What’s the difference between a vegetarian and a vegan?


Meatless diets have been steadily gaining notoriety in the USA. According to a 2008 study published by Vegetarian Times, 3.2 percent of Americans (7.3 million people) follow a vegetarian diet, with another 10 percent (22.8 million) of American adults saying they follow a largely vegetarian-inclined diet. That’s a climb from the 2.3 percent of U.S. adults who identified as vegetarian just two years prior, according to numbers from a 2006 poll by The Vegetarian Resource Group.

The growing momentum is understandable, given the ever-accumulating evidence supporting vegetarianism. Numerous independent and government studies have come forward confirming the diverse health benefits of meat-free diets. Both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Dietetic Association (ADA) have praised meatless diets for links to lower mortality rates and medical complications with ADA affirming that vegetarian and vegan diets are appropriate for individuals in all stages of life (infancy through adulthood, including pregnant or nursing mothers and athletes).

Okay, you may say, the plant people are doing pretty well in the health department. But what exactly are they eating if bacon burgers aren’t on the menu? And aren’t vegetarians and vegans essentially the same thing: People who just eat lettuce all day and throw red paint on fur coats?

Not so much. Vegetarians and vegans are often grouped together (both in research and in general by the meat-eating community) for their meat-abstinence but are actually separated by some distinct dietary and (sometimes) political differences. We’re going to break down and look at some of those differences today.

General Overview

If you’re unfamiliar with the specifics of meat-free dietary cultures, the details can get a bit jumbled; people start tossing around terms like “vegetarian”, “vegan“, “soy-this” and “tofu-that” and before you know it you’re lost.

While vegetarians and vegans can technically be grouped together under the general umbrella of vegetarianism, many individuals choose to identify separately as one or the other due to the dietary and lifestyle differences. For that reason, we’re going to recognize them separately in our discussion today. Not everyone will fit into the same category for what motivates them to pursue a meatless lifestyle in either group, but there are some general observations we can make to get an idea of what makes them different.


Vegetarians are sometimes viewed as more laid back in terms of dietary restrictions because they abstain from the majority of animal proteins (beef, pork, poultry, etc.) but will still allow animal by-products like eggs and dairy. They may be motivated by a number of factors, including religious or political beliefs, but a large portion of U.S. vegetarians (53 percent, according to a 2016 data research) claim their leading motivation for a vegetarian diet is the associated health benefits. I’ve known meat-eaters who assume all vegetarians are animal rights activists, but you’re just as likely to meet vegetarians without any particular moral aversion to meat consumption who are simply health-conscious.


Veganism (as asserted by The Vegan Society) places equal emphasis on diet and overall lifestyle. Vegans abstain from all animal proteins, animal by-products (eggs, dairy, honey) and meat-by products (gelatin, animal broths, etc.) in their diet. Many within the vegan community are also strongly committed to the belief that veganism is more than just a diet and strive to forgo all products or possessions in their lifestyle either tested on animals or containing animal by-products (cosmetics, toiletries, clothing, etc.). Vegans are also sometimes noted for carrying stronger political and personal beliefs in regards to meat consumption and animal rights.

Types of Vegetarians and vegans

Even within their individual categories, there are different levels and approaches to vegetarian and vegan diets. Let’s take a glance at a couple quick guides to break down who eats what.


Like any community, there are differing opinions about which approach to vegetarianism is the best or most authentic. Some Lacto and Ovo Vegetarians disagree with pescetarianism being included within the umbrella of vegetarianism since fish and sea food still comes from living creatures, where many pescetarians dismiss this view and still hold firmly to their vegetarian identity. Other individuals even go so far as to identify as Pollotarians (consuming poultry, fowl, eggs, dairy and honey) or Flexitarians (following a mainly plant based diet, with flexibility for the occasional consumption of meat).


These are actually just a few of the different approaches to a vegan diet. There are many other variations and combinations out there when it comes to vegan nutrition, but for today we’re narrowing our focus to get a gist of the general inclusions/exclusions of vegan nutrition. If you would like to delve deeper, you could check out this article by on other types of vegan diets.

My Journey with Vegetarianism

I began as a Lacto Vegetarian back in 2010, entirely for health related motivations. I had only recently begun trying to build better nutritional and exercise habits in my life and I hoped it would help me implement some sorely needed structure and self-discipline in my diet. Initially, I wasn’t sure how realistic vegetarianism would be to attempt or maintain but I discovered it helped me start incorporating fruits and vegetables regularly into my diet for the first time. It challenged me to try new things and began changing my tastes and cravings for healthier foods. It was both realistic and enjoyable, so I stuck with it.

I gradually branched out from Lacto-Vegetarianism over time. My initial reason for excluding eggs was a food sensitivity I’d carried since childhood where eggs would often produce throbbing, migraine-like headaches that could last for hours or all day. A few years into my vegetarian journey, I read an article describing my dilemma; it pointed not to eggs as the irritant, but rather the hormones, dyes and chemicals present in the rearing of hens that laid those eggs. I tried switching to organic eggs from local hormone/antibiotic-free hens and immediately the headaches vanished. After exploring Lacto-Ovo territory for a while, I eventually ventured into pescetarianism. Many people start in one category of diet and branch out into or withdraw from another based on nutritional goals, dietary tolerances, beliefs or just personal preferences as they grown along with their journey.

Wrapping it all up

As noted earlier, this article is meant to give a general overview of differences between vegetarians and vegans. While we’ve covered a good base for understanding some of these differences, it’s also important to remember that every person is unique won’t always fit into the same generalized category.

In the years since the release of notable pro-plant based diet documentaries, I’ve personally met numerous individuals who have tested out or switched to a vegetarian or vegan diet solely for the health-related benefits. I’ve also met both vegetarians and vegans motivated by a deep passion for animal welfare and bringing awareness to the sometimes shocking exploitation of animals within certain commercial industries. If you’re interested in discovering more about varying motivations for either lifestyle, the best way to continue learning is to get out there ask someone with a vegan or vegetarian diet to share their experience with you.





All writing copyright © 2017 Rachel Elise Weems Woods. Images copyright ©

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2. Palmer, Ashley. “2011 Vegetarian and Vegan Stats.” PETA. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, n.d. Web.
3. “Becoming a Vegetarian.” Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School, Oct. 2016. Web. 
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5. Lehnardt, Karin. “56 Fresh Facts about Vegetarianism.” Fact Retriever, 19 Aug. 2016. Web. 
6. Andrews University. “Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets.” NCIB. Journal of the American Dietetics Association, July 2009. Web. 
7. “The Number of Vegetarians In The World.” Raw Food Health., n.d. Web.
8. Stahler, Charles. “How Many Adults Are Vegetarian? The Vegetarian Resource Group Asked in a 2006 National Poll .” US Food and Drug Administration. Vegetarian Journal 2006 Issue 4 , 16 Oct. 2006. Web.
9. “How Many Vegetarians Are There? A 2000 National Zogby Poll sponsored by the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG).” The Vegetarian Resource Group. Vegetarian Journal, May 2000. Web. 
10.”Vegetarian Diets Linked to Lower Mortality.” National Institute of Health. NIH, 10 June 2013. Web.
11.”Types of Vegetarianism.” Vegetarian Nation, n.d. Web.
12. Alena. “15 Types of Vegan Diets: Which is right for you?” Nutritiously, 26 Apr. 2017. Web. 

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