What’s the Difference Between Vegan and Vegetarian?

A vegan and vegetarian meal
A vegan and vegetarian meal

Many people think that vegan and vegetarian are the same. We’ll explore the similarities and differences between these two lifestyles.

For many years, the words “vegan” and “vegetarian” were used interchangeably. However, in the last decade, this has changed dramatically and most people are familiar with the basic differences.

In this article, we’ll go into a bit of history behind vegetarianism and veganism. We’ll also cover the key differences.

New to veganism? You might like: What is Veganism? Or What Does a Vegan Diet Look Like?

A vegan and vegetarian lunch
Vegans and vegetarians have a lot in common

Vegan and vegetarian – a brief history

The Ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, best known for his mathematical theorem, has been celebrated for centuries as the father of vegetarianism. In fact, a meatless diet was referred to as a “Pythagorean diet” up until the modern vegetarian movement began in England, in the mid-1800s.

Historical Vegetarianism was characterized by the virtues of temperance, abstinence, and self-control. Lust, drunkenness, and recklessness were all considered results of a diet too rich in meat.

Famous vegetarians

Notable examples of vegetarians in history include:

  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Mary Shelley
  • Franz Kafka
  • Leo Tolstoy
  • Mahatma Gandhi.

With such a long history behind the concept, it’s no surprise that even people who are oblivious to veganism and it’s meaning would have heard of vegetarianism instead.

Some studies estimate that vegetarians account for up to 18% of the global population, while the numbers for the percentage of vegans around the world are difficult to identify.

With the popularity of veganism on the rise, many have started to wonder how and to what extent the two concepts differ.

So, what’s the difference between vegetarian and vegan?

Vegans don’t eat or use any animal products at all. We avoid all foods and goods that come from animals, insects, fish, or birds. Veganism is about creating a life that causes no exploitation, harm, or injury to any creature.

Broadly speaking, vegetarians simply abstain from eating animals. A vegetarian can be described as someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, with, or without, dairy products, honey and/or eggs.

Two bowls of salad - vegetarians and vegans both eat plants
Vegetarians and vegans both have plant-based diets

But, the number of animal products that vegetarians eat and how far it extends into a lifestyle, varies from person to person.

Types of vegetarians

Generally speaking, different types of vegetarians will choose not to consume certain animal products for health and allergy reasons. Here are the main types of vegetarians:

  • Lacto-Ovo vegetarians

These are vegetarians who consume both milk and eggs while avoiding meat, poultry, and fish.

  • Ovo vegetarians

This group will avoid dairy but consume eggs, along with avoiding all types of animal flesh.

  • Lacto vegetarians

The opposite of ovo vegetarians, lacto vegetarians will not eat eggs and animal flesh, but they will consume milk and dairy products.

Vegetarians that eat some form of animal-based protein

  • Pescatarians

This group avoids all meat (beef, poultry, pork), but still eat fish as part of their diet, usually along with dairy products and eggs.

  • Flexitarians

Flexitarians are vegetarians most of the time, but will occasionally eat meat or fish. They also tend to eat eggs and dairy products.

The term “strict vegetarian”, describing vegetarians who avoid all animal products, has fallen out of common use and has now been replaced by the term “plant-based” instead.

Veganism and vegetarianism – a lifestyle not a diet

Veganism is not a just diet, but an ethical belief. It’s often described as a philosophy or a lifestyle choice.

Where vegetarianism mostly ends at the avoidance of animal flesh from one’s diet, veganism will expand with a moral objection to the use, abuse, and exploitation of animals – in any situation.

For this reason, vegans not only omit animal flesh, dairy, eggs, and honey from their diets, but they also avoid wearing animal products.

Vegans try to live lives that are cruelty-free
Veganism is about cruelty-free living

To find out more about clothing, read: What is Vegan Leather Made of?

In addition, vegans don’t use any products that have been tested on animals or contain animal byproducts. For example, vegans avoid using makeup products that contain carmine or beeswax and avoid supporting the use of animals in entertainment.

Wondering what makeup to use? Read Top Must-Have Vegan Beauty Brands

Vegan versus vegetarian on a scale
Vegan and vegetarian – which diet is better?

Which is healthier? Vegan or vegetarian

What’s the difference between vegan and vegetarian diets when it comes to health and fitness? According to scientific reviews, vegetarian and vegan diets can be considered appropriate for all stages of life, as long as the diet is planned and is nutritionally complete.

Both vegans and vegetarians are at risk of developing nutritional deficiencies as insufficient intake of nutrients as omega-3s, calcium, iron, and vitamins D and B12 can negatively impact various aspects of health, both mental and physical. Vegetarians and vegans are thought to consume lower intakes of these nutrients, mostly due to a lack of nutritional resources covering these diets.

For more information, read: A Beginner’s Guide to Vegan Nutrition

So, let’s put the two diets to the test: which one provides a complete nutritional profile and is overall healthier than the other?

Vegetarians consume slightly more calcium and vitamin B12 than vegans. The reason for this is related to the consumption of dairy and eggs; these products are generally the most common source of vitamin B12. Vegans choose not to consume either, meaning that their sources of B12 are restricted to supplements. Luckily, a vegan diet that accounts for fortified foods and daily supplements guarantee deficiencies are kept at bay.

Unfortunately, clinical studies directly comparing vegetarian to vegan diets are few and far in between. Still, the few studies that have been conducted report that vegans have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and various types of cancer than vegetarians.

In addition, vegans tend to have a lower BMI than vegetarians and seem to gain less weight as they age.

As studies detail the health hazards by dairy and eggs, a vegan diet seems to be the healthier choice.

Vegan or vegetarian?

When considering the difference between vegan and vegetarian, it’s useful to keep in mind that it’s common for individuals to switch back and forth between the two.

Dietary vegans may choose to consume dairy and/or eggs during special occasions, or exclusively when dining out.

For many people, vegetarianism is a stepping stone on the way to veganism, as it’s often more sustainable to slowly implement changes to diet and lifestyle, rather than making the switch overnight.

However, others find that making the transition to a vegan lifestyle immediately can be incredibly fulfilling, allowing them to make a kinder choice for animals and the environment. It’s a learning process, a personal journey that can take a lifetime.