Difference Between Vegan and Vegetarian Diets
If you’ve dabbled with the idea or practice of switching to a meat-free or plant-based diet, chances are you’ve heard about all the variations available to you. If you haven’t fallen into this particular black hole on the internet yet, you’re probably wondering what we mean. Well, while you’d think that cutting meat products out of your diet is as simple as that, there are actually several plant-based lifestyles that offer a variety of nutritional and overall health benefits as well as serving individual moral or ethical needs. The most popular and well-known distinctions within the plant-based community are vegetarians and vegans. However, there are several other variations as well (but more on that later). To help you understand the different types of vegetarian diets, we have put together this comprehensive guide. Armed with a deeper appreciation of these two schools of thought, you can make a more informed decision about what works best for you and your lifestyle.
What is a Vegan Diet?
The primary difference between vegan and vegetarian diets lies in how much the individuals subscribe to those lifestyles, restrict the foods they eat, and limit their consumption of other goods. In terms of food, vegans don’t just eliminate meat and poultry from their diet but remove all animal products and by-products, including eggs, cheese, or other dairy products, gelatin, and seafood. This leaves them with a diet typically consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes. Most vegans also incorporate meat and dairy alternatives into their diets, such as tofu, tempeh, and seitan products or products like Meatless Farm.
When it comes to vegan lifestyle, many vegans expand their convictions beyond their diet and eliminate animal products from their entire lives, including their wardrobe, skincare, and home decor. You would be hard-pressed to find a vegan who wears leather, uses an animal-tested face serum, or has real fur throw pillows in their home. Usually, this is an extension of their deep-rooted compassion for animals and a philosophy that focuses on protecting animal rights. In other words, veganism is more of a lifestyle choice than a diet alone. Though vegan diets may seem to be the most restrictive, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun when eating! Vegans just need to get a bit more creative with their food choices but are still able to have events such as a vegetarian bbq with vegan summer recipes!
What is a Vegetarian Diet?
On the other hand, a vegetarian diet is slightly less restrictive and perhaps a more straightforward diet choice. In truth, a vegetarian lifestyle is just a “meatless” diet. Typically, vegetarians eliminate their meat consumption while still allowing certain animal products such as eggs, dairy, and sometimes fish (depending on their philosophy). With this in mind, there are three widely accepted subdivisions of vegetarianism, these are:
- Lacto Vegetarians: Those who avoid meat, seafood, and eggs but still enjoy dairy products like cheese and milk.
- Ovo Vegetarians: Those who do not eat meat, seafood, or dairy but continue to consume eggs.
- Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians: You guessed it! Those who do not eat meat or seafood but still consume dairy products and eggs.
Though many vegetarians still prioritize animal welfare and generally avoid wearing or using products made from or tested on animals, there is usually more flexibility within this community and school of thought.
Other Plant-Based Diets
While vegan and vegetarian are the two most popular and recognized plant-based diets, we would be remiss not to mention some of the other variations that some people find work better for their lifestyle or personal needs. These include:
- Pescatarian: Very similar to vegetarianism (and sometimes considered a subdivision of that category depending on who you ask), pescatarians remove all meat from their diets while still consuming some seafood and shellfish occasionally. These individuals may choose to incorporate eggs and dairy products or not.
- Plant-Based: While vegetarians and vegans are typically very committed to their lifestyle and operate with a certain level of rigidity regarding their dietary choices, those following a plant-based lifestyle may give themselves a little more flexibility. These individuals typically get the bulk of their diet and nutrition from plant foods, though perhaps not all of it. A plant-based eater may eliminate meat from their diet and avoid processed foods but will consume some animal products throughout their overall lifestyle.
- Flexitarian: The most flexible of the plant-based diets, a flexitarian will often try to consciously reduce their consumption of meat and animal products while increasing their intake of more vegan or vegetarian foods. Because these individuals do not entirely eliminate animal products, meat, or seafood from their diet, this can be a significant first step for those considering a greater transition into plant-based eating, vegetarianism, or veganism.
Difference Between Vegan and Vegetarian Diets
Now that we have a clear understanding of the differences in how these two diets approach food and other lifestyle choices, we can take a deeper look at how they compare in terms of nutrition, health benefits, and sustainability. Together, these three criteria make up some of the most important considerations when deciding which diet could be the right choice for you. So, let’s take a closer look!
In reality, neither the vegan nor vegetarian diet was designed with specific nutritional requirements at their core, and as a result, neither is automatically or necessarily healthy. Instead, both diets are centered around the idea of excluding certain types of food, which may or may not increase your intake of more nutritious foods. After all, vegans can still consume french fries, soda, and even Oreos!
However, because vegans and vegetarians do place a lot of emphasis on consuming plants in their diet, they do have the potential and ability to increase the nutritional value of their diets. A Vegan or vegetarian who eats a wide variety of plants (fruits, vegetables, grains, pulses, nuts and seeds), is likely to consume enough of the vital micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients) as well as plenty of fibre.
There are some micronutrients, however, that could become vulnerable in a vegetarian or vegan diet. B12, the most readily available form of iron (heme iron) is only found in meat. Plants do contain a type of iron called non-heme iron, which we can use, but it isn’t as easy for our bodies to use it as the heme-form. There are other micronutrients like zinc and iodine which are found in higher amounts in animal-based foods.
Plants do contain protein, but as we discussed in our article, What Plants Have Protein?, there is not as much protein in plant-based sources as there is in equivalent portions of animal-based sources. However, most vegans can fill any gaps in their nutrition with compliant high-protein meat alternatives that can be helpful, to provide simple yet tasty choices. All of this means that vegans or vegetarians have the potential to eat highly nutritious diets, but need to pay even more attention to consuming the right variety of foods.
Both vegan and vegetarian diets have been closely linked with weight loss, improved cardiovascular health, better blood sugar control, and decreased blood cholesterol. And the truth is, beyond those that adopt these lifestyles for moral or ethical reasons, many people choose to go vegan or vegetarian for health reasons because the association of these diets with increased consumption of nutrient-dense plant foods can lead to a wide range of health benefits like those listed above.
However, these benefits are only fully realized when individuals optimize and balance their nutrition. A vegan who sustains themselves solely on dairy-free grilled cheese sandwiches and Oreos is unlikely to see improved health, while a vegetarian consuming only eggs and pasta will lack the nutritional variety that leads to increased health outcomes. Check out our guide on the health benefits of plant-based diets to learn more!
Of course, both vegans and vegetarians get points for leading a more sustainable lifestyle. That’s because the meat industry uses many natural resources to produce animal proteins, and the animals themselves significantly contribute to greenhouse gas pollution. Eating more plants is simply easier on the environment. However, vegans have a slight advantage over vegetarians in terms of sustainability because dairy products can contribute nearly as much to resource usage and environmental pollution as meat production.
Want to learn more about the environmental impact of meat production? Check out our complete guide.
The Bottom Line
The simple fact is that the difference between vegan and vegetarian diets is minimal, and the two lifestyles have more in common than not. Yes, vegetarians may be able to consume their nutritional requirements without as much effort. And yes, vegans may more positively impact the environment. But both diets offer tremendous health benefits and are more sustainable choices than some other dietary options. When deciding what diet to follow yourself, choose the one that best fits your lifestyle and needs. But most importantly, start slow! You can develop and change your choice over time as you become more comfortable with the lifestyle.
About the Author
Angela Walker is a BANT and CNHC registered nutritional therapist with over 12 years of clinical experience, including 8 years with the award-winning, Optimum Health Clinic. Angela is a Nutrition Consultant for Meatless Farm, where she develops nutrition research and communicates the personal health benefits of eating plant-based foods. Angela is also a nutritionist and performance coach of Food for Thought, a program designed to change the way people think about food, diet and nutrition, based on the principles and practices of personalized nutrition and functional medicine. Angela is a published author of many well-known articles including ‘Case Studies in Personalized Nutrition’, a core text at many of the training providers for nutritional therapy and personalized nutrition in the UK and US.