What is a vegan, anyway? That's a question I used to get asked A LOT years ago, but with veganism going mainstream, more and more people have become vegan-savvy. Still, myths and misinformation persist. So let's set the record straight! Here, I explain what exactly a vegan is, and I shed light on other meat-free diets, too.
What is a Vegan?
“You’ve a vegan? Does that mean you’re from planet Vega?”
“So you’re one of those va-guns?”
“Vegan? I’ve been hearing that word a lot lately. What does it mean?”
“Do you eat fish?”
“If you’re vegan you can’t have the tuna, but you can have the egg salad.”
“But where do you get your protein?”
“If you don’t eat meat and dairy, what do you eat?”
What Do Vegans Eat?
I’ve been eating meatless for well over half of my life now, so I’ve heard all of these questions and more. One of my goals as a blogger has been to show off exactly what vegans do eat, and to prove that following a meatless diet doesn’t mean sacrificing taste.
In recent years, I've noticed that people have been using the word “vegan” incorrectly, and it confuses people. Sometimes I hear people refer to themselves as being vegan because they’re doing a juice cleanse or a dietary detox, while others seem to think that gluten, salt, and oil aren’t on the table for vegans.
Some of the questions that come up a lot have to do with what it means to be a vegan and what vegans eat. In order to answer them, I’m going to explain the different types of meatless (and almost meatless) diets.
Meatless (and Almost Meatless) Diets:
I’m starting off with pescetarian because “Do you eat fish?” is the one question that makes me cringe more than any other, so I’d like to get it out of the way from the get-go. Pescetarians are people who eat fish, but no other meat. Fish come from the animal kingdom, so people who eat fish cannot be considered vegetarians. When I first started this website in 2001, I used to get angry emails from readers who ate fish and still wanted to be called “vegetarian.” I wish they’d stop referring to themselves as such, because I’m tired of seeing dishes with fish in the vegetarian section of menus at restaurants.
Vegetarians (also sometimes called ovo-lacto vegetarian) don’t eat meat, but they do eat eggs and dairy products, such as cheese, ice cream and yogurt. Included in the definition of meat is any flesh that comes from an animal, so fish, chicken, pork and beef are not on the menu in a vegetarian diet. (So please stop asking me if I eat chicken.) Vegetarianism has been around long as there have been humans on the planet. People who adopted this type of diet were once called Pythagorians, after the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who was a vegetarian and expected his followers to be as well. The word “vegetarian” was first used in the 1840s after the formation of the Vegetarian Society in the U.K. The group’s founders said that the word was derived from the Latin word “vegetus”, which means lively or vigorous.
A vegetarian who eats eggs but not dairy products.
A vegetarian who eats diary products but not eggs.
Vegans don’t eat anything derived from an animal, so in addition to eschewing meat, they avoid dairy products, eggs, honey, and animal derived ingredients such as gelatin. Veganism is more of a lifestyle than a diet, as vegans also avoid products made from animals in their day-to-day life. That means no leather, wool, silk, down, shell, or products tested on animals. It may sound like deprivation to someone who’s not familiar with it, but vegans are more focused in what they can include in their lives rather than what they can’t. Veganism has been growing steadily over the past few years, which means that there are many amazing vegan products on the market now, from rich and creamy nut based cheeses to beautiful non-leather handbags. The term “vegan” was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, who was co-founder of the British Vegan Society.
The term “plant-based diet” is being used rather frequently these days, and it can have a few different meanings. Sometimes it’s synonymous with the word “vegan”, and is used by people who are afraid the word “vegan” conjures up images of animal rights extremist. (I occasionally use it so that I’m not writing the word “vegan” 120 times a single blog post.) It can also refer to someone who follows a vegan diet but isn’t yet on board with the lifestyle part of it. Or it can refer to someone who follows an animal-free diet for health reasons and only eats whole foods, such as vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Those who are plant-based for health reasons often avoid sugar, oil, and salt.
A raw vegan is exactly what it sounds like – a vegan who doesn’t eat cooked food. People on a raw food diet usually consume between 80 to 100 percent of their foods in an un-cooked state, but they can heat them up to 104°, and dehydrators are often used. It may sound restrictive, but there are tons of creative things that be done with raw food, and the results are usually incredibly delicious. I’m a big fan of raw kale chips and dehydrated crackers and breads.
Veganism is on the rise
There are other terms that are sometimes used to describe a meat-free diet, such as “plant-strong” or “veganist”, but they’re usually the result of an author trying to introduce the meatless diet to a new audience.
So why go meatless in the first place? Different people have different reasons such as ethics, health, the environment or religion. Whatever the reason, this way of eating is on the rise. According to a recent Top Trends in Prepared Foods in 2017 report, 6% of the U.S. population now identifies as vegan, compared to 1% in 2014.