Vegetarian vs. Vegan: What's the Difference?

Here's everything you are wondering about the different lifestyles.

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Dec. 12 2019, Updated 3:12 p.m. ET

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What's the difference between vegetarian and vegan? While vegetarians and vegans have one big thing in common (they do not eat animals), the two lifestyles are not interchangeable. A vegetarian or vegan lifestyle looks a little different for everyone, and becoming vegetarian or vegan can bring about so many benefits for animals, the planet, and your health!

Read on to learn about the key differences between vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, reducetarians, flexitarians, and more. 

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Is Vegetarian and Vegan the Same?

No, vegetarians and vegans are not the same. In general, vegetarianism is a diet, while veganism is a lifestyle. Vegetarians omit meat from their diets, while vegans omit all products that directly exploit animals, including meat, eggs, dairy, honey, gelatin, fabrics like fur, wool, and leather, and cosmetics tested on animals. The motivation behind someone living a vegan lifestyle is usually learning about the animal agriculture industry, as well as animal agriculture's effects on the climate. Did you know that animal agriculture is responsible for for an estimated 18 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions?

Sometimes vegetarians are fueled by those same ethical motivations, sometimes people go vegetarian primarily for health reasons, and sometimes people go vegetarian simply because they do not like eating meat. There's no wrong reason to start living a more compassionate lifestyle!

Vegetarian vs. Vegan: Health Benefits of Each Diet

On a vegan or plant-based diet, you are completely removing cholesterol, hormones, and antibiotics from your food, since the only foods to contain cholesterol or hormones — which can negatively impact our bodies — are meat, eggs, and dairy. And since most animals in the agriculture industry are fed antibiotics (only organic meat, eggs, and dairy come from animals who were not fed antibiotics), most of the animals we eat were regularly fed antibiotics before slaughter.

By removing cholesterol-rich foods from your diet and replacing them with plant foods, you lower your risk of getting a variety of common conditions, including pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and heart disease. For most people, eating a vegan diet that focuses more on whole foods and less on processed foods will be even more effective in preventing and reversing disease. 

Vegetarians get some of the same health benefits that vegans experience; however, to a lesser extent, since they're still consuming eggs and dairy. Unfortunately for vegetarians, eggs and dairy products also contain cholesterol, hormones, and antibiotics, as well as high levels of saturated fat (except for low-fat dairy products). Interestingly, about two-thirds of the world is lactose intolerant. That may sound high, but it makes sense when you realize that milk is actually breast milk that a lactating cow is producing for her baby calf. For that reason, eliminating dairy when transitioning from a vegetarian to a vegan diet yields positive health effects for many people, such as clearing up breakouts and eliminating stomachaches after meals that contain dairy.

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Vegetarian vs. Vegan: Which Is Healthier?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest organization of nutrition professionals in the U.S., representing more than 100,000 credentialed practitioners, asserts that "appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."

In general, a vegan diet is healthier than a vegetarian diet, because of the effects dairy and eggs can have on our health. As a vegetarian, you can definitely experience some health benefits — but if you are seriously looking to reverse or prevent one of the above conditions or to improve your overall health, you'll experience more benefits on a vegan diet.

That said, there are plenty of plant-based foods that are not healthy, such as Oreos, french fries, and refined sugar. To learn more about the health effects of eating vegan or vegetarian, check out documentaries on Netflix like The Game Changers, What the Health, and Forks Over Knives. 

A vegan diet does not necessarily mean healthy — but it does mean you are choosing something that has a lower impact on the environment and doesn't hurt animals. So even though you can lower your environmental impact and the number of animals you hurt by going vegetarian, you can do those things on an even greater scale by going vegan.

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Vegetarian vs. Vegan vs. Plant-Based

As mentioned above, vegetarians generally limit lifestyle changes to taking meat off their plate, while vegans seek to exclude all forms of animal exploitation from their lifestyle. 

Someone who eats a plant-based diet generally follows a vegan diet, but may not be concerned with eliminating animals from their fashion or cosmetics. A plant-based diet is focused on eating plants, with little to no animal products, while a vegan diet makes sure to exclude animal products no matter how small, such as gelatin, beeswax, and carmine.

Additionally, since many people who eat a plant-based diet do so for health reasons, they may tend to eat more of a whole foods plant-based diet. That is a diet mainly comprised of plant foods in their whole form, such as beans, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and limits on foods like oil, refined sugar, white flour, etc. 

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Vegetarian vs. Vegan vs. Pescatarian

Like vegetarians, pescatarians do not eat any meat from land animals, such as chickens, turkeys, cows, and pigs. However, pescatarians do eat meat from sea animals, like fish and shellfish. Even though it may be harder to relate to underwater animals, fish and shellfish are sentient just like farmed animals and the animals in your home (such as dogs and cats). 

Trillions of fish are caught and killed for food each year — 2.7 trillion of those are wild-caught, while somewhere between 37 billion and 120 billion are bred and killed in the aquaculture industry, according to Sentient Media and Fish Count. Many other sea animals are killed as bycatch in the fishing industry as well. Everything from sea turtles to dolphins to sharks are picked up by commercial fishing nets during the trawling process, and they are often left to die or killed before being thrown back into the ocean. 

Not to mention, the commercial fishing industry is incredibly destructive to the environment. Fishing nets account for about 46 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch's 79,000 tons of garbage, according to a study published in the journal Nature. Plus, overfishing is contributing to ocean overheating and the depletion of the fish population, which has gone down by 4.1 percent since 1930, according to a study published in the journal Science.

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What Are Reducetarians and Flexitarians?

Reducetarianism is the practice of eating less meat, dairy, and eggs, to any degree, according to the Reducetarian Foundation website. Basically, someone who eats meat, eggs, and dairy but is working to decrease their consumption of those products, whether they want to do so just a little bit, they have a goal of becoming vegan, or anywhere in between.

Flexitarians are people who eat mostly plant-based diets, but occasionally eat meat, eggs, and dairy. 

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