Is Defining Vegan a Battle Worth Fighting?

By Published On: 21 August 2013Last Updated: 17 January 2017

Bruce Friedrich is comfortable with the word "vegan" referring exclusively to diet. I'm not. Here's why.

What's in this post

open dictionary

Earlier this month, Bruce Friedrich posted the following on his Facebook:

“I’m comfortable with vegan referring exclusively to diet. The most frequent use of the word is on foods and cookbooks, I’d guess, where it is only referring to the lack of animal ingredients in food. And for the vast majority of people who think they know what it means, ‘vegan’ is a diet term. People fighting to identify vegan according to its original meaning are not likely to win that battle, I’m pretty sure. It’s the nature of diction that word meanings change according to common use. Fighting it will be an exercise in frustration, I suspect.”

He then posed the question:

I know some people feel with what seems to be an almost religious zeal that “vegan” must adhere to the original (purely animal rights, no leather, wool, silk, etc.) meaning, but surely that train has long since left the station. Is this really a battle worth fighting? Don’t we have more important things to worry about? What do you think?

My journey to veganism started because of health concerns, and then logically progressed to consider the environment and the animals. Yes, that journey began with a focus on food, but it wasn’t long before I was considering things like circuses, pet stores, leather sneakers and wool sweaters. Almost four years since I stopped eating dairy-based cheese – the last bastion of my omnivorous life – I strongly believe that the definition of vegan is important. And yes, I think it’s a battle worth fighting.

When everyone is falling all over themselves to praise Bill Clinton’s veganism – even when a recent article calls him vegan and mentions his weekly animal-based food intake – I think it’s worth fighting.

When a former vegan declares herself “not a vegan anymore” because of cravings – and says you can care about animals and still eat them – I think it’s worth fighting.

A plant-based diet – hell, even a “vegan” diet – is great, but it does not equate to the practice of veganism. As for the “exercise in frustration” that we must experience to fight the misappropriation of the word, isn’t that a small price to pay for something that means so much to us and, more importantly, to the animals? I get frustrated over much less important things every hour of every day.

For one to call himself vegan and not truly understand the definition of the word is a disservice to the philosophy of veganism. I can call myself vegan because I don’t eat animals, but if I’m killing bugs, painting my face with L’Oreal cosmetics and wearing overpriced, sheepskin boots each winter, I am not vegan. I may be moving in that direction, but I’m not there yet.

Let’s be clear – veganism is “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.” It’s not a diet. It’s not a trend. And those who call themselves vegan should know that.

Life is complicated – full of obstacles and lessons to be learned. I am tired of being told that the majority wins and that some battles aren’t worth fighting. Following that logic, perhaps we should all just let popular opinion sway our every thought. Let’s plug back into the matrix and let someone else worry about things.

Photo credit: greeblie via Flickr


  1. […] Is Defining Vegan A Battle Worth Fighting? […]

  2. ettk45 May 16, 2016 at 5:13 pm - Reply

    Poorly informed, as usual. You quote part of The Vegan Society’s
    definition but at the same time ignore their policy. The Vegan Society’s ONLY requirement for
    membership, aside from paying dues, is adherence to a vegan diet.

  3. cath2 May 13, 2016 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    folks that ‘eat’ a vegan diet are strict vegetarians – nothing wrong withthat. Veganism has to do with more than what you shove down your ‘cake-hole’ – that’s the way it is.

  4. Steph Wynn August 26, 2013 at 8:12 pm - Reply

    Bill eats a plant based diet, yes. Vegans eat plant based diets too. Veganism is a whole lot more than diet. The phrase ‘eating a vegan diet’ isn’t technically wrong but implies something about the eater that isn’t necessarily accurate.

  5. Lisa August 26, 2013 at 4:37 pm - Reply


    In every interview I have seen Bill Clinton do he says that he “eats salmon frequently and eats turkey at thanksgiving” (loosely quoted). So, he does not even have a “vegan diet”, but if he did eat only from plants why does everyone feel so committed to using the word “vegan”?

    What is wrong with “vegetarian”? OH, I know, it lost its meaning! So now we are doing the same thing to “vegan”? Back in the 1980s, long before I unlearned specieism and stopped participating in animal exploitation, I knew that “vegetarian” meant you ate nothing from animals, “lacto-ovo vegetarian” meant you only ate eggs and dairy taken from animals, “pescetarian” meant you only ate murdered fish. But, the slippery slope has brought us to the point where the word “vegetarian” is meaningless.

    That is the fate of “vegan” if people don’t wake up and take the word back.

  6. nzveganalien August 25, 2013 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    Ah yes I see that now. Yes that would be brilliant wouldn’t it. It would be great to have his name really with the Vegan cause. It’s interesting the thing about ‘fish’. You get that a lot whereas people ask if you eat fish, as if somehow it doesn’t count and isn’t an animal. It’s very strange and frustrating and certainly not Vegan.

    You may like this post too. I found it just after I read yours then commented on facebook and linked yours in.This is about Alanis Morissette

    Take care

  7. NZVeganalien August 25, 2013 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    I think this article is good and is very important. I have to say I couldn’t see where in the article quoted that it said Bill Clinton ate any non Vegan food but that’s not the issue. Bill Clinton does seem to eat a very plant based diet. He was apparently very influenced by the China Study. All this is for physical health purposes and very commendable that he turned some trends around. I think it would be reasonable in my view to say he eats a Vegan diet even (if he does actually crowd out meat fish dairy eggs and honey).

    I think it’s important though not to say he is ‘a vegan’ without comments about compassionate living and doing minimal harm to animals and the environment as being part of what he is trying to stand for in this. He could well be on that path but we don’t know and it’s important to consider before using that word. If it is purely physical health then we should say he eats a plant based diet or at best a Vegan diet, probably just ‘a plant based diet’. That gives good respect to what he is doing while not confusing anything.

    • Daria Zeoli August 25, 2013 at 3:21 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your thoughts, Phil. On the 3rd page of the article, it says the following regarding Clinton’s diet: “Once a week or so, he will have a helping of organic salmon or an omelet made with omega-3-fortified eggs, to maintain iron, zinc and muscle mass.” I agree that it’s very commendable that Clinton has turned things around from a dietary standpoint. I hope that he may someday take it to the level of compassion for animals and the environment. Wouldn’t that be something?

Leave A Comment

HELLO! I'm KD Angle-Traegner.

Writer, activist, and founder of Four Urban Paws Sanctuary. I’m on a mission to help people live a vegan life. Read more about KD…