Vegan vs Vegetarian: What’s The Difference?

Plant-based meal to illustrate the difference between vegan and vegetarian

Are you wondering what is the difference between vegan and vegetarian?

Maybe you’ve seen those words on a menu at a restaurant, or you have a friend or family member that is vegan or vegetarian. Maybe you’ve always assumed these words mean the same thing, but you’ve realized that there might be some differences between them.

There are some key differences between vegan and vegetarian, and different reasons why people may choose one over another.

Vegetarianism and Veganism in Canada

Some people choose a vegan and vegetarian diet for health reasons, environmental reasons, or for animal rights. Either way, this is a relentlessly growing movement that is not going anywhere. In 2018, there were approximately 2.3 million vegetarians and 850 000 vegans in Canada alone according to studies.

Read on to understand what’s the difference between vegan and vegetarian.

What is a vegetarian diet?

First, let’s dive into what a vegetarian diet is. In short, it’s a type of plant-based diet in which meat consumption is avoided.

A vegetarian diet excludes the following:

  • Poultry
  • Fish and seafood
  • Red meat
  • Gelatin, which is a food additive directly made from animals

Where the difference between vegetarian and vegan comes in is that vegetarians, unlike vegans, still eat some animal protein.

Lacto Ovo Vegetarian

While they are no longer meat eaters, vegetarians still eat animal products such as eggs and dairy. This is why a “vegetarian” is often referred to as “lacto ovo vegetarian”, “lacto” meaning milk and “ovo” meaning egg.

What is a vegan diet?

And so, how is vegan different from vegetarian? A vegan diet is one that excludes the consumption of all animal products, even the ones that are derived from animals.

Common Ingredients That Are Not Vegan

In short, a vegan diet excludes the following:

  • Poultry
  • Fish and seafood
  • Red meat
  • Dairy and dairy products
  • Eggs and egg products
  • Honey

Other Ingredients That Are Not Vegan

Less commonly seen ingredients that are excluded on a vegan diet are:

  • Casein
  • Lactose
  • Whey
  • Buttermilk
  • Gelatin and animal fats
  • vitamin D3
  • Ghee
  • Albumin

Vegan: More Than Just A Diet

In reality, veganism is more than just avoiding animal-based food. It’s often referred to as a vegan lifestyle, which goes beyond what’s on your plate. People usually choose a vegan lifestyle for animal welfare reasons. This means that vegans avoid all forms of exploitation of the animals.

Veganism beyond what’s on your plate is about excluding the following as well:

  • Products made with animal testing, such as some cosmetic products, shampoos, soaps, makeup, etc.
  • Products that contain animal byproducts, such as candles or lotions made from beeswax
  • Clothing made from animal parts such as leather, wool, silk, or fur
  • Zoos, circus, or other instances where animals are used for entertainment
Cows to illustrate what is the difference between vegan and vegetarian

What A Vegan Diet Includes

So, what do vegans eat? A completely plant-based diet relies on vegan protein, lots of fruits/vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

Some vegans choose to include processed vegan alternatives, for instance dairy products substitutes such as non-dairy milk and vegan cheese, or meat substitutes such as vegan chicken or sausages.

In summary, vegans exclude all animal products from their diet and their lives, while a vegetarian diet still includes some types of animal protein and does not extend to the rest of their lives. Hopefully now you have a better idea of what the difference between vegan and vegetarian is!

Difference Between Other Vegetarian Diets

Did you know that there are other types of vegetarians that exist? These other diets are often used when a completely vegan or vegetarian diet does not work well for someone, or sometimes as a means of transitioning. You can see them as sorts of “levels” that gradually go towards veganism.

Here are some types of plant based diets that exist, other than a vegan diet or a lacto ovo vegetarian diet.

  • Pescatarian: The first “level” towards veganism is called pescatarian diet. This basically means a vegetarian who is eating fish. So, a pescatarian consumes dairy products, eggs, and fish and other seafood, but does not eat other meats such as red meat, poultry, etc.
  • Ovo vegetarian: An ovo-vegetarian refers to a vegetarian who consumes eggs, but not milk or other dairy products. This type of vegetarianism is often used as a transition towards veganism; the only animal products consumed are eggs.
  • Lacto vegetarian: On the other hand, lacto vegetarians consume dairy products such as dairy based-milks, yogurts, cheeses, etc. They do not consume other animal products such as eggs, fish/seafood, poultry, or meat. This can be used as a transition to veganism as well.

A Tool To Transition to Veganism

Many people use these types of vegetarian diets to transition to veganism, starting with what’s easier for them to eliminate from their diet.

For instance, someone who wants to go vegan may have a hard time cutting out cheese. This person may choose to be a lacto vegetarian; removing eggs from their diet to get closer to veganism in a way that works for them. That person could remain at this “level” or could progress to a vegan lifestyle once they are feeling more comfortable eliminating dairy products.

What is the Difference Between Vegetarian and Vegan? – Nutrition

As you can see, there are many differences between vegan and vegetarian diets regarding what they eat. With vegetarians and vegan diets being so different, you might be wondering which one is the healthiest.

Are Plant Based Diets Healthy?

Both types of plant based diet can be very healthy. In fact, did you know that the position of the American Dietetic Association is that appropriately planned vegan diets are “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases”? They go on to say that vegan diets are “appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes”.

The biggest difference between what a vegan and vegetarian eats is eggs and dairy. Aside from that, vegan and vegetarian diets resemble each other.

Plant-based meal being cooked to show what’s the difference between vegan and vegetarian

Health Benefits of Going Plant Based

By avoiding meat, and replacing it with healthy plant based proteins such as legumes or tofu, vegetarians and vegans may already have less health concerns than meat eaters.

This can be due to a lower saturated fat intake and a higher fiber intake that comes from switching to plant based protein. Vegans can take this one step further by eliminating high fat dairy cheese and other dairy products, compared to vegetarians who often use these higher fat foods as staples in their diet.

Keep in mind that a vegetarian or vegan diet does not automatically guarantee you health. Someone who is vegetarian or vegan whose diet mostly consists of processed foods high in refined sugar, fat, and sodium will not be healthier than someone who is not following a plant based diet.

Processed plant based foods are not any healthier than processed animal products. The health advantage of plant based diets truly comes in when you focus on health-promoting foods.

Possible Nutritional Deficiencies on Plant Based Diets

Both vegans and vegetarians have a higher risk of nutrient deficiencies if their diet is not appropriately planned. Here are some possible deficiencies on plant based diets:

  • Calcium deficiency, especially for vegans who don’t consume dairy
  • Omega-3 deficiency, especially for vegetarians/vegans who don’t consume fish
  • Vitamin D, especially for vegans who don’t consume dairy
  • Vitamin B12, especially for vegans who don’t consume eggs or dairy
  • Iron, for both vegans and vegetarians

Overall, if you are able to meet your nutritional requirements on a vegetarian or vegan diet, you might get some health benefits out of it. This is especially true for vegans who don’t consume any animal products, which leaves more room for healthful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

If you are curious about going on a vegan or vegetarian diet, it’s recommended that you speak to a professional vegan dietitian who can make sure you are getting all the right nutrients to avoid any deficiencies.

Difference Between Vegan and Vegetarian: The Bottom Line

Vegan and vegetarian diets both exclude some animal products, but to various extents. There are many “levels” of plant-based diet that may exclude animal products for similar reasons, and are often used as steps to transition to a fully vegan lifestyle. You can look at vegetarianism and veganism as some sort of spectrum, with vegans being on the stricter end of the spectrum.

Now that you know the difference between vegan or vegetarian, you can confidently choose one that suits you the best.

Find The One That’s Best For You

The best type of plant-based diet for you is the one that fits well with your ethics and lifestyle. And if there is not one specific type of plant-based diet that is a great fit for you, don’t be afraid to drop the labels and do what’s best for you, even if that’s just a more plant-forward way of eating without excluding meat intake and animal products.

Keep in mind that a vegetarian or vegan diet can provide considerable health benefits, such as lowering the risk of heart disease or developing certain cancers, among other chronic diseases. That can be another great reason to make the switch to a plant based diet.

If you need help determining which dietary pattern is best for you, or how to best transition to a vegetarian or vegan diet, don’t be afraid to reach out to a vegan dietitian who can guide you in the process and ensure you are as healthy as you can be!

Written by: Magalie Deslauriers-Labbé, dietetics student

Revised by: Alyssa Fontaine, vegan registered dietitian

Plant-based wraps to show the vegan and vegetarian differences