OFTEN the word vegan conjures up images of an alternative lifestyle which preaches about animal rights and makes people feel guilty for eating milk with their cereal.
Certainly there are myths surrounding the topic - ranging from all vegans being preachers to them destroying the rainforests to make tofu; vegans caring more about animals than humans and it goes against the natural food chain. But does the average person really understand what a vegan is?
Giving a simple definition, a vegan is a person who tries to live without exploiting animals - for the benefit of animals, people and the planet.
Most commonly this is associated with their diet; they eat a plant-based diet with nothing coming from animals, so no meat, but also no milk, eggs, honey or other foods.
It also means avoiding leather, wool, silk and other animal products, which stretches to cosmetics and medication.
While vegans are still in the minority, it is becoming increasingly “fashionable” with many celebrities flying the flag, from Ellen and Portia de Rossi who had a vegan wedding to Beyonce and Jay Z who are celebrating the end of a 22-day “vegan” diet.
Bendigo resident Eloise Mulqueen, who has been a vegan for more than two years and is a member of Animal Liberation Victoria, says veganism becoming more mainstream was positive.
“However people use the term 'vegan' where actually they mean plant-based diet," she said.
“Veganism encompasses so much more.
“For me it is about not harming others.
“I became a vegan for animal rights.
“There are some grey areas.
“I don’t like the attitude of people questioning how vegan you are. I hate people who try to out-vegan another person. You try as hard as you can.”
She said pets were one of the “moral” issues.
“Dogs are non-obligatory carnivores, so they can live without meat but cats (cannot)," she said.
"You can buy vegan cat food but it comes from America and is full of additives.
“My cat has a disease and she has to have food without preservatives so she eats kangaroo meat. I am not happy about it but if I have to choose between my cat's health and my beliefs, I choose her.
“In regards to my diet, I was never a big eater of meat. I have been a vegetarian since I was 15 then I made the transition.
“I think people think it is harder than it is.
“For breakfast I eat toast - just like you.
“We live in a culture where eating eggs and dairy and meat is normal.
“A lot of people start by replacing standard meat with fake meat which allows them to get their bearings. It is what they know, but you just need to buy a cookbook and mess up the kitchen and find lots of other things you can eat.
“It has been a food adventure,” she said.
She disagreed with the view vegans wanted to “convert” people who ate meat.
“It is like every belief - there are extremists,” she said.
“Some vegans are more radical than others.
“I think most vegans just quietly go about living their lives.
“I am not into changing people's minds. Either they care or they don’t. But it is important to me.
“Being a vegan is healthier, it is better for the world and it has made me love food more.
“I have friends who aren't vegan but I think if my boyfriend wasn't we wouldn't be together.
“It is like a religion - if someone thinks it is OK to kill animals to eat they will not be someone I want a serious relationship with. I think it is evil.”
Regan Kemp, who works at Bendigo Wholefoods and is in charge of their vegan line, says she cannot imagine eating meat.
“Being a vegan seems so natural now," she said.
“I stopped eating chicken six or seven years ago when I found out how bad it was in terms of how the animal is treated and also how treated the meat is.
“I decided to become vegetarian and in the transition, I became vegan. I wasn’t conscious of it.
“Any meal within reason can be made vegan."
Ms Kemp said she mostly kept her beliefs to herself.
“I have friends who are non-vegans or ex-vegans and I could be mean and tell them they're wrong but it isn’t going to change anything," she said.
“You have to pick your battles.
“For me I can't understand how someone can eat meat and drink milk.
“Cows don’t just lactate; they have to be pregnant and have babies.
"They are artificially inseminated and then the calves are taken away from them when they are a couple of days old. Lots of dairy farmers say the cows cry because they don’t understand.
“One of my main gripes is that lots of people say they are pro-animal rights but then go and eat animals. I don’t see a distinction between the two.
“People are horrified in Asian counties where they eat dogs, but I don’t see that as different from a farm animal.
“It took me a long time to reach that conclusion, I had never considered it and then it hit me."
Paul Lamb, a retired occupational therapist, follows a vegan lifestyle for dietary reasons rather than ethical or environmental ones.
“I don’t like to use the term 'vegan' as I came to it for preventative health reasons,” he said.
“There is evidence that excess animal protein and high-processed foods are very detrimental to your health.
“Diet is responsible for a large part of the chronic diseases we have today such as type two diabetes, obesity, coronary heart disease and a lot of cancers as well.
“Up until 12 years ago I was eating lean meat but after reading some books I decided to go further and I now follow a wholefood, plant-based diet.
“I have done a lot of long-distance push bike rides, mainly unsupported, and in most of these I just wanted to show the health benefits of this diet.
“You don’t need to eat meat for protein."
Mr Lamb said unhealthy vegan diets were possible, too.
“Just eating sugar is vegan, just chips with tomato sauce is vegan, but if you don’t eat other things as well that is not healthy," he said.
“I know a lot of vegans who are currently overweight - even obese. They eat a lot of vegan chocolate and processed food and they are probably as sick, if not sicker, than a conventional diet. But if you eat a lot of vegetables, particularly green leaf vegetables, then it is very beneficial.
“When I retired last year I started a healthy eating blog to show that you didn’t need to sacrifice your taste buds.
“The one thing I would tell people to watch out for is vitamin B12 and I would recommend vegans go on a supplement.
“No animal synthesises B12, it is only made from bacteria in the soil. We have evolved to require the nutrient. Without it we die as it affects the central nervous system, but we only need a very small amount.
“If you are not a vegan and then you start, you will have a three-year supply stored in your liver.
“The problem is once you start to get the symptoms of a deficiency you are a long way down the track.
“But there is more and more evidence of the health benefits of this diet - it is not a fad or quackery.
“I wanted to prove it in my own body.
“I have been an athlete all my life and the only side effect from this diet have been positive.”