If you’ve ever come across the vegan section of the grocery store or walked by someone wearing a vegan t-shirt, you may have wondered, “what is a vegan, anyway?”
There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding what it means to be a vegan and follow the practices of veganism. The truth is that there is much more to being a vegan than just eating a vegan diet.
Veganism is a lifestyle. So, it’s not enough to simply ask, “what is a vegan?” You must also ask, “what is veganism?” So, here are the answers to the questions you’ve always wondered about vegans and their way of living, including what it means to be a vegan, what vegans eat, what makes vegans different from vegetarians, and why people go vegan.
What is a Vegan?
A vegan is someone who excludes animal products and uses from all aspects of their lifestyle — including food, fashion, entertainment, and other commodities — in an effort to reduce animal exploitation and cruelty as much as possible.
Essentially, vegans believe that animals are here with us not for us. This is why you hear of many vegans who are animal lovers and want non-human sentient beings to receive the same welfare, freedom, and rights as human beings.
The widely accepted vegan definition is the one by The Vegan Society, which says:
Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
While many people think a vegan is someone who simply chooses not to eat meat, cheese, fish, and eggs, there’s much more to it than that. Vegans also avoid cosmetics that are tested on animals (opting for cruelty-free cosmetics), fabrics made from animal goods (such as leather and suede), entertainment that causes animal suffering (such as the zoo and circus), and so on.
Avoiding animal exploitation may not be possible 100% of the time, but a vegan avoids animal products and cruelty as much as they possibly can.
History of the Word “Vegan”
So, where did the word “vegan” come from?
Historians suggest that people excluded animal products from their diet due to ethical reasons for thousands of years, but language was lacking a proper description for such a lifestyle. That changed in the twentieth century when the word “vegan” began circulating.
The modern-day version of veganism is believed to have started in 1944 when a group of non-dairy vegetarians led by Donald Waltson sought a new word to describe their lifestyle. They settled on the word “vegan,” a medley of the first and last letters of the word “vegetarian.”
Shortly after, they formed the Vegan Society, which became a charity and then a company seeking to end animal use and push veganism into the mainstream. Today, the Vegan Society is an important resource for vegans everywhere and people curious about becoming a vegan themselves.
It was Donald Waltson and his group who declared that a vegan is someone who not only bans meat from their diet, but all animal by-products. Since the term vegan originated to describe the non-dairy vegetarian way of eating, it’s easy to see why people define vegans by their dietary patterns to this day.
Over time, the word “vegan” has been expanded to describe the exclusion of animals from not just one’s diet, but all commodities.
What is the Difference Between a Vegetarian and a Vegan?
People often confuse vegetarians and vegans, but there’s a clear distinction.
The definition of a vegetarian is someone who does not consume meat, poultry, or fish in their diet. However, they still consume other types of animal products, such as milk, eggs, and honey.
According to The Vegetarian Society, vegetarians don’t eat products or by-products of animal slaughter. For example, gelatin and rennet are animal by-products that are obtained from the remains of an animal that was slaughtered for food.
The main difference between vegetarians and vegans is that vegetarianism is mainly related to dietary patterns while veganism is a way of life that extends beyond one’s diet.
Vegetarians still consume products that result from the exploitation and cruelty of animals, such as honey, dairy products, eggs, leather goods, suede goods, fur goods, and so on. They may also continue to exploit animals in the form of entertainment (e.g. zoo, circus, live animal shows, etc.).
While some vegetarians have ethical concerns related to animal welfare, they are not as strict as vegans when it comes to reducing and excluding animal use from their lives.
Essentially, a vegetarian diet is just a set of dietary restrictions, but a vegan diet makes up one part of the overall vegan lifestyle.
What is a Vegan Diet?
One aspect of the vegan lifestyle is the vegan diet. Vegans seek to exclude animal products, and one of the main source of animal products consumed by humans is related to food and diet. So, since vegans don’t eat animal-derived foods, what does their dietary pattern look like?
A vegan diet excludes all animal products and by-products: meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, honey, etc.
What’s left after you remove all the animal-based foods? You get plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, plant oils, non-dairy milks, vegan meat substitutes, and more. This also includes soy products like soy milk, tofu, and tempeh.
Is a Vegan Diet Healthy?
However, not all vegan diets are equally healthy. Thanks to modern-day food technology, there are vegan alternatives to just about everything: cookies, cakes, meats, cheese, oh my! These vegan foods, while tasty, are often overly processed and lacking in nutrients.
When you first switch to a vegan diet, it’s essential that you learn the basics of vegan nutrition. Like other diets, its best to practice moderation when it comes to enjoying indulgent foods and sweet treats. When whole unprocessed foods make up the bulk of your vegan diet, it can be nutritionally dense, rich in plant-based protein, and beneficial for overall health.
For more information on the healthiness of a vegan diet, speak with a health professional or seek advice from expert sources like NutritionFacts.org and VeganHealth.org, which are both operated by doctors, dietitians, and other health professionals.
Types of Vegan Diets
There are several different types of vegan diets, but they all share one thing in common: they are free of any animal-derived products, so the base of each vegan diet is plant-based foods.
Some sub-types of the vegan diet include:
- Dietary Vegans do not eat animal products but may still consume them in other ways, such as clothing, entertainment, etc. They often follow a plant-based diet for health reasons but do not share the ethical concerns regarding animal welfare, cruelty, and exploitation. Like vegetarians, dietary vegans are in it just for the way of eating.
- Raw Vegans exclude foods cooked at temperatures higher than 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Foods may be dehydrated with low heat, fermented, or eaten fresh. This type of vegan diet can be further categorized into Fruitarian Vegan diets and Low-Fat Raw Vegan diets.
- Whole Foods Plant-Based Vegans follow what is generally considered a healthy and well-balanced diet. They consume mostly whole foods that are unprocessed and high in nutrients. They may occasionally consume indulgent food, though it is always made entirely from plants.
- “Junk Food” Vegans will eat anything under the sun as long as it’s free of animal products. They enjoy vegan processed foods like cookies, vegan burgers, dairy-free cheese, and much more. We like to think they eat a vegetable every now and then, too.
There are also Ethical Vegans who will eat anything as long as it’s free of animal-derived ingredients. They do not follow any strict dietary rules, such as low-fat, low-calorie, high-carb, gluten-free, etc. They are not particularly conscious of their diet since they are vegan for ethical reasons, not health reasons. Though, some ethical reasons are also mindful of their health and may choose to follow the highly regarded Whole Foods Plant-Based way of eating.
Plant-Based Diet vs. Vegan Diet
Sometimes vegan and plant-based are used interchangeably. While they’re very similar, there are some key differences.
A vegan diet is always plant-based, but a plant-based diet is not always vegan.
Let’s break that down.
Someone who follows a vegan diet consumes only foods deriving from plant sources, whether they’re whole unprocessed foods or indulgent processed food. As long as it’s vegan, it’s fair game.
There is usually an ethical element attached to the diet, so vegans stray away from animal products out of respect for the animals whose lives were lost to make those foods.
Someone who follows a plant-based diet doesn’t necessary have the ethical concerns that a vegan does. Therefore, their diet consists predominantly of plant-based food sources, but they may still consume small amounts of animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs. A plant-based diet is enticing for its health benefits.
Some followers of a plant-based diet do not consume any animal products but do not call themselves vegan if they still utilize commodities that involve animal exploitation (e.g. someone who eats a plant-based diet but buys fur and leather goods).
Vegetarian Diet vs. Vegan Diet
It’s easy to differentiate vegan vs. vegetarian diets based on what they do eat and do not eat. Most people know the overlap between vegetarians and vegans is that they do not eat meat. What makes them different is that vegetarians have fewer dietary restrictions.
There are different types of vegetarians, making it even more confusing to distinguish vegetarian vs. vegan.
The main sub-types of vegetarian diets include:
- Lacto Vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, though they include dairy products like milk, butter, yogurt, and cheese as well as honey.
- Ovo Vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products, though they include eggs and honey.
- Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish, and poultry, though they include dairy products, eggs, and honey. This is your standard vegetarian diet.
- Pescatarian diets exclude meat and poultry, but include fish, dairy products, eggs, and honey.
- Strict Vegetarian (Vegan) diets exclude all animal products and by-products, such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, honey, gelatin, etc.
When it comes to dietary patterns, vegans have to take a closer look at food labels to determine if something is compliant. For example, if a food product contains milk, honey, and eggs, a vegetarian will consume it, but a vegan won’t.
What Do Vegans Eat?
The vegan diet is often misconstrued as a restrictive diet, but it’s actually a diet full of abundance when you look at what vegans eat instead of focusing on what vegans do not eat.
What Vegans Eat
Vegans eat anything that is derived from a plant and not an animal.
Some of what vegans eat include:
- Legumes like beans and lentils
- Nut and seed butters
- Non-dairy milks like almond milk, soy milk, and coconut milk
- Soy protein like tofu and tempeh
- Plant oils like olive oil and coconut oil
- Fortified foods* like cereals, breads, and pasta
- Meat alternatives*
- Processed food*
- Condiments, sauces, and seasonings*
*Vegan-friendly versions of these foods.
What Vegans Do Not Eat
Vegans do not eat anything that is derived from an animal.
Some of what vegans do not eat include:
- Beef and veal
- Poultry like chicken, turkey, and duck
- Pork products like bacon
- Fish and seafood like tuna, salmon, shrimp, etc.
- Dairy products like milk, cheese, and butter
- Eggs from chickens, quails, and other birds
- Animal by-products like gelatin and rennet
- Processed foods that contain animal-derived ingredients
Why Do People Go Vegan?
Though there are thousands of edible plants that vegans can eat, giving up animal products can be a big sacrifice. So, why would someone go vegan in the first place? There are three main reasons to go vegan: ethical reasons, health reasons, and environmental reasons.
Ethical Reasons to Go Vegan
Ethical vegans go vegan because they believe it’s the right thing to do. Rearing animals specifically for human consumption is unethical to many. They believe that non-human animals have just as much of a right to freedom as human beings do. Raising animals to later sacrifice them for their meat is not a justifiable action to ethical vegans.
People who go vegan for ethical reasons tend to have a problem with animal agriculture. Dairy farms, beef farms, pig farms, and other factory farms have atrocious living conditions for the animals. They are often confined to small, dark living spaces. If you’ve ever seen pictures of factory farm conditions, you will see the animals often live in their own filth and feces. It’s not a clean or sanitary environment.
In some factory farms, the animals suffer from violent abuse before they are sacrificed. During their short lives, they are scared, dirty, hurt, and confused. Then, they suffer a violent death.
Even “free-range” and “grass-fed” animal products are questionable. According to ethical vegans, there is no ethical way to kill an animal that wants to live. Since some people don’t want to contribute to the violent animal agriculture industry, they choose to go vegan for the ethical reasons.
Health Reasons to Go Vegan
The health benefits of a vegan diet have contributed greatly to its increase in popularity in recent years.
Animal products have been associated with negative health consequences, which many people want to avoid. Specifically, consuming a lot of animal products is associated with increased risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke, diabetes, cancer, and more.
There are many doctors, dietitians, and other health professionals who are strong advocates of a whole foods plant-based diet (i.e. the healthiest version of the vegan diet).
Environmental Reasons to Go Vegan
It’s no secret that a carnivorous diet is bad for the environment. Research has shown that reducing your intake of animal products is the single biggest way to reduce your footprint on Earth.
A vegan diet requires significantly fewer resources (e.g. water, land, fuel, waste, etc.), making it appealing to people who care about the environment and want to lead an eco-friendly life. Veganism is simply more sustainable than the alternative.
If you’re interested in going vegan for environmental reasons, check out the documentary Cowspiracy available on Netflix.
Is the vegan lifestyle right for you?
If you’re asking “what is a vegan?” then there’s a good chance you’re interested in becoming one yourself.
The vegan lifestyle may be right for you if you feel strongly motivated by the many reasons to go vegan and the benefits of this sustainable way of living.
Fortunately, going vegan is easy. Well, it will be a bit of a shock at first. But soon your new way of living, one that is kinder to animals and our shared planet, will become second nature.
What is it about veganism that piques your interest? Let me know in the comments below!