If the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the word “vegan” is food, you’re not alone. Considering that the acquisition and consumption of food is something we partake in up to several times a day and for various reasons (and considering that 150 billion animals are killed each year mostly to be consumed), it is easy to forget that there is much more to veganism than what we put in our mouths. Even Webster’s definition of a vegan, “a strict vegetarian who consumes no animal food or dairy products”, solely addresses the eating aspect of veganism.
But in reality, the main aim of veganism is to avoid exploiting and harming animals for any reason.
Veganims vs. a plant-based diet
Some people draw a distinction between dietary vegans and ethical vegans; but if one is only eating a plant-based diet for their own health, with no concern for the animals, can they be defined as vegans?
In addition to abstaining from eating animals and their byproducts, the word “vegan” entails a desire to avoid all forms of animal abuse and exploitation. Vegans don’t wear animal skin and fur, use animal based products in their households, and are not in favor of them being used for entertainment (circuses, rodeos, horse racing, bullfighting etc.) or experimentation purposes.
So can someone who solely practices a plant-based diet call themselves vegan?
The objective of veganism is to liberate animals and not exploit them. It is therefore important to differentiate between a plant-based diet and veganism. To say that you are vegan, and to wear leather or eat fish is a complete contradiction.
We may, in eager excitement, refer to people as vegan when they ditch animal-based foods in favor of plants upon learning the health benefits, but unless they also adopted a comprehensive understanding of the suffering inflicted on animals, referring to them as vegan is simply misleading. Bill Clinton, who is widely known as being vegan stated “I do eat fish from time to time, a little fish”. While musician, Alanis Morrisette, also a fish eater defines herself as 80% vegan, much to the chagrin of her vegan friends she says.
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Another point to keep in mind is that those who switch to a plant based diet with no real understanding of the effects their actions have on the animals, are more likely to “slip up” or go back to eating animal based products. They could, even, switch to a whole different diet if a new health trend comes up.
These examples and other situations in which animal exploitation is being performed by individuals who are on a plant based diet, make the distinction between veganism and a plant based diet so important.
A plant based diet is a great stepping stone
Veganism is much more than a plant based diet. But with all that said, it is important to remember that those who follow a plant-based diet are still benefiting the cause (i.e. less animal deaths, smaller ecological footprint), even if they are only observing it for individual health reasons. Just as vegetarianism can be a stepping stone to veganism, so can a plant-based diet; and many people are more open to learning about animal suffering after they have already excluded the animal based foods from their diet.
It is important that we, as vegans, are supportive of those people who may very well be on their way to becoming vegan and understanding the full effect that their choices have.