What is a Vegan?
The best way to explain the vegan concept is to quickly define what vegan means, and then look at how and why the word came into existence.
A vegetarian diet is commonly understood to forbid meat and fish, but to allow both eggs and dairy. The word vegan takes this concept to the next level, cutting out every item of animal origin. Vegan refers to anything that’s free of animal products: no meat, milk, eggs, wool, leather, honey and so forth. Your sandwich, your shampoo, and your car seats are examples of items that could be vegan.
Veganism carries at least three potential advantages:
- avoidance of animal mistreatment and slaughter
- elimination of certain health risks
- reduction of environmental footprint
Can you become a vegan through diet alone? Absolutely, since, as we will see in the next section, vegan was originally defined purely in dietary terms.
A handful of vegans (sometimes abrasively) insist that veganism is not merely a diet, but extends into every corner of your lifestyle. In other words, you don’t get to join the vegan club until you go beyond food to purge your life of leather, wool, and animal-derived cosmetics. Oftentimes, these vegans are doing the animals a grave disservice by defining the vegan concept in the most rigid and exclusionary way possible. These are people would love to revoke your vegan membership card if they find out you haven’t yet taken your 10-year-old leather winter boots to the thrift store.
The entire question of who gets to call themselves a vegan is annoying and not worth much attention. Rather than think of veganism as an identity, it’s wisest to use it as a concept that can inspire you to remove animal products from your life, wherever you can easily do it. And it’s almost always easy. Oftentimes, it’s not readily apparent whether a given food or cosmetics ingredient comes from animals, so you can use our animal ingredients list to familiarize yourself with the most common animal-derived substances.
No matter the degree to which you ultimately embrace the vegan concept, it makes sense to begin your transition by emphasizing dietary choices. After all, unless you buy a new fur coat every winter, the overwhelming majority of animal use associated with your life almost certainly arises from your food choices.
To learn more about vegan living, check these compelling advantages of a vegan diet, as well as our our information on making an easy transition. You can learn everything you need to quickly and easily go vegan by reading just one or two books—check out But I Could Never Go Vegan! or The Ultimate Vegan Guide.
Donald Watson coined the term vegan in 1944 in Great Britain. Here’s Watson from that year, in the first issue of The Vegan News, proposing that his readers either embrace the word, or come up with a better one, as the basis for a new social movement:
We should all consider carefully what our Group, and our magazine, and ourselves, shall be called. ‘Non-dairy’ has become established as a generally understood colloquialism, but like ‘non-lacto’ it is too negative. Moreover it does not imply that we are opposed to the use of eggs as food. We need a name that suggests what we do eat, and if possible one that conveys the idea that even with all animal foods taboo, Nature still offers us a bewildering assortment from which to choose. ‘Vegetarian’ and ‘Fruitarian’ are already associated with societies that allow the ‘fruits’ (!) of cows and fowls, therefore it seems we must make a new and appropriate word. As this first issue of our periodical had to be named, I have used the title “The Vegan News”. Should we adopt this, our diet will soon become known as a VEGAN diet, and we should aspire to the rank of VEGANS. Members’ suggestions will be welcomed. The virtue of having a short title is best known to those of us who, as secretaries of vegetarian societies have to type or write the word vegetarian thousands of times a year!
Watson’s article was immensely important, but he kept it short, since he only sought to cover what vegan means, and why the word deserved to be coined.
The questions of why and how to go vegan require much more space to properly answer, and over the years these answers have grown fuller and more compelling, as the wisdom of the vegan concept has grown more evident. These topics are covered at length in our “Why Choose Vegan?” and “How to Go Vegan” pages.
Finally, you may wish to explore the history of plant-based eating and veganism. If you want to discover how veganism went from an obscure World War II-era concept to one of the most influential ideas surrounding diet and food politics, check out A Vegan History: 1944-2010.