Vegan vs. Vegetarian – What’s Difference Between the Two?

When it comes down to it, vegetarian and vegan diets are pretty similar - in fact, they’re a lot like rectangles and squares.

Remember back in grade school, learning about shapes?

Maybe your teacher was like mine and taught you that all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.

You can apply the same logic to vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, in that all vegans are vegetarians, but not all vegetarians are vegans. While both diets exclude meat, there are a few key differences that separate the two.

Differences Between the Veg*ns

Vegetarian

Vegan

Meat

Eggs/Dairy

Leather/Silk/Wool

Animal Tested Products

Zoos/Circus/Aquariums

Types of Vegetarianism

  • Ovo-vegetarian: Consume eggs, avoid meat, seafood, and dairy
  • Lacto-vegetarian: Consume milk products, avoid meat, seafood, and eggs
  • Ovo-lacto-vegetarian: Consume eggs and dairy, avoid meat and seafood
  • Vegan: Avoid meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy

At a basic level, vegetarians don’t eat the flesh, or “meat,” of any animal, which includes pigs, chickens, cows, sheep, and all other members of the animal kingdom.

Some vegetarians use the phrase “nothing with a face” to describe their diet.

This also means vegetarians do not eat fish or other sea creatures - those who do choose to include sea animals in their diets are called pescetarians, and are not included under the vegetarian umbrella.

Like vegetarians, vegans do not eat any meat, but the differentiating factor is the fact that they leave all animal products off their plates and out of their closets. This means that vegans do not eat meat, dairy, or egg products, and they do not wear or use products with animal-derived ingredients, which might include things like leather, wool, and even beeswax.

In many ways, vegetarianism is a diet, whereas veganism is a lifestyle.

Vegans believe that animal exploitation in all forms, from animals used for food, for cosmetics, and even for entertainment, is wrong. While a vegetarian believes that animals are not ours to kill and eat, vegans believe that animals are not ours to use in any way, and that’s not just limited to the plate.

Vegetarian and vegan lifestyles also differ on how clearly they are defined. While there are some variations on veganism (usually toward the more extreme end) such as raw vegans, on the whole, the lifestyle is clearly defined: no eating, wearing, or exploiting animals, for any reason.

Vegetarianism, however, is a little more wiggly as far as how it’s defined. A vegetarian who avoids dairy but eats eggs, a vegetarian who wears a leather belt, and a vegetarian who goes to the zoo are all technically vegetarian, as long as they don’t eat meat.

There are classifications of vegetarianism that help clear things up, such as Ovo-Lacto vegetarian, for a person who eats dairy and eggs, but avoids meat, but these distinctions don’t appear to get very much use in the real world.

Why All the Labeling?

There are whole lists of the types of vegetarians, from ovo to lacto, even to the relatively new flexitarian, which is just a fancy word for an omnivorous diet.

While it might feel confining to have to choose a label for oneself, it isn’t about finding a fancy word to define yourself with as it is a way to ensure that people’s dietary needs can be met.

Take, for example, restaurant labeling. A meal that contains eggs and/or cheese could be labeled on a menu as “vegetarian,” and rightly so, as it contains no meat. However, a vegetarian who eats eggs, but avoids dairy, might be very disappointed to discover that her salad comes topped with feta cheese.

Using the correct terminology for things is not simply a way to express oneself or a desire to be “labeled,” rather, it ensures that everyone gets what they need and expect thanks to clear definitions.

Motivations for Veg*nism

There are a variety of reasons someone might become vegetarian or vegan, and those can extend to moral, environmental, and even religious motivations.

People might become vegan or vegetarian because of ethical considerations - the idea that it is wrong to slaughter an animal to eat its body. This can come from a profound philosophical belief that animals are autonomous beings who want to live and have rights to their own bodies, all the way to the idea that a person might be squeamish when they think about where meat comes from.

Many vegetarians start out that way simply because they feel that, if pressed, they could not do the killing themselves, and therefore choose not to partake.

For many vegans, called ethical vegans, what starts out as a moral aversion to meat extends to other aspects of the animal’s life, including their eggs and milk, skin, and general freedom over their own bodies.

This is not so much a difference between the two ideologies, rather, vegetarianism is usually the seed that sprouts the flower of veganism.

Some vegetarians, seeing the toll the meat industry takes on the environment, may choose to abstain not because they view eating meat as wrong, but because they do not want to contribute to the large expenditure of resources that comes with raising food animals.

After learning about how much food, water, and land goes to raising a single pound of beef, many people turn to vegetarianism simply because eating plants is gentler for the Earth when you add up the total price.

Many world religions also preach varying degrees of vegetarianism. For example, in the Hindu culture, cows are considered a sacred animal, so the followers of that religion do not consume beef, but may be lax about wearing leather.

In other religions, such as Jainism, or Buddhist monks, it is the responsibility of that person to create as little suffering in the world as possible. People who adhere to these religions may go so far as to take a broom with them as they walk outside, to be used to sweep away bugs on the sidewalk, so they do not step on them.

Similarly to the moral argument, many religions adhere to varying degrees of vegetarianism, some of which simply avoid the flesh of a certain animal, all the way to completely integrating the reduction of suffering into everyday tasks like walking outside.

Impact of Veg*nism on Health

VEGETARIAN

  • Easy to get enough protein and Vitamin B12 through food
  • Can raise cholesterol
  • Can be high-calorie if meat is replaced with cheese, pasta, etc.

VEGAN

  • Requires B12 supplementation
  • Can lower cholesterol
  • Tends to be lower calorie
  • Need to monitor micronutrients like iron, calcium, and Vitamin D

Depending on how much animal food a person eliminates from their diet, they may also see varying effects on their health.

While studies show that any reduction in meat is, in general, a healthy step to take, vegetarians and vegans need to address different aspects of their diets to keep their bodies healthy.

For example, because vegans consume absolutely no animal products, they cannot get Vitamin B12, an essential nutrient responsible for nerve and eye health, from food. Because of this, it is necessary that vegans take a B12 supplement in addition to eating a healthy, balanced diet rich in whole foods.

Vegans will also want to monitor their protein, iron, and calcium levels, at least at the beginning of their transition, to make sure that they are getting the right nutrients in the right amounts to fuel their bodies.

On the flip side, vegans tend to have a lower overall body mass and better cholesterol than their vegetarian and omnivorous counterparts.

While vegetarians don’t have to worry about supplementing with B12 because they generally consume some animal products which contain the nutrient, there are other health factors they will want to pay attention to.

Especially if they consume eggs and dairy, vegetarians will need to monitor their cholesterol levels, as all animal products contain at least some amount of cholesterol. When first transitioning from an omnivorous diet, vegetarians will also want to watch their weight and how much they are eating.

Especially in the beginning, many vegetarians try to replace meat with high-calorie foods like pasta and cheese, which can lead to weight gain if eaten in large amounts. It’s important to remember that just because a food is vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthier or lower in calories than a food made from animal products.

Varying Levels of the Same Idea

Though the online community might have you believe that there is some sort of rivalry between vegetarians and vegans, in reality, both lifestyles stem from the same core belief of the avoidance of meat and are simply different points along the same continuum.

Aside from a few key differences, many meals can be enjoyed by both vegetarians and vegans, and when it comes down to it, the main goal of the lifestyle is the same.

Whether you’re a long-time vegan, or someone who’s just starting to dabble with the idea of vegetarianism, knowing the key differences between the two lifestyles will not only help you better understand how the two sides eat, but will also help you navigate menus, dinner parties, and roadside snack stands for varied, yet similar, lifestyles.

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