Veganism isn't a new concept, but it's been receiving more and more attention lately.

In fact, online searches for the term vegan have risen by more than 250% over the last 5 years.

In the past few years, several celebrities have gone vegan, and a growing number of vegan products have appeared in stores.

This article explains what a vegan is, what vegans eat and why people choose to eat this way.

The term "vegan" was coined in 1944 by a small group of vegetarians who broke away from the Leicester Vegetarian Society to form the Vegan Society.

These people chose not to consume dairy, eggs or any other products of animal origin, in addition to not eating meat like the vegetarians.

Therefore, they felt the need to form a society that better represented their views.

The term vegan was chosen by combining the first and last letters of the word vegetarian. Veganism was originally defined as "the principle of emancipation of animals from exploitation by man."

In 1979, the Vegan Society became a registered charity and updated that definition.

Veganism is currently defined as a way of living that attempts to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty, be it for food, clothing or any other purpose.

Bottom Line: Veganism is a way of eating and living that excludes the exploitation of and cruelty to animals as much as possible.

Vegans generally choose to avoid consuming animal products for one or more of the following reasons.

For Ethical Reasons

Ethical vegans strongly believe that all creatures have the right to life and freedom.

Therefore, they oppose ending a conscious being's life simply to consume its flesh, drink its milk or wear its skin, especially because alternatives are available.

Ethical vegans are also opposed to the psychological and physical stress that animals may endure as a result of modern farming practices.

For instance, ethical vegans deplore the small pens and cages in which many animals live and often rarely leave between birth and slaughter.

What's more, many vegans speak openly against farming industry practices, such as the grinding of live male chicks by the egg industry or the force-feeding of ducks and geese for the foie gras industry.

Ethical vegans demonstrate their opposition by spending their money on products that do not contribute to sustaining the animal agriculture industry.

Bottom Line: Ethical vegans avoid meat and animal agriculture products because they believe in an animal's freedom and right to life.

For Health

Some choose veganism for its potential health effects.

For example, some vegans are interested in how plant-based diets may reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer or premature death (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Others may be encouraged by reports that lowering the amount of animal products you eat may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease or dying from cancer or heart disease (6, 7, 8, 9, 10).

Some also choose veganism to avoid the side effects linked to the antibiotics and hormones used in modern animal farming (11, 12, 13).

Finally, studies consistently link vegan diets to lower body weight and body mass index (BMI). Some people may choose these diets to help shed body fat (14, 15, 16).

Bottom Line: Dietary vegans avoid eating meat, eggs and dairy to improve health, prolong life, lose weight or lower disease risk.

For the Environment

People may also choose to avoid meat and other animal products because of the environmental impact of animal agriculture.

A 2010 UN report argues that these products generally require more resources and cause higher greenhouse emissions than plant-based options (17).

For instance, animal agriculture contributes to 65% of the total amount of nitrous oxide emissions. It also comprises 35–40% of global methane emissions and 9% of global carbon dioxide emissions (18).

Nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide are considered the three principal greenhouse gasses involved in air pollution and climate change.

Furthermore, animal agriculture tends to be a water-intensive process. Between 550 and 5,200 gallons (1,700 and 19,550 liters) of water are needed to produce 1 pound (0.5 kg) of beef (19, 20).

This is up to 43 times more water than is needed to produce the same amount of cereal grain (20).

Animal agriculture can also lead to deforestation when forested areas are converted into areas intended for grazing or growing animal feed crops. This habitat destruction is thought to contribute to the extinction of various animal species (18, 21).

Bottom Line: Some vegans choose to avoid consuming animal products in an attempt to reduce their environmental footprint.

Several types of vegans exist. The most common types are:

  • Dietary vegans: This term is often used interchangeably with "plant-based eaters" and refers to those who choose to avoid animal products in their diet but continue to use them in other products, such as clothing and cosmetics.
  • Whole-food vegans: Vegans who favor a diet rich in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
  • Junk-food vegans: Vegans who rely heavily on processed vegan food, such as vegan meats, fries, vegan frozen dinners and vegan desserts, such as Oreo cookies and non-dairy ice cream.
  • Raw-food vegans: Vegans who consume raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, as well as foods cooked at temperatures below 118°F (48°C) (22).
  • Low-fat, raw-food vegans: Also known as fruitarians, this subset of raw vegans limits high-fat foods, such as nuts, avocados and coconuts and relies mainly on fruit. Sometimes other plants are also eaten in smaller amounts.
Bottom Line: The main types of veganism include dietary, whole-food, junk-food, raw-food or low-fat, raw-food vegans.

Vegans avoid all foods of animal origin. These include:

Moreover, vegans avoid foods containing any ingredients that come from animals.

This includes albumin, casein, carmine, gelatin, lactic acid, pepsin, shellac, vitamin D3, whey or certain animal-derived E-numbers.

Foods containing these ingredients can include some types of beer and wine, marshmallows, frosted mini-wheats, certain gummy candies and chewing gums.

Bottom Line: Vegans avoid eating meat, chicken, fish, shellfish, eggs, dairy and honey, as well as any other products containing ingredients derived from animals.

Avoiding animal products doesn't mean you must survive on veggies and tofu alone.

In fact, many common dishes are already vegan or can be adjusted easily.

Some examples include bean burritos, veggie burgers, tomato pizzas, smoothies, nachos with salsa and guacamole, hummus wraps, sandwiches and pasta dishes.

Meat-based entrees are generally swapped for meals containing the following:

  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Tofu
  • Seitan
  • Tempeh
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

Dairy products are usually replaced with plant milks. Scrambled eggs can be swapped for scrambled tofu, whereas raw eggs can be replaced with flaxseeds or chia seeds in various recipes.

Honey can be swapped for plant-based sweeteners, such as molasses or maple or rice syrups. In addition, vegans tend to consume a variety of whole grains, as well as a wide array of fruits and vegetables (23, 24).

Finally, vegans can also choose from an ever increasing selection of ready-made vegan products, including vegan meats, fortified plant milks, vegan cheeses and even vegan versions of your favorite desserts.

Bottom Line: Vegans eat a wide variety of plant foods, including beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Vegans are individuals who choose to avoid consuming animal products for either ethical, health or environmental reasons -- or a combination of the three.

Instead, they eat various different plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and products made from these foods.