Across the globe, an increasing part of the population is going vegan or vegetarian. In India, 38% of the population is vegetarian. Plant-based diet may seem like a new concept, but it has existed since time immemorial. Here is an in-depth look at the history of plant-based diets.

A Timeline of Plant-based Diets

Early Indian and Mediterranean civilizations followed the ideology of avoiding flesh in their diets. They chose to eat vegetarian meals instead. Here is a brief history of the prevalence of vegetarianism in the East.

  • Originating in 700 to 500 BCE, old religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, that continue to exist, even today believe in vegetarianism as a way of life. Their basic tenets state that no one should harm or cause pain to others be it humans or animals. 
  • Around 500 BCE, vegetarianism was first mentioned by Pythagoras, a well-known Greek philosopher and mathematician. Apart from his theorem about right-angled triangles, Pythagoras believed in compassion towards all species, including humans.
  • Ancient Indian civilizations were well-known for their vegetarianism as early as 300 BCE. The ancient Greek historian and diplomat Megasthenes witnessed Indians living a vegetarian lifestyle instead of a meat-based one. 
  • During 500 AD, a Buddhist monk from China, Fa-hsien, observed that Indians chose to stay away from meat and eat a vegetarian diet instead.

While in the West vegetarian lifestyle was popular among the believers of certain communities.

  • As of 1400-1500, dietician Cornaro and revered artist and visionary Leonardo Da Vinci were against animal slaughter. They openly denounced and refrained from meat-eating. 
  • Around the 1600s, Rene Descartes chose to be a vegetarian and thought that meat was harmful for health.
  • Founded in 1732 by Johann Conrad Beissel, the Ephrata cloister was an orthodox religious community that promoted vegetarianism in Pennsylvania. 
  • In the late 1700s, philosopher Jeremy Bentham propagated the idea that we must be compassionate toward animals and that animals suffered just like humans.
  • During the 1800s, Rev. Sylvester Graham, who invented Graham crackers, founded a sect that promoted a life of vegetarianism and self-control.
  • Later in 1847, the Vegetarian Society was created in England as a charity organization to promote a vegetarian lifestyle. 
  • In 1850, Rev. Sylvester Graham along with Dr. Alcott and several others cofounded the American Vegetarian Society. 
  • In 1891 in the UK, Henry Salt along with the socialist radicals Edward Carpenter, George Bernard Shaw, and Edward Rose formed the Humanitarian League. Together, they campaigned to end the suffering of all sentient beings and promote compassion. They also aimed to stop animal cruelty in agriculture and science.
  • The 1930s brought with them the start of Rastafarianism in Jamaica. It was a movement based in the philosophy of health and focused on living an organic life.  

The events that occurred along this timeline sowed the seeds of vegetarianism and veganism that we follow today. 


The term “veganism” was coined by Donald Watson in 1944. He co-founded the Vegan Society in Britain. He established the society to make a statement and stop the use of dairy products. 

Because vegetarians ate milk products and eggs, he created the term “vegan” by cutting short “vegetarianism” to depict those who refrained from dairy, eggs, and animal products. Donald Watson promoted veganism as a lifestyle that protected the masses from tuberculosis, which could be transmitted from infected cows to humans. Veganism was since considered to be a stricter version of vegetarianism.

When Donald Watson passed away in 2005, more than 250,000 people in Britain and 2 million in the US began identifying themselves as “vegans.” Many began following veganism out of compassion for animals and many chose it for healthier living. Now in 2021, more than 79 million people are estimated to be vegan. 

In the Now

As we have seen, vegetarianism and veganism have always been around and the reason for their existence is also the same. At the heart of a plant-based lifestyle is a choice we make for ourselves, our environment, and the animals that deserve respect and protection. So let us choose compassion over cruelty, and switch to a plant-based life