To be fair, they sound almost the same. Both begin with the letter ‘V’ and end with ‘an’.
But ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ hold different meanings.
In terms of diet, a ‘vegetarian’ is one who eats plant-based food but may also consume dairy or eggs. A ‘vegan’ would only eat foods derived from plants.
Vegan used to be vegetarian?
Legend has it that the term ‘vegetarian’ was initially used to describe someone who eats a fully plant-based diet. This means that whatever they eat is grown from the earth and not taken from an animal.
However, a group of these vegetarians went astray and declared that eggs and milk are also part of said diet. Technically, no animals had to be killed and the eggs and milk are from animals that eat plant foods.
So the term stuck and it created massive confusion.
Shouldn’t a VEGEtarian only eat vegetables?
I believe so, too.
But the group of vegetarians who consumed eggs and milk got bigger and their belief got stronger. And so it became widely known that a vegetarian eats plants… as well as milk and eggs.
There were still those who were the OGs of the vegetarians i.e. those who still eat only plants or food grown from the earth.
They weren’t creative enough to come up with a new term so I guess they stuck with the term vegetarian but had to waste a few more breaths to explain that they don’t eat eggs or milk.
Their breaths were finally saved when in 1944 a man named Donald Watson coined the term ‘vegan’.
At first, he used it to mean “non-dairy vegetarian”.
Soon, as the issues of factory farming and misuse of animals grew, the term “veganism” became:
a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.
In short, veganism is a lifestyle that excludes the exploitation of animals.
A vegan diet would mean not eating anything that is an animal, a part of the animal or comes from an animal.
So eggs and milk are out of the question.
Personally, I’d prefer if the term “vegetarian” is used to denote a diet that doesn’t include any part of an animal.
What if I tell people I eat a vegetarian diet but live a vegan lifestyle?
Is that even more confusing?
Why Asians can’t catch up
Eating just plants isn’t abnormal in Asia.
Due to Buddhism or Jainism or many other religions, practising a (fully) vegetarian diet sans eggs and milk is quite common.
However, with the invasion of Western food and way of life, Asians have been brought along on the ride of blasphemy and confusion.
While the vegetarian diet is common knowledge, vegan diet is not.
My theory is that the term vegan came after colonialism and when McDonald’s took over the world with their chicken nuggets and beef burgers.
But we’re slowly catching up. Slowly.
I’m sometimes annoyed that people don’t know what vegan is and I’d have to explain to them, especially to waiters.
But sometimes I welcome such conversation because it means I could educate them and make myself feel good for doing a tiny bit of advocacy.
There’s a glimmer of hope, though.
At mamak places, you’d only have to say “pure vegetarian” or “full vegetarian” and they’d understand that it’s a meal without dairy or eggs.
But then they may ask a follow-up question: “How about garlic or onion?”