So…you’ve decided to make a positive change in your lifestyle that’s compassionate toward animals, the planet, and your health. Congratulations! Maybe you’ve resolved to start with Meatless Mondays, or give up meat altogether. Maybe you’ve decided to ditch meat but still eat dairy and eggs. Or maybe you want to leave anything that came from an animal out of not just your diet but all other aspects of your life. Whatever the scope of your transformation, and whatever your motivation, you can be proud that you’re among the growing number of people in this world who are effecting real, compassionate change for the future of this planet.
Like most people, you probably followed up the desire for change with the search for information and support, and you probably looked to social media for those things. And if you found yourself totally confused by all the terminology, rules, and social groupings that come along with living a compassionate lifestyle, you’re definitely not alone!
My goal in this post is to de-mystify and make easy to understand the differences between being vegetarian, vegan, and plant-based, including all the various off-shoots of each, with some basic facts and definitions. So let’s get right to it!
WHAT IS A VEGETARIAN?
According to the Vegetarian Society, a vegetarian is “Someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with, or without, the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish* or by-products of slaughter.”
Of course, it’s not ever that simple, is it? There seem to be SIX distinct off-shoots of vegetarianism these days, and whichever label one chooses to own can depend on factors such as allergies, tastes, or religious and ethical considerations. In addition, many vegetarians who choose to consume various animal products may strive to consume those products which are sourced as ethically and humanely as possible.
*Lacto-ovo vegetarian: The most common. Does not eat meat of any kind including fish, but does eat eggs and dairy.
*Ovo-vegetarian: No to meat and dairy but yes to eggs.
*Lacto-vegetarian: No to meat and eggs but yes to dairy.
*Pescatarian: No to all meat except for fish/seafood. May or may not consume eggs and dairy.
*Pollotarian: No to red meat, pork, and seafood, but will consume poultry.
*Flexitarian: A fairly new term and generally not considered true vegetarian. This is someone who will only eat animal products occasionally.
A “strict” vegetarian is commonly known as a vegan.
WHAT IS A VEGAN?
The term “vegan” was born in 1944 when a group of vegetarians, led by Donald Watson, came together to discuss the need for a name that would describe the group’s desire to not only abstain from meat, but all other animal products as well, including dairy, eggs, and honey. After many names were suggested that didn’t quite hit the mark, they took the first three letters and the last two letters of the word VEGetariAN to form the new word “vegan.” This group of people lived by various ideals and tenets, but it wasn’t until 1979, when the society became a registered charity, that the definition of “veganism” was refined and solidified.
“Veganism is a philosophy 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 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.”
For more about the history of veganism, click here.
So in a nutshell, vegans do everything in their power to avoid eating animals (including fish) or eating/wearing anything that came from an animal or using products that were tested on animals. This includes dairy milks, yogurts, and cheeses, as well as eggs, gelatin (made from bones/tendon/cartilage) and honey. Leather and wool is avoided, and beauty and household products that either contain animal-derived ingredients or have been tested on animals are avoided.
Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Welllll…
You might have learned by now that there’s a broad spectrum of types of veganism, as well as a whole host of reasons people list for wanting to become vegan. Many groups adhere to strict dietary principles, while others are more lax, drifting back and forth between eating styles or piecing together what works for them through trial and error. If you decide that you want to become vegan, be assured that you DON’T have to pick one camp or the other. Each vegan gets there in their own way and in their own time, and I’m a firm believer that when it comes to eating vegan, taking time to figure out what style makes sense for you in your present circumstances and makes you feel best gives you the best chance of staying vegan and finding out what a fulfilling, fun, and tasty journey it can be!
So, what are all the colors in the vegan rainbow? It’s a little more complicated than listing the types of vegetarians, who will usually adhere pretty firmly to allowing or excluding various animal products in their diet, while the basic foundation of veganism is black and white- NO animal products whatsoever. What I’ll try to do here is lay out some popular terms when it comes to veganism and explain what I interpret them to mean.
*The Ethical Vegan: These folks cite ethics as their main, or sometimes sole motivation for becoming vegan. Emphasis is placed on living a lifestyle where all aspects are carried out as cruelty-free as possible, and animal-rights activism is usually a prominent activity in their day-to-day lives. The ethical vegan may or may not be interested in eating a nutritious diet; they may subsist on a diet of soda, french fries, and cookies, (often referred to as a junk-food vegan) or they may adhere to a raw-foods only diet or anything in between.
*The Dietary Vegan: This term is commonly used to refer to people who become vegan to improve their health, whether it be to prevent disease and weight gain or to reverse it. It’s a common complaint among many ethical vegans that people who call themselves vegan but don’t have ethics as their number one (or even ONLY) focus really shouldn’t be calling themselves vegan, but should use the term “plant based” (I’ll talk more about that in a minute). As with ethical vegans, there may be a wide range of eating styles that the dietary vegan may practice.
*Plant-based: A person who eats a plant based diet (also called a whole-foods, plant-based diet, or WFPB) strives to eat a diet that is made up entirely, or as much as possible, from foods that are as close to their whole and natural state as can be achieved, with little to no processed foods, added salt and sugar, or refined oils. On social media, I see a lot of confusion over why oils are avoided. In short, this is because oil is pure fat that has been separated from most or all of the fiber and vitamins present in the plant that it came from. Instead, whole-food sources of fats are encouraged in limited quantities, such as avocado, coconut, nuts and seeds. It has also been proven that refined oils are damaging to the cells that line the blood vessels that carry blood to all parts of the body (more on this in another blog post). One of my favorite resources for all things plant-based is Dr. Michael Greger, author of the wildly popular new book How Not To Die, and his website www.nutritionfacts.org, a non-profit website known for its evidence-based material grounded in solid science.
Feeling a little more enlightened?
Well, we’re not quite done yet! Many vegans and plant-based eaters follow these popular plans or a combination of them most with the goal of losing weight, and preventing or reversing disease:
*High-Carb: This diet is very high in starchy plant foods such as potatoes of all kinds, rice, corn, beans, and whole grains, with fruits and veggies as complementing elements. Fat is very limited and from whole-food sources only, and unlimited quantities (to fullness) are encouraged. Emphasis is placed on recognizing the difference between these good carbohydrates that serve as the human body’s main and most important fuel, and bad ones- refined, white flour products filled with empty calories and stripped of much of their nutrition. A proponent of this lifestyle is Dr. John McDougall, who you can learn more about here.
*Raw: Pretty much what it sounds like. All foods eaten are done so in their raw, uncooked state, or very lightly cooked at no more than 118 degrees Fahrenheit (this number varies from resource to resource but not by more than a degree or two). This usually involves dehydrating or very lightly steaming food. Many raw foodists believe that cooking food destroys important enzymes and denatures food to the point of being useless to the body. There is much heated debate about this, and it’s my recommendation that if you choose to explore a 100% raw foods diet, you need to thoroughly research both the risks and benefits, as well as carefully plan to get enough calories. Learn more about raw food fact and fiction here.
*Raw Til 4: 4 P.M., that is. Though this is an arbitrary time of day (you could easily be raw til 3 or 5 or 7), the idea behind this diet is to eat all raw foods for much of the day, then allow yourself a cooked meal as lightly cooked as possible. This was popularized by You Tuber Freelee the Banana Girl, a controversial figure whose favorite saying is to “carb the f*** up” and has brought much heat upon herself by stating that meat eaters should not be allowed to live and other unpopular sentiments. Polarizing though she may be, Freelee has amassed a huge following, and isn’t shy about sharing photos of her physical transformation.
Hopefully this has made things a little clearer. What lifestyle do I personally practice? I initially began researching the benefits of plant-based eating to lose weight and reverse some health problems, but somewhere along the way I became educated about the horrific cruelty and injustices done to animals in the name of human benefit, whether it be food, clothing, or entertainment, and eventually came to identify as vegan. You could say that I came for the health but stayed for the animals. I believe that to be vegan and live a life of compassion should mean not just compassion toward animals but toward the planet, other people, and my own body, and I heartily disapprove of tactics of shaming, denigrating, and otherwise demonstrating hatred or a superior attitude toward those who are not vegan. I prefer instead to think of them as simply not in possession of the facts yet, and I strive to educate others with patience and an understanding that each individual needs to be met where they are to help them plan the best way forward into this joyful and exciting lifestyle. As for dietary practices, I would call myself a plant-based vegan, because though I am vegan, I believe in and adhere to (for the most part) a plant-based diet, and as a nutritionist, it’s what I teach as the optimal way to good health. I do, however, have my indulgences such as artisinal vegan cheeses and the occasional vegan peanut butter cup or a decadent piece of cheesecake (vegan of course).
If you enjoy what you’ve read and have found it useful, please drop me a comment and tell me what you think. Or, if you have any disagreement with what I’ve said, leave a comment also! And please be sure to subscribe to my blog to get every new vegan recipe and article delivered right to your email so you don’t miss a thing!