VAY-gun, veggin’, veg*n, VEE-gin: no matter how people say it, there’s more variety than they think. Most long term vegans swear they eat a wider selection of food than they did prior to excluding animal products. Often mystifying cashiers with my produce items, I can personally confirm this experience! As vegans, we’ve all heard the question, “But, what do you eat?” usually followed by one or more of the following: “Rabbit food?” “You must be one of those health nuts” “Where do you get your protein?” “Are you one of those spray-painting animal rights activists?” “Seriously, what do you eat?” The answer depends on whom they ask. Vegan diets and lifestyles reach as far and wide as the individuals embracing them, with every combination imaginable. You’ll find below some of the most common faces of vegan.
The Animal Lover: Who doesn’t love animals? I’d venture to say that at least 80% of all vegans hold compassion for non-human friends as the major reason for eschewing meat, dairy, fish, eggs, honey and leather. Somewhere along the way they asked, “If I wouldn’t eat my dog, then how can I eat or wear a pig?” Or cow? Or goose? They stopped drawing a line between “their” pet and other creatures. They realized that they love all animals and they invited this love into all aspects of life. They might adopt stray kitties, rescue animals from the pound, volunteer at Farm Sanctuary, become veterinarians, or find deep connections with animals in the wild. Famous animal lovers include: Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Jennifer McCann (The Vegan Lunchbox).
Animal Rights Activists: These people love animals, but they demonstrate that love through more aggressive, public action. They write letters to editors and representatives, picket restaurants that buy factory farmed animals, and expose pharmaceutical companies that engage in torturous animal testing. Some activists risk imprisonment for illegally infiltrating labs and farms, so they can film shocking footage later distributed by groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Others use celebrity status to garner attention. (Alicia Silverstone’s sexy vegetarian video for Texas had the whole country talking.) And yes, some activists do spray red paint on fur coats in order to remind wearers of unnecessary bloodshed in the name of fashion. Famous animal rights activists include: Alicia Silverstone, Pamela Anderson, Leonardo da Vinci, Pythagoras, Abraham Lincoln, and George Bernard Shaw.
Environmentalists: The term tree-hugger isn’t so far off: economists estimate that one extra acre of trees survives each year when someone embraces a vegan diet. “Food grown directly for human consumption occupies 60 million acres. Food grown to feed livestock occupies 1.2 billion acres.” “It takes 16 pounds of grain and 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat. Yet 16 people can be fed on the grain it takes to produce that pound of meat. Growing that amount of grain requires only 250 gallons of water. Countries such as Ethiopia and some Central American countries use their farmland to supply the United States with cheap burgers instead of growing healthful grain foods for their own starving people. Every 2 seconds, a child starves to death somewhere in the world” (Robertson, Robin. Vegan Planet, The Harvard Common Press: 2003, p. 98). These and other statistics urge conservationists to follow a strict vegetarian diet. The most famous environmentalist vegan is John Robbins, author of Diet for a Small America.
The Health Nut: OK, some stereotypes offer a tiny whole grain of truth! This group loves how vegan food makes them look and/or feel. Nutritionally, they recognize the superiority of plant protein, and they get all the protein they need, thank you very much. They might follow a particular diet like Raw Foods or Macrobiotics (featured later), or they might just veganize whatever trendy diet hits the mainstream. I’ve actually read food diaries from vegan South Beach-ers, and I’ve seen smoothie directions to stay in the vegan “Zone.” Think strong. Think energetic. Think beautiful. Think extra special ordering. Famous health nuts include: Robert Cheeke (a.k.a. “the world’s most recognized vegan body builder”), Marie Oser (VegTV), Woody Harrelson, and Tracy Bingham (Baywatch).
Hipster Vegans: These folks are cool. They have that certain something that screams for attention—”in your face” like activists, but in a scene-stealing kind of way. The punk community features a lot of hipster vegans, as does Hollywood. Just because these chaps and gals got style, don’t mean they ain’t serious. They just know how to push the envelope in creative ways, wearing hairstyles or tattoos that demand a conversation, T-shirts emblazoned with “Beef: It’s what’s rotting in your colon,” creating lasting artwork or screenplays, or hosting a “Fashion with Compassion” lingerie show. In the hipster hall of fame: The Vegan Vixens, Pink, and of course, Herbivore Magazine’s “coolest vegan alive,” Sarah Kramer.
Junk Food Vegans: Fruit Loops, Jolly Ranchers and Kool-Aid are vegan! So are Frito’s, Sweet Tarts, and Duncan Hine’s California Walnut Brownie mix. Keebler Vienna Fingers, Crisco, and Cocoa Puffs: yep, all vegan. Hey, folks, the saying “I don’t love animals. I just really hate vegetables!” is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. No hall of shame here: animals appreciate your effort, but a little kale won’t kill you. Honest.
Macrobiotics: Made popular in the 1970’s by Michio Kushi, macrobiotics draws upon ancient principles regarding the “yin” (expansive) or “yang” (contracting) energy of foods. The word “macrobiotic” means “big life”—the idea of creating a full, radiant life by balancing extremes. Whole grains, especially brown rice, play a starring role in the macrobiotic diet because they rest near the middle of a yin-yang continuum. Other must-haves include sea vegetables, umeboshi plums, miso soup, greens, tempeh and vegetables. Considered an extremely strict diet, macrobiotics does allow room for occasional “cheating.” Some macrobiotic followers eat a little meat, fish, dairy or refined sugar, but the overall diet focuses on unprocessed, low-glycemic vegan foods with balanced energies and tastes. Gwyneth Paltrow and Christina Pirello are two macrobiotic celebrities.
Raw Fooders: Sometimes considered the strictest vegan expression, a Raw Foods Diet isn’t always vegan. (Some followers consume raw fish, dairy, meat and eggs. Those who eat vegan + bee products are sometimes called “beegans.”) For the most part, though, Raw Fooders eat raw, sprouted, fermented and/or dehydrated plant-based foods. Proponents cite living enzymes and lack of the toxins produced by 105 degree-plus cooking as the secret to raw foods’ healing power. Superfoods like raw cacao, spirulina, wheat grass juice, maca and goji berries find their way into smoothies, raw cakes, and dehydrated treats. Famous followers like David Wolfe, Shazzie, Jason Mraz and the Boutenko’s (a.k.a. Raw Family) report vastly increased energy, cure of diseases, clearer thinking, weight loss and a fountain of youth effect. Although most vegans consume some raw food, Raw Fooders generally receive 80-100% of their calories from uncooked foods.
Spiritually Motivated Vegans: Following “a vegetarian diet for spiritual reasons,” conjures images of Eastern traditions like Buddhism or Hinduism, with their emphasis on purity of mind, body, and spirit. Indeed, the first mock meats were created in Buddhist kitchens to support monks who had vowed ahimsa (non-harm) yet missed former diets of meat and fish. But other religions support veganism, too. A growing number of Christians interpret the phrase “Stewards of the Earth” as a call to environmental responsibility and non-cruelty to all of Earth’s creatures. Salt Lake City offers a surprisingly vegan dining scene due to the many Mormons (Church of Latter Day Saints) believing no one ate meat in Eden. I know Jews who honor the original humane intent of kosher laws by celebrating Seder with a “Passover Yam.” Healers, “psychics,” and yoga and meditation instructors often find enhanced clarity by adopting a cleaner and more compassionate vegan lifestyle. Spiritually motivated vegans include David Life and Sharon Gannon (founders of Jivamukti Yoga School) and Erin Pavlina.
So, with all this diversity, what exactly does vegan mean? At the first Vegan Society Meeting on November 1, 1944, South Yorkshire’s Donald Watson coined the term “vegan” and observed it was “the beginning and end of vegetarian.” If you write a paragraph, keeping the initial and final letters of each word and scrambling everything in between, readers can still understand the message. Ancient Greeks referred to this phenomenon as the “alpha and omega,” meaning the beginning and the end: that which makes sense of everything in between. Veganism takes vegetarianism to its fullest conclusion. It says:
If we want to show compassion for animals, then let’s avoid all forms of animal cruelty—including factory farms, animal testing, animal skinning and commercial bee hives. If we want lower cholesterol, then let’s eat a cholesterol-free diet. If eating lower on the food chain can save this planet, then let’s follow a completely plant-based diet. The many faces of vegan offer hope for a future in which we can all smile.
Laura Bruno is the author of the first vegan/raw food novel, as well as The Lazy Raw Foodist’s Guide.