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Jay-Z and Beyonce: Veganism is much more than a Cleanse

Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s ‘Three Week Vegan Diet’ means that they are the latest celebrities to jump on what ABC News has labelled the ‘trendy diet bandwagon’ which is ‘on everyone’s lips’. This is a positive sign in terms of the mainstreaming of a plant-based diet but it also shows the widespread confusion over the meaning of veganism.


Image from The Jasmine Brand.

In a video about this story on ABC News, the hosts use the words ‘plant-based diet’ and ‘vegan lifestyle’ interchangeably to refer to the decision these celebrities have made. In the video, the presenters speak about their ‘plant-based diet’ and then question how committed Beyoncé is to the ‘vegan lifestyle’ – pointing out that since adopting this diet she has been wearing fur and suede – ‘a big no-no in the vegan world’.

Wearing animal products is absolutely inconsistent with veganism but is not at all inconsistent with eating a plant-based diet.

Donald Watson coined the term “vegan” in 1944 to refer to a diet free of animal products. However, in 1951, only seven years after the term was coined, the definition of veganism was extended to be far more all-encompassing than just a diet. The Vegan Society redefined veganism to mean seeking ‘to end the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection and all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man’.

Unfortunately, the coverage of Jay-Z and Beyoncé is an example of how today the mainstream media generally uses the 1944 definition of veganism rather than the definition that has been in place from 1951 onwards.

Jay-Z is eating a plant-based diet as a ‘spiritual/physical cleanse’ and there is also a mention of the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet in ABC’s video. There is no mention of animals. But there doesn’t have to be any concern for animals to adopt a plant-based diet.

T. Colin Campbell, one of the authors of the famous book The China Study, which drew attention to the health problems caused by eating animal products, advocates a plant-based diet purely for health reasons. He explains why he uses the term “plant-based diet” rather than “vegan”:

‘I don’t use the word “vegan” or “vegetarian”. I don’t like those words. People who chose to eat that way chose to because of ideological reasons. I don’t want to denigrate their reasons for doing so, but I want people to talk about plant-based nutrition and to think about these ideas in a very empirical scientific sense, and not with an ideological bent to it’.

For someone to be vegan, there needs to be this ‘ideological bent’ – while vegans may care about their health or the environment, it is only concern for animals that can lead them to boycott all forms of animal exploitation. No one could argue that wearing a leather jacket is bad for your health and the use of animals in circuses is hardly a huge environmental issue.

A growing interest in eating a plant-based diet is, however, a positive trend for animals. As less people eat animal-based foods, whatever the reason, the demand for animal products is reduced, meaning fewer animals are exploited and killed. Reducing the demand for dietary animal products is particularly important as a huge majority of animals killed by humans are killed for food.

The growing popularity of a plant-based diet also reduces a barrier that may have prevented people becoming from vegan in the past. As the health benefits of a plant-based diet are increasingly reaching the mainstream media and consciousness, people are less likely to resist becoming vegan as a result of perceived health deficiencies, but may actually see that there are health benefits to the dietary aspect of veganism.

Animal advocates can build on these positive aspects while trying to extend these benefits to the animals who have mostly been left out of these discussions. These include animals exploited for purposes such as clothing, entertainment and experimentation.

Beyond the fact that animals beyond those used for food are not affected by the rise of the plant-based diet, there are also other reasons why veganism, rather than a plant-based diet, is the most important thing for animals.

Jay-Z makes ‘no promise about his plant-based future’ beyond this three week “cleanse”. Recent surveys have found that those who became vegetarian for animal rights reasons, as opposed to other reasons such as health or environmental concerns, were more likely to stay vegetarian, as this is ‘a value more difficult to compromise’.

This is likely to apply to veganism too. If veganism is viewed as just a diet, it is unlikely to last in the long-term, especially when it is viewed as a “cleanse”. For anyone who has tried dieting, have you ever even considered adopting a particular diet for the rest of your life?

If animals are left out of the equation, people are not only likely to engage in other forms of animal exploitation beyond diet, they may well also not eat a totally plant-based diet.

Bill Clinton has had a dramatic health improvement as a result of significantly reducing the amount of animal products he eats, but he acknowledges that ‘once a week or so’ he will indulge in a serving of salmon or an omelette. Those who are vegan for animal rights reasons are far less likely to have such “indulgences” – once again, this value is ‘more difficult to compromise’.

The coverage of Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s “cleanse” is an example of the confusion over the definition of veganism. Animal advocates should capitalise the rise of the plant-based diet while correcting the limited definition of veganism often used in the mainstream media.

Nick Nick Pendergrast is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Curtin University in Western Australia. His research focuses on the animal advocacy movement, primarily in Australia and the US. He also teaches Sociology and Anthropology at Curtin University, co-hosts the podcast Progressive Podcast Australia and runs the website Vegan Perth with Animal Rights Advocates.

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