Most people can broadly describe the difference between veganism vs vegetarianism. The basic principles behind these diets are similar: both involve eating a plant-based diet, whether that be for environmental, ethical or religious purposes. But while vegetarians only exclude meat from their diets, veganism is more restrictive and involves wider reaching lifestyle changes.
However, if you’re considering switching to a more plant-based way of living, you may feel unsure as to which one of these lifestyles would better suit your individual circumstances. On top of this, many myths and misconceptions surround the veganism vs vegetarianism debate, making it difficult to make an informed decision.
With more people taking an interest in eco-friendly ways of living, understanding the pros and cons of a vegetarianism and veganism can come in handy. Here, you can find a comprehensive guide to vegetarian and vegan diets to help you navigate the plant-based world.
What is a vegetarian diet?
According to the Vegetarian Society, a vegetarian diet excludes products and by-products of animal slaughter, such as meat, poultry, game, fish and shellfish, as well as insects, gelatine, animal rennet, stock and animal fat. Instead, vegetarians tend to base their meals on fruits, vegetables, grains, pulses, nuts, and seeds. When it comes to consumption of other animal-based foods (dairy, honey, and eggs in particular) it largely depends on the type of vegetarianism involved.
There are several different types of vegetarian:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: someone who avoids meat, but does eat dairy and egg products
- Lacto vegetarian: someone who avoids meat and eggs, but does eat dairy products
- Ovo vegetarian: someone who avoids all animal products, except eggs
- Pescatarian: someone who does not eat meat or poultry, but does consume fish
- Flexitarian: A ‘part-time’ vegetarian who occasionally eats animal-based products
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is sometimes considered to be a subtype of vegetarian diet. According to the Vegan Society, a vegan diet excludes all animal-based foods, including meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish, eggs and dairy products, as well as all animal derivatives, such as gelatin, carmine, honey, pepsin, shellac, albumin, whey, casein and some forms of vitamins. The idea behind veganism is to avoid all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty. Vegans tend to base their meals on fruits, vegetables, grains, pulses, nuts and seeds, and need to use certain dietary supplements to avoid potential deficiencies. Highly active vegans may also need to invest in the best vegan protein powder to top up their protein intake.
Veganism vs vegetarianism: similarities
Veganism and vegetarianism have a lot in common. Both of these movements emphasize the need for protecting animals from harm, though the exact scope of these beliefs may differ. Both vegans and vegetarians avoid meat completely and focus on eating a plant-based diet that’s rich in wholefoods, particularly grains, fruit, vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and seaweeds. Also, both dietary patterns allow the consumption of plant-based meat alternatives, dairy and egg alternatives, as well as dietary supplements, alcoholic drinks, coffee and tea.
Veganism vs vegetarianism: Differences
To help you get an understanding of where these two diet plans differ, let's take a closer look at some of the key differences between veganism and vegetarianism.
Modern production chains are designed to efficiently produce, store and distribute large quantities of foods. To fulfill the consumer demands for fresh meat, eggs and dairy, many food producers turn to industrial farming practices which can cause a lot of distress and suffering for the animals. For a lot of vegetarians and vegans, this is a driving factor in their dietary preferences. However, while animal welfare is the primary reason why they avoid eating animal flesh, they can differ in terms of the degree to which they consider animal products acceptable.
Vegetarians generally agree to consuming animal products like eggs and milk, as long as they were produced in an ethical and sustainable way. A lot of vegans avoid eating animal-based products altogether, as well as opting for cruelty-free clothing, cosmetics, entertainment and household items. Veganism is often considered a lifestyle, with many refusing to buy any items that contain natural leather, wool, silk, beeswax, soaps, latex or casein. They also oppose cosmetics and other products that were tested on animals. This being said, many vegetarians adopt this approach in their lifestyles too.
Both vegans and vegetarians are very particular about what they eat and their reasons why, but for vegans it tends to be more of a lifestyle than just a dietary preference. Veganism is often considered an activist movement, and encourages people to be vocal about protecting the environment and animal rights. They also may be more involved in promoting their plant-based lifestyle to others.
Many people are increasingly concerned about climate change and the environmental impact of their lifestyle choices. For this reason, more people are reducing their meat or dairy intakes in a bid to reduce their carbon footprint, save water supplies and help lower the air pollution associated with animal rearing. Indeed, according to a systematic review published in Sustainability, vegan diets are considered to be better for the planet than vegetarian or omnivorous diets.
One of the biggest differences between vegan and vegetarian diets is their nutritional value. As these dietary patterns are based on different food groups, most of the time they do not provide the same amount or quality of macro- and micronutrients. Although they’re both considered very healthy choices, vegan diets tend to perform slightly better in research studies. For example, a review published in Nutrition Reviews comparing the nutritional values of omnivorous, vegetarian and vegan diets found that vegan diets tend to consistently rate higher than vegetarian ones in terms of their quality and nutrient ratio. It’s mostly due to the fact that they are likely to include far less saturated fats, cholesterol and sugars, as well as more fiber and phytonutrients.
At the same time, vegans may experience more dietary deficiencies than vegetarians. They may struggle to obtain enough calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin E or essential omega-3 fatty acids. Certain micronutrients, like vitamin B12, are practically non-existent in plant foods and need to be supplemented.
Veganism vs vegetarian: Which is better for your health?
So that you can make the right decision as to which of these two diets is right for you, let's take a closer look at how they stack up in terms of health benefits.
Multiple studies have shown that plant-based diets are likely to be more effective than omnivorous diets at achieving weight loss outcomes. However, less is known about the slimming abilities of veganism vs vegetarianism. Still, the emerging evidence indicates that vegans tend to achieve and maintain better body composition than vegetarians.
One study published in the Nutrition journal measured weight loss in overweight individuals randomly assigned to different low-fat, low-glycemic diets: vegan, vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian or omnivorous. Vegan participants were the most successful at decreasing their body fat, both after two and six months of this intervention. Another study, conducted on behalf of the International Journal of Obesity, also demonstrated that vegan participants, when compared to vegetarians and omnivores, gained the least amount of weight over a five year period.
There are multiple factors that can contribute to the onset and progression of cancers. Smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity and low levels of physical activity are all important triggers. But what and how often we eat can be crucial when it comes to tumor formation, and plant-based diets are at the forefront of cancer prevention, as indicated by a review published in Current Nutrition Reports.
Not many research studies that explore the differences between veganism vs vegetarianism have been conducted so far, but the emerging evidence indicates that vegan diets tend to be more protective. According to a meta-analysis presented in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, vegetarians have double the risk of developing cancer when compared to vegans. Furthermore, people following a vegan diet may have lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers, particularly of the cancer-related C-reactive protein, than those who eat a vegetarian diet.
What happens in our gastrointestinal tract has a wide range of implications on the functioning of the entire body, and diet is one of the most important factors in determining our gut health. Plant-based diets have been shown to promote the growth of good gut bacteria and regulate critical functions of the intestine, mostly due to their high fiber content and abundance of anti-inflammatory polyphenols.
However, studies that compare vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous diets produce mixed results and it’s difficult to ascertain which one of these dietary patterns has the most beneficial impact on our gut health. As vegetarians consume dairy products, they largely benefit from the probiotic properties of milk, yogurt and kefir – food items that, according to a systematic review published in Gut Microbes, have been shown to significantly benefit gut health.
On the other hand, many adults suffer to some degree from lactose intolerance, which can cause abdominal cramps, bloating, diarrhea, nausea and flatulence. This condition is caused largely by problems with lactose digestion, but could also develop independently in individuals with anxiety or irritable bowel syndrome. Therefore, certain sensitive individuals may benefit more from a vegan diet, or a vegetarian diet that excludes dairy products.
How our skeleton changes over time largely depends on two factors: diet and physical activity. Many argue that plant-based diets lack adequate amounts of nutrients that help to maintain good bone mineral density, such as calcium and vitamin D. However, according to a review article published in Current Opinion in Endocrinology & Diabetes and Obesity, vegans and vegetarians who make sure they meet their recommended daily intakes for these important nutrients, do not display any problems with their bone health. Researchers even suggested that plant-based diets may actually reduce the risk of osteoporosis, though more evidence is needed to back this claim.
However, other studies indicate that vegan diets in particular may have a harmful effect on the skeleton, particularly in women. For example, a meta-analysis in the journal Medicine suggested that women following a vegan diet may have a lower bone mass density than vegetarians and omnivores, which places them at higher risk of developing osteoporosis. Furthermore, another study in BMC Medicine looked into the incidence of site-specific bone fractures among vegans and vegetarians. The results showed that vegans are at higher risk of experiencing bone damage, particularly when it comes to debilitating hip fractures.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Many people argue that following a vegan or vegetarian diet when expecting a baby is highly irresponsible. However, current scientific evidence doesn’t back that claim. Researchers from the Nutrients journal conducted a thorough review of available literature and suggested that plant-based diets, as long as they’re well balanced and carefully planned, pose no risk to pregnant women and have no negative impact on fetal development. Still, they point out that more research is needed in this field.
Similarly, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding breastfeeding, to the point that in some countries, milk banks refuse to accept breast milk from vegan and vegetarian mothers. Again, the scientific evidence paints a different picture. According to a systematic review published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, as long as breastfeeding women follow a well balanced diet, they are able to produce breast milk of high quality, irrespectively of the type of their chosen diet.
Suitability for children
Another controversial issue relates to the suitability of plant-based diets for children. Young bodies need a wide range of nutrients to grow and develop properly and many parents fear that vegan and vegetarian diets are not able to provide them with sufficient amounts. Indeed, there are cases of vegan and vegetarian children suffering from malnutrition and serious harm, and many scientists have tried to determine the factors to blame.
According to a recent review published in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, well-balanced plant-based diets pose no harm to children’s health. However, it was pointed out that young people who follow a vegan diet may need medical and dietetic supervision to ensure they get all the nutrients they need. Therefore, vegetarian diets may be more feasible as they require far less planning, resources and supplementation.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.
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Anna Gora is a health writer at Live Science, having previously worked across Coach, Fit&Well, T3, TechRadar and Tom's Guide. She is a certified personal trainer, nutritionist and health coach with nearly 10 years of professional experience. Anna holds a Bachelor's degree in Nutrition from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, a Master’s degree in Nutrition, Physical Activity & Public Health from the University of Bristol, as well as various health coaching certificates. She is passionate about empowering people to live a healthy lifestyle and promoting the benefits of a plant-based diet.