A few months ago Dennis and I were having lunch in a local vegan restaurant. It was kind of empty and quiet, and we couldn’t help but hear just about every word the couple next to us said. The woman was super excited that her date/boyfriend/husband was taking her out for an organic meal. They then began discussing the differences between “organic” and “vegan”. My mind was blown. Do people really get the two confused? When used in context with food, “organic” means the food was grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents, and “vegan” means that the meal doesn’t contain any animal flesh or secretions. It’s not really difficult to discern the two.
Except it is.
The word “vegan” has been misused so much to mean many things lately, and it’s confusing people. It’s time for us to take it back.
The word “vegan” was coined by Donald Watson in 1944 by taking the first three letters and last two letters of the word “vegetarian”. He said, “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.” The New Oxford American English Dictionary defines “vegan” as “a person who does not eat or use animal products.” Seems pretty easy to understand, doesn’t it?
So why is there any confusion between “organic” and “vegan”? I’ve heard many stories of people asking if there are any vegan baked goods in a café or restaurant, and being told “the carrot muffins are gluten-free.” In a book giveaway contest I recently hosted here on my blog, I asked people what one product they had a difficult time giving up when going vegan. One person responded by saying she was having a difficult time giving up oil. Cooking oil comes from plants – why do people think it’s not vegan? People have complained about salt being in recipes on ChicVegan.com, another blog that I run. Why are salt, oil, gluten, and anything organic suddenly being lumped in with animal products?
I think it’s because so many people have discovered the health benefits that go along with living a compassionate lifestyle. I went vegan for ethical reasons about 14 years ago. As soon as I changed my diet the chronic headaches I had been suffering from for years suddenly stopped, and I noticed a decrease in my lifelong sinus and allergy problems. I really had no idea that my health would benefit from my new vegan lifestyle, and I wanted to tell anyone who would listen that being vegan helps not only the animals, but the vegan person as well. It’s the reason I decided to become a health coach, and in my work I help others transition to a vegan lifestyle healthfully.
Many people have ditched animal products from their diets, or they are eating less of them, for health reasons. There are people who follow healthful diet plans that are free of animal products, as well as salt, sugar, and/or oil. There are people who eat organic vegetables to reduce the chemical load that their bodies are under. There are people who don’t eat meat and have a bad reaction to gluten. There are people follow meatless cleanses for a few weeks to lose weight or detox from months of eating junk food. While these people are technically following a vegan diet (a diet free of animal products), they aren’t really vegan, because there is no attempt to remove animal products from other aspects of their lives such as those found in clothing and household items. Considering the definition of the word “vegan”, eating animal-free for 21 days and then returning to meat and dairy products isn’t even close to being a true vegan. All of these ways of eating should really be referred to as “plant-based”. A plant-based diet consists of minimal processed foods and it focuses on vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fruit, with little or no animal products.
Don’t get me wrong, I applaud anyone who decides to eat less meat, regardless of the reason. Less meat being consumed means fewer animals are killed. (Theoretically.) I also applaud people who are on their way to becoming vegan. I know it can take many baby steps to get there, and that everyone has slipups and falls. The journey to veganism takes some people quite a while, while others do it overnight. I have respect for the process. However, I have a problem with people using the word “vegan”, when they actually have no intention of giving up animal products.
This is an issue that I’ve written about before, but it’s been on my mind again lately. Last week people on Facebook and Twitter began excitedly sharing a story about some guy I had never heard of going vegan. The headline was “Man Vs. Food Star Adam Richman is Now a Vegan.” I like a good “going vegan” story, so I clicked the link, and what I read was not about someone going vegan at all. It said:
‘I’ve been vegan for the past three months or so, because I’m in training for football right now,’ Adam said. ‘And for Soccer Aid I went 100 per cent vegan.
‘Now does that mean I’m not going to have a steak? No I absolutely will when I want to, but it’s just about picking and choosing my spots, and when I want to have that cow and I wanna have that bacon, I’m going to make it count, I’m going to make it great quality.’
He recently told Hello! magazine that the vegan diet is something he does ‘periodically’.
Now, I don’t take to social media to argue (in fact, I usually unfollow or block those who do), but I had an argument with someone who runs a local vegan business about it. He said it was a good thing because it was “starting a discussion”. But I have to staunchly disagree. Vegans don’t eat cows and pigs. And they don’t “go vegan” periodically. The only discussion to have here is why is this person using the world “vegan”?
Using the word “vegan” to describe a cleanse or a detox diet is doing harm in many ways. It’s propagating the wrong definition of veganism. It’s saying that veganism is something you can do for three weeks and then move on. It’s telling people that vegans eat steak and bacon every once in a while. It’s spreading the misinformation that veganism is somehow about deprivation, which it isn’t. I also think it, in some ways, harms vegans who aren’t in the best shape, have health issues, or are overweight. I’ve heard people say things like, “I thought you were vegan. Why are you sick?” and “How can a vegan be overweight?” In reference to Adam Richman, my friend Ilse said on Facebook, “The definition and tenets of veganism mean far too much, and are too profound, to be tossed around so loosely. His (mostly) plant-based diet is great. But to call him vegan is a disservice to everything that vegan is about and leads people to think that it’s just a diet.”
Many others shared my opinion on the matter of Adam Richman’s diet. I saw people on Facebook leaving comments to them saying things such as “vegans need to lighten up”, and “vegans need to learn some tolerance.” Do we really? Should we be okay with the misuse of the word? Do people who don’t eat gluten say, “I live gluten-free, but does that mean I’m not going to have a loaf of bread? No, I absolutely will when I want to. When I want to have that bagel and I wanna have that donut, I’m going to make it count.”? Do people say, “I’m a pacifist but I’ve been on a shooting spree for past three months or so, because I’m in training right now.”? I don’t think they do. Why is it okay to for us to allow people to use the term “vegan” so loosely when it’s not done for other words?
It’s time for us to take back the word vegan. I urge you, if you’re not living a lifestyle free of animal foods and products made with animal based ingredients, please don’t refer to yourself as “vegan”. If you hear people using the word “vegan” incorrectly, please correct them in the kindest way possible. Explain what “vegan” actually means, and suggest that they use “plant-based” instead. As Dr. Ethan Ciment from the Vegan Mos said to me recently, “We have to push back against this confused messaging or the term becomes meaningless.”