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What is a vegan?

When we tell people we are vegans, they often ask, "What is a vegan?"
Most people have a general idea that vegetarians don't eat meat, but they don't know the difference between vegan and vegetarian.As you shall see, it is about more than just the foods they eat.

1. Definition of vegan

green alien

Are vegans little green men from the planet Vega? No, not according to the American Vegan Society (AVS). They started teaching people about a vegan diet in 1960. They are the experts and we learned from them.

AVS prints the following vegan definition in their excellent quarterly magazine, the American Vegan:
  • "Vegans--pronounced VEE-guns--live on products of the plant kingdom, so exclude flesh, fish, fowl, dairy products (animal milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, etc.), eggs, honey, animal gelatin and broths, all other items of animal origin."

    "Veganism also excludes animal products such as leather, wool, fur, and silk, in clothing, upholstery, etc. Vegans usually try to avoid the less-than-obvious animal oils, secretions, etc., in many soaps, cosmetics, toiletries, household goods and other common commodities."

If this seems a little overwhelming, AVS gives this short answer to the "what is a vegan" question:

  • "Vegan: Uses no animal-source food or clothing."
The word vegan is also used as an adjective. You will see it on packaged foods and cosmetics. What is vegan in this case? It just describes a product that contains no animal products or byproducts.

2. Definition of vegetarian

So how do vegans differ from vegetarians? What is a vegetarian? AVS provides the following definition: 

  • "Vegetarian: Uses no flesh, fish, fowl, (products of slaughter), still using milk or dairy products (lacto-vegetarian), or eggs (ovo-vegetarian)."

Most vegetarians use animal-source clothing or toiletries. They just avoid flesh foods. Often, as they learn more about the harmful effects of dairy products and eggs, they start to cut back on these foods.

3. Definition of total vegetarian

There are a lot of good health reasons to avoid dairy products and eggs. This is especially true for people who want to lose weight. If you want to eat plants but you are not ready to call yourself a vegan, AVS has a special definition for you:
  • "Total vegetarian: Uses no animal-source food, vegan in diet only; still using some animal items such as leather, wool."
A total vegetarian follows a plant-based diet.

Don't vegetarians eat fish?

Maika with fish

Read all three definitions above carefully. You will see that vegans, vegetarians, and total vegetarians do not eat fish.

Merriam-Webster defines people who eat fish but no other flesh foods as pescetarians. Pescetarians also often eat eggs and/or dairy products. They are people in transition on the way to becoming vegetarians or vegans.

Most cultures eat some animals but they have taboos against eating others. Indians believe that cows are sacred; Americans eat them. Americans love their dogs like family members; Koreans eat them. It doesn't make sense, does it? Vegans believe that we should not use (or abuse) any animals. It does make sense.

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