If you keep tabs on the health and diet world, at this point you’ve probably noticed that there’s a ton of buzz around plant-based diets. If you’re skeptical, just scroll on Instagram for two minutes and you’ll likely see a new green smoothie recipe and healthy food swaps for non-meat eaters.
“Vegan and vegetarian diets are different forms of plant-based diets where someone chooses to get the majority of their protein from plant sources and limit or restrict the amount of animal-based food they consume,” says Melissa Rifkin, MS, RD, CDN.
However, when it comes to vegetarian vs vegan, it can be confusing to tell the difference between the two eating styles. Most people know the basics: For both diets, you eat mostly plants. But beyond that, things can get a little tricky. What does it mean to be vegan? Here’s everything you need to know about what it means to be vegan versus vegetarian.
What is a vegetarian diet?
Being a vegetarian requires abstaining from eating meat, poultry, and sometimes fish.
“A vegetarian diet typically allows for at least some amount of animal-based food,” Rifkin explains. “The common animal proteins in a vegetarian diet are dairy like milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, and fish. Anyone following a vegetarian diet can choose with animal products they are comfortable consuming when developing their plant-based diet.”
There are several types of vegetarianism:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet: Avoids meat, fish and poultry, but consumes eggs and dairy products
- Lacto-vegetarian diet: Avoids meat, fish, poultry and eggs, but consumes dairy products
- Ovo-vegetarian diet: Avoids meat, fish, poultry and dairy products, but consumes eggs
- Vegan diet: Vegetarians who don’t consume any animal or animal-based products
The bottom line: All vegans are vegetarians, but not all vegetarians are vegans.
Veganism is stricter than vegetarianism and eliminates all animal-based products.
“A vegan diet does not contain any animal-based food products,” says Rifkin. “Some may even restrict foods of animal origin, like honey. In this case individuals are getting their protein entirely from plant-based sources, like beans, nuts, seeds and soy products.”
Danielle Gaffen, MS, RDN, LD, breaks down the difference between a raw vegan diet and whole food vegan diet.
Raw vegan diet
This eating pattern is exactly what it sounds like: A vegan version of raw foodism. Fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, seeds, and sprouted grains are included on this eating plan. Foods may not be cooked, but can be prepared in other ways like blending, mixing, etc.
One thing to note about this eating plan is that supplements tend to be discouraged. This is potentially troubling, because many vegans struggle to get the amount of vitamin B12 needed from vegan foods (unless enough fortified foods are consumed). So unless a B12 supplement is considered, deficiencies can occur!
Whole food vegan diet
This diet is gaining in popularity, too, focuses on minimally processed vegan foods, and excludes refined foods like added sugars and oils. Something to be aware of is that many of the best sources of vegan B12 are from fortified foods, which are processed. If a person following this dietary pattern will only eat whole foods, special attention to B12 must be taken and supplements may need to be considered.
“It’s worth noting that some foods are more nutritious when cooked,” Dr. Christen Cupples Cooper, EdD, RD and Founding Director of Nutrition Programs, College of Health Professions, Pace University, explains. “An example of this is tomato sauce. Tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant that can help prevent prostate cancer in men. Lycopene is more potent in cooked tomatoes than in raw tomatoes. Eating whole foods should be the basis of any diet, whether vegan, vegetarian or omnivorous. Whole foods provide all of the components of food that work together to confer health benefits.”
How to make sure you’re getting enough nutrients as a vegetarian or vegan
“Following a plant-based diet takes more effort to ensure proper balance of nutrients due to limited food sources, especially protein,” Rifkin says. “Because a vegetarian is consuming some amount of animal-based protein that is rich in many nutrients, like iron, zinc and B12, there is less likelihood of deficiency.”
Due the strict restrictions, there’s a higher chance that vegans won’t consume an adequate intake of nutrients.
“Those who follow a vegan diet become much more likely to develop nutrient deficiencies like iron, and are more likely to consume an inadequate amount of protein because they do not consume any animal foods,” Rifkin explains. “In this scenario, protein and vitamin supplementation may be beneficial to avoid nutrient deficiencies.”
It’s important to be conscious of your iron and B12 intake and incorporate more of those nutrient-rich foods into your diet.
“Concerns for both types of diets will include adequate iron intake,” says Shena Jaramillo MS, RD. “Individuals should make sure that they are consuming beans, potatoes, leafy greens and other iron-rich foods and even potentially consider an iron supplement. Vegans typically also need to supplement with B12 or choose foods fortified with B12.”
Overall, vegan diets require more planning than a vegetarian diet. So, what foods should you incorporate in your diet to make sure you’re getting adequate nutrition?
“Beans, nuts, nut butters, tofu and the right complement of fruits and vegetables can contribute to a well-rounded diet,” says Dr. Cooper. “However, vegetarians and vegans should pay attention to vitamin B12 and iron, which are found in abundance in animal foods, and in lesser quantities in plant foods. Plant eaters should also learn some tricks for absorbing iron more efficiently, such as eating oranges or drinking orange juice when eating iron-rich leafy greens.”
Specifically, Gaffen says vegetarians and vegans should pay special attention to the following nutrients:
Vegetarians who consume no dairy products (typically vegans) may have lower calcium intakes, so it’s important to try to get it from any source you can or consider a supplement.
Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in iron than omnivorous diets. But if the consumption of plant-based iron sources are consumed with large amounts of vitamin C, iron absorption can be increased. For that reason, vegetarians do not have a greater risk of iron-deficiency than those who aren’t vegetarians. And statistically, iron deficiency rates are similar between vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
Vitamin B12 is not usually a concern for vegetarians who regularly consume eggs or dairy products (lacto-ovo-vegetarians), as vitamin B12 can only be found in animal products. Long-term vegans, however, may develop B12 deficiency anemia because they are not eating animal food sources. Therefore, vegans need a reliable source of vitamin B12.
While zinc is found in many foods, there are plant-based foods that can be included in the vegetarian diet to increase zinc intake like mushrooms, asparagus, corn, and broccoli.
While humans absorb omega-3s best from seafood, vegetarians and vegans will be relieved to know that alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) is a source of a small amount of omega-3s that you can get from plant-based sources.
A person’s vitamin D status depends mostly on sunlight exposure, as our skin has the incredible ability to transform the sun’s UV rays into vitamin D. But humans can also obtain vitamin D from eating foods that contain it. For vegetarians, those foods include egg yolks and fortified milk, while vegans may obtain vitamin D from some mushrooms. Supplementation may be warranted if a vegetarian or vegan is not able to get enough vitamin D from sunlight or food.
Vegetarian vs vegan: What’s the difference from a health standpoint?
Both plant-based diets are healthy. It’s just a matter of making sure you’re getting the essential nutrients you need.
“Plenty of research supports the health benefits of vegan and vegetarian diets, like reduced cholesterol and improved digestive regularity. Because animal proteins are included in a vegetarian diet which reduces the likelihood of deficiencies, it may be considered a healthier and more well-rounded diet,” Rifkin states. “A vegan diet can be very healthful as well, it would just require an individual to eat a varied and balanced diet, and likely include some supplementation to limit the incidence of nutrient deficiency.”
As with any diet, it’s crucial to follow proper nutritional guidelines to ensure optimal health.
“While both vegan and vegetarian diets can be healthy, they can also be dangerous or lead to poor nutrition if not properly implemented,” Jaramillo explains. “Generally, these diets are lower in fat, saturated fat, and total caloric intake than non-plant-based diets. There is not one diet that is ‘better’—it’s all about how balanced the nutrition is through the day.”
Dr. Cooper agrees. There is a great deal of evidence to support the benefits of eliminating red meat and adding more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
“Either of these diets can be healthful if one is diligent about eating a wide variety of foods to provide the body the valuable nutrients it needs to repair tissue, fight disease and sustain important body functions,” says Dr. Cooper. “Some of the healthiest populations on earth eat plant foods almost exclusively. The bulk of scientific studies to date suggest that limiting red meat intake and increasing intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help people stay healthier and live longer.”
Next, read up on 25 healthy plant-based dinner recipes the entire family will love.