What is a vegan? The simple answer to this question is “a person who does not consume or use products from animals.” That means no meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, butter, gelatin, honey, or Red Dye #40 (along with a slew of other ingredients which are made from animals or animal derivatives). It also means no wool, leather, and other non-food animal products.
But the answer to the question isn’t this simple. Some people consider themselves vegan, but will eat meat if it is free. Some vegans aren’t so strict about not eating honey. Other vegans won’t buy products from companies which test on animals. Some vegans won’t wear leather or wool, whereas others make exceptions for second-hand products. As with all moral issues, the definition of vegan is complex.
Vegan Diet vs. Vegan Lifestyle
When asking “what is a vegan”, the first issue we need to address is the difference between the vegan diet and the vegan lifestyle.
Most vegans will immediately tell you that veganism is a lifestyle. However, because food is such a big part of our lives, it makes sense that veganism is often defined as a diet. This has gotten even more confusing because the mainstream media often recommends a vegan diet for health reasons.
The vegan diet is linked to numerous health benefits, the main ones being weight loss and reduced risk of heart disease. These are leading health problems in the US and the world, so you will see a lot of experts recommending a vegan diet purely for health reasons. People following a plant-based diet may still wear leather and wool, buy products tested on animals, and use products with hidden animal ingredients. These are issues that people following the vegan lifestyle care about! Take Beyonce as an example. She got a lot of attention for “going vegan.” But she also has infamously been seen wearing fur to vegan restaurants. Just because she is following a vegan diet, it doesn’t make her vegan.
The “vegan lifestyle” is morally-motivated, such as out of concern for animal welfare and/or the environment. Any health benefits are just an added perk for people following a vegan lifestyle.
***Veganism used to be mostly about animal welfare. However, it is now widely known that meat is one of the largest contributors to global warming. Many people are adapting a vegan lifestyle for environmental reasons, not just to save animals. Hence, you may hear someone calling themselves an environmental vegan, meaning they don’t eat animal products based on the belief that the vegan diet is more sustainable.
The Vegan Lifestyle: Least Harm Principle
The vegan lifestyle is based on a principle known as “Least Harm.” The Least Harm Principle recognizes the fact that it is impossible to live life without inflicting some harm on animals. For example, many animals are often killed (such as field mice) in the production of vegan foods like corn and beans. But, this is considered acceptable because it is less harm than slaughtering animals directly for food.
Vegans don’t always agree on what constitutes as least harm. For example, some vegans will wear secondhand leather based on the idea that they aren’t directly supporting the leather industry and because buying secondhand is better than buying vegan leather alternatives (which are often bad for the environment and thus bad for animals). Other vegans disagree and will say that wearing leather, (whether or not it is secondhand) is bad for animals because it creates a demand for leather. Here are two articles with opposing viewpoints about the secondhand leather issue, one from Flaming Vegan and the other from Carpe Vegan.
What about Raw Vegans?
Raw vegans, also sometimes called raw foodists, are a subgroup of vegans. They aim to eat only raw, uncooked, and unprocessed foods. The belief is that cooking food kills nutrients. “Raw” is usually defined as not cooked above 115 degrees F, because this is when enzymes and nutrients start breaking down.
Raw veganism is a pretty big feat, especially in winter when fresh produce isn’t always available, so most raw vegans don’t promote a 100% raw diet, but rather aim for some percentage like 80% raw, 20% cooked. Raw veganism is about health, though people following this diet may also be morally motivated.
Freegans – Vegans Who Eat Free Foods
A freegan is a person who adheres to a vegan diet, but will eat animal products so long as they were free. Again, there are some differences even amongst freegan vegans. For example, some freegans will eat a steak if someone else bought it. Another freegan would say that, since someone paid for it, then eating it creates demand and is thus unethical. That freegan wouldn’t have a problem eating a steak found in a supermarket trashcan (I’ve known a lot of dumpster divers in my day 🙂
Ostrovegans/Bivalvegan – Vegans Who Eat Oysters
An ostrovegan (also called a bivalvegan) is a vegan who will eat oysters as well as some other creatures like muscles which probably cannot feel pain (bivalve is a class of mollusks). This is a hot issue for vegans and the subject of a lot of debate in the vegan community.
The blogger Sentientist makes a great argument for eating bivalves. The author not only points out that oysters can’t feel pain, but also that oysters are most often farmed in a way that doesn’t involve harm to other sentient beings and farming oysters even be less harmful than agriculture. Further, some bivalves like mussels are much more eco-friendly than agriculture. Based on these facts, eating oysters and mussels falls into the “Least Harm” principle and one could eat them and still call him/herself vegan.
For me, this issue illustrates the Least Harm Principle perfectly, and how each vegan can interpret it differently. You will find one common theme happening with all vegans (whether freegan, ostrovegan, or whatever): vegans think about the food and products they consume, and what impact consuming those products will have on living beings and the earth.
Balancing Vegan Lifestyle with Life in a Non-Vegan World
Recently, an argument broke out in a G+ Vegan Group. It started when I mentioned that condoms are not vegan and asked if it would be a “deal breaker” if, in the heat of the moment, someone pulled out a non-vegan condom. For some of the vegans in the group, the idea of not using condoms because they contain trace amounts of animal byproducts just seemed ridiculous. For others, using a non-vegan condom was up there with eating a chunk of steak.
There are a lot of issues like this in the vegan lifestyle community, and people have to struggle with them and make their own choices.
Should vegans annoyingly ask waiters at restaurants whether the monoglycerides in the bread is from animal or vegetable sources – or should they let that one slide?
Should vegans get in a taxi which has leather seats?
Should vegans shop at stores which also profit from selling meat?
Should vegans feed their cats and dogs pet food made from animals?
There are a lot of moral questions which come with the vegan lifestyle. Moral issues can NOT be summed up under one universally-agreed upon definition. The definition of vegan is going to be slightly different with each vegan you ask. What is important is that we are respectful, inform ourselves, ask questions, consider the impact of our food and lifestyle choices, and continually allow ourselves to be open to challenging new viewpoints.
How would you define vegan? Let me know in the comments!