Lapsed Vegans: The Women Who Gave Up & Went Back To Eating Meat

Photographed by Ruby Yeh.
When eagle-eyed fans spotted 28-year-old YouTuber and influencer Yovana Mendoza eating fish in a vlog last month, the vegan social media sphere (and beyond) was outraged. Why? Because Mendoza has made a career by espousing the supposed merits of a raw vegan diet (she calls herself "Rawvana") to her more than three million followers across YouTube and Instagram. Furious commenters hurled fish emoji and taunts of "Fishvana" at her in the comments, in what became known as – you guessed it – #fishgate.
"It's been two months since I started incorporating eggs and fish into my diet," Mendoza admitted in a grovelling 33-minute follow-up video, explaining she'd done so for "health reasons" (irregular periods and digestive issues) after six years of veganism.
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Mendoza isn't the only prominent internet vegan – veganfluencers? – to have resumed old dietary habits in recent months. Several others have also declared their return to animal products recently and faced similar backlash. In January, 26-year-old YouTuber Bonny Rebecca told her 366k followers that she'd quit veganism after five years over skin and gut problems. "Part of me wanted to believe in this diet so much... that I was turning a blind eye to my problems and to the severity of my health issues," she confessed, while Stella Rae admitted that it was her salmon craving and digestive problems ("the worst poops and gas") that motivated her.

Although my conscience felt lighter, it was not healthy. I was ill. I was thin.

Ashleigh-Jayne O'Connell, 30
Vegan and vegetarian diets continue to gain popularity in the UK – around 1% of people are vegan and 2-3% vegetarian, according to the most reliable data available – and it's never been easier to live healthily without animal products. The NHS now advises vegans how to consume all the essential nutrients and food groups, and countless websites and blogs dole out similar tips to veggies. In spite of this, many veggies and vegans return to meat and animal products – be it for health reasons (sometimes due to a doctor or dietitian's advice), on financial grounds, because of peer pressure, or plainly because no amount of tofu, tempeh, seitan or even Quorn cocktail sausages can quell their hunger for steaks or beef burgers.
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Twenty-nine-year-old Nina, from London, hung up her vegan hat last month after a year of vegetarianism and two years of veganism. "The decision was health based," she explains. "I was having some ongoing digestive issues that doctors couldn’t get to the bottom of, but put it somewhere in the very large ballpark of IBS." Think stomach cramps so bad she would vomit, stabbing pains that left her writhing around on the floor, and multiple trips to the toilet before 10am. A nutritionist she visited "expressed dismay" at the rise of trendy junk food veganism (which is often highly processed and gluten-heavy) at the expense of natural, healthier options. (Suffice to say, Nina was a fan of "sloppy seitan burgers and endless carbs".)

I was trundling along thinking vegan equalled healthy, but in fact I was mindlessly eating a ton of crap.

Nina, 29
That's when the penny dropped. "I was trundling along thinking vegan equalled healthy, but in fact I was mindlessly eating a ton of crap." She began gently reintroducing things like eggs into her diet on her nutritionist's advice. "I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt at first, but when I did the improvements were immediate," she concedes. A few weeks later at a French restaurant for a friend's birthday ("obviously there was nothing vegan on the menu"), Nina plumped for a dish as far away from her usual plant-based fare as she could get.
"I could’ve asked the waiter if the chef would prepare something specially. I could’ve just eaten bread and oil, and maybe nibbled on a vegetable dish that had all the inevitable dairy elements removed. But on that day, something in me went 'y’know what, fuck this' and I ordered a massive steak. A £70 Chateaubriand. And it was delicious. I enjoyed every mouthful while friends looked on in utter dismay."
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Many lapsed vegans blame flagging energy levels for their decision to return to animal products. "Although my conscience felt lighter, it was not healthy," says Ashleigh-Jayne O'Connell, 30, a social media and content manager in London who was vegetarian as a teenager. "I was ill. I was thin. I was tired all the time and collapsed in classes. I took supplements and love vegetables so that was never an issue, but my body couldn't take it." It was a childhood love of animals that made her turn veggie aged 12, and she didn't eat meat for five years until a post-exam holiday to Barcelona with her family.
"I was just so completely over feeling the way I did every day. I was tired from all the walking – almost all of the energy I'd had that morning had been sucked out of me," Ashleigh-Jayne admits, and she vowed to return to meat when she got home. "Obviously, my mum was happy and she promised to make me a roast lamb dinner as that had always been my favourite."
For others, it's a weariness of the social and financial costs that prompts them to drop off the #vegan bandwagon. According to one recent study, vegan diners pay up to 65% (£14) more for a standard restaurant meal in the UK. "The milk substitutes, chocolate and supplements etc are quite expensive," says 21-year-old Lily Edwards, a singer-songwriter in London, who was veggie for her 20th year and vegan for four months until the beginning of 2019. On top of the expense, Lily's family weren't always on board with her lifestyle either. "I never made an active decision to stop being vegan or veggie, it just slowly started happening at social events and family gatherings."
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People implied I was being selfish because I stopped, or that I didn't care enough in the first place.

Ashleigh-Jayne O'Connell, 30
Lily still eats predominantly vegan meals and intends to go back to it soon. Unlike Nina and Ashleigh-Jayne, she felt healthier as a vegan and became more aware of what her body needs. "I didn't get much iron or vitamin B12 before I went vegan, whereas when I had to go out of my way to find them I was far more on it." Consequently, Lily is "annoyed with [herself]" that she didn't stick to it and hasn't felt comfortable sharing her reversion with others. So far, while her family is happy she can eat the same thing as them at mealtimes again, her "religiously vegan" friends have "gotten quite upset about it".
Vegans can be a passionate bunch, with a select few taking a very extreme view, and some of the women we spoke to have felt their wrath. Ashleigh-Jayne says she felt pressured to justify putting her health before her veganism. "At times, people implied I was being selfish because I stopped, or that I didn't care enough in the first place. These days, I feel I need to be careful about what I say and to whom.

It's like I’ve just come out of a long term relationship with someone that my friends secretly hated.

Nina, 29
"I've come across some militant vegetarians and vegans over recent years who have been quite aggressive over my choice of going back to eating meat. But I just need to look at the whopping prescribed iron pills I need to take every day to realise that I made the right choice and stopped something... before it potentially got worse."
Nina admits that vegans have a reputation for being pious and judgmental at times, and she was "a bit apprehensive about people finding out" about her return to meat. The reality, though, was the opposite. "It's like I’ve just come out of a long-term relationship with someone that my friends secretly hated. There’s been a few shouts of 'thank god!' and 'finally!' but the most noticeable thing is that while when I went vegan I had to defend and justify my decision until I wanted to slam my fingers in a car door, the overwhelming response [this time] has been a shrug and the assurance I can do what I want."
All three women say they remain committed to minimising their environmental impact and to reducing animal cruelty as best they can, despite changing their diets. (Avoiding meat and dairy is the "single biggest way" to reduce your environmental impact, according to Oxford University researchers.) But as Ashleigh-Jayne concludes, "Everyone's body is different and we're not all cut out to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet." Ecological reasons were what turned Nina initially, and even now she doesn't eat meat or dairy every day. "I want to make an effort where I can, regardless of whether I’m carrying the label 'VEGAN' around my neck. I'm still horrified by what’s happening to the planet and think we should collectively move to significant reduction, but I would never advise that everyone should be vegan."
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