Vegans do not consume anything that comes from an animal. In addition to the obvious (meat), vegans also avoid dairy, eggs, and various other animal byproducts. Many vegans also choose not to purchase products that have been tested on animals (such as personal care items) or wear anything made from animal products, such as leather, wool, and fur.
To many omnivores, this can sound extremely limiting, but in fact, many vegans experience a great expansion in their diet after making this life-affirming decision. Personally, I have broadened my horizons to include a much wider array of nuts, grains, fruits, and vegetables than I ever ate before becoming vegan. I've become a much more competent and adventurous cook, and have come to really enjoy knowing what's in the food I'm feeding my family. Also, the variety of commercially available meat and dairy substitutes continues to grow - if you choose to include these items in your diet, you can find vegan hot dogs, lunch meats, various cheeses, milks, yogurts, etc.
While no two vegans are exactly alike, the most common reason for choosing to practice veganism seems to be ethics (i.e. animal welfare or animal rights). Other reasons include personal health, environmental benefits, and concern for worldwide food supplies. I'll briefly discuss each of these reasons and list some resources where you can learn more.
First, let's talk ethics. Whether you are a devoted animal rights activist or an average Joe or Jane, I think the vast majority of us would agree that it's not right to torture animals. Unfortunately, the production of meat, dairy, and eggs (even so-called 'humane' products) is inherently cruel to animals. Modern farms bear little resemblance to the idyllic family-run operations you might imagine when you think about animals raised to meet the desires of human taste buds. Animals raised for food are routinely housed in filthy, crowded cages, subjected to numerous and repeated cruel practices, and slaughtered (usually not painlessly) far short of their natural lifespan.
Two lucky pigs who now live at Farm Sanctuary, safe forever from the horrors of factory farming.
In addition to preventing cruelty to animals, many vegans experience health benefits from their plant based diets. Most Americans do not get enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in their diet, and the vegan diet often includes a greater quantity and variety of these healthful foods. Of course, it's also possible to be a 'junk food vegan' and live on white pasta and caramel booty, in which case you are not likely to be quite so healthy!
Climate change and environmental issues have been at the forefront of the news and many citizens' minds lately, and for good reason. If we don't act quickly, both at a governmental level and as individuals, the earth we leave to our children is likely to be a lot more damaged than the one our parents left to us. Did you know that the agriculture sector contributes more to global warming than the transportation sector? It's true; making the change from an omnivorous diet to a vegan one will do more to decrease your carbon footprint than giving up your car. This is largely due to the vast amounts of carbon emissions generated from the farming industry (i.e. animal farts). Livestock are also responsible for almost two-thirds (64 percent) of anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute significantly to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems. This is a complicated issue that warrants further discussion, but I'll leave it at that for today.
Finally, veganism is helpful in battling world hunger. It is extremely inefficient to cultivate massive quantities of grains to be fed to animals who will eventually to be killed for meat. It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of edible animal flesh. In theory, if these grain resources were used instead to feed the 840 million hungry people in the world, we could end world hunger.
Blossom, former broiler industry turkey rescued by Farm Sanctuary after an airline cargo disaster, now a permanent member of our family.
In case you'd like to learn more about veganism, I'll leave you with some links so you can do some more reading on your own...
About Veganism - General Information
Free Vegan Starter Kits
Vegetarian Recipe Sites
Online Vegan Stores
Online Vegan Communities