What is Veganism?

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Samuel Anthony
Jan 26, 2023
A vegan burger with lettuce, mayo, shredded faux meats

What is veganism, when was it invented, what is the history of veganism and what can vegans eat? While veganism may seem new and trending, it is many hundreds of years-old in its principles. Let us dive into the who, what, why and when of veganism.

What is Veganism?

According to The Vegan Society:

"Veganism is 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."

Veganism goes beyond diet and seeks to exclude harm, to animals, across all aspects of life - be it fashion or vehicle choice.

The vegan approach includes also avoiding animal-derived products like eggs, honey, milk, and leather.

There are various reasons why people transition to veganism, and this will impact the approach they take.

For example, some people transition to vegan for the potential benefits it offers for the environment and, as a result, may select lower-carbon foods to make a part of their new diet.

Other people go vegan for the animals and, for them, the goal is making every difference they can in ending animal cruelty - something abused by modern food systems.

Finally, many people go vegan for their health.

Three images, one of the words for the world, one of a piglet and one of vegan food

The main benefits are thanks to an almost guaranteed increase in fruit, vegetable and whole plant-based food consumption, which tends to be nutrient- and antioxidant-dense.

In addition, the vegan diet eliminates inflammatory and sometimes carcinogenic compounds commonly found in many animal-derived food products.

It is worth noting that the vegan lifestyle tends to bring about all three of these benefits for each individual.

If someone goes vegan for the planet, they are additionally reducing their support for animal-abusing industries.

Veganism is definitely on the rise, with more people calling themselves vegan than ever, with the addition of more vegan-friendly food options in stores worldwide.

Despite the sensation of late, veganism is a years-old philosophy with a great deal of history.

Veganism: a brief history

Avoiding meat, dairy and other animal-derived products in the diet is not a new concept.

The Greek philosopher Pythagoras, around 500 BCE, attempted to popularise his belief in benevolence for all species.

The diet Pythagoras promoted and followed was, at the very least, predominantly vegetarian.

Historically, there have even been extended periods during which leaders banned meat consumption altogether.

In Japan, 675 A.D., Emperor Tenmu banned the consumption of chicken, beef, and many other animal-derived products.

A bowl of noodles, coriander, chilli and vegan miso soup

It is also well-established that the gladiators consumed a predominantly plant-based diet.

Taoist religious orders have historically promoted a vegetarian diet to lessen harm to other sentient life.

Back then, however, it was not labelled "veganism" - the vegan diet did not come to get this title until 1944.

When was Veganism Invented?

Veganism was coined in November 1944 by Donald Watson and a meeting of non-dairy vegetarians.

Before November 1944, there was no Vegan society.

While the vegetarian society established itself in 1874, ‘non-dairy vegetarians’ were otherwise just another vegetarian to everyone else.

A meeting in that November of six non-dairy vegetarians would see the beginnings of the Vegan Society and the term veganism.

The Vegan Society add:

"The group felt a new word was required to describe them; something more concise than ‘non-dairy vegetarians’. Rejected words included ‘dairyban’, ‘vitan’, and ‘benevore’."

Donald Watson coined the term vegan and co-founded the society and, for this reason, many regard Watson as a key pioneer of modern veganism.

Donald Watson

Donald Watson the co-founder of The Vegan Society

English animal rights activist Donald Watson (1910-2005) grew up in Yorkshire, spending much of his time on his uncle's farm.

The normalised slaughtering of animals transitioned Watson's view of farm life from pleasant to "death row" for animals:

"We can see quite plainly that our present civilisation is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilisations were built on the exploitation of slaves."

Watson wrote to the secretary of The Vegetarian Society (1847-present), attempting to set up a sub-society of sorts to promote and represent non-dairy vegetarianism.

While the society offered the group a small section of their magazine, it wasn't until that meeting in November, which saw the formation of the Vegan Society, where non-dairy vegetarians finally had an independent platform.

The decision to go independent came after the Vegetarian Society refused to support veganism, claiming veganism was extreme and antisocial.

The first issue of The Vegan News (later The Vegan, 1944-present) discussed moral-ethical responsibilities towards the prevention of cruelty to animals entrapped within the dairy industry.

The Vegan Society still publishes The Vegan to its members today, and all thanks to Donald Watson and his fellow, compassionate non-dairy-vegetarian team.

The Vegan Diet

The vegan diet is very simply the avoidance of all animal products from your dietary intake.

The diet extends the moral philosophy of veganism into the kitchen and seeks to avoid animal-derived ‘food’ products of any kind, be it meat, dairy - including goats cheese and eggs, seafood, milk-powders, specific e numbers and additives, gelatine sweets, and any other foods derived from or exploitative of animals.

While this focuses a great deal on what it removes from historic diets, it adds a great deal of variety, freshness, colour and nutrients.

Plant based diets have a great variety of nutrient dense food sources

With over 250,000 edible plant species - from banana and pineapple to strawberries and tomatoes - a vegan, or plant-based, diet is the furthest thing from restrictive.

It can be very different from your current, previous, or Western diet, but this does not mean it is extreme, nor hard, to achieve.

With a disturbingly large percentage of annual deaths attributed to dense-fatty acids, such as cholesterol, a cholesterol-free, low-saturated-fat diet, like a plant-based diet, could be more needed than ever.

When you ditch meat, you remove inflammatory compounds, like heme iron, which is understood to disrupt health-promoting gut microbes.

A plant-powered, vegan diet is highly detoxing thanks to antioxidants, insoluble fibre for our gut microbiome, lower dense fats, higher polyphenol content, and higher vitamin content.

It is no secret that plant foods, including fruits and vegetables, are good for us.

What do Vegans Eat?

What vegans eat depends on the choices they make when going vegan in the first place.

For example, if you are vegan for the environment, the chances are you will want to avoid high-water-consuming plants, too.

If vegan for ethical reasons, you may additionally avoid food sources known to cause harm to other species.

Generally, so long as every ingredient you use when preparing food for a vegan does not come directly from an animal nor cause their harm, you are okay.

Vegans eat fruit, vegetables, pulses, legumes, nuts, seeds, spices, and some choose to consume faux meat and alternative products.

Roasted vegetables in a vegan roast

If you are health-conscious, you may opt for a whole food plant-based diet over and above a faux-meat- and replacement-based diet.

Vegan Protein Sources

Protein is often central to false information regarding veganism.

All protein comes from plants.

When you consume a cow, chicken, or pig, you consume muscle protein laid down by the plant-eating animal throughout its life.

These proteins, note: all essential proteins, come from plants.

The essential protein tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin and melatonin.

Without tryptophan, we may suffer from an inability to feel joy or to fall asleep.

If you count on meat for your protein sources, you may lack fibre, consume higher quantities of dense fatty acids, ingest heme iron, and take a life for a relatively unnecessary cause.

Peas in a bowl

Knowing that all plants contain protein means vegans can get protein from near-enough any food product they consume.

Even broccoli contains some protein!

In addition to the knowledge that protein is everywhere and easy to attain with a varied whole food diet, the reality for human beings is that most of us do not require as much protein as some meat-industry-sponsored professionals may tell you.

An essential goal when transitioning to plant-based is to have the mindset of: "replace, don't remove".

For example, when ditching meat, avoid leaving an entire section of your regular meals un-replaced.

This can lead to calorie, or energy, deficits which are not good for sustaining energy levels.

Replace your protein sources with protein sources.

It does not have to be tofu or even peanut butter - although if you love those foods you can definitely replace your old proteins with them.

Lentils, beans, tempeh, seitan (try it!), quinoa, oats, nuts and seeds, chickpeas (hummus), spinach, rice, grains - all great sources of protein that also come with beneficial phytonutrients.

Vegan for Weight Loss

The growing interest in veganism among weight-loss dieters comes after many individuals see transformative results after adopting a plant-only diet.

Vegan protein sources

So how exactly can veganism impact body-fat percentage?

Firstly, internal fats, influenced by cholesterol levels and fibre content within an individual's diet, tend to reduce on low-fat, high-fibre diets.

Vegan diets, like all plant-based diets, tend to be higher in fibre.

Daily exercise, in addition, can play a role in weight maintenance, loss, or gain.

With greater energy levels reported among vegans, this can lead to greater day-to-day exercise capacity.

The simple truth is that, while interest in veganism for weight loss is increasing, many need to sustain weight, and some even need to gain weight on a vegan diet.

The balance goes beyond calorie deficit versus calorie surplus, with the gut microbiome (a living world of bacteria and other microscopic organisms residing within the gut) often overlooked.

Obese participants had their microbes transferred into the guts of non-obese participants, and the BMI of the latter group of participants increased.

In addition, changes in the gut microbiota of migrating birds see them pack on extra fat to survive colder climates - without any dietary or exercise changes.

To learn more about the microbiome, check out the microbiome article and continue to research the power they hold over our fat gain or loss.

Animal liberation

Think of the animals, think of the planet and think of you.

Vegan diets can provide more nutritious whole foods, reduce harm to the beautiful sentient beings we share our home with, and reduce an individuals carbon and water output and consumption.

See: Plant Based Meal Plans and Guides.


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Plant-Based Nutritionist & Fitness Coach
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