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Veganism Defined

Most people don’t really understand vegans or the way we choose to eat and live. Given the level of confusion about what even vegetarianism really is (a recent poll found that 37% of the people claiming to be “vegetarian” had eaten red meat in the last 24 hours!), it seems prudent to define a few terms. As the saying goes, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and it’s especially tough here since vegans usually don’t wear numbers on their backs.

Here are some handy definitions:

Vegetarians—People who consistently choose not to eat the flesh of animals.

Vegetarians, though, are a large and diverse group of folks. There are two general kinds of vegetarians:

  1. Ovo-Lacto Vegetarians—These are vegetarians who eat dairy products (“lacto”) and chickens’ eggs (“ovo”). The Latin is just thrown in to add an air of mystery. Are there vegetarians who are only “lacto”, or only “ovo”? Certainly there are, but keeping track of them with Latin terms seems unnecessarily complicated.
  2. Vegans (pronounced “vee-guns”)—We vegans are folks who choose not to eat any animal products, including dairy, eggs and honey. We may also be referred to as “herbivores,” “people on a plant-based diet,” “strict vegetarians” (because we’re all good disciplinarians?) or “pure vegetarians.” (No doubt, because we’re all so pure at heart!) Some vegans may only eat raw foods, or have other more specialized diets as well.

Of course in our society the progression usually goes like this:

  1. Most people start out as meat-eaters.
    Why? Because that’s what their parents taught them to do. Why were their parents meat-eaters? Because their parents were. And so on, and so forth…
  1. A lucky few then start to think for themselves and become vegetarians.
    Why? Because they realize that making the change is the best thing they will ever do for their own health and for the health of the planet. And because they don’t like to hurt animals.
  1. A lucky few vegetarians decide to become vegans.
    Why? Because they’ve found out that being vegetarian is really fun! And because they know that everything that is really groovy about being a vegetarian is way, waaaaay groovier still when you’re a vegan!
  1. And it goes beyond just diet.
    When folks become vegan there’s a natural tendency to extend all the goodness they’re doing with their diet to other phases of their life as well. So many vegans choose to give up leather and other products that are derived from cruelty to animals. Many choose to eat organic, which benefits their own bodies and the earth as well. It’s all about being more conscious of our place as human beings on this earth. (For more information, and to see where you fit in, please take our exciting VegansAreWhat? Quiz!)

Perhaps the most eloquent statement on what veganism is all about was made by Donald Watson, who coined the term:

The word “veganism”denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

So when did all this start?

It may surprise you to learn that there were no vegetarians before 1842! That’s right. The term “vegetarian” was coined sometime around that date by the folks who would soon found The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom. It’s derived from the Latin word “vegetus”, meaning “whole, sound, fresh, or lively”. This is appropriate, because vegetarians are all of these things, and vegetarianism has to do with a lot more than just vegetables. The term “vegan” wasn’t used until 1944 when the Vegan Society was founded in England.

Despite these rather recent origins, we must humbly point out that, of course, the vegan style of eating goes way back to the Garden of Eden.

But wait! Some vegetarians eat “chicken” and “fish”!

Yes, and some vegans eat eggs, and the moon is made of green cheese. …Or so they say. Go into most restaurants and ask what vegetarian items are being served and the waitperson is likely to point out a few “fish” items on the menu, and maybe even a dish or two with chickens in them. Ask for vegan items and you’ll likely get a blank stare and a referral to the gluten-free menu. There are many misconceptions out there that keep us vegetarians and vegans explaining our diet over and over. (That’s okay, it’s a subject we like to talk about!) This misconception has also led to a joke popular among vegetarians/vegans:

“You know, sharks are vegetarian.”
“Yeah, they only eat fish!”

Let’s get it straight right now: Vegetarians don’t eat “chicken” or “fish” and vegans don’t eat eggs …or cheese, or anything else made out of cows’ milk.

It’s funny though. Even when they know their definitions, it’s amazing how many people want to be associated with the “V” words, and think of themselves as vegetarian or vegan when they really aren’t. They bend the rules just a little, and make up their own terms like “pesce-vegetarian” and “pollo-vegetarian.” They may claim to be some kind of vegan because they only eat animals that are vegan. Now, we don’t want to be old sticks-in-the-mud, but there are some very good reasons why vegetarians, and especially we vegans, eat the way we do, and we’d rather not go tampering with our terminology. Of course, veganism is not about perfection either so just ignore anyone who tells you otherwise.

So, what’s the important thing to know?

If you’ve given up red meat, but continue to eat birds and fishes, you’re not a vegetarian yet. If you continue to eat eggs or cheese or milk you’re not vegan. (This means you don’t get the souvenir certificate suitable for framing, and you don’t get to learn the secret handshake.) But don’t give up. Just because you don’t meet these definitions doesn’t mean you aren’t on the right track! We’re going to give you a new name (something without a “V” in it, please), pat you on the back, and acknowledge how far you’ve come. Then we hope you’ll spend a lot of time here at and learn what real veganism is all about. Who knows, soon we might be scheduling your secret swearing-in ceremony!