Veganism is the practice of minimizing harm to all animals, which requires abstention from animal products, such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs, honey, gelatin, lanolin, wool, fur, silk, suede and leather. Some call veganism a moral baseline for animal rights activists.
Vegans eat plant-based foods, such as grains, beans, vegetables, fruits and nuts. While vegans have a wide variety of foods to choose from, the diet may seem very restrictive to those who are used to an omnivorous diet. “You just eat salad?” is a common comment from non-vegans, but a vegan diet can include a wide variety of Italian pastas, Indian curries, Chinese stir-fries, Tex-Mex burritos, and even “meat” loaf made from textured vegetable protein or beans. Many meat and dairy analogs are also now available, including sausages, burgers, hot dogs, “chicken” nuggets, milk, cheese and ice cream, all made without animal products. Vegan meals can also be rather simple and humble, such as a lentil soup or yes, even a big, raw vegetable salad.
Animal products sometimes show up in unexpected places, so many vegans learn to become avid label-readers, looking out for whey, honey, albumin, carmine or vitamin D3 in foods that one might otherwise expect to be vegan. Reading labels is not always enough, as some animal ingredients make their way into your food as "natural flavors," in which case one would have to call the company to find out if the flavors are vegan. Some vegans also object to animal products being used to process beer or sugar, even if the animal products do not end up in the food.
Veganism also affects clothing choices, and vegans will choose cotton or acrylic sweaters instead of wool sweaters; a cotton blouse instead of a silk blouse, and canvas or fake leather sneakers instead of real leather sneakers. Many clothing choices are available, and as more retailers and manufacturers are trying to appeal to vegans, they are making their vegan options known by advertising the products as “vegan.” Some stores even specialize in vegan footwear and other vegan products.
Household Products and Cosmetics
Most people don’t think about their household products or beauty products as having animal products in them, but they sometimes contain ingredients like lanolin, beeswax, honey, or carmine. Additionally, vegans avoid products that are tested on animals, even if the products do not contain animal ingredients.
Some people follow a vegan diet, but do not avoid animal products in other parts of their lives. This may be for health, religious or other reasons. The term “strict vegetarian” is sometimes used in this instance, but is problematic because it implies that someone who eats eggs or dairy is not a vegetarian or is not a “strict” vegetarian.
How to Become Vegan
Some people become vegan gradually, while others do it all at once. If you can't become vegan overnight, you might find that you can eliminate one animal product at a time, or go vegan for one meal a day, or one day a week, and then expand until you are completely vegan.
Connecting with other vegans or vegan groups can be very helpful for information, support, camraderie, recipe sharing or local restaurant recommendations. The American Vegan Society is a nationwide organization, and members receive their quarterly newsletter. Many vegetarian clubs have vegan events, and there are also many informal Yahoo groups and Meetup groups for vegans. If you need recipes, the Guide to Vegetarian Food and the Guide to Dairy-Free Cooking both have plenty of vegan recipes on their sites.
Doris Lin, Esq. is an animal rights attorney and Director of Legal Affairs for the Animal Protection League of NJ.