8 biggest differences between being a vegan and a vegetarian

Jill Bridges, SATI STAFF

Vegans and vegetarians — you may have flirted with the idea of becoming either one but were not quite sure about the difference between the two. Or, you happen to know casual explanations for each but wondered about the real technical details.

Well, wonder no longer! We dug deep into the research to learn more about what makes vegans and vegetarians tick, including the various definitions applied to both and some of the key benefits each one offers. In the process, we uncovered eight of the most major differences between the two, and the information just might be the push you needed to consider one over the other.

So, whether you have considered becoming a vegan or a vegetarian—or you just really wanted to know more about what each diet-based lifestyle approach offers—you can read on to discover some of the most important facts and advantages of each. In the process, you will also learn about the biggest eight differences between vegans and vegetarians.

Hopefully, you will come out feeling not just smarter, but also inspired to make better dietary choices that fit your personal needs!

vegetarianism defined

Vegetarianism is a type of diet characterized by a general lack of animal flesh and an emphasis on eating plants and fungi[1]. A “vegetarian” is a person who follows a vegetarian diet, and the word “vegetarian” can also function as an adjective describing a meal, dish or ingredient that does not contain animal meat[2].

There are many different types of vegetarianism, and they are generally categorized by the types of foods included alongside plants and fungi. A “lacto vegetarian” will also consume dairy products created from the milk of animals, especially cows, sheep and goats. Various dairy products consumed by a typical lacto vegetarian include milk, cream, cheese, yogurt, curds, and any dishes that contain these components. An “ovo vegetarian” will also consume bird eggs, predominantly those laid by the domestic chicken. A “lacto-ovo vegetarian will consume both dairy and eggs[3].

There are also vegetarians who consume certain types of animal meat. “Pescatarians,” for example, also eat fish and crustaceans like shrimp, oysters and crab[4]. “Pollo vegetarians” also eat poultry. “Flexitarian” vegetarians may choose to consume any type of meat occasionally but stick mainly to vegetables for the majority of their diet[5].

veganism defined

A vegan is a diet and lifestyle characterized by a complete absence of animal products, including animal meat, dairy, eggs, honey and other animal by-products. Vegans also abstain from using animal products in their life, meaning clothing made from leather or wool is never bought nor worn[6].

Many products, such as medicines, cosmetics, perfumes and more may contain animal by-products or may use animal testing. For instance, many prescription pills contain gelatin[7], which is made from slaughtered animal skin, bones and connective tissues[8]. Because of this, a vegan will have to be judicious and find non-animal-tested alternatives to these products if possible. Sometimes, no acceptable vegan medicinal alternative is possible, so in life-threatening situations a vegan may have to begrudgingly accept a non-vegan product[7].

Vegans also typically avoid entertainment products that require trained animals or that force animals to compete. These exhibitions include horse races, circuses with animals in them, orca whale performances and certain movies that use trained animals in them[9].

Because of these limitations, veganism can require much more extensive research and thought put into everyday decisions that people take for granted.

biggest 8 differences between vegans and vegetarians

Just by looking at the two definitions above, you can already see how dramatically different the lifestyle and dietary preferences of vegans and vegetarians can be. Vegetarians encompass a broad variety of dietary possibilities, while vegans rigorously attempt to restrict their dietary and consumer habits to adhere to a strict “no animal exploitation” lifestyle[6].

Although the way each vegan and vegetarian practices can vary, the general choices they make

differ greatly. These differences can have a huge effect on the outcome of being a vegan or a vegetarian, both on a personal level and on a potentially society-wide level since each personal decision can impact the global economy and ecosystem at large.

So, what are these major differences? They include many possible health effects, ethical choices, environmental and societal impacts, financial implications, and the personal demands created by the respective dietary lifestyle. Read on to learn about the eight most major differences below, including healthy doses of scientific data and expert commentary.

1. veganism has a smaller carbon footprint

Both vegetarianism and veganism help take a bite out of one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions on Earth: meat production.

Globally, livestock production and slaughter accounts for 15 percent of all carbon emissions generated by humans — around 7.1 gigatonnes a year. Beef production creates 300 kg of CO2 for every kilogram of meat ultimately produced[10].

Based on data from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), lamb production has the biggest carbon footprint, and beef production is second. Surprisingly, cheese has the third-highest carbon footprint of animal products, just ahead of pork[11].

Because of the emissions created by animal by-products, vegans have a lower carbon footprint per-person than ovo-lacto vegetarians. In fact, ovo-lacto vegetarians have a nearly equivalent carbon footprint compared to pescatarians[12].

However, dairy products and eggs individually produce less than a third of the emissions created by lamb, beef, cheese and pork. Vegetarians who do not eat cheese products but do eat fish and chicken may therefore dramatically reduce their carbon footprint without having to be completely vegan[11].

2. veganism/vegetarianism is more sustainable than “natural” products

Similar to carbon emissions, production of meat and animal products consumes a huge amount of resources. 2,500 gallons of water is required to ultimately raise and process one pound of beef, and a single hamburger can account for 55 square feet of rainforest destroyed to make room for cattle grazing[13].

Even when just looking at dairy products, four gallons of water is needed to create one gallon of milk[13]. One pound of cheese takes 382 gallons to create, meaning that the slices needed to make a typical cheese sandwich required around 56 gallons of water[15].

Commercial factory farming makes this resource use more, not less, intensive. Grass fed cattle produce more methane than grain-fed cows. 2 to 20 acres are also needed for cattle grazing, meaning that over half the area of the U.S. would be needed to completely switch feedlot beef production to grass-fed[16].

Therefore, switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet is more realistic than adopting “natural” or organic farming practices. However, not all land can be used for crop production, so a global, ubiquitous vegan diet would be less capable of feeding the world’s population than an omnivorous diet[17].

3. vegetarianism can make getting your needed nutrients easier

While veganism may be less resource-intensive and more environmentally friendly than vegetarianism, it can make obtaining your needed daily nutrition far more difficult.

Vitamin B12, for example, is a nutrient that is needed to create enzymes that produce red blood cells and help replicate DNA for cell replacement[18]. B12 can be found most abundantly in dairy products, shellfish, and other animal products[19]. Because of this, 92 percent of vegans show signs of a B12 deficiency, while only 77 percent of lacto-ovo-vegetarians do[20].

Similarly, a study found that vitamin D levels in vegans were 74 percent lower than normal in vegans and 58 percent lower in vegetarians[21]. Other common deficiencies in vegans include iron[22], zinc, calcium[23], and omega-3 fatty acids[24]. Supplementation with vegan-friendly products is possible, but requires diligent measurement and knowledge of bioavailability.

Since vegetarians can eat certain fortified foods like eggs and may also include shellfish and fish in their diet, obtaining your full needed nutritional profile without supplementation and careful monitoring can be much more easily accomplished[25].

4. vegans have lower risk for health-related problems

Though certain nutrient deficiencies are more common in vegans than vegetarians, vegans seem to enjoy the better health profile overall[26]. While both diets show a risk reduction for cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and mortality in general, vegans have even lower levels of obesity, hypertension, type-2 diabetes and death from heart disease[27].

Vegans have a 15 percent lower risk of developing cancer, compared to vegetarians, who have an 8 percent lower risk compared to the general population[28]. The rate of vegans with type-2 diabetes is less than half that of non-vegetarians[29].

In fact, one study found that ovo-lacto-vegetarians have an insignificant difference in life expectancy and the rate of heart disease and stroke compared to individuals who were “health conscious” and shopped at specialty food stores[30].

Overall, vegans seem to enjoy a healthier lifestyle and a lower overall risk of life-threatening chronic conditions, although vegetarians can be quite close behind them while lowering their own risk for nutritional deficiencies.

5. vegetarianism can still promote animal cruelty and exploitation

Many vegans and vegetarians adopt their lifestyle to reduce activities they see as encouraging the unethical and cruel treatment of animals[31]. Indeed, switching to vegetarianism can save an estimated 25 animal lives a year[32].

However, consuming animal products rather than the animals themselves can still support production methods that undoubtedly cause animals stress and suffering. Battery cage egg production, for example, confines multiple chickens to a tiny cage where they are likely to suffer broken bones, malnutrition and untold distress[33].

Even seemingly innocent operations like honey production subject animals to practices that can be seen as cruel. While bees cannot feel pain or distress in the conventional sense, they are subjected to practices that consistently kill bees and prevent them from engaging in typical behavior[34].

For example, queens are killed around every two years to keep honey production high. Mouse guards installed to keep rodents out of hives in the winter cause dead bees in the hive to pile up all season[35].

In terms of non-food items, demand for leather goods prompts the slaughter of 290 million cattle worldwide every year[36]. Facts like these reveal uncomfortable inconsistencies with many vegetarians’ ethical and moral beliefs.

6. being a pure vegan can involve an exhausting amount of research

A shocking amount of common products contain animal components as an ingredient or as part of their production. White table sugar is often bleached using bone char from slaughtered animals[37]. Wines may be clarified and filtered using “fining agents” that include egg whites, fish oil, and isinglass, which is made from fish bladders[38]. Foods like refried beans and processed snacks can contain lard[39].

Even everyday products like bicycle tires, shampoos, plastic grocery bags, fabric softener, toothpaste and biofuels can contain animal by-products. Products like animal-derived hide glue have effective synthetic, non-animal replacements, but still find their way in certain instruments and furniture[40].

Casein protein is a particularly concerning substance since it is found in many non-dairy products like margarine, creamers and whey protein[41]. Even fresh fruits and veggies can have shellac coating them, which is made from insect secretions[42].

Vegetarians must concern themselves with these types of hidden animal product uses, too. For example, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses by law must be made with rennet, a culturing enzyme created by chopping up calves stomachs and dissolving them[43]. Yet, the needed level of concern and research becomes far more amplified when adhering to a vegan diet.

7. vegan diets have even higher levels of certain nutrients than vegetarian ones

Despite the common deficiencies listed above in point three, vegans do obtain a wide range of nutrients that the general meat-eating population has trouble obtaining in sufficient levels.

Both vegans and vegetarians have higher levels of dietary fiber, vitamins C and E, folic acid, magnesium, potassium and beneficial phytochemicals[44]. However, vegans tend to get even more fiber, folate and magnesium as well as vitamins B1, A, K, C, and E[45,46].

Vegan diets also happen to be high in antioxidants thanks to a substantial supply of phytochemicals. Levels of lycopene and beta-carotene, two antioxidants well-known for their health benefits, tend to be high in particular[46,47]. Antioxidants help eliminate damaging particles called free radicals[48], which in turn can reduce markers for heart disease and could potentially reduce your risk for certain cancers[49].

Those on a vegan diet also tend to outperform doctor-recommended diets for chronic conditions like diabetes thanks to their high fiber intake and low amount of saturated fats, added sugars and other components that tend to raise negative biomarkers[46].

Overall, a vegan diet can provide high levels of nutrition thanks to nutrient dense foods and a greater variety of fruits and vegetables.

8. vegan diets can reduce inflammation and arthritis symptoms

Painful arthritis symptoms are often made worse by inflammation[50]. Certain studies show that both vegan and vegetarian diets can reduce factors that signal inflammation while helping alleviate arthritis symptoms overall[51].

For instance, one study found that following a vegan diet could reduce C-reactive proteins—a marker for both chronic and acute inflammation—by a significant level. Another study followed a group of arthritis patients who adopted a vegan diet for three and a half months followed by a lacto-vegetarian diet for nine months. This group had significantly lower levels for markers of inflammation while having improved symptoms related to their condition[51].

However, some health experts caution that a strict vegan diet could reduce levels of vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, two compounds known for their anti-inflammatory benefits[51]. Individuals suffering from arthritis should coordinate their dietary decisions and nutrient supplementation with their primary health care professional in order to obtain the maximum benefit without introducing stressors or the possibility of nutrient deficiencies.

the sati line

Overall, both vegan and vegetarian diets provide significant benefits to the people who eat them and the environment as a whole. Vegan diets in particular seem to have a profound positive impact on carbon emissions and resource use while doing a better job of removing support from industries that perpetuate cruel practices against animals.

Vegetarians and vegans also happen to have better nutrition levels and lower risk factors for chronic disease practically across the board. Even though both groups may risk deficiencies of certain nutrients—especially as vegans are concerned—they also have much lower levels of deficiency for nutrients like fiber and vitamin C compared to the general population.

So, which diet would work best for you? That is completely your decision! You may not even need to adopt vegetarianism or veganism wholesale, instead choosing to reduce your consumption of animal products or eliminate certain meats altogether.

The choice is yours to make, but it should make you feel better both mentally and physically no matter what it happens to be!

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