Over the past several years, I’ve noticed that oftentimes the terms “vegetarian” and “vegan” are misunderstood by not only the general population at large but also within our own veg community. And using those terms when attempting to order a meal at a restaurant frequently becomes what would make for a great Seinfeld episode.
Thus, I thought I’d dedicate today’s blog to attempting to provide some clarification, at least from my perspective. Here goes…
Vegetarianism can be traced back to as early as the sixth century BCE when Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, lived life according for four vows: (1) do not kill, (2) do not steal, (3) do not lie, and (4) do not own property. A main thrust of the Jain philosophy was to achieve mastery over one’s body and passions. To that end and in honoring the first vow, he is credited with “to every creature, his own life is very dear”, thus the Jain basis for being vegetarian.
When you look at the predominant Eastern religions, one of the main precepts is the practice of Ahimsa, dynamic harmlessness, and can be traced back at least until the same era as the evolution of Jainism.
In the mid-1800s (1847), the British Vegetarian Society was formed. According to the Vegetarian Society, their vegetarian diet consisted of vegetables, fruits, and beans. For more detailed information regarding the Vegetarian Society, you can check out their website at www.vegsoc.org .
There are several opinions as to how the term “vegetarian” was coined to describe this type of diet. The International Vegetarian Union (IVO) has documents from the Alcott House which date between 1842-1846 and use the term “vegetarian”. Some believe that it is the combination of two words: vegetable and agrarian, the latter meaning from the land, farming. By combining “veget” from vegetable and the “arian” from agrarian, “vegetarian” was formed. Another belief is that the suffix “arian” was added on to the end of the word “vegetable”, to describe a person who eats only vegetables. Still some others believe that it came from the Latin word “vegetus”, which means lively or vigorous. An excellent resource regarding the history of vegetarianism is the IVO at www.ivu.org.
Today, I hear so many different ways that some people interpret the diet they choose to embrace within the veg world. It seems that every day, there is a new diet this and a new diet that. Consequently, I often need to ask people exactly what they mean by the term they are using. Frequently, it would not fit into what I have come to accept as a working definition of the term “vegetarian” but rather some sort of bastardized non-version of the term.
Today, the definition of vegetarian in its pure sense really hasn’t changed. It still relates to eating a completely plant-based diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, and grains.
Some people tend to include dairy and eggs, and thus, refer to themselves as lacto-ovo vegetarians, with the “lacto” being dairy, and the “ovo” being eggs.
There are those that refer to themselves as vegetarian and yet they consume fish. I would say that these individuals are NOT vegetarian but would more aptly be described as pescatarian.
And what about “vegan”? What’s the difference between vegetarian and vegan? Well, there actually is quite a difference, and thus explains how I came up with the title of this article, “VEGetariAN Squared.
It is said that Donald Watson, when forming The Vegan Society in England in 1944, decided to take the “VEG” and the “AN” from the word “vegetarian” to mean that “vegan” was a lifestyle inclusive of a vegetarian diet, not just a vegetarian diet alone. He was vegetarian for 80 years, with the last sixty being vegan.
A person is vegetarian when he/she eats nothing that (I like to say) “came from anything that had a mother or eyes, potatoes excluded”, a plant-based diet. While this individual consumes nothing that came from other sentient beings, they may continue to wear / use animal products, such as leather and other animal skins, wool, pearls, ivory, use products that were tested on animals, etc. For this person, they are describing their food diet but not their lifestyle.
The term “vegan” is beginning to get diluted and misused by people who are eating a totally plant-based vegetarian diet but not embracing the vegan lifestyle. These individuals would more correctly be vegetarian, not vegan.
Vegan is a person who adopts a not only a completely plant-based vegetarian diet but also embraces the lifestyle of ahimsa, dynamic harmlessness, which means non-violence, causing no harm to other sentient beings. It includes taking into consideration not only what we put on our plate, but also the animal rights, the environment and sustainability, and health and nutrition. Humane educator and founder of the Institute for Human Education, Zoe Weil, wrote a fabulous book entitled “Most Good, Least Harm”, which offers a simple straight-forward approach to making the world a better place as the result of dynamic harmlessness, of which becoming / being vegan is a significant factor. To learn more about Zoe’s work and the Institute, you can visit www.humaneeducation.org.
Within the vegan world, there are also several variations on the theme in terms of diet. You can be vegetarian / vegan and still be eating in a way that is not going to nourish your own body, filling up on refined sugars, refined flours, and fried foods. Now, I’m not at all saying here that I don’t enjoy a great vegan dessert or a yummy bowl of pasta (I am half Italian/Sicilian, after all). But that just would not work for me in the long run, so I moderate treating myself to something special on occasion with the absolute day-to-day options being whole-food plant-based ingredients.
A philosophy that seems to be gaining significant traction is the Pure Plant Nation philosophy of eating only whole-food plant-based items, which means the elimination of added oils and low in added salt and sugars. For more information, you can visit www.pureplantnation.com. In providing balance, Mark Rifkin, MS, RD, wrote an excellent article, “Healthy Fats, Healthy Hearts: A Review of the Evidence”. You can find out more information about his work at www.balancednutritiononline.com.
Raw foodists eat only plant-based foods that are either raw or not heated above a certain temperature. Dr. Gabriel Cousins, founder of the Tree of Life Center in Patagonia, Arizona, teaches that the enzymes in food are destroyed when it reaches 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and thus is no longer alive nor raw. An excellent primer book is “Becoming Raw” by Brenda Davis, RD.
Another popular vegan diet is the Engine 2 Diet. Rip Esselstyn, son of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn is the founder. Rip was a firefighter in Austin, Texas, thus the name of the diet. In addition to books, they offer weekend and week-long experiences for a complete immersion. You can learn more at www.engine2diet.com.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list at all. In fact, I probably have barely scratched the surface. But, I do believe that I’ve covered the main headers within the conversation about vegetarian and vegan.
As adopting a vegan lifestyle becomes more prominent within not only our society but throughout the world, I’m sure we continue to see an even greater evolution. But I do think it’s important to stay true to and understand the differences and nuances between being an omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan. From that platform, we can begin to educate and advocate about the benefits of adopting a vegan lifestyle that will save not only ourselves but other sentient beings as well as this wonderful earth and the environment that provides us with all that we need to live a healthy and vibrant life.
“Let food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates, 470-360 B.C.