Vegan vs Vegetarian: Is One Better Than the Other?

    
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

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 vegetarianism head to head to see just how different they really are.

What Do Vegans Eat?

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

Meat and dairy alternatives can also be included, such as beyond meat burgers, tofu, seitan, and tempeh products to increase the intake of plant-based proteins

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

What Do Vegetarians Eat? 

Vegetarianism is slightly less restrictive, allowing some form of dairy or animal by-product into the diet. This diet can typically be classified by one of the following categories (lacto - meaning milk, and ovo - meaning egg):

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

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 eating can include meat, dairy, or seafood in varying quantities. The most popular versions of these diet types are: 

  • Plant Based: Any diet that promotes the bulk or all of your intake from plants. It 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. 
  • Pescatarian: Avoiding meat (with or without eggs and dairy) with the occasional seafood and shellfish consumption.  
  • Flexitarian: Intentionally eating more vegan or vegetarian meals while also eating less meat, dairy, and seafood overall.  

Vegan vs Vegetarian Diet Comparison

It seems people's reasoning for choosing a vegan or 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 decipher 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. Both diets are intended to exclude certain types of food (aka meat, seafood, and dairy), not necessarily increase your intake of healthy foods.

After all, soda, french fries, and Oreos are all considered vegan! 

That being said because both emphasize a lot of plants, 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 vegan and vegetarian eating 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 your 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 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 are only fully realized when calorie control and overall nutrition balance is considered. 

The option to add or remove 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 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. 

Sustainability and Animal Welfare

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

These two diets are very similar and quite different at the same time. And figuring out which one 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 you plan and execute your 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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