What is the Difference Between a Vegan and a Vegetarian?

More and more Americans are into healthy eating these days. It seems that every week, we learn of a new diet craze through the media, whether it’s keto, low carb, paleo, Atkins, vegan, vegetarian, or something else. All of these fad diets can be confusing, and many times it can be difficult to know how to eat in the optimal way for your health. Here, we will discuss the similarities and differences between two of the most popular ways of eating, vegan and vegetarian.

What is a Vegetarian Diet?

A vegetarian is a person who does not eat the products or byproducts of animal slaughter, per the Vegetarian Society. Therefore, vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, fish/shellfish, insects, gelatin and rennet and other types of animal protein, or stocks or fats derived from animal slaughter. Vegetarians will usually eat animal byproducts that are not the result of animal slaughter, like eggs, dairy products, and honey.

Within the broader category of vegetarianism, there are other sub-categories of types of vegetarian diets. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Lacto-vegetarian: do not eat meat, fish or eggs but do eat dairy products
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: do not eat meat or fish but do eat dairy products and eggs
  • Pescatarian: do not eat meat but will eat fish or seafood
  • Ovo-vegetarian: do not eat meat, fish or dairy products, but will eat eggs

What is a Vegan Diet?

A vegan diet is much stricter than a vegetarian diet. According to the Vegan Society, veganism is a way of living that excludes all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals – for food, clothing, or any other purpose. Vegans will avoid eating all of the same things that vegetarians won’t eat, and also try to avoid animal products in their daily lives, such as:

  • Wool
  • Silk
  • Leather
  • Beeswax
  • Soaps, candles and other products containing animal fats
  • Latex products containing casein (from milk proteins)
  • Cosmetics and other products tested on animals

The Vegan Society was started in 1944, at which time a vegan diet was defined. The current vegan definition of avoiding exploitation of and cruelty to animals wasn’t in use until 1988, however.

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Nutritional Considerations for Vegetarian and Vegan Diets

Avoiding certain foods altogether can be risky nutritionally, unless a vegan or vegetarian makes sure that they are eating a balanced, healthful diet that meets nutritional requirements. According to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, a well-thought-out and planned vegan or vegetarian diet can be healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may help to prevent and treat certain diseases. Nutrients in which vegan and vegetarian diets can often be lacking include:

  • Vitamin B-12: this vitamin is not often found in plant-based foods and is important to support the nervous system and for cardiovascular health. Vegans and vegetarians can eat foods fortified with B-12 like breakfast cereals and plant-based milk to meet this nutritional requirement. They may also opt to take b-12 supplements.
  • Vitamin B-6 and niacin: vegetarians may be lacking in these vitamins
  • Zinc and Omega-3: vegans may be lacking in these minerals

Another important consideration for vegans and vegetarians is not to “load up” on unhealthful foods in lieu of eating animal-based foods. Doing so can result in a lower intake of vegetables, fiber and nutrients, along with increasing levels of sugar and processed ingredients. Foods to avoid eating in large quantities include sweetened beverages, French fries, refined grains, processed and prepackaged snack foods, and candies.

Which is the Healthier Diet – Vegetarian or Vegan?

Both vegan and vegetarian diets can offer health benefits to those who follow them and make sure to incorporate the above nutrients into their diets. Vegans can suffer from calcium, phosphorus and Vitamin D deficiency as they avoid dairy products. However, vegans may have lower cholesterol levels than vegetarians by avoiding dairy products and eggs.

Studies have shown that vegans are more likely to be deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as EPA and DPA, even if they consume plant sources in an attempt to get these nutrients (often found in eggs and seafood).

When it comes to weight loss, a study from 2006 found that vegans had a lower body mass index (BMI) than vegetarians. Vegans also tended to gain less weight than vegetarians and meat eaters over a five-year period. Veganism tended to promote more fat loss around the abdomen than vegetarianism or eating animal protein.

No matter which diet you decide to follow, eating whole foods that are plant-based is just one part of staying healthy. You should also drink at least 64 oz. of water daily, exercise every day, and get regular exposure to sunlight. Avoiding junk and processed foods is also vital for everyone who wishes to remain in good health, not just vegans and vegetarians.

Veganism – More than a Diet

As mentioned above, vegans avoid all animal products, not just those found in foods. There are some exceptions, however. Many medicines are tested on animals before they are released to the general public for use. Vegans are not against using necessary prescribed medicines that are tested on animals, but do encourage other vegans to ask for medication that does not contain lactose or gelatin.

Many vegans also avoid all forms of animal exploitation, such as aquariums, zoos and horse racing.


Vegans and vegetarians both avoid eating meat and fish. Veganism, however, goes even farther than vegetarianism, excluding all products that are derived from animals, such as dairy products, eggs, honey, wool, silk and leather. There are variations of the vegetarian diet in which they may choose to eat eggs but not dairy products, or fish but not other types of meat. Both types of diets may provide health benefits, as long as you make sure to obtain the necessary nutrients that you are no longer getting from foods. Before starting any type of major diet change, check with your physician. They might want to check your blood for levels of the above-mentioned vitamins and nutrients, to determine if there is a deficiency or any other health condition that would contraindicate starting a vegan or vegetarian diet.