To be simple, a vegan is a person who does not consume or wear anything that is derived from an animal. The diet consists of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Basically, it’s the ultimate vegetarian. Like omnivores, there are many ways to be vegan. First let’s explore a few types vegetarian diets.
Pescatarian– This diet includes fish and seafood, but not other meats. Pescatarians usually also consume dairy and eggs, but again, that’s up to the individual. Side note: I’ve never quite understood why this is considered vegetarian when fish are obviously animals, but there you are.
Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian– This person will eat eggs and dairy, but not meats or seafood.
Lacto Vegetarian– Same as above, but no eggs. This is the type of vegetarian that I was for 18 years.
Vegan– The complete abstinence of animal and animal derived products.
What kinds of animal-free foods a vegan consumes largely depends on the reason behind their veganism. For instance, a person who goes vegan due to their stance on animal rights/factory farming may still like and wish to consume meats, but abstain for ethical reasons. They are likely to consume various alternative meat and cheese products.
The term “junk food vegan” applies to vegans who are less concerned with their personal health and, while avoiding animal products, still consume many highly processed foods. There are a surprising amount of foods that are accidentally vegan (Oreos for one, but then that too depends on your stance on sugar, but I’ll get to that).
When I went vegetarian at age 15, it was because meat grossed me out. I recognized the chicken tender in my hand as a muscle, which is no different than my own muscles. I set it down and never ate meat again. Teenage me was pretty into those vegetarian Chik Patties, but as time went on, even faux meat grossed me out. My reasons for vegetarianism expanded to be more than just “meat’s gross” to include animal rights, my health, and the overall health of the earth.
Okay, now that you have a basic idea, let’s talk about a couple ingredients. I mentioned sugar as being an iffy ingredient and that may have surprised you. Some, not all, sugar is processed with animal bone char. This is used to remove color and minerals from the sugar. I use Florida Crystals which is vegan certified (and uses renewable energy, double score!). So whether or not you want to consume non-vegan certified sugar depends on you.
Gelatin is a pretty common ingredient in marshmallows, jellies, jell-o, and even some shampoos, conditioners, hand soaps, and cosmetics . Gelatin is obtained from the collagen of boiled bones, skin, and ligaments, generally from cows and pigs (which is why people who avoid pork for religious reasons, tend to also avoid gelatin). I avoided gelatin as a vegetarian because, let’s be serious, if I don’t want to eat their meat, I certainly don’t want their boiled bones either.
Honey is a toss up. Some vegans avoid honey and for others it’s not a concern. Personally, it’s not necessarily a deal breaker; like if you made me a cup of hot tea and added honey, I wouldn’t reject it, but I don’t use it at home. That being said, mass bee farming has similar drawbacks to factory farming of larger animals, thus, buying on the local, small scale is better.
If you are hosting an event with vegan participants, the best thing to do is ask your vegan friends about their diet. Generally, just keep it simple, fresh fruits and veggies will pretty much always work.
If you are considering a vegan diet, just take it in small steps. When I went vegetarian, I was only eating poultry, so it wasn’t a huge leap. When I decided to go full vegan, I had already switched to almond milk and the texture of cheese had been weirding me out for months, so it was natural next step. Remember to read ingredient lists and if you encounter an ingredient you’re unsure of, look it up and go from there.
Furthermore, don’t let other people get you down. You have no idea how many people feel the need to tell me how much they love meat or how tasty they think animals are and how they could never be vegan. Heck, there was a time I thought I could never be vegan because of my love of cheese and ice cream. You can do anything you set your mind to and you are stronger than you realize.
I know this can seem overwhelming, but really it’s about eating more mindfully and being aware of where your food comes from, which ultimately results in a healthier you and a healthier planet.
Here are a couple links through PETA that you may find helpful:
Vegan/Vegetarian Fast Food- http://www.peta.org/living/food/chain-restaurants/
Accidentally Vegan- http://www.peta.org/living/food/accidentally-vegan/