Vegan or Vegetarian: What’s the Difference?

Vegan or Vegetarian: What's the Difference?

For those who don’t follow a plant-based diet, understanding the difference between vegan and vegetarian can be tricky. Can vegans eat eggs? Do vegetarians drink milk? Do vegans eat honey? What about fish?

Due to an increased awareness of the health, animal welfare, and environmental implications of the meat industry, there’s a growing shift to meat-free eating. And the plant-based food market is certainly booming. The industry is expected to be worth $74.2 billion by 2027, according to a 2020 report by AI-driven consumer insights platform Tastewise. 

More and more, it appears that people are eliminating meat from their diets. A 2020 study by market research firm Ipsos Retail Performance found interest in the U.S. is surging. It found that the number of Americans eating plant-based increased by 9.4 million over the last 15 years to a total of more than 9.7 million.

According to Veganuary, a movement that challenges meat-eaters to go plant-based for a month, interest in veganism has grown significantly over years.

Since 2014, the initiative has helped more than one million people in 192 countries try eating plant-based during the month of January. In 2020, the campaign signed 400,000 people up to go vegan. The previous year, 250,000 signed up. And in 2018, 170,000 people participated in the campaign. January 2021 saw a record-breaking number of sign-ups, with 500,000 people opting to go plant-based.

Are you considering ditching animal products? Simply curious about plant-based eating? Here’s everything you need to know about the dietary differences between vegans and vegetarians.

Vegan or Vegetarian: What's the Difference?
The three main types of vegetarian diets are lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, and ovo-lacto vegetarian. | iStock

What Is a Vegetarian Diet?

Overall, vegetarians do not consume any meat products. This includes red meat, poultry, seafood, or meat derived from any other animal. The diet does include the consumption of animal products that don’t require slaughter, such as eggs, dairy products, and honey.

But there are many variations to a vegetarian diet. The three main types of vegetarian diets are lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, and ovo-lacto vegetarian.

Ovo-lacto vegetarian is the most common form of the diet. Ovo-lacto vegetarians (or lacto-ovo vegetarians) typically do not consume red meat, poultry, seafood, but do consume eggs and dairy products. 

A lacto-vegetarian diet differs in that it excludes the consumption of eggs and products that contain them. Lacto-vegetarians do consume dairy products. And ovo-vegetarians do not consume red meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products; however, they do eat eggs. 

Additional meat-free diets include pescatarian and flexitarian diets. The latter (also known as semi-vegetarians) consumes a mostly plant-based diet. However, flexitarians do consume animal products in moderation. Pescatarians, or pesco-vegetarians, consume dairy products, eggs, and fish and avoid red meat, poultry, and other forms of animal flesh.

So, what about veganism? 

Vegan or Vegetarian: What's the Difference?
Vegans eschew meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and animal by-products. | iStock

What Is a Vegan Diet?

Similar to vegetarianism, there are variations to a vegan diet. 

For the most part, they can be separated into two categories: ethical vegans and dietary vegans, or plant-based eaters. Both types of vegans eschew meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. They also avoid consuming products that contain animal by-products. Examples of these include gelatin, collagen, shellac, carmine, and keratin.

Made from the nectar that bees collect from flowering plants, many vegans also choose to avoid consuming honey (because it is made by bees) and products that contain it. 

However, as the name suggests, ethical veganism is based more on principle. It encompasses a belief system that animals should not be exploited for human gain. Ethical vegans wholly reject animals being commodified for any reason—including for food, fashion, cosmetics, skincare, household products, and entertainment.

Ethical vegans choose not to wear clothing that features materials derived from animals. These include fur, angora, cashmere, wool, and leather. They also do not support animal testing and opt for skincare, makeup, and household products that are cruelty-free.

Vegan or Vegetarian: What's the Difference?
What are the health impacts of vegan and vegetarian diets? | Unsplash

Health Impact of Being Vegan or Vegetarian

So, how does veganism and vegetarianism stack up in terms of their impacts on overall health? 

Research shows the two diets may offer a number of health benefits. A 2016 Harvard study found vegetarians and vegans appeared to lose significantly more weight compared to non-vegetarians. 

But vegans may have a leg up in terms of health benefits. Due to the fact that they don’t consume meat, dairy, or eggs, vegans tend to consume less cholesterol and saturated fat, as well as more dietary fiber, according to research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. This may result in lowered blood pressure. 

And according to a 2019 EPIC-Oxford study, vegetarians (including vegans) have a lower risk of heart disease. It found that vegans and vegetarians were 22 percent less likely to develop coronary artery disease compared to meat-eaters. 

“Vegetarians had on average lower BMI, and lower rates of high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and diabetes compared with meat-eaters, which might explain the lower risk of heart disease in both fish eaters and vegetarians since these are all established risk factors for heart disease,” Tammy Tong, a nutritional epidemiologist at Oxford and one of the study’s researchers, told Reuters.

However, the study found people consuming these diets were 20 percent more likely to suffer a stroke. Tong added that the reason for this higher risk isn’t conclusive. “Some recent evidence has suggested that while low cholesterol levels (are) protective against both heart disease and ischemic stroke, very low cholesterol levels might be linked to a higher risk of hemorrhagic stroke, the subtype that was found to be higher in the vegetarians,” Tong explained.

When eating a healthy, balanced diet, both vegans and vegetarians can consume adequate amounts of vitamins and nutrients. However, depending on what they eat, the diets may be lacking in certain areas. According to the U.K.’s National Health Service, a vegetarian diet may lack sufficient amounts of iron and vitamin B12. A vegan diet may also lack these nutrients, as well as calcium.

In terms of protein, studies have shown that—on average—vegans and vegetarians may have protein intakes that are lower than their meat-eating counterparts. However, most vegans and vegetarians that consume a well-balanced diet still meet the Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein. 

Following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle certainly does not guarantee good health. Self-described “junk food vegans” and vegetarians or those that consume large amounts of processed foods may not reap the same health benefits of a predominantly plant-based diet.

Vegan or Vegetarian: What's the Difference?
What are the environmental impacts of vegan and vegetarian diets. | Pexels

Environmental Impacts of Being Vegan or Vegetarian

Whether it’s animal- or plant-derived, food production greatly impacts the environment. However, the level of impact varies drastically depending on diet. So, which diet has a smaller environmental footprint? Well, that all depends.

A 2019 study out of the University of Copenhagen found that a 100 percent plant-based diet had the lowest environmental impact. According to the study, livestock farming accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and nearly 34 percent of arable land. 

Due to the fact that the farming of animals is highly resource intensive, research shows vegetarian and omnivorous diets require more water usage during production. Overall, vegan diets have substantially lower carbon footprints and require the least land and water compared to vegetarian and omnivorous diets.

“Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy. These products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track,” Joseph Poore, an Oxford researcher who specialized in foods’ environmental impact told the BBC

However, not all plant-based foods have a lower environmental impact. Certain fruits and vegetables have greater impacts on the environment compared to other plant-based foods. Depending on agricultural practices, these can include blueberries, strawberries, avocados, asparagus, and mushrooms, to name a few. 

Poore added: “But it’s essential to be mindful about everything we consume: air-transported fruit and veg can create more greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram than poultry meat, for example.”

The production and transportation of foods like plant-based cheeses and meats may also have a negative impact on the planet. But, overall, plant-based foods have a lesser impact compared to animal-derived products because the latter is more resource-intensive and relies on crops for feed.

For those looking to reduce the effect that their foods have on the planet, consuming seasonal, locally grown fruits and vegetables can help to minimize one’s environmental footprint.