What Is Veganism?

What do vegans eat, and from what do they abstain?

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Veganism is the practice of minimizing harm to all animals, which requires abstention from animal products, such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs, honey, gelatin, lanolin, wool, fur, silk, suede, and leather. Some call veganism a moral baseline for animal rights activists.

Key Takeaways

  • Veganism is more than a diet: it's a philosophy that excludes exploitation and cruelty in all forms.
  • Veganism is different from vegetarianism; not all vegetarians are vegans, though all vegans are vegetarians.
  • A vegan diet excludes all animal-based foods and food products but does not exclude cooked, processed, canned, or frozen foods.
  • Vegan diets can help lower cholesterol and control weight but should be carefully managed to include sufficient protein, fat, calcium, and necessary vitamins.
  • Vegans ensure that their food, clothing, household products, and energy are ethically and sustainably sourced.
  • It's best to go vegan slowly and to seek out support and help both locally and online.


Vegan Definition

Unlike vegetarianism, veganism is not a diet. Instead, it is a moral philosophy which, when strictly followed, according to the Vegan Society, "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." Thus, a vegan will not only choose plant-based foods but will also avoid the use of animal-derived products (such as animal-tested cosmetics), and will choose not to visit or patronize places that use animals for entertainment or where animals are injured or abused.

Many individuals are attracted to the vegan lifestyle because of its many personal, planetary, and ethical benefits.

  • Health Benefits. A nutritionally-balanced plant-based diet is, for most people, a very healthy choice. According to a 2013 Nutritional Update for Physicians: "Research shows that plant-based diets are cost-effective, low-risk interventions that may lower body mass index, blood pressure, HbA1C, and cholesterol levels. They may also reduce the number of medications needed to treat chronic diseases and lower ischemic heart disease mortality rates. Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity."
  • Benefits to Animals. True vegans are focused on the rights of all animals, including insects. According to the Vegan Society, "many believe that all sentient creatures have a right to life and freedom." Vegans choose cruelty-free products and avoid any clothing, furniture, etc., that is made from an animal product such as leather; many also avoid wool, silk, and other materials made from or by animals.
  • Benefits to the Environment. Animal husbandry has a significant negative impact on the environment which would be eradicated in a vegan world. Just a few examples include a radical reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a significant reduction in biodiversity loss, and a major reduction in pollution of waterways.
  • Socio-Economic Benefits. Animal diets are expensive, both in terms of financial cost and in terms of land use. For people in poorer areas of the world, the cost of animal-based products is overwhelmingly high relative to the cost of plant-based foods which offer similar nutrition.

Vegan Versus Vegetarian

While vegans neither eat nor use any form of animal-based product, vegetarians vary in their diets, philosophies, and personal choices. In addition, while vegans generally choose veganism for philosophical reasons, vegetarians may choose their diets for a variety of reasons; some, for example, become vegetarians for health or financial reasons.

Some people follow a vegan diet but do not avoid animal products in other parts of their lives. This may be for health, religious or other reasons. The term “strict vegetarian” is sometimes used in this instance, but is problematic because it implies that someone who eats eggs or dairy is not a vegetarian or is not a “strict” vegetarian.

A woman is preparing a fresh dough.
Milks, eggs, and honey are several ingredients that separate vegans from vegetarians.  SarapulSar38/Getty Images

There are several types of vegetarianism that actually include animal products of various sorts; for example:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products.
  • Lacto vegetarians do consume dairy products though they don't eat eggs
  • Pescatarians do not eat bird or mammal meat but do eat fish and shellfish

Vegetarians may or may not share vegan views on subjects such as animal welfare or environmentalism. As a result, they may or may not choose to use products such as leather, wool, silk, or honey.

Non-dairy milk alternatives
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Vegan Food

Vegan food is food that does not contain (and is not prepared with) anything that comes from an animal. Ideally, vegan food is also produced in a cruelty-free manner with minimal negative impact on the environment. Veganism, however, does not require that food be eaten raw, nor does it forbid processed foods (so long as the processing does not involve the use of animal products).

Vegans eat plant-based foods, such as grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. While vegans have a wide variety of foods to choose from, the diet may seem very restrictive to those who are used to an omnivorous diet. “A vegan diet can include a wide variety of Italian pasta, Indian curries, Chinese stir-fries, Tex-Mex burritos, and even “meat” loaf made from textured vegetable protein or beans. Many types of meat and dairy analogs are also now available, including sausages, burgers, hot dogs, “chicken” nuggets, milk, cheese and ice cream, all made without animal products. Vegan meals can also be rather simple and humble, such as lentil soup or raw vegetable salad.

Animal products sometimes show up in unexpected places, so many vegans learn to become avid label-readers, looking out for whey, honey, albumin, carmine or vitamin D3 in foods that one might otherwise expect to be vegan. Reading labels is not always enough, as some animal ingredients make their way into your food as "natural flavors," in which case one would have to call the company to find out if the flavors are vegan. Some vegans also object to animal products being used to process beer or sugar, even if the animal products do not end up in the food.

There are legitimate concerns about the nutritional completeness of a vegan diet, and dedicated vegans must be conscious of eating a wide range of foods, focusing on nutrients that are harder to find in a plant-based diet. Protein, fat, calcium, and certain vitamins are particularly important to supplement, as they are usually consumed as meat and dairy and can be lacking in a plant-based diet.

  • Protein. Vegan diets should include at least three servings per day of proteins. Options include beans, tofu, soy products, tempeh (which is often formed into vegan "meats"), peanuts or peanut butter, or other nuts and nut butter.
  • Fat. Vegans typically find fat in oils, nut butters, and produce such as avocados and seeds.
  • Calcium. Without milk or other dairy products in their diets, vegans must be careful to include calcium-rich plant-based foods. Some examples include kale, turnip greens, fortified plant milks, and some types of tofu.
  • Vitamins. Even when eating a carefully balanced diet, vegans will still need to take some nutritional supplements. B12, vitamin D, and iodine are all difficult (if not impossible) to find in plant-based foods.
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Vegan Lifestyle

A vegan lifestyle embraces not only food choices but also choices related to clothing, household products, cosmetics, energy use, garden maintenance, transportation, and more. A person who lives by the vegan philosophy chooses options that are sustainable, animal-friendly, human-friendly, and environmentally friendly. This isn't always easy: often the most readily available, affordable options are problematic because of their source, or because of the way in which they were harvested or made.

  • Clothing. Veganism affects clothing choices, and vegans will choose cotton or acrylic sweaters instead of wool sweaters; a cotton blouse instead of a silk blouse, and canvas or fake leather sneakers instead of real leather sneakers. Many clothing choices are available, and as more retailers and manufacturers are trying to appeal to vegans, they are making their vegan options known by advertising the products as “vegan.” Some stores even specialize in vegan footwear and other vegan products.
  • Household Products. Vegan household products avoid harmful chemicals such as bleach and are made in environmentally sensitive ways without the involvement of practices such as child labor. This can be achieved simply, by using homemade cleaning supplies made from materials such as vinegar and citrus, or by purchasing products from green producers (most of which advertise their status on the label).
  • Cosmetics. Most people don’t think about their beauty products as having animal products in them, but they sometimes contain ingredients like lanolin, beeswax, honey, or carmine. Additionally, vegans avoid products that are tested on animals, even if the products do not contain animal ingredients.

    How to Go Vegan

    Some people become vegan gradually, while others do it all at once. If you can't become vegan overnight, you might find that you can eliminate one animal product at a time, or go vegan for one meal a day, or one day a week, and then expand until you are completely vegan.

    Connecting with other vegans or vegan groups can be very helpful for information, support, camaraderie, recipe sharing or local restaurant recommendations. The American Vegan Society is a nationwide organization, and members receive their quarterly newsletter. Many vegetarian clubs have vegan events, and there are also many informal Yahoo groups and Meetup groups for vegans.

    While there is no single way to approach veganism, these tips may be helpful:

    • Start by making some simple substitutions—organic margarine instead of butter, for example, or almond milk rather than cows milk for your coffee.
    • Experiment with new foods to find vegan options that taste as good as (or better than) your usual foods. For example, explore "wheat meat," vegan cheese, and veggie burgers to find options you truly enjoy.
    • Order foods marked "vegan" at local restaurants to learn about new ways to prepare and enjoy your food.
    • Use online sources and local groups to find sources of foods, recipes, products, and even gardening supplies to expand your ability to stick with a vegan philosophy across every aspect of your life.

    Sources

    • Harvard Health Publishing. “Becoming a Vegetarian.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/becoming-a-vegetarian.
    • Tuso PJ, Ismail MH, Ha BP, Bartolotto C. Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets. Perm J. 2013;17(2):61–66. doi:10.7812/TPP/12-085
    • “The Vegan Society.” The Vegan Society, www.vegansociety.com/.