Understanding Veganism: a Beginner’s Guide

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By Ashley Woodward • Last Updated: February 16, 2023

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Understanding Veganism

Have you considered eating less meat in your life? If so, the vegan lifestyle might be an attractive option for you.

What was once a fringe form of eating that consisted mainly of brown rice and soggy vegetables, veganism is exploding into mainstream society, and the range of food choices available is keeping up.

Whether you’re interested in going plant-based for the health benefits, animal welfare or even the good of the planet, there’s a lot to like about the vegan lifestyle.

However, there are also plenty of misconceptions to what veganism really means. To cut down on the confusion, this article will walk you through the meaning of veganism so that you can make the best-informed choice for you.


By definition, veganism is a way of living that considers the quality of life for animals to be equally as important as it is for humans. To minimize harm to all animals, vegans abstain from eating meat and all animal products, including dairy, eggs, honey, gelatin, lanolin and more.

Instead of meat, vegans fill their diets with plant-based foods like beans, grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

In the same way, vegans try to avoid using any animal-based product, including wool, fur, silk, suede and leather. Some vegans even go so far as to object to animals being used for processing food products like sugar and beer, even if no part of the animal is contained in the final product.

The reasons for adopting a vegan diet are as varied as the ways to practice it.

Some people cite animal cruelty as their main motivation, while others are more concerned about their health and want to eat a plant-based diet instead.

Others follow veganism for environmental reasons and strive to waste less water and farmland with their eating habits.

While a completely plant-based diet might seem limiting at first, the truth is that vegan dishes can vary widely in consistency, flavor and nutritional content. Many vegan specialties include ethnic foods like Italian pasta, Indian curry, Mexican burritos and Chinese stir fries.

In many of these dishes, meat substitutes are made from textured vegetable protein and/or bean-based products like soy beans. This gives many vegan dishes a surprisingly meat-like texture without the use of animal products.

Transitioning to veganism looks different for everyone. Some people make the switch from meat all at once, while others ease into it by following a vegetarian diet first. In any case, taking the steps to eat a plant-based diet is usually motivated by trying to make the world more fair to all its inhabitants, which is one reason why the lifestyle has remained so popular.



Avoiding animal products is nothing new. Evidence shows that people were cutting meat from their diets as far back as 500 BC, and the Greek philosopher Pythagoras was an early advocate for the lifestyle. At the same time to the east, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) was teaching his students about the benefits of vegetarian diets.

The start of modern veganism began in the 19th century. In 1806, Dr. William Lambe and Percy Bysshe Shelley became some of the first people to publicly object to eating meat, eggs and dairy because of animal cruelty.

In 1944, vegan pioneer Donald Watson called a meeting with five vegetarians who also rejected eggs and dairy to discuss the meaning behind their lifestyle and solidify it into a larger movement. These six people were the first to describe themselves as ‘vegans,’ a term which came from the beginning and end of the word ‘vegetarian’.

Donald Watson

By their definition, a vegan lifestyle was one that prevented the exploitation of animals in all forms from humans, which included food, hunting, farm work, clothing and all other conceivable uses.

The Vegan Society became a registered charity in 1979, with the purpose of preventing all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty from humans, no matter what purpose.


Today, there are lots of diets that strive to be plant-based and forgo animal products. However, while veganism is a kind of plant-based diet, not all plant-based diets are technically vegan.

The difference comes because true veganism goes far beyond food choices to be an entire lifestyle that rejects animal cruelty.

Traditional vegans refuse to wear leather, take lanolin-based supplements or even use cosmetics that were tested on animals.

While their daily diet might be centered around plants, it’s the way that vegans spend the rest of their time that categorizes them as such. In the same way, a vegan diet isn’t necessarily plant-based. Anyone that eats nothing but potato chips and Oreos is technically a vegan, regardless of whether anything fresh and green ever passes their lips.

For farther clarification, here are four popular eating strategies often considered similar to veganism, but with some key differences.


A popular health trend for wellness-minded people, clean eating is based on the belief that processed foods are bad and should be avoided. Instead, practitioners eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other minimally processed foods. The idea is to keep synthetic chemicals and preservatives out of your body, and eating animal-based products is perfectly fine, so long as they are minimally processed.


As an eating strategy that exploded in popularity around 2012, the paleo diet is based on the idea that eating like a caveman is healthiest for your body.

The logic goes that humans were hunter gatherers for the vast majority of human history and only turned to agriculture in the last ten thousand years.

With the start of agriculture came modern diseases, as human bodies couldn’t evolve fast enough to handle grains and processed foods. Instead, paleo dieters rely on grass-raised meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and healthy, plant-based fats while avoiding grain, sugar, dairy products and anything processed.


The rise of celiac disease and gluten sensitivities has caused millions to cut grains out of their diet, making a gluten-free lifestyle more popular than ever. By removing wheat, rye, barley and other grains from their diet, gluten-free followers strive to improve their digestion, boost energy levels and even lose weight. Fruits, vegetables and animal-based products are considered perfectly fine.


The people of Greece and Italy have long been considered some of the healthiest around, and many people attribute this longevity to their incredibly diverse diet. The region around the Mediterranean is ideal for many kinds of farming, so eating a Mediterranean diet means cutting out processed foods in favor of fruits and vegetables, olive oil, herbs and spices, and lots of fish and poultry.


Confusing as it may sound, eating a vegan diet and being vegan are two different things. Plant-based and vegetarian diets are concerned only with food choice, while vegans allow their concern for animal wellness to impact every part of their lives.

In the strictest sense of the phrase, ‘going vegan’ requires fundamental changes to your relationship with clothing, cosmetics, and household products as well as food. Oftentimes, adopting a plant-based diet is a crucial first step on the road to veganism, but it’s just one part of the overall process.

For many people, adopting a vegan diet doesn’t happen all at once. Most go through a gradual process of cutting out animal products that results in different definitions of vegetarian diets. Some of the most common kinds are listed below.

  • Lacto Ovo Vegetarian: Considered to be the standard vegetarian diet, lacto ovo vegetarians avoid meat and fish but still eat dairy products and eggs.
  • Lacto Vegetarian: Also called lactarians, this diet allows for dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt.
  • Ovo Vegetarian: Like lacto- vegetarians, ovo vegetarians avoid meat products, but they still eat eggs.
  • Demi Vegetarian: Also called a pescetarian, demi-vegetarians eat eggs, dairy products and fish.
  • Semi Vegetarian: More commonly known as the flexitarian diet, followers try to cut back on their consumption of animal products, but still allow themselves to eat meat on occasion.
  • Pollo Vegetarian: These vegetarians avoid fish and red meat, though they keep poultry, dairy and eggs in their diet.


Despite how isolating following a vegan diet can sometimes feel, it’s never been more popular to live a cruelty-free life. Though many people still picture dreadlocked hippies when it comes to veganism, the truth is that celebrities, CEOs and soccer moms alike are all adopting the lifestyle, simply because they feel better both physically and spiritually when they follow it.

According to recent figures from the Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the UK has risen 350 percent in the past decade, and many countries show similar progress. Most vegans are young, usually less than 30 years old, and willing to be activists for their dietary choices.

Millennial vegans everywhere are sharing their dietary strategies on social media, meaning that the vegan movement is quickly gaining traction in newsfeeds.

Some credit to the rise of veganism comes from the World Health Organizations recent report on meat. According to the study, processed meat is linked to cancer. When this report became public knowledge, meat consumption around the world momentarily plummeted, and many people have maintained the habit ever since.

In the same way, food documentaries are causing a switch in eating habits. Of vegans, about 42 percent started the lifestyle after seeing an educational film, and over half have been vegan for less than ten years.


Today, close to 80% of vegans and vegetarians are women. Because women are traditionally the shoppers for their families, grocery stores have begun to dramatically increase their number of vegan-friendly offerings.

In the same way, the “simulation meat” industry is exploding. Today, three in five adults willingly eat meat-free food, a number that increased 18 percent since 2005.

Soy protein, seitan and varieties of beans are paving the way for meat lovers to enjoy vegan options by convincingly catering to the taste of regular meat.

Even people that aren’t fully committed to going vegan are increasingly interested in giving the lifestyle a try, even just for a thirty-day challenge. Google searches that relate to veganism have tripled in the past decade, meaning that there is more openness than ever for exploring this alternative lifestyle.


The trend towards more natural eating has done wonders for farmers’ markets across the country.

As people increasingly look for ways to add plant-based foods into their diets, farmers’ markets are providing a steady supply of local, healthy food.

Many vegans rely on these markets to access the quantity of fresh produce they need, and even people simply looking to reduce their consumption of animal products find a lot to like at farmers’ markets.


Largely thanks to the popularity of plant-based diets, the market share for organic products has grown exponentially in the past decade. Increasingly, veganism and vegetarianism are being advertised as glamourous, almost sexy lifestyle choices, and consumers are attracted to what they see.

The rise of social media like Instagram makes it easier than ever for vegans to brag about their dietary choices, which is contributing to the overall desire for healthy, photographicable organic vegetables.

In fact, the rise of plant-based products is causing there to be some dramatic changes in how food is labeled. Recently, authorities objected to the use of “cheese” to describe soy-based products. As time goes on, the regulations for food labeling will continue to evolve, as the plant-based food industry is currently worth an estimated $3.5 billion.


While veganism continues to expand throughout the United States, it still makes up a small sample of the general population. Based on a recent study, just two percent of Americans is vegetarian, and a quarter of these is vegan.

This comes to an estimated 1.62 million vegans in the United States today. Surprisingly enough, the average age for vegans in the survey was 42, which challenges the claim that al vegans in the United States today are young teenagers.

Instead, the data revealed that the average vegan is female, nonreligious and politically liberal.

The survey data also revealed that there are far more former vegans than current ones, possibly even five times as many.​

An estimated third of past vegans maintained a vegan diet for less than three months, while half went back to animal products after a year.

While these people have laxed on their strict standards, many still do what they can to eat a plant-based diet and cut down on overall meat consumption.

Even so, grocery stores are adjusting for the change. More raw, plant-based and vegan friendly foods are available than ever, and it’s estimated by 2050 that America will be a “vegan country” with a significant percentage of the population following a cruelty-free diet.


After working through the specifics of what it means to be vegan, the next question is perfectly obvious; what do vegans actually eat?

A great deal, as it turns out. Following a vegan diet opens up a world of thrilling scents, flavors and textures that allow for a range of edible diversity that would astonish meat eaters.

Healthy vegan diets are filled with fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and beans, all of which can be prepared in an almost endless number of ways.

Unsurprisingly, the key to success with a vegan diet comes from variety. The greater number of plants you can eat daily, the more well-rounded your nutrition will be, which leads to overall better health.

However, it’s common for beginning vegans to experience intense stress about what they eat. Will their diet be deficient in essential nutrients? How will they know if they’re getting enough protein? Below are the specifics for filling out your diet nutritionally with some of the main nutritional categories.


So long as they take in an adequate number of calories each day, it’s surprisingly easy for vegans to get in their protein quota.

Almost all foods have protein, meaning that a well-balanced diet will provide all you need to be healthy.

Contrary to what many diet websites will have you believe, counting protein grams or combining different forms together isn’t necessary.


As one of the only vitamins that can be found in animal, products, it’s important for vegans to ensure they are getting the proper amount.

However, the amount needed is very low, meaning that supplements and non-animal sources like nutritional yeast is a painless way to get it in. Some vegan-friendly foods are formulated with B12 to make it easy to get necessary amounts.


Necessary for strong bones, dairy products aren’t the only supplier of calcium around.

It’s also possible to get this nutrient from dark green vegetables, tofu, calcium-certified orange juice or soymilk, and supplements.

With a little planning and a healthy diet, it’s easy to get in the recommended 1000 milligrams every day.


Though not naturally found in a vegan diet, it’s still easy to get in your daily vitamin D if you spend some time in the sun. Ten to fifteen minutes of summer sun a few times a week is all it takes to get in your supply and combat seasonal depression in the process.


While low iron can be a health problem for vegans that aren’t careful about their diet, beans and dark leafy greens are great natural sources of this essential nutrient. It’s easier for your body to absorb iron when taken with vitamin C, so combine your foods for the best result.


Naturally found in eggs, vegans can ensure they get enough omega 3 fatty acids by supplementing their diet with walnuts, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, canola oil, tofu and soybeans.


Just like with vegetarianism and other plant-based diets, there are multiple forms of veganism that are popular today. One is raw-food vegans, or vegans that only eat foods that are cooked at temperatures below 118 F.

In this view, cooking is thought to compromise the nutritional quality of food, and eating a raw food diet helps with digestion, nutrient absorption and prevention of the buildup of toxins. “Cooking” through dehydration is okay, and many raw vegans rely on fruits, vegetables and nuts for most of their calories.

In the same way, dietary vegans are vegans that restrict their practice to just their diet. Dietary vegans might still wear leather or animal tested products, but they refrain from letting any animal based products into their bodies. Most of the time, dietary vegans adopt the lifestyle for health reasons, not animal cruelty.


For many people, the primary reason for switching to veganism is rooted in its health benefits. Adopting a plant-based diet does incredible things for your entire body, especially regarding fighting off and preventing chronic illnesses and premature death.

In fact, studies have shown that a plant-based vegan diet can lower your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Vegan diets also help you avoid the unexpected negatives of eating factory farmed animals, including side effects linked to antibiotics and growth hormones.

It’s also been shown that a vegan diet can lead to lower weight in general, as vegans tend to have a lower BMI than meat eaters and can shed excess weight faster.

While both vegan and vegetarian diets have been shown to be healthy, the preliminary evidence reveals that a well-followed vegan diet might be better for your body in the long run, as it leads to a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer than vegetarians.

While insufficient intake of essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and vitamin B12 can lead to health problems, managing your diet to ensure you get the proper amounts will lead to long term physical and mental wellness.


No diet is exactly right for everyone, and there are some risk factors with a vegan diet that it’s important to know about.

Because following a completely plant-based diet is so restrictive, some first-time followers find it hard to follow because they can’t get in enough calories to stay full and consequently crave some of their old favorite foods.

This can lead to unwise binging on snack foods like chips and cookies, which can cause weight gain in the long run.

It’s also all too easy to become deficient in vital nutrients by following a vegan diet, which is why followers need to work so hard to ensure they incorporate essential vitamins into their daily food choices.

Long term nutrient depletion can lead to health problems like the loss of bone and muscle mass, prolonged exhaustion, and even hair loss.

Some people also find it hard for their digestive systems to adjust to plant-based protein, and many experience painful bloating and cramps for the first few weeks they make the transition. However, the digestive system tends to adjust in time and the bloating and gas goes away.

There is nothing wrong nutritionally with a properly planned vegan diet, but it’s all too easy for followers to forget to track their nutrients and come up deficient. So long as you fill your vegan diet with a wide variety of unprocessed, plant-based foods, you should be providing your body with everything it needs to thrive.


There’s so much more to following a vegan lifestyle than food! Living a life that takes the concerns of animals seriously will affect every aspect of your life, which is why true vegans are defined by more than their diet. Below are some of the main ways where vegans work to make a difference for animals based on what they buy and what they refuse to use.


It’s easy to forget that most household and beauty products were extensively tested on animals before landing on store shelves, but vegans strive to reduce this perceived unethical practice by only using products that are guaranteed to be animal cruelty free.

In the same way, vegans strive to avoid products that are made with animal products, including honey, beeswax, lanolin and carmine.


While many countries have laws requiring that all medications be tested on animals before being marketed for human use, it’s possible to find products that don’t contain animal products like gelatin and lactose. Finding these medications is a simple matter of talking to your doctor about the available alternatives.


The clothes that vegans wear often make a big statement about their animal welfare beliefs. Cotton and acrylic fabrics are preferred over wool, silk, fur and leather, and the Vegan Trademark is a universal indicator that a product was produced without relying on animals.


Leather might be an essential accessory for any fashionista, but vegan leathers made from plastic are growing in popularity and their likeness to the real thing.

Cheap and trendy, faux leather can be used for shoes, bags and even clothes for a cute substitute that looks just like the real thing.

There are several kinds of vegan leather on the market, including vegetan, lorica and PVC, so take the time to learn what texture you like best so your wardrobe can really shine.


It’s easy to forget that every piece of silk claims the lives of hundreds of silkworms, but the truth is that the silk industry relies on regular killing. A wardrobe alternative is Peace Silk, which is made from cocoons that are processed without killing the worm inside. This makes it easier for vegans to justify the use of silk in their wardrobe.


For many, a main motivation for going vegan is living lighter on the planet. The meat industry is tremendously wasteful regarding land, water, feed and fossil fuels.

Animal agriculture contributes a full 65% of nitrous oxide emissions on the planet, as well as 35-40% of global methane emissions and 9% of carbon dioxide emissions.

Because these three gasses are considered to the three biggest producers of greenhouse gasses, cutting down on meat consumption has some major benefits for the planet.

In the same way, producing animal products takes a tremendous amount of water.

Several thousand gallons of water are needed to produce a single pound of beef, compared to fewer than one hundred for a pound of grain.

The animal agricultural industry is also a major contributor to deforestation, especially in the rainforests.

Vast tracks of land are stripped down to produce grazing space or fields for growing soybeans to feed to cattle, which contributes to greenhouse gas production and the loss of biological diversity.


More than just a diet, veganism is a way of living that strives to animal pain and exploitation in every way possible.

Ethically, all vegans believe that every creature has a right to life, and that humans have no right to take that away for food, clothing or any other purpose.

Vegans are also against the physical pain and stress that factory farmed animals go through in captivity, and they work hard to improve the quality of life for these animals. By choosing what they spend their money on, vegans make an argument for the ethical treatment of animals through their daily lives.


Far from a fringe movement, veganism is exploding around the world as a viable alternative to animal-based eating. Whether you’re considering going vegan for health reasons, to prevent animal cruelty or to help keep the planet green, going vegan is a smart choice that will soon affect every aspect of your lifestyle.

No matter your reasons, there’s a lot to like about adopting plant-based diet, and your body will appreciate the difference.

Now we want to hear from you. Have you tried going vegan? How did the process work for you? Do you have any tips for success that other readers would like to hear? Feel free to leave a comment below and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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