What Is A Vegan?

Last Update: April 15, 2024

Since the beginning of time, humans have had an evolving relationship with animals. Our earliest prehistoric ancestors found them to be a major food and clothing resource, yet as the years have passed, animals have also become beloved household pets and stars of countless Internet memes.

In fact, more modernized populations have begun to question whether we need animals as a food source at all. The idea has been supported by a rise in vegetarian and vegan communities that adopt plant-based diets either for ethical beliefs and/or because of the mounting evidence that shows the positive effects it can have on health and personal well-being as well as the environment.

Fresh fruits and vegetables

Vegan vs. vegetarian

Both vegetarians and vegans are committed to not eating meat of any kind (there are also pescetarians who only eat fish). Vegans go a few steps further, though, by also abstaining from dairy, eggs, and any animal byproduct that could be present in food, clothing, and beauty items. They also tend to avoid any activity that uses animals as entertainment including zoos, aquariums, and circuses.

Though the vegan lifestyle is far more stringent than vegetarianism, adopters of both are growing at rapid pace. According to a 2014 report, five percent of the U.S. population says they are vegetarian while 2.5 percent say they are vegan—that’s 23.5 million people all together! As well, 33 percent of the general domestic population is more frequently eating plant-based meals. Those figures are nearly double those tabulated in 2009.

A history of vegans

The animal-friendly movement started as far back as the 1850s when the Convention of Vegetarians was first held. This formal gathering was spearheaded by a group of doctors and others who called for dietetic reform; specifically, the exclusion of animals as sources of food and their removal from service as carriage-drawers and as “beasts of burden.” However, in those early days of the vegetarian movement, the proponents presumably still ate dairy products and wore leather belts and shoes.

In the 1940s, Donald Watson was looking to coin a term for “milk-and-egg-free” vegetarians, and by 1979, his Vegan Society had become a registered charitable organization. It defined veganism as a way of living that “excludes—as far as is possible and practicable—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.”

The vegan lifestyle

Veganism is considered a lifestyle because it requires closely examining the food you eat as well as the cosmetics, cleansing products, clothes and accessories, and nearly everything else you use on a daily basis. Even medicine should be looked into since some contain animal lactose or gelatin (an animal byproduct), or have been tested on animals before going to market. However, the Vegan Society advises practitioners to be more lax about medication because there are often not many alternatives, leaving those with medical conditions with little choice.

The good news is that lately there are a number of manufacturers going the vegan route with animal-free health products, including vitamins and protein powders, cleaning products, and body washes and lotions.

Veganism and the environment

As even many of the early proponents understood, the vegan lifestyle is not only good for human health but also the health of the environment. Author and activist Gene Baur—who also co-owns the Farm Sanctuary for rescued livestock—has theorized that collectively switching to a vegan culture could solve many of the world’s problems, from saving as much as 70 percent of the money spent on healthcare costs to salvaging half of the country’s water supply, which is largely used in raising animals for food. Baur also points out that the impact of animal agriculture on climate change, saying it contributes at rates that are far greater than even the entire transportation industry.

A study conducted by medical researchers at the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford further delved into the relation of the food system to health and climate change, claiming that more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions are directly related to the food production system. The study also states that unhealthy diets and obesity—many times stemming from eating a wealth of red meat—are accounted as among the greatest contributing factors to premature death.

Health benefits of eating vegan

According to the World Health Organization, vegetarians (and vegans) were about 40 percent less likely to develop cancer compared to meat eaters. There are several reasons—meat has no fiber, which acts as a protectant for the digestive tract; it can also have the presence of carcinogens that develop from the high temperatures required to cook it; and the high fat content can increase the production of hormones that stimulate the development of breast and prostate cancer.

On the contrary, regular intake of vegetables and fruits—and consumption of nuts and whole grains—has shown reduced risks in developing colorectal cancer as well as cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes, thanks to the high fiber content and supplements of folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins C and E. Plant-based eaters also benefit from phytochemicals, disease-protecting compounds present in most vegetables, fruits, cereals, beans, and even plant-based tea and wine.

Potential risks of plant-based diets

There are also some nutritional imbalances that can come along when eliminating animal products from your diet. Some vegans have low vitamin D counts, which has been linked to the spread and progression of cancer cells in the breast, lung, thyroid, prostate, and colon. Vitamin D is most often sourced by eating milk and fatty fish; however, it can also be obtained from exposure to direct sunlight or adding in D-fortified foods (especially in the gloomy winter months), such as soy milk, orange juice, and breakfast cereals. Vegans can also take regular vitamin D supplements—800 IU capsules have 200% of the recommended daily value while 2400 IU has 600%.

Another potential deficiency is with vitamin B12, which is most often found in meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs, cheese, and milk products. Lack of B12 has been related to a number of neurological disorders such as disorientation, dementia, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, ataxia, and paresthesia. To lessen these risks, it’s advised to eat vegan-friendly foods like some soy products, plant milks, and breakfast cereals that are fortified with the vitamin. But note you have to have at least two or three servings per day in order to supplement your body with the amount it needs to function. The recommended dose is 10 micrograms daily, which is easiest to intake with B12 supplements.

Vegan foods

Eating vegan doesn’t have to be restrictive when there are so many great substitutes that you can swap in to make the same great foods you love—and then some! Here are just a few ideas:

  • For meats/protein… tofu, seitan, toona, even jackfruit carnitas
  • For eggs … VeganEgg
  • For sauces … mushroom gravy and non-dairy ranch
  • For snacks … “cheddar cheese” crackers and “buttery” popcorn
  • For milks … soy milk, coconut milk, almond milk, nut butters, soy or veggie cheese

Vegan Nachos

Vegan recipes

From nachos to cupcakes and buffalo “wings,” these vegan recipes are delicious and nutritious, too!

Vegan Kale Nachos

Nachos are usually loaded with cheese and sour cream, but not in this recipe that instead pairs up crispy kale chips with a spicy cashew queso.

Vegan Chocolate Cupcakes

No eggs here, and the frosting is made from a base of vegetables. Mind blown! Especially when you taste them.

Crispy Tofu with Sesame-Ginger Dipping Sauce

Tofu is a staple in plant-based diets, but it doesn’t have to be the same-old, same-old every time you eat it. Instead, try this idea that bakes the protein with some sesame oil and serves it alongside a spicy Asian-style dressing.

Vegan “Cheese”

Some macadamia nuts, spices, and nutritional yeast is all you need for this “cheese” log. Great for apps and snacks, it only takes eight minutes to make.

Coconut Bacon Bits

Bacon bits taste great on baked potatoes, in salads, even donuts; vegans can still enjoy the crunchy treat with this inventive and easy recipe that swaps in coconut flakes with coconut aminos, liquid smoke, and maple syrup for the recognizable texture and taste.

Vegan Meatloaf

There’s no meat or bread in this recipe; rather onions, celery, carrots, tomatoes, walnuts, and flaxseed make up the essential parts. Combined with a range of flavorful spices, this loaf tastes just as good as the original.

Cauliflower Buffalo “Wings”

Cauliflower is the duct tape of healthy food, used as rice, pizza crust, and now a substitute for chicken wings. Breaded and tossed in spicy sauce, they taste great with our dairy-free ranch dip, too!

Becoming vegan

The road to a vegan way of life is not as tough as many are inclined to think. Websites like the Vegan Society and Peta are quite active in providing full support to those who wish to adopt a vegan lifestyle with guidelines, nutrition advice, and a recipe database that are easily accessible.

Starting out by changing small habits over time has proven successful for many people; for example, some begin by eating a vegetarian diet for a few months and then eliminate eggs and dairy as the next step.

Of course, there is no shortage of vegan-certified and vegan-friendly products either. For a good overview and introduction to the food options, Thrive Market has put together a health-conscious Vegan Starter Kit complete with plantain chips, oatmeal, sea kelp noodles, soup, almond butter, coconut milk, virgin coconut oil, white Arborio rice, and meat substitutes that help you whip up tasty, protein-enriched meals that are also low in calories and gluten-free. After all, junk food vegan can be an easy trap to fall into!

Like most other lifestyle changes, veganism takes dedication and discipline. Here are some tips that can help you along the way:

Take it slow. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed, and understand that the end goal is not going to happen overnight. This is a personal journey and a rewarding one at that. There are going to be mistakes, there are going to be slip-ups, but there is also going to be progress. A good idea is to start by simply cutting back on some items, rather than nixing them altogether. And swap in substitutes for all the things you love to eat (like vegan mac and cheese!). Over time, you will have a whole new batch of favorites.

Experiment and have fun. This is the perfect time to explore foods of other cultures and create recipes tailored to your individual tastes. Trying new foods and flavors will expand your knowledge in the kitchen, too, and soon you’ll be a pro at finding the perfect substitute to use in all those favorite recipes.

Track your progress. One of the best ways to stay committed to a life change is to have a tangible way to look back and see your progress. Keep a journal of the foods you tried (and liked or didn’t like), and start planning weekly meal calendars. Another good idea is to keep track of the restaurants that have vegan-friendly menus when you want to go out and eat. As well, it’s always a good idea to track your mental well-being. Take notes of increased energy, better sleep, and any generally healthier feelings that you experience, and look back at them any time you need support to keep going.

Photo credit: Paul Delmont, Alicia Cho

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