let any leaders of any groups talk you out of proper supplementation! Your health is important, loveling.
Here’s another reason I think vegxnism is so popular in many cults:
It is often argued that vegxnism is a moral baseline — meaning, one cannot claim to be compassionate and empathetic unless they abstain from consuming animal products. If this is true, then it follows that vegetarianism is a necessary part of an enlightened lifestyle.
Now, once it has been established that vegxnism is inherently enlightened, the cult can — and does — use this as a shield from criticism of their more questionable activities. Example: “Guru would NEVER rape his followers! He’s too kind and compassionate to do that! He wouldn’t even hurt a fly!”
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the fact that I once (very briefly) worked for a storefront of a cultic yoga school (again: not naming names…). The leaders have been accused of a wide score of egregious abuses by many former students. And what’s the #1 defense their loyal followers make? “They would never do that — they’re vegans!!!”
When vegxnism is defined as the most compassionate lifestyle choice a person can make, predatory personalities can use it as so-called proof of their kindness — and their victims have a harder time being believed when they try to speak out about being abused.
This final point applies to more than just vegxnism. All cults feature some high degree of lifestyle restriction, whether regarding sexual activity, interpersonal activity, dietary choices, or a combination of the above. Why is this the case?
Well, high-demand lifestyle restrictions in cults –
- force uniformity on group members, which decimates one’s independence and Selfhood
- encourage competition and purity-policing between members
- create impossible standards of behavior in members that the leader can point to as “evidence” of a follower’s inadequacy (as a power-play)
- exhaust members by creating an overwhelming amount of rules to follow, which become obsessions that leave little mental space to think of much else
- reinforce social isolation
A bit of emphasis on that last one:
One characteristic of all high-demand groups is that they encourage social isolation from “non-members.” When your life is ruled by a cult, that’s socially isolating enough as it is! Add special dietary restrictions to the mix, and then it’s even harder for you to socialize with people outside of the group.
Like I said earlier: if I was a cult leader, these are precisely the kinds of conditions I’d want to create in my followers’ lives, to make it harder for them to leave me and my cult.
So there’s my theory about why vegxnism is so popular in many cults, particularly of the New Age / Eastern philosophy variety.
This is not to say that vegxnism is innately cultic or dangerous. Your lifestyle and health choices are ultimately up to you. It’s when vegxnism is used as a barometer of your worth or enlightenment, that there’s reason for concern. If your friendships are contingent upon your dietary choices, it might be time to re-evaluate your current situation. If you choose to be vegxn, be sure that your choice isn’t swayed by an authority figure or group, and that you’re free to change your mind if you want to.
Happy eating (and unminding)! ♥