What’s the difference between vegan and vegetarian? 

What’s the difference between being vegan and vegetarian? Both vegan and vegetarians choose not to eat fish and seafood, meat and poultry. Vegans take this one step further and choose not to eat any animal derived foods, so no dairy or eggs among other things. There are some variations in vegetarian diets and we’ll cover those. 

The difference between vegan and vegetarian diets

The difference between vegan and vegetarian diets lies in what is excluded from the diet (Heart Foundation New Zealand). Both exclude meats like beef, pork and lamb and poultry like turkey, chicken or duck. That’s where the similarity ends and the difference between vegan and vegetarian diets begins. 

Vegan – a vegan diet cuts out everything that is animal derived, essentially it is a plant based diet. Vegans exclude red meats like beef, pork and lamb, poultry like turkey, chicken or duck and fish or seafood. The vegan diet also excludes eggs and dairy products like cheese, milk and cream. Going animal free means lots of daily foods are also not included, for example many soup stocks and gelatine include animal products. Shop bought cakes, pies and pastries include butter or buttermilk spreads and eggs.  

Vegetarian – a classic vegetarian diet excludes red meats like beef, pork and lamb and poultry like turkey, chicken and duck. In theory vegetarianism also excludes fish and seafood, dairy and eggs, like a vegan diet does. In practice, there are variations on vegetarianism depending on what the person finds most difficult to give up. 

Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian – this diet excludes red meat, poultry and fish, but still eats dairy and eggs.  Ovo Vegetarians exclude all the red meats, poultry, fish, seafood, and dairy but still eat eggs. Lacto Vegetarians exclude all the red meats, poultry and eggs, fish and seafood but still eat dairy products. 

Pescatarian – this diet excludes red meat and poultry only. The pescatarian diet still includes fish, seafood, eggs and dairy. 

Flexitarian – this diet is flexible. The diet includes less red meat and poultry, fish and seafood. Dairy and eggs are included. 

The difference between vegan and vegetarian is clear. Vegans are plant based and exclude all animal derived foods. Vegetarians choose from a range of options from ovo-lacto, ovo, lacto, pescatarian and flexitarian.

How does not eating meat help the environment?

Food production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in a variety of ways. Food is flown across the globe so that we can eat exotic fruits and vegetables in winter. Forests are cut down so that crops can be grown, reducing our carbon sinks. Cereals are mass produced and shipped to commercial farms or around the world to be turned into breakfast cereals. Cows and goats produce methane gas, adding to our GHG emissions (World Economic Forum). 

A study by Nature in 2015 concluded that food production is responsible for around a third of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, it was estimated at a quarter of all GHG by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (PDF). In the United States, agriculture was responsible for 11% of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 (Environmental Protection Agency). 

So, how does not eating meat help the environment? An average American eats 57 pounds of beef a year. Producing 100g of beef generates an estimated 49.89 kg of greenhouse gas emissions (Our World In Data), so extrapolating from that data, the annual beef consumption of an average American generates a whopping 12,901 kg carbon footprint. 

Beef production requires land and food. 55% of the United States’ cereal and oil crops go into feeding beef and other livestock. Intensively factory farmed animals produce huge amounts of waste (compared to humans) and in 2009, beef cattle contributed 49% of total methane emissions from livestock in the US (EPA). 

So, beef contributes around half the greenhouse gasses from methane, but methane is only 10.9% of total emissions in the U.S. in 2020. Compare this to 72.6% from fossil fuel combustion. You might consider clean energy alternatives and electric vehicles a better personal contribution to reducing GHG emissions. Or look at reducing your meat consumption, rather than eliminating it entirely. A recent study estimated that if every American reduced their beef intake by 25%, emissions could be reduced by 1% (Scientific American). 

Having said that, we know it is better and healthier for us to eat more fruit and vegetables. So we still want to consider the question of whether we should go completely plant based from a health point of view? 

Should I change to a plant based diet? 

If you are asking the question “should I change to a plant based diet?” our first question to you would be why? Is it for health reasons, ethical reasons on the grounds of animal cruelty or wanting to help reduce climate change? 

There is plenty of research to suggest that eating more fruit and vegetables is good for our health. Research by Craig Wilson in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states that a vegetarian diet contains many good nutrients like folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium and magnesium. A vegetarian diet is also high in fiber and less saturated fats. 

He goes on to suggest that vegans are thinner, have lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and are less at risk of heart disease. So far, so good. But, strictly vegan diets need to be carefully planned to ensure that any missing nutrients are supplemented. Wilson says that a special concern for vegan diets is the lack of vitamins B-12 and D, calcium and omega 3 fatty acids. He also recommends thinking about Iron and zinc which have limited bioavailability. 

The difference between vegan and vegetarian

Let’s get back to the difference between vegan and vegetarian. Both vegans and vegetarians tend to cut out red meats and poultry. Vegans will eliminate all animal based foods from their diet and be entirely plant based. Vegetarians choose from a range of options to suit their lifestyle. Some choose to continue to eat eggs, dairy, fish and even small quantities of meat and poultry if they are flexitarian. So, the main difference between vegan and vegetarian is that vegan is entirely plant based.

Choosing a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle takes commitment and the reasons for commitment can vary from person to person. They might be to do with healthy eating, ethics, or sustainability. Beef production contributes a great deal to agricultural greenhouse gasses, so reducing or eliminating meat is better for the environment. We know that eating more fruit and vegetables is good for our health and can reduce heart disease, so eating less meat is better for our health. That said, it is only good for our health if we get all the nutrients we need. Going vegetarian or vegan needs planning to ensure that all the essential nutrients are included in the diet.