We commonly hear about people adopting a "vegan diet" for health reasons. Oprah Winfrey, with her "21-day vegan makeover," is one of the latest and biggest names to be promoted as such. But this is actually a case of miscommunication. I wrote about this in my post on Labeling Products "Vegan" where I pointed out that "not everyone who consumes a totally vegetarian diet is doing so because of vegan principles or beliefs, so it is incorrect to label the diet 'vegan.'"
In "History of Vegetarianism: The Origin of Some Words," the International Vegetarian Union traces the roots of this "fine mess" to North America:
In 1944 Donald Watson and friends invented the word 'vegan' to fill the gap, and founded the Vegan Society (in the UK) specifically for this group. They defined the word in terms of all animal products, not just a diet, as that was the reason for inventing it, and everyone was happy - until the Americans got involved...
The British ideas had long since crossed the Atlantic but, as always, Americans have their own way of doing things. Whilst many used the same words, for the same reasons, even more began to use them differently. The health aspect of vegetarianism has always seemed to be a bigger issue in America than in Britain, and a lot of people who only ate meat occasionally, for health reasons, started calling themselves 'vegetarian'. ...
For many, the logic of the health argument also leads to the removal of eggs/dairy products and it would appear that a very much higher proportion of American vegetarians are 'no eggs/dairy' than in Britain, but again a significant proportion of those are primarily motivated by health, and are therefore not bothered about wearing leather etc. This fits the 'strict vegetarian' group, but in the best of American traditions, they then confused things further by insisting on calling themselves 'vegan'.
While this misunderstanding may be traced to the U.S., it is not the result of the U.S. vegan movement. On vegan motives, Catherine Nimmo, who co-founded the first vegan society in the U.S. in 1948, wrote that a narrow focus on health distract from the vegan ideal. "If we become Vegan because we understand animals and feel compassion for their suffering, it is the easiest thing and proves to be of greater benefit for ourselves too; but if we become Vegan for health reasons it seems full of worries about proteins, calcium, or something else."
In 1960, Nimmo was also a founding member of the American Vegan Society. The first issue of its newsletter the AVS featured the article "A Matter of Motives," written by H. Jay Dinshah, which specifically addressed the health/diet confusion concerning veganism.
We recently received a letter in which it was asserted that "far too many vegetarians, Vegans, fruitarians, and the like" refrain from flesh only because of selfish reasons of health and such. While we agree with the sentiment, we take exception to the inclusion of the term "Vegan"... in reference to Veganism, we can state categorically that no true Vegans follow this way of life for selfish reasons alone.
In "Why Kill For Food," Mr. Geoffrey L. Rudd ... describes a Vegan as one who excludes from [their] use all animal products, going on to say: "The movement is entirely ethical and is a recognition that all living creatures have basic rights to live without human interference." He quotes the Vegan aims, opposing "the use of animals by [humans] for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection and all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by [humans]." ... the Vegan is impelled by a sense of justice, mercy, compassion, and concern for ... fellow beings. ... Always the basic consideration is this: if something comes from the [nonhuman] animal world, it is a product of direct or indirect exploitation, cruelty, pain, and death, and we will do without it for that reason.
It is not just by eating or not eating this or that, that one enters the path of Veganism. It is through a profound desire and conviction that mercy, love, and harmlessness are right, and that right must be done.
In 1951, Leslie Cross, a founding member of the vegan movement, wrote in "Veganism Defined" that veganism is itself the reason for a vegan's vegetarian diet:
If, for example, the vegan principle is applied to diet, it can at once be seen why it must be vegetarian in the strictest sense and why it cannot contain any foods derived from animals. One may become a vegetarian for a variety of reasons - humanitarian, health, or mere preference for such a diet; The principle is a matter of personal feeling, and varies accordingly. Veganism, however, is a principle - that [humans have] no right to exploit creatures for [their] own ends - and no variation occurs. Vegan diet is therefore derived entirely from "fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains and other wholesome non-animal products," and excludes "flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey and animal milk and its derivatives."
Veganism is the reason for the vegan diet. It is the cause, and the diet is the effect of the vegan ideal when applied to what we eat. A similar vegetarian diet based on health reasons alone is just a health diet. If it's not based on veganism then leave "vegan" out of it.