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What Is the Difference Between Vegan and Vegetarian Diets?

Beverly has been a vegetarian/vegan/pescatarian for 25 years and has studied adult, child, and equine nutrition.

One thing you learn as a vegetarian or vegan is that if you eat out or buy processed foods, you have to read labels and ask questions to know what is safe to eat and what isn't.

One thing you learn as a vegetarian or vegan is that if you eat out or buy processed foods, you have to read labels and ask questions to know what is safe to eat and what isn't.

It Isn't Easy Being Vegan

Anyone who has ever gone on a vegan diet knows it can be a continual learning experience. You think you are doing well and taking herbal supplements only to discover that the gel coating on your echinacea is made from the stomach, hides, hooves, and connective tissues of cows if kosher—and pigs and possibly even horses if not. Eww. Gross, right?

Anytime you go on a restricted or specialized diet, you will become more aware of the foods you eat, how they were raised, how they were shipped, and the distance they traveled to reach your table. You may even start learning about the working conditions of the people who raised, picked, and packaged your food.

Most people become vegan because they feel it is unnecessary to kill and "enslave" animals to serve the appetites of humans, but some decide to go this route for health reasons, such as weight loss, controlling cholesterol, lowering blood sugar, increased energy, etc.

What Does "Vegan" Mean?

Being vegan means not eating any animal products, including honey, sugar processed through bone char, and most candy and baked goods, which often contain dairy proteins or gelatin. One could argue that bees and backyard chickens are not harmed when people gather their excess honey or pick up unfertilized eggs, but if you are a true vegan, you don't consume any food that comes directly from an animal or insect.

Bees pollinating vegetables or wasps pollinating figs are indirectly associated with producing the foods we eat, but if we look at insecticide used to kill insects that might eat our foods, then things can get really complicated. Scientific research suggesting that plants can feel pain and actually make a sound like a scream when cut might turn us all off of food if we let it—but the official definition of a vegan is one who does not eat any animal-based products.

Vegan vs. Vegetarian

In short, a vegan is a vegetarian. A vegetarian is not a vegan. Vegetarians eat non-meat sources of foods, so they can have milk, cheese, honey and eggs. If you eat chicken, fish or other non-mammalian meat, you are neither a vegan or vegetarian. Some people classify such diets as flexitarian, which means you sometimes consume vegan and vegetarian foods, but also eat some sort of fish or animal protein a few days a week. If you eat an ice-cream cone every once in a while, you may be a vegan who cheats, but most vegans are pretty strict about their food choices.

Nutritional Concerns for Vegans

Vegans have to worry about things like complete proteins and adequate amounts of B12, iron, calcium, and D vitamins, which are often difficult to find in whole plant foods. These days, however, it is fairly easy to purchase soy- or nut-milks, as well as fortified cereals using non-meat-derived vitamins and minerals.

Protein Myths

It was once believed that all plants contained incomplete proteins, which meant they lacked certain amino acids and therefore had to be combined. Vegans in the 1970s and '80s were told they had to eat rice and beans in the same meal or would suffer from muscle and nerve damage, but science has proven this to be incorrect.

Soybeans have all nine essential amino acids your body cannot make on its own, which is why you see so many soy products being sold as vegan. Quinoa, a grain, is also a complete protein. There is also no evidence to prove that eating incomplete proteins in different meals is harmful. The proteins and amino acids you take in can be stored for several days, so if you eat rice one day and beans the next, you are still taking in the amino acids you need.

How Do You Get B12?

B12 is made by bacteria outside the human body. The best and easiest source for vegans is nutritional yeast flakes, but many breakfast cereals are fortified with non-animal sourced B12. Iron, calcium and other nutrients normally associated with meat eating and milk drinking can also be obtained through vegan sources and there are many companies who market vegan supplements you can take in pill or powder form so it is easier to be vegan these days than it was in the past.

How Do You Handle Shared Meals With Others When You Don't Eat Meat?

One of the toughest things about becoming vegan is eating shared meals with others. As a vegetarian, you usually have a few choices when eating out, though not always. Many southern-style or German restaurants add meat or lard to biscuits, pies, and even vegetable dishes. Many slather on creamy dressings and cheese on salads or add bacon bits or diced ham or pour milk-based yogurt over fresh fruit. If you say something, there will be that one person who tells you to eat around the meat or pick the cheese, off not understanding that this is akin to asking them to pick the dead cockroach off the salad and eat it.

Potlucks and restaurant visits, fast food stops when you are with a group that mainly eats meat, or even ice cream parlor visits can be stressful on vegans. If you are planning a dinner or a catered event, ask your friends if they have food allergies or limitations. Some of the top allergens in foods are soy, nuts, wheat, eggs, fish, dairy, and certain acidic fruits. Other issues may be added sugars, hot spices, carbohydrate overload, too much fat or too much sodium, or artificial colors and flavorings.

Meeting Everyone's Needs

There are many intolerances in people's diets and it is hard to meet everyone's needs but not impossible.

  • Have someone with gluten allergies? Most fresh or grilled vegetables and herbs are safe for them as are meats that are not breaded or fried in oil shared with breaded goods. Corn tortillas are generally safe.
  • Have someone with gastric reflux? Stay away from high acidic foods and hot spicy foods.
  • Keto people appreciate meat but vegans often feel left out when sub-sandwiches are served with meat and cheese or milk-based breads.

Having a pack of gluten free buns and keeping meat and cheese and veggies separate so people can create their own masterpieces is a great way to include everyone. Think about setting out individual servings of fresh, raw fruits and vegetables rather than combining them in one container. People with GERD often cannot eat tomatoes or onions, but they can have corn and sweet peppers.

Setting out little bowls of safe-to-eat foods can be fun for everyone and inclusive of all people. Many vegan foods are safe for everyone to eat, so having a few options is better than having none.

Potlucks and Restaurants

When going to potlucks, suggest guests include recipe cards to set alongside their dishes to share with others. Then those with allergies or on food restrictions can read the ingredients and not feel embarrassed having to inconvenience others by asking detailed questions about how the food was prepared.

There is nothing worse than being hungry at a restaurant, event or family gathering and not having any food choices at all. It makes you feel like no one loves you or cares about you. The old adage, "When you are at my house you will eat what I serve you and appreciate it or go hungry," is actually rude when you have invited someone to dine with you and not considered their dietary needs.

Should You Serve Meat to Guests?

While vegans and vegetarians should not feel obligated to serve meat to guests, it is a good idea to warn them or if it does not go against your ethics, provide one main meat dish for meat eaters and then a lot of sides and individual servings of tasty foods so they can try different dishes in small bites rather than large servings.

Keep in mind that certain vegan cheeses contain coconut, soy or tree nuts which may cause allergic reactions in others who do not suspect it to contain those ingredients so ask if there are special needs. If you cannot accommodate those needs, then encourage your guests to bring their own safe food choices so they will feel included.

Respecting Food Choices

Many vegans are more politically or ethically motivated and may protest the use of animals for any purpose serving human-kind. For this reason, they are often targeted for being overly emotional and nonsensical. Many people will openly ridicule and taunt vegans and vegetarians for their concern for animal welfare and will be openly hostile to any attempts to serve non-meat foods to them or seek to make the diet look unhealthy and unsustainable.

If you choose to eat no meat or eat only meat, it is unwise to be inconsiderate of others food choices as many vegans are also allergic to dairy or have issues digesting animal protein and can become quite sick or even die if forced to eat foods that cause adverse reactions.

Many children, especially those with Aspergers or Autism, may find the texture and taste of meat to be unappealing as well. If you are a meat eater and have ever bitten into a vein or tendon or chewed really tough, stringy meat, you will understand this aversion better.

While it may be healthier to eat vegetarian foods or kinder to animals to be a vegan, it is not polite to attack other people for their food choices. Instead, encourage others to explore different ways of eating—and if they cannot be changed, at least ask them to respect your food choices as you in turn will respect theirs. Eating meals together should be a pleasant experience, not a battlefield.

Don't Make Rude Comments

While it is okay to politely tease your friend about putting ketchup on everything, it is not okay to tell a vegan, "I couldn't stand to eat rabbit food, I would die from lack of nutrition. I like my meat with the heart still beating and the blood pouring out of it while its mama moos in the background for it." There is no need to elaborate on why that is inappropriate.

On that same note, it is not okay for a vegan or vegetarian to preach to someone about how terrible their diet is and how they are going to die of heart disease, colon cancer and dementia if they continue to eat artery clogging animal products. Instead, try making a vegetarian dish that is so tempting and tasty that your meat eating friends ask for the recipe. It is better to win someone over to a better way of life by kindness than to cruelly force your opinions on them wishing them death if they refuse to agree with you!

Avoid terms like murder and enslavement of innocent creatures around your meat-eating friends. These are dramatic terms that make you look like a fruit-loop and not the edible kind. Feel free to share how much better you feel on a plant-based diet and challenge your friends to give up meat and/or dairy for a week and promise to give up something yourself, like sweets, soda, coffee or alcohol as an incentive to the challenge. You might both turn out better for it.

Don't Go Vegan/Vegetarian Just Because It's "Trendy"

At the start of the new year, there were dozens of meat and dairy free challenges circling around the internet. It is okay to try a vegan life-style to see if you like it, but don't do it just to fit the latest trend. Vegan and vegetarian diets are only healthy choices if you cut out all the junk food along with it.

If you are eating Oreos, french-fries, non-dairy ice creams, soy-based, sugar-ladened salad dressings and deep fried pickles, you probably would better off eating lean meats and veggies on an omnivore diet.

New vegetarians and vegans often are afraid they are not getting enough of something, especially protein, so having some knowledge of nutrients in your foods is a good way to start eating healthier no matter which food group you choose.

There is nothing wrong with being a part-time vegan or vegetarian, just don't claim you are one unless you stick with the diet. It is easier to say that you are on a plant-based diet, which means most of your calories come from plants. Don't be one of those newbie vegans who orders a soy late with dairy-based whipped cream on top while snacking on Gummy Bears!

Don't Try to Force Your Diet on Others (People or Pets)

Suffice it to say that being a vegan means at some time you are going to go hungry or be forced to eat unhealthy meals of potato chips and pickle slices at barbecues. When on vacation, you may find yourself dining out more at grocery stores than fine restaurants, but whether you are cutting back on meat to help the environment, protect animals, look cool because all your friends are doing it, or because you want to live a simpler, more healthy way of life, just remember that it is a food choice and you cannot force others to eat the way you eat anymore than they can force you to eat what you don't think is right.

Being kind to animals includes being kind to human animals. Most dogs and cats need meat in their diets, so even if you choose to give up meat, they were not designed to be vegetarians so don't force a vegan diet on them. While it is possible to formulate non-meat meals for carnivore pets, it is not the best option for them.

Encourage Healthy Food Choices That Are Good for All

Dietary choices vary widely between people and regions. It is a good idea for everyone to know where their food comes from and how it is prepared. We are so used to thinking that picky eaters need to go hungry if they can't eat like everyone else, but in some cases, there is a good reason why people do not or cannot eat the same foods as everyone else.

The key should be to encourage others to eat healthy food choices that taste good and are good for the body while doing minimal damage to the planet and the creatures living on it. Encourage others, don't get militant about it. Sauteed tofu verses whale burgers or filet of ex-race horse may be an easy choice for most of us, but some people have deep traditions when it comes to food and they have to make the decision for themselves which culinary path to take. You can't force your food choices on them, but you can encourage them to try.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.