Because of the increase of food technologies, people are able to customize and control what foods they have access to, and as a result, thousands of new diets are created every day. From gluten-free diets to paleo diets, people can be as picky and selective as they want. One diet has stood out from the rest and continues to attract more and more people every year: veganism. Veganism is a diet that restricts all animal products, whether it be meats or secondary products such as honey and dairy. But where did veganism come from, and how long have people been practicing it?
The term vegan can be traced back to 1944 when Donald Watson, the founder of the Vegan Society, coined the term to separate non-dairy vegetarians from vegetarians that regularly consumed eggs and milk. At the time, Watson was a part of the Vegetarian Society and gave a speech to the group regarding the restriction of dairy products. This seminal speech would inspire Watson and other like-minded people to break away from the Vegetarian Society and form the Vegan Society, which is still going strong today. Vegans, in the modern form, can be directly traced back to Watson and his innovative ideas regarding the restriction of animal products in a diet.
While the term vegan might have roots from just 70 years ago, the idea of limiting the consumption of animal products stretches far back into the ancient world. Many pro-vegan and vegetarian websites, articles, and blogs are quick to point out that both Pythagoras and Plato were either vegan or vegetarian, but that isn’t quite true. Since none of Pythagoras’ writing has survived the ages, we’ve been reliant on other ancient scholars writing about him in retrospect. What can be determined from their accounts is that he certainly proposed the idea of meatless diets, but was also an avid lover of both milk and honey, and some even claim that he enjoyed fish on occasion. As for Plato, much of his writing is still read and studied today and is foundational to Western philosophy. In the Republic, Plato describes an ideal society that restricts “flesh eating,” but there is no evidence that he himself practiced that ideal. Additionally, multiple early Christian saints also preached and practiced a diet that spared the slaughter of animals, as well Roman scholars and various other religions throughout the ancient world. What can be determined from all of this is that the idea for a diet free of animal products has been a concept for millennia, but the ability to practice it is a result of the modern age.
Access to food has drastically changed since the latter half of the 20th century. From increases in food shipping to better agricultural practices, humans now have access to a staggering variety of food that isn’t limited to the seasons, geography, or local climate. As a result, people have greater control as to what they consume – a luxury of the modern age. Due to this, ancient ideas that were based on ideal societies can now be practiced.