Nowadays almost everybody knows the meaning of the words “vegetarian” and “vegetarianism”. Lately even the term “vegan” has been gaining popularity, and I believe most people have heard about vegan food, vegans and veganism on various occasions.
It’s very likely that the first few times you came across these terms, they were used by people who were not entirely clear about what exactly “vegan” means. And I can bet good money that the first reaction of many of you was to ask yourselves – “What the hell is a “vegan”? It must be something like a vegetarian, right?”
This parallel totally makes sense – the words are similar to each other and this is not by accident.
In 1944 Donald Watson and 5 other non-dairy vegetarians decided to found a new organization. At the time Donald Watson and his wife Dorothy Morgan were active members of the Cumbrian Vegetarian Society, but wanted to form a separate group where non-dairy vegetarianism could be discussed as a philosophy and lifestyle. Thus, the Vegan Society was born.
The term was coined by Dorothy Watson, when both Donald and Dorothy attended a dance. The word is formed by combining the first and last syllables of the word “vegetarian”: ve – gan. The idea behind the etymology of the word “vegan” is that “veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusion.”
1. What is vegetarianism?
2. What is veganism?
3. Vegans and vegetarians – like-minded or at odds?
4. Is there tension between vegans and vegetarians?
What is vegetarianism? What does it mean to be a vegetarian?
There are different types of vegetarian diets, but the only common aspect of all of them is abstaining from the consumption of animal flesh – simply put, vegetarians don’t eat meat or fish.
Vegetarians, who don’t consume meat, fish or eggs, are called lacto-vegetarians.
Most people who call themselves vegetarians are in fact lacto-ovo-vegetarians, i.e. they consume eggs and dairy, but don’t eat meat or fish. Perhaps you have also heard of the term “pescatarian”. Pescatarianism denotes a diet which excludes meat, but includes fish and seafood.
The reasons why people decide to abstain from meat are most often ethical – many people choose to not support (directly) the killing of animals by buying or eating their flesh. But it is definitely NOT the main motivation behind every vegetarian’s lifestyle choice to refuse to eat meat.
A large number of people were raised as vegetarians or have chosen vegetarianism for religious or spiritual reasons. Then there are people who abstain from meat consumption for health reasons, and others – due to environmental considerations.
Some people find meat eating repugnant, knowing where it came from. So as you can see – there can be many different reasons why people opt for vegetarianism and it’s impossible to draw broad conclusions about every vegetarian or most vegetarians.
The only universal rule of vegetarianism is abstaining from meat consumption.
What is veganism? What does it mean to be a vegan?
Veganism on the other hand is much more comprehensive and descriptive both in terms of principles, and in terms of practical implications. The idea is to entirely reject the notion that animals are products to be used or objects to be exploited.
In practice this means that vegans strive to boycott any and all products and practices, which entail the use of animals – for food, clothing, cosmetics, transportation, entertainment or sports.
When it comes to nutrition, vegans do not consume: meat, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy, honey or any other food items which contain ingredients of animal origin. For example, candy containing gelatin, or any processed food which contains coloring agents or other ingredients of animal origin etc.
Other everyday products or practices which vegans boycott include:
– clothes or shoes made of real leather, suede, fur, wool, silk, cashmere, mohair;
– cosmetics, toiletries or cleaning agents which contain animal ingredients or which were produced by companies which test on animals;
– riding animals, hunting, fishing, bull-fighting, zoos, aquariums, dolphinariums, circuses with animals, pet trade, wildlife trade;
Perhaps at this point you may think to yourself “Hey, I know vegans who are vegan for health reasons and only focus on the vegan diet”. Unfortunately there are a lot of misconceptions about veganism and a large number of people do indeed perceive veganism as only a diet. In case of doubt, you can always refer to the official definition of the word “veganism”, which has been established by the Vegan Society since 1979.
A philosophy and way 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 any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.
Personal views and opinions aside, this is the official definition of the term. It’s clear that at its core, veganism is a system of ethical principles, and the practical side of it is just the logical consequence of these principles. Not eating animal products is just one of these practical consequences.
These days plant-based diets are gaining more and more popularity. So many people all over the world are limiting their consumption of animal products for health and/or environmental reasons. The correct term for this is a “plant-based diet”, not veganism or a vegan diet.
Vegans and vegetarians – like-minded or at odds?
The short answer is – both.
Without a doubt, a large percentage of vegans were vegetarian first. Abstaining from meat is often the first drastic lifestyle change made by people who are against animal abuse.
The connection is clear – in order to eat meat, we have to kill an animal. And if we don’t want to be a part of that process, we boycott the buying and consumption of the product of the killing.
Coming across information about the origin of other animal products, or learning more about various practices that involve animal use, some vegetarians make the choice to transition to a vegan lifestyle. They view this as a way to synchronize their principles of nonviolence towards animals with how they act in their everyday life.
Of course, this only applies to those vegetarians who have chosen the lifestyle because of the way animals are treated. If their motivation for abstaining from meat is related to environmental sustainability, often vegetarians are likely to boycott other products that come from animal agriculture as well – after all, buying eggs, cheese, milk or butter, we give our money to the same industry sector.
But this certainly doesn’t apply to all vegetarians. On the other hand there are vegetarians who believe that not only meat is detrimental to human health, but also dairy and eggs – in such cases people typically transition to a plant-based diet.
But veganism as we already clarified, is based on ethical principles and views relating to the interactions between human and non-human animals.
Therefore, vegetarians who are only guided by health and environmental considerations, cannot be referred to as “vegans” – they don’t live by the principles of veganism neither in theory, nor in practice.
Is there tension or animosity between vegans and vegetarians?
Despite the rapid spread of veganism, particularly in the last 5 or so years, we can’t deny that vegans are often met with hostility, mockery and derision – both within their personal lives and in the public scene. So it should come as no surprise that plenty of vegetarians are all too eager and happy to distance themselves from vegans. After all, humans are social animals. Our community’s regard for our lifestyle and opinion of us are important to all of us to a certain degree.
On the other hand, vegans also make it a point to distance themselves from vegetarians. Let’s not forget that humanity has invented and practiced literally hundreds of ways to exploit non-human animals. (Which explains why a movement which aims to disentangle itself from this entire system is met with such violent opposition.) Out of all these ways of using animals and inflicting violence upon them, vegetarians by definition boycott only one – the killing of animals for food.
In all other regards, however, vegetarians and vegans often differ in opinions. It is natural for people who are fundamentally against the exploitation of animals, to not want to identify with people who support said exploitation in their everyday life.
Which is why it is very common to encounter comments like these:
“I don’t mind vegetarians! I can understand not eating meat, but the vegans are so extreme!”
Vegetarianism in its current framework does not aim to analyze or change at the roots the systems and attitudes which are the reason behind the violence towards animals.
At its core veganism is more of an ethical stance of anti-speciesism and harmony with the world around us, rather than a different type of diet or lifestyle.
The common thing between the two philosophies and movements is that they represent a system of views and/or habits, connected to humanity’s attitude to animals. Both veganism and vegetarianism are bound to certain practices, which their representatives live by invariably in their day-to-day life.
Despite originating from vegetarianism, veganism is a separate and significant philosophy in its own right. There are many differences between being vegan and being vegetarian, both in theory, and in practice.
It’s important that we understand the core principles of these two philosophies, particularly nowadays, when more and more people are choosing to live as vegans and vegetarians.