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Vegan vs Vegetarian: Choosing Between a Vegan and Vegetarian Diet

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Curious about going meat-free but not quite sure which type of diet is best for you? Whether you are looking to improve your nutrition, grab potential health benefits, or just be kinder to animals and the planet, we put veganism and the vegetarian diet head to head to see just how different they really are.

What is Veganism?

Veganism represents the ultimate in plant-based eating, restricting all forms of animal products including meat, dairy, and seafood from the diet. This diet typically consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes.

Vegans can also include meat and dairy alternatives, such as Beyond Meat® burgers, tofu, seitan, and tempeh products to increase the intake of plant-based proteins. Vegans have more meat alternatives today than ever.

Many vegans will also take this a step further and avoid wearing clothing made from animal products like leather and fur, and using products that have been tested on animals.

What is Vegetarianism?

Vegetarianism is slightly less restrictive, allowing some form of animal product into the diet, like dairy and eggs. This diet can typically broken up into three types of vegetarians (lacto vegetarians, lacto - meaning milk, ovo vegetarians, ovo - meaning egg, and lacto-ovo vegetarians):

Lacto vegetarians:

Lacto vegetarians avoid meat, seafood, and eggs, but still enjoy dairy products like cheese, milk, and yogurt.

Ovo vegetarians:

Ovo vegetarians void all meat, seafood, and dairy, but still eat eggs.

Lacto-ovo vegetarians:

Lacto-ovo vegetarians avoid meat and seafood but still eat many dairy and egg products like whole eggs, cream, milk, and cottage cheese.

Similar to vegans, many vegetarians still prioritize animal welfare and will avoid wearing clothing or using products that are made from or tested on animals.

Other Plant-Based Diet Types

Other common types of plant-based lifestyles can include meat, dairy, or seafood in varying quantities. The most popular versions of these diet types are: 

Plant Based

Plant based is any diet that promotes the bulk or all of your intake from plants. Plant based does not always mean that you are vegan or vegetarian, as eating a plant based diet can be interpreted as the bulk of your diet comes from plants, not all of it. Meat is typically the animal product most abstained from in a plant-based diet.

Vegans and vegetarians are all in, plant based eaters are more curious than committed.

Pescatarian

A diet based on avoiding meat (with or without eggs and dairy) with the occasional seafood and shellfish consumption. Many vegetarians and vegans start out as pescatarian or evolve into it should they need more fat and protein than their vegetarianism of veganism is providing.

Flexitarian

Intentionally eating more vegan or vegetarian meals while also eating less meat, dairy, and seafood overall. This is a great first step if you’re new to either a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Vegan vs Vegetarian Diet Comparison

It seems people's reasoning for choosing vegan vs vegetarian diet is just as diverse as the types of plant based eating styles out there, and understanding which diet is best for you can really depend on the person.

To help you understand the differences between these two meal plans, we’ve compared how each diet stacks up based on the following criteria:

Nutrition 

Neither vegetarian or vegan diets are designed with specific nutritional requirements in mind and neither vegans nor vegetarians are automatically healthy. Both diets are intended to exclude certain types of foods (aka meat, seafood, and dairy), not necessarily increase your intake of healthy foods.

After all, soda, french fries, and Oreos are all on the table for vegans!

That being said because both vegans and vegetarians emphasize a lot of plants in their diet and the potential to improve nutrition intake is there.

Let’s pretend each diet uses calorie control, macro balance, and includes plenty of nutrient-dense plant foods, then how would they compare in terms of nutrition?

Done right, both a vegan and vegetarian diet will get you a lot of key nutrients, especially vitamins A, C, E, potassium, and folate, along with loads of healthy fat and fiber (1,2,3,4). That's because plants, especially fruits and veggies, tend to be some of the most nutrient-dense foods we know of.

But when it comes to balancing your vegan macros, mainly protein intake, vegetarianism may have a clear advantage. Plants are not typically a protein dense food, but dairy and eggs are.

Of course there is a difference between loading up on cheesy vegetarian dishes and opting for more quality choices.

Including some options like low fat yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, and eggs with meals and snacks can significantly boost vegetarians protein intake. Plus, they are a source of complete proteins and contain other key nutrients often lacking in plants like calcium and vitamin D (5).  

However, high protein meat alternatives can help fill in the gaps in any vegan diet. 

Bottom Line

Both diets can add loads of nutrition to your day, but vegetarian diets have an edge with the potential for more protein dense options, along with calcium and vitamin D from dairy and eggs. 

Health Benefits 

Many people choose to go vegan or vegetarian in the first place to lose weight or for health reasons. And it's because diets high in nutrient-dense plant foods are associated with a wide range of health benefits.

Both vegan and vegetarian meal plans are associated with weight loss, heart health, and improved blood sugar control and blood cholesterol (6,7,8,9,10). 

Of course, these benefits, for your weight, heart or otherwise, are only fully realized when calorie control and overall nutrition balance is considered, and that goes for vegans and vegetarians.

The option to add or remove animal products like dairy and eggs with vegetarian eating, has its pluses and minuses - it's not as clear cut as one may think.

Yes, full fat dairy can be a source of saturated fat, but a well-planned vegetarian diet should opt for low fat dairy and also contain a ton of foods with healthy fats.

Additionally, some dairy intake has been associated with potential health benefits like improved blood sugar control and better weight management (11).

Bottom Line

It's a draw. Vegan and vegetarian diets done right may provide some significant health benefits but like most things, it depends on what works best for the individual and how healthy they are already.

Sustainability and Humanely Raised

Both styles of eating get points for sustainability since opting for more plants in your meals is thought to be slightly easier on the environment by using less resources (mainly less land, feed, and water) for production (12,13). 

Of course, it always depends on the type of vegan and vegetarian foods you choose. A lot of energy goes into processed foods.

Overall vegan diets have the edge when it comes to sustainability since dairy can require just as many resources as meat. Additionally because vegans avoid all animal products and by-products there are likely zero animals harmed in the making of their meals.

Bottom Line

Vegan diets are the gold standard here since opting for more plant foods over meat and dairy might help reduce the use of natural resources in food production.

The Verdict

Veganism and vegetarianism are very similar and quite different at the same time. And figuring out which diet to choose really boils down to personal preference.

Vegan diets have a possible advantage when it comes to sustainability and animal welfare, but vegetarian diets might be superior when it comes to nutrition and health benefits. Of course all of this depends on how well vegans and vegetarians plan and execute their nutrition.

Learning how to balance your food choices to match your health and fitness goals is where the real challenge lies, and ultimately the best diet for you is the one you enjoy eating most - as this is the diet you will stick to the longest!

Need help planning and prepping a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet? Let us do the hard work for you with high protein, nutrient dense meals cooked and delivered right to your door.

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