Merriam-Webster defines “lifestyle” as “the typical way of life of an individual, group, or culture.” By this definition, people who are vegan are following a vegan lifestyle. Their way of life includes abstaining from eating, wearing or using any animal products whenever possible. These two definitions seem compatible with each other. But there is a lot that gets lost when we reduce veganism to just a lifestyle.
People go vegan for many reasons, the most popular ones including concerns for the environment, animals and personal health. Vegans want to reduce their carbon footprint on the planet while ensuring that animals don’t have to suffer all while trying to maintain optimum health. But often, in the media, the most sensational aspects of veganism are highlighted. We see dramatic weight loss stories or rapid increases of energy brought about by veganism, but nowhere is animal welfare or the environmental impact mentioned. The problem with this, besides the inherent fatphobia, is that when veganism is just seen as a way to lose weight or gain energy, it makes it easier for people to give up if or when they don’t get those dramatic results.
Caring for the environment and animals isn’t something we can just chop and change our opinions on. These are fundamental beliefs and practices that should not be seen as the positive side effect of a weight-loss diet. When veganism is reduced to a lifestyle, it becomes a fad diet that is divorced from its original intention.
This mentality also leads to ex-vegans coming out against veganism after it didn’t “work” for them. They, and the media reporting on it, miss the point of veganism. There is nothing for it to “work” on. Veganism may be easily dismissed by celebrities who will swap it out for the latest diet craze promising long-lasting change, but the reality is that it was never just a diet. Veganism does not exist to make sure people have perfectly thin bodies; it is a way to take care of our planet and all of the creatures on it.
So what’s the solution?
The key is more education. The way we talk about veganism in the media must change. There needs to be a distinction made between veganism and a plant-based diet. “Plant-based” describes only what you eat, whereas “vegan” describes how you live your life. Not all people who are plant-based are vegan, but all vegans are plant-based. Confusing, right? It’s easy to understand why the people following these diets get it wrong, let alone mainstream media.
Plant-based people will eat vegan food, although some will also eat honey, which is not strictly vegan. They might wear leather, wool and silk. They may wear makeup or skincare products that are not cruelty-free. The reason they eat vegan food might differ from those of vegans, but there can also be overlaps.
Vegans, on the other hand, will not eat, wear or use any products that contain animal products or cause any harm to animals in the process of making them. There are obvious exceptions. Some vegans will wear secondhand wool or leather but will not buy anything new made out of these materials. They will do their best to avoid products that have been tested on animals.
This confusion between the two is reinforced when famous people who are plant-based mistakenly call themselves vegan or the media labels them as such. When they decide that the “lifestyle” isn’t for them, that just means that they don’t want to eat vegan food anymore. They were likely never avoiding makeup tested on animals or wearing silk. But what we see in the media is what seems like a cascade of celebrities giving up veganism.
Famously, Beyoncé went viral when she told her fans that she had gone plant-based in preparation for her 2018 Coachella performance. She oscillated between using plant-based and vegan, as if they are interchangeable, leading to more confusion among fans and the media. Later, when it was reported that she’d stopped following a plant-based diet, the media jumped on that as a way to ridicule veganism with a righteous smugness. That narrative sets veganism up to fail in the public eye.
This is why language matters. If media outlets had correctly reported that Beyoncé had gone on a temporary plant-based diet to lose weight, her stopping that diet would have had no consequence. But that’s not what happened. Instead, this moment allowed veganism to be dismissed as unsustainable and conflated with a diet meant for weight loss.
When we reduce veganism to a lifestyle, all of its most important tenets are forgotten. Animal welfare takes a backseat to weight loss or energy gain. Environmental concerns are brushed aside. The way we talk about veganism to each other and in the media is important because it’s not just words at stake—it’s our planet.