What Veganism Is, Why It Matters and How to Eat Plant-Based

A primer on the what, whys and hows of veganism.

A bowl of plant-based food

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In many ways, modern society is built on the suffering of animals. Very few people set out to actively harm other living creatures, of course — yet so much of the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the cosmetics we apply and the services we rely on subject animals to significant pain and suffering. One way to fight against this is to adopt a vegan lifestyle.

Over the last few years, the number of vegans has skyrocketed, yet in many ways, veganism is still misunderstood. If you’re interested in transitioning to veganism, or if you simply want to learn more about the vegan lifestyle and why one might adopt it, read on.

What Is Veganism?

Veganism refers both to a diet that omits all animal products and, more broadly, a lifestyle that forgoes any products or services that inflict suffering on animals.

Is Veganism Just a Diet?

When most people hear the term “vegan,” they think of people who don’t eat animal products. While that’s not exactly incorrect, veganism is more than just a diet. In its fullest form, veganism is an ethical commitment to impose the least possible harm to the animals with whom we share the Earth.

People who live vegan adopt a fully plant-based diet, omitting not only animal flesh but also animal secretions such as milk, honey and eggs from their diets. Many vegans extend this policy to nonfood products as well, and won’t buy clothes, soap, candles or anything else that either contains animal products or was tested on animals. Additionally, vegans forgo services and events that imprison or inflict harm on animals, such as circuses, rodeos or horse-drawn carriages.

In short, veganism is a practice that supports living in harmony with nonhuman animals, which means leaving them out of our food, clothing, entertainment, products and labor. It’s about treating animals with dignity, and allowing them to live their lives as naturally as possible.

Why Is Veganism Important?

The industrialized production of animal products causes enormous harm to animals, the environment  and  humans. Vegans seek to mitigate this destruction by choosing not to purchase or consume these products.

Our society isn’t structured in a way that prioritizes animal or environmental welfare. In fact, it’s the opposite: modern human society is built such that the average person, without even trying or being aware of it, will contribute to the suffering of animals and destruction of the environment simply by living their lives.

It’s worth looking at exactly what this destruction looks like, both to gain greater understanding of how the world works and, more specifically, to understand the precise harm that vegans are trying to avoid and reduce.

Limiting  Environmental Harm Through Veganism

Many people go vegan due to environmental concerns. Animal agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of global warming, the leading cause of habitat loss worldwide and a significant pollutant of waterways.

Animal Agriculture and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Studies have shown that the livestock industry produces between 11 and 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and almost twice as much greenhouse gas as plant-based foods. One of the most harmful greenhouse gasses is methane, and according to the EPA, 37 percent of methane emissions caused by human activity come from animal agriculture.

Animal Agriculture and Deforestation

Livestock also wreaks havoc on natural habitats. The beef industry is the number one cause of deforestation around the world, and is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest specifically. Meanwhile, up to 35 percent of all mangroves have been destroyed since 1980, mostly to make way for shrimp farms and other aquaculture.

Rainforests and mangroves both trap significant amounts of carbon from the air, making them invaluable tools in fighting global warming. They’re also important sources of biodiversity; some animals only live in mangroves or rainforests, and many species have gone extinct due to deforestation.

Animal Agriculture and Water Pollution

The fertilizer used to grow feed crops on an industrial scale are a combination of manure from factory farms and synthetic chemicals. These typically contain phosphorus and nitrates, and when it rains, the chemicals flow from the soil into nearby waterways. This causes harmful algae blooms, which in turn result in mass fish die-offs. This water pollution also poses a hazard to humans: high levels of nitrates can cause methemoglobinemia, a condition known as “blue baby syndrome” that can be fatal to newborns.

Limiting Animal Cruelty Through Veganism

Many vegans will tell you that they chose their lifestyle because they don’t want animals to suffer. That’s entirely reasonable, because factory farms — which is where at least 90 percent of farmed animals live — cause immeasurable suffering and pain for the animals raised in them.

Animals on factory farms are mutilated in a number of horrifying ways: pigs are castrated at birth and have their teeth clipped, chickens have their beaks sliced off, various animals have their tails removed, cows are branded and dehorned and much more. All of this is done without anesthetic, thus causing immense physical pain to the animals, often just moments after they’re born.

Conditions for Chickens on Factory Farms

In most factory farms, animals  live in suffocating, cramped conditions. For instance, the majority of egg-laying hens in U.S. farms live in battery cages. In these enclosures, hens have around 67 square inches of space each; that’s around the size of a piece of paper, and is so confining that the chickens can’t fully spread their wings or extend their necks. They’re also unable to engage in normal chicken behavior, like preening, dust bathing and scratching the floor to file down their nails.

On egg farms, hens are intentionally starved for weeks on end in order to increase egg output, a process known as “forced molting.” After weeks of no food, hens are fed again, and their egg output increases slightly. Chickens that survive this ordeal are subjected to it up to three times before they’re killed. According to the US Department of Agriculture, at any given point in time, 6 million hens are being systematically starved on factory farms in the U.S.

Conditions for Pigs and Cows on Factory Farms

Many female pigs on factory farms, meanwhile, are held in gestation crates —  metal cages so small and tight that the pigs in them can’t turn around, let alone graze or walk on the grass. They’re confined to these crates for their entire pregnancies.This would be bad enough if they were only pregnant once, but they aren’t. Mother pigs are forcibly impregnated over and over again in order to produce as many piglets as possible. After around two years, they’re no longer able to give birth, at which point they’re slaughtered for meat.

A similar process plays out on dairy farms; female cows only lactate during pregnancy and after giving birth, so farmers repeatedly impregnate them to ensure a constant flow of milk.

Adding to the misery is the fact that cows’ and pigs’ offspring are taken from them shortly after their birth. This causes significant emotional distress: mother cows will cry out for days on end for their children after they’re separated, and piglets who’ve been taken from their mothers exhibit higher levels of fear and stress later in life.

Animal Cruelty During Transportation to Slaughter

Lastly, there’s transportation. After spending their lives in confinement, farm animals are transported to slaughterhouses in the same fashion. They’re often held in trucks for extended periods, with little room and no food or water, causing many to overheat or dehydrate. As a result of these conditions, it’s estimated that 4 million chickens, 726,000 pigs and 29,000 cattle die in transport each year in the U.S. alone.

Adopting a Vegan Diet for Human Health

Veganism isn’t just good for the environment and animals. It’s also often good for human health.

To begin with, going vegan can help protect you from the leading cause of death globally: heart disease. One study found that a plant-based vegan diet can significantly reduce your risk of dying from heart disease, while others have shown that vegans have lower blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol and lower BMI than people on omnivorous diets — all outcomes that reduce one’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Studies have also shown that vegans are less likely to get cancer or Type 2 diabetes and have lower rates of hypertension. It’s probably no surprise, then, that vegans live longer than omnivores on average as well.

Beyond individual outcomes, going vegan can help reduce widespread harm as well: According to a 2021 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pollution from animal agriculture kills 12,700 people in the U.S. every year.

How to Become a Vegan

It’s often best to transition slowly into a vegan lifestyle, and there are a plethora of tools and resources online to help facilitate this transition and, more importantly, allow you to sustain your new lifestyle once the transition is complete.

How to Transition to Veganism Gradually

Everyone’s vegan journey looks different, but there are some general best practices for anyone transitioning into a vegan lifestyle.

After learning of the negative impacts the meat and dairy industry have on the world, many people are ready to give up eating animal products overnight. This is entirely understandable, but it’s generally advised to transition gradually into a vegan diet rather than doing it in one fell swoop, as this reduces the mental and physical shock of such a drastic dietary change.

There are a few ways of doing this. One is to eliminate animal products one by one from your diet over a period of time; for instance, you might stop eating beef in January, then remove dairy products from your fridge in February, then forgo chicken in March, and so on. Another strategy is to begin by going vegan just one day a week, then slowly increase that until you’re an everyday vegan. Similarly, you might start by only being vegan at home before eventually adopting a vegan diet while dining out as well.

Connecting with Vegan Community

A great way of facilitating your transition into veganism is to connect with other vegans, as they can provide much needed mental, emotional and practical support. This can be as simple as reaching out to any vegan friends you already have; alternatively, if you don’t know any vegans yet, attending a local vegan meetup, or joining a local vegan Facebook group, is a great way to meet some.

Resources for Vegans

There are also plenty of material resources online for aspiring vegans. In addition to the many “how to be vegan” guides, websites like Free From Harm and A Well-Fed World contain a wealth of helpful knowledge for vegans. The free app and website Happy Cow displays  vegan restaurants near you, all around the world.If cooking from home is more your speed, you can pick up a vegan cookbook, or follow any number of vegan influencers on social media for recipes. If you have a little extra pocket money, you could even sign up for a vegan meal subscription service like Hungryroot, Purple Carrot, Thistle or many others.

Becoming vegan can seem overwhelming at first, so take your time in learning the facts, figures and science behind veganism. This will allow you to remain firmly rooted in your beliefs and actions in the face of those who might try to discredit your new lifestyle.

The Bottom Line

Veganism is about changing how we look at animals. We’re raised to see them as a food source, but when we learn to appreciate animals as the living, feeling, loving beings that they are, we create space to discover new plant-based food options that we’d never have considered before. Although animals occasionally rebel against the systems that oppress them, they aren’t able to stand up for themselves in any significant way. They need us for that. It’s been estimated that for every day a person lives a vegan lifestyle, they save one animal’s life. That may not seem like it matters very much in the grand scheme of things — but it matters a whole lot to each one of those animals. It also matters for the health of our planet: going vegan for even one month can save approximately 33,000 gallons of water, 1,200 pounds of grain, 900 square feet of forest and 600 pounds of CO2.

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