What is Veganism & What Does It Mean To Be Vegan?

A rescued sheep called Teddy looks into the camera with the sun behind him. Teddy lives at The Smallest Flock Sheep Sanctuary in Somerset
Credit: James Gibson / We Animals Media

Around the world, interest in and take-up of veganism is increasing, and there are lots of reasons why people are choosing to eat a diet free from animal products. Often, the reason that brings someone to veganism becomes just one of many reasons to stay vegan once the full benefits of this way of eating become known.

When Did Veganism Start?

Good question, but there is no succinct answer! Individuals and communities have eaten a fully plant-based diet throughout human history for various reasons. For our ancient ancestors, it might have been through necessity, in more recent times it could have been for religious, spiritual, practical or ethical reasons. The word ‘vegan’ was coined in the UK in the 1940s by Donald Watson, the founder of The Vegan Society. It meant eschewing animal products specifically for ethical reasons. This included not only products we eat, but those we use such as our clothes, toiletries and household products. Today, some people still use this definition to describe their own veganism, while for others, the definition varies. But at its heart, it means people do not eat or use animal products.

What It Means To Be Vegan

We each have different motivations for our veganism, and – if we are honest – different definitions and boundaries, too. For example, we may all agree that harming animals is unacceptable but how do we feel about the fleas on our rescued dog? How do we feel about life-saving medicines being a) tested on animals for legal purposes and b) being packaged in a gelatine-capsule? It is often when we come to these marginal issues that we each have to examine our own consciences, and do what we feel is right but broadly speaking, ethical vegans share the same belief in common: that animals are not ours to exploit, harm, kill and eat.

The good thing is there is no Vegan Police to come around and judge us, and haul us off to prison if we get it wrong. Our veganism is personal, and we each have to find our own path and our own boundaries. Today, there are millions of people who eat a vegan (‘plant-based’) diet for their health or to better protect the environment. They may say they are ‘vegan’ while not fitting in exactly with the 1940s definition of the word, or they may say they are ‘plant-based’.

What Are Vegan Beliefs?

The original 1940s definition has changed a little over the years. It started out as ’the principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man’. This was later clarified as ‘to seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man.’

Today, the Vegan Society definition includes the phrases:’as far as is practical and possible’ and ‘promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment.’ This newer definition accepts that perfection is not possible and encompasses a wider range of reasons why people may choose not to use animals or animal-derived products. But veganism can encompass still more issues.

At Million Dollar Vegan, we see veganism as an inherent part of a broader social justice movement. Not only can eating vegan foods improve health outcomes and protect the planet, it supports the dismantling of unjust systems that play out right across the world. These systems have at their root the historical categorisation of people and animals, with a hierarchy of worth assigned to them. When we take a broader look at the issues, we can see veganism is not a distinct movement but a part of something much bigger

What Is The Difference Between A Vegetarian And A Vegan?

In dietary terms, vegetarians don’t eat the meat of animals, including fish, while vegans don’t eat any animal products at all, including milk, eggs and honey. Of course, vegetarians are as varied in their motivations as vegans, and some of those may also boycott dairy while still eating eggs.

What Is The Point Of Veganism?

What we choose to eat has a profound impact on the world around us so whether we care about animals, our health, the rivers, forests and oceans, wildlife, preventing future pandemics, or protecting humanity from antibiotic resistance, veganism plays a very positive role.

Ethics

When people say that they are an ‘ethical’ vegan they mean they are vegan in line with the 1940s definition – to protect animals and prevent them suffering. Billions of animals are incarcerated inside disgusting factory farms every year. They are denied everything that makes life worthwhile, and many suffer and die right there in the sheds because veterinary care costs more than their lives are worth in financial terms. In most parts of the world, treating a dog this way would be illegal – again, we see that unjust hierarchy of worth. And so vegans – who may still like the taste of meat, eggs and dairy – choose not to eat them, because they do not believe that another being should pay with their life for a moment of pleasure. Besides, these days there are so many vegan foods on the market that effectively replicate the taste of meat, dairy, fish, and many other products, so vegans don’t have to miss out on any foods they love.

Health

As the overwhelming health benefits of a fully plant-based diet are becoming recognised, more and more people are ditching animal products to reap the rewards. Some people find an almost-instant improvement in their energy levels, digestion, skin, hair and sleep. For others, there are profound changes such as an end to arthritic pain or symptoms of depression. But for everyone, a well-balanced vegan diet reduces their risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and some cancers. Documentaries like What the Health and The Game Changers have shown just what a vegan diet can do for people, so it is no wonder choosing veganism for health reasons has become more common.

Environment

Research is consistently showing that a vegan diet is much better for the planet than one that includes animal products. It emits far fewer climate-changing gases, pollutes less, requires less land, which protects forests (whereas vast swathes of forests are cut down for meat production), and by protecting habitats it also allows wildlife to flourish. When we come to consider how we can best play our part in protecting the planet, researchers at Oxford University state that ‘being vegan is the single biggest way’ we can do that.

Social And Economics

When we see how much food is grown to feed the billions of farmed animals, it’s clear that people are being pitted against Big Ag when it comes to accessing commodities like wheat and soy. Wealthier nations buy these for animal feed, even though they get fewer calories back in meat, milk and eggs than the animals were fed. If farmed animals were taken out of the equation, these grains and legumes would be more accessible to people, and they would be more affordable, too. Plus, as we’d need less land to grow the world’s food, the natural world would be protected.

There are multiple reasons why choosing a vegan diet is good for people, too. In the US, huge factory farms, known as CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are disproportionately located in communities of color. These vast farms pollute the air and water, reducing the quality of living for residents and often causing respiratory and other illnesses. This is known as ‘environmental racism’, and is one more reason why social justice campaigners boycott the industry that treats people this way, and become vegan.

Other Aspects Of Vegan Living

While the focus of veganism is often on food, there are many other aspects to consider, particularly if the protection of animals is at the heart of our veganism.

Medicine

In laboratories, animals are force fed medicines and other substances, or have them injected into their bloodstreams, smeared over their skins or rubbed into their eyes. Animals may be deliberately bred to be sick so researchers have a chance to try and cure them (no matter that the disease they have is not actually the same as the ones people suffer from).These are old-fashioned, crude ways to try to achieve positive outcomes, and increasingly researchers are looking to state-of-the-art technologies that yield better and safer results, without harming animals. However, to prevent pharmaceutical firms from being sued when things go wrong, they are legally required to test their products on animals, even though animals do not react the same way as people. This legal requirement means that every drug on the market has been tested on animals, regardless of how inefficient and ineffective this may be. While we support campaigns to end this outdated inhumane practice, there is little option but to take these medicines if we need them. And we remind ourselves of this analogy: if the road to the hospital was built by forced labor, that does not mean we should not travel down that road if we need it.

Medical Charities

Some of the wealthiest charities in the world are medical charities. They raise funds to conduct research on a variety of illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Animals are victims of the research, and their suffering can be immense. The thing is, we already know how to prevent these conditions in the majority of cases, and the answer lies in the advice we all know we should follow: eat healthily, exercise regularly, avoid smoking, reduce alcohol, and find ways to manage stress. While education programmes and curbs on the marketing of unhealthy choices to us, could drastically reduce incidence of these diseases, the focus remains on fundraising from the public purse to create drugs that might help alleviate the problem. As the adage goes, prevention is better than cure, so not only do many vegans (and others, of course) take their health seriously, they may also choose to fund only research that has been carried out without the harmful use of animals.

Entertainment

Animals are also commodified, exploited and harmed for our entertainment in theme parks, zoos, circuses and rodeos. It is our belief that animals should not be treated as ‘things’, as money-making gimmicks. We believe that forcing them to spend their whole lives in misery just so we can be diverted for an hour is not an ethical way to treat a fellow being.

What Are The Types Of Veganism?

People may choose to define their veganism in a number of ways, or none!

Dietary Vegans

As you might expect, these are vegans who are strict about eating only non-animal products, but do not necessarily avoid wearing leather, wool or fur, or using products that contain animal parts.

Whole-food Vegans

This defines the kinds of foods that some vegans prefer to eat. A whole food diet is the healthiest one as it relies on fresh produce, as well as whole grains and legumes, and includes fewer processed products.

Junk-food Vegans

These vegans enjoy convenience foods, are less concerned about their health, and tend to be vegan for purely ethical reasons.

Raw-food Vegans

This is a way of eating that includes mostly or wholly foods that have not been heated above a certain temperature. It is harder to get all the nutrients this way and relies on a greater commitment to sourcing and creating the foods. That said, most of us would do well to include a few more raw foods in our diets.

What Is A Vegan Diet?

In reality, most vegans cross these boundaries all the time. We may generally eat healthily, but rely on processed foods when our schedules are busy, while eating more raw foods in summertime when fresh salads are plentiful. We do not have to label or limit ourselves. But, whether we eat kale or cookies, neither or both, vegans only eat animal-free foods.

Foods That Vegans Avoid

Because animals are harmed, exploited and killed for these products, vegans do not eat meat, (which includes fish), dairy, eggs or honey, or any derivatives of them.

Foods That Vegans Eat

We eat everything else! We can eat vegan ‘meat’ products, and plant-based milks, yogurts and ice creams. Almost every animal-based product has a vegan version so all the flavors and textures we love remain on offer. We also eat all the vegetables and fruits, nuts, grains and legumes, and all the things that are made with them, such as bread, pasta, pizza, peanut butter and many other everyday foods that people eat that just happen to be vegan.

What Are the Benefits of Veganism?

Veganism is kinder to the planet and to all its inhabitants, both human and non-human. It is optimal for our personal health, while protecting global public health. It does not require factory farms or slaughterhouses. It does not require animals to be bred, caged, mutilated and killed. It is the gentlest diet when it comes to our environmental impact, and in that way it helps protect wildlife and wild places. There are so many benefits that for anyone who cares about anything, veganism can be part of their activism.

How To Go Vegan

Some people just jump in, clean out their fridge and are vegan from the moment they decide they want to be. But for most people it is a journey. We may cut out meat from mammals first, then fish, then eggs and dairy. Or we may reduce our consumption on two, then three, then more days of the week. Whatever way works for you is the right way. But most people find they could use a little support along the way. That’s why we created our 30-day programme that offers advice, encouragement, resources and recipes to help you eliminate animal products sustainably.

Conclusion

People have been eating plant-based diets for as long as there have been people, and the reasons for doing so have changed from century to century, from culture to culture and from individual to individual. Modern ‘veganism’ is an ethical approach to eating that takes a look at the impacts of our dietary choices on other people, on animals and the planet, and – for the good of them – eliminates the products that do most harm: animal products. With this information now so widely available – and veganism becoming so much easier in many parts of the world – there has been a huge rise in the number of vegans, and thankfully this shows no signs of slowing.

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