In the past few years, more and more Americans have been going meatless and adopting vegan
and vegetarian diets.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number of vegans and vegetarians in the world today, a look at the search queries ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ in Google Trends is indicative of the fact that both diets, but especially veganism, have been gaining a massive amount of popularity over the last decade.
One debate you might hear often is about the benefits and consequences of a vegan vs. a vegetarian diet. Which is better – for our health, animals and the environment?
Well, there are an endless number of reasons why Westerners are adopting more plant-based diets – mainly their growing awareness of the meat industry and its negative impact on the planet and our health.
But as with anything, not all plant-based diets are created equal. Whilst many people choose to go fully vegan and giving up all animal derivatives, others prefer vegetarianism, removing animal flesh from their diet but continuing to eat animal by-products (such as eggs, dairy and honey).
We’re here to take you through the differences, dangers and advantages of both a vegan and vegetarian diet so you can get to know each one and make the best decision for you.
Types of Plant-Based Diets
There are many different plant-based diets out there, so let's lay the groundwork by having a quick look at the most popular ones:
Vegetarians consume eggs, dairy and honey but do not consume meat including pork, chicken, lamb, beef, fish or seafood.
An ovo-vegetarian consumes eggs and possibly honey, but does not consume any meat, fish, seafood or dairy.
A lacto-vegetarian consumes dairy and possibly honey, but avoids meat, fish, seafood and eggs.
Vegans avoid any and all animal products, including meat, fish, seafood, dairy, eggs, and honey.
Another popular diet you may have heard of is pescetarian. A pescatarian will consume fish and possibly other seafood but not the meat of land animals. They may or may not choose to include dairy and eggs in their diet too.
Flexitarian is also a relatively new term being used in relation to diet. It tends to refer to someone that follows a primarily vegetarian diet, but may occasionally eat meat or fish.
Though both pescatarian and flexitarian diets involve the reduction of animal consumption, it’s important to note that they aren’t the same as vegan or vegetarian diets as they still include animal flesh.
Veganism: Not just a Diet
One of the main things distinguishing a vegan from a vegetarian is that veganism doesn’t just extend to diet. Instead, it is an ethical standpoint that affects almost every aspect of a person’s life, based on the belief that we should not exploit or kill – as far as is possible and practicable – other sentient beings for food, clothing, cosmetics or entertainment.
This means that as well as omitting animal-based foods from their diet, a vegan will probably also avoid going to circuses or zoos; never wear fur, wool, leather or other animal-derived materials, and only buy cosmetics or cleaning products that both don’t contain animal by-products and haven’t been tested on animals.
A 2019 survey from vomadlife.com confirms that the overwhelming majority of vegans have chosen this path first and foremost to reduce animal suffering.
As for vegetarians, polls and surveys about the reasoning behind their lifestyle choice are a bit harder to find. Some vegetarians may be in it for the animals as well but aren’t quite ready to make the switch to a full-on vegan lifestyle, or they are happy to consume animal by-products such as eggs, dairy and honey because they do not generally perceive this to be harmful (or at least, as harmful) to the animals. Others may avoid eating meat for health reasons or to reduce their environmental footprint.
So What do Vegans Eat? And What do Vegetarians Eat?
Though many people assume a vegan diet to be restrictive, there are actually so many ways to eat vegan – almost as many as there are to not eat vegan!
Both vegans and vegetarians will likely eat plentiful amounts of fruit, vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grains, starches, and nuts and seeds. But vegetarians will also include varying levels of dairy, eggs and honey in their diet too.
Some examples of vegetarian meals are:
Some examples of vegan meals are:
You can find a whole host of our delicious vegan recipes here.
Health Consequences of Vegan and Vegetarian Diets
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a report classifying processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogenic and ordinary red meat as a Group 2A probable carcinogen. This means that there is significant evidence, based on human epidemiological studies and mechanistic evidence, that regular consumption of processed meats (such as sausages, deli meats, bacon or burgers) but also red meat in general has been linked to a higher risk for colorectal cancer.
It’s safe to say that vegetarians and vegans don’t need to worry about that particular risk as they both omit animal flesh entirely.
But not only processed and red meat pose possible health risks – the supposedly ‘good for you’ white meat, chicken and fish also come with some dangers. There are issues with salmonella, contamination from fecal matter or ocean pollution (in regards to fish), viruses as well as unhealthy amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol.
Therefore, due to the avoidance of all types of meat, vegetarian and vegan diets are overall much lower in cholesterol and saturated fat – two components prominent in all animal protein. Though a certain amount of cholesterol in the blood is healthy, the liver is actually capable of creating all that we need and there is no medical reason to obtain extra cholesterol in one’s diet.
In fact, randomized trial data suggests that the physiologically ideal range for ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol appears to be 50 to 70 mg/dl, a range in which heart disease events are pushed to a minimum. Beyond that, we can see a linear relation between LDL cholesterol levels and plaque buildup in arteries.
A vegan diet by nature contains no cholesterol whatsoever, making it the easiest way to fall within the ideal range, and though cheese and dairy have been shown to increase cholesterol levels, a vegetarian diet is still generally lower in cholesterol than an omnivorous diet.
Meanwhile, too much saturated fat – over 20 g per day for women, 30 g for men according to the NHS – can increase the risk of heart disease, obesity and cardiovascular diseases. It can also contribute to unhealthy cholesterol levels – even if consumption of cholesterol itself is relatively low.
Both vegetarians and vegans have each been shown to have generally lower BMIs than meat eaters, with vegans being lowest on the scale. Although vegetarians and vegans are likely to be healthier in other ways as well, such as drinking less alcohol and being more active, these studies suggest a strong correlation between the amount of animal products consumed and body mass index.
A vegan diet in particular has been shown to be an effective treatment for many chronic illnesses and conditions, including cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Vegans have also been found to have lower rates of hypertension and high blood pressure, with one study in particular finding that a plant-based diet had better outcomes than exercise and weight loss!
The Type of Plant-Based Diet Matters
While leaving animals off our plates has been shown to have a vast number of benefits, other studies have shown this may only be one side of the story.
Indeed, the benefits of a plant-based diet are not just about what one is not putting in their body… but also what they’re putting into it.
As well as lowered intake of animal products, vegetarian and vegan diets have been shown to include higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and healthy plant compounds, and this is likely to also be responsible for their health benefits.
According to Gary Fraser, PhD, who presented findings at the 6th International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition: “...regardless of the reason, evidence that people on plant-based diets have a reduced risk of chronic diseases is pretty compelling.”
His research, taken from the Adventist Health Study-2, showed that both vegetarians and vegans experience lower blood pressures; lower prevalence of hypertension; lower fasting blood glucose (resulting in a lower incidence of type-2 diabetes); lower risk factors for cancer, specifically lower IGF-1 and IGFBP-3 in vegans.
Although it is a challenge to identify what types of foods in particular may lead to these changes (vegetarian and vegan diets vary so greatly), Dr Fraser concluded that “you do generally see that vegetarians eat more fiber, less saturated fat and fewer calories”. And yes, that includes even the junk food vegetarians! (Though these benefits are likely to be enjoyed to their max when consuming a predominantly whole foods diet.)
It’s also important to mention the vast difference between a vegetarian whose diet is high in eggs, cheese and butter versus a vegetarian who only includes the occasional egg in baking or tops their pasta with a sprinkle of parmesan. Likewise, one vegan could be munching away on potato chips and sweets while another is sticking to whole grains and vegetables. The health outcomes in all of these cases would be quite different, of course.
Nutritional Concerns for Vegetarians
Naturally, no diet is perfect, and both vegetarian and vegan diets can vary greatly, leading to differences in their nutritional density.
Vegetarians still consume some cholesterol and saturated fat in the form of eggs and dairy, which can lead to heart disease, cancer and diabetes. In fact, one US study suggested that a less healthful vegetarian diet (high in refined or processed foods and sweets), could actually raise the risk of heart disease. This shows that health has more to do with the specific foods being consumed than whether or not one simply cuts out meat.
Dairy products have also been shown to inhibit the absorption of certain essential nutrients. Many people believe dairy to be a reliable source of calcium, but milk can actually prevent bones from maintaining calcium, as the calcium is then used to rebalance the high acidic effects milk causes in the body. One study in particular found that consumption of milk and dairy products actually increased the risk of hip fracture in old age.
Instead of relying on dairy as their main source of calcium, vegetarians should focus instead on plant-sources such as chickpeas, tahini, leafy greens like kale, swiss chard and broccoli, and fortified plant milks.
Other nutrients that vegetarians need to pay special attention to include B12, iron, omega-3 fatty acids and zinc. B12 is crucial for healthy blood cells, brain function and the nervous system and can be found in eggs, meat and fish. A vegetarian would need to either ensure they have a sufficient intake from eggs or fortified plant milks, or take a daily B12 supplement to ensure they’re getting enough.
Iron, an important component of hemoglobin, is used to ensure the adequate transport of blood and oxygen around the body. If you’re not getting enough, you may frequently feel tired, or you might run out of breath when climbing the stairs even though you’re physically fit. It is actually one of the most common deficiencies in the US!
Sources of iron include dark leafy greens, dates, pumpkin seeds, lentils, brown rice, blackstrap molasses, sesame seeds/tahini and tofu. If a vegetarian’s diet features high amounts of eggs and dairy, however, then they may unintentionally ‘crowd out’ some of the other, more iron-dense plant foods like those mentioned above.
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential fatty acid used for repairing the body and reducing inflammation. They’re known for contributing to all sorts of functions, from reducing joint pain and stiffness to assisting in visual and neurological development in infants. A majority of people get it from eating fish, but it’s also available from plant-based sources like flax seed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, or walnuts.
Zinc is a commonly overlooked micronutrient. It assists with metabolizing food (particularly carbohydrates); balancing hormones; wound healing; a strong immune system, and healthy skin, nails and eyesight. Most people get their fill from animal sources like beef, liver and fish, but vegetarians can be sure to get more than enough from beans, legumes, nuts and seeds, oats and nutritional yeast.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate for all stages of life and are beneficial in the prevention of certain chronic diseases.
Nutritional Concerns for Vegans
Vegan diets are cholesterol-free and generally lower in saturated fat, which tends to be why vegans often have lower BMIs and a lowered risk of chronic diseases.
Though a vegan diet may seem more difficult to follow than a vegetarian diet – particularly for those used to consuming animal products – it offers a plethora of delicious plant foods, all with amazing health benefits, that one may not have thought to try before.
As with vegetarians, B12 is a concern for vegans too – perhaps more so, as they no longer obtain it from eggs. It is advised that all vegans take a daily B12 supplement to ensure they’re meeting their needs, but it can also be obtained from fortified plant milks and nutritional yeast.
Vegans can get their calcium from plant foods such as dark leafy greens, tahini, tofu, fortified plant milks and whole grain breads, as well as dried fruit like dates, raisins and apricots. Iron can be found in dark leafy greens, lentils, legumes, dates, tomatoes, brown rice, quinoa and other foods. Zinc is found easily in oatmeal, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes and nutritional yeast, and omega-3 is found in flax, chia, hemp seeds and walnuts, as mentioned earlier.
In 2017, the British Dietetic Association (BDA) confirmed that a healthy vegan diet can support people of all ages. When transitioning to the lifestyle, vegans may wish to monitor their micronutrient levels using apps like Cronometer to ensure they’re getting their daily needs.
However, after some time, many vegans becoming intuitively accustomed to getting all of their micronutrients – and their macros, too. So long as one is eating a well-planned, balanced and varied vegan diet, they don’t need to worry about measuring specific nutrients in foods they eat.
For an overview of how to easily meet critical nutrient needs on a vegan diet, feel free to have a look at our vegan food pyramid. We lay out all nutrients of concern and foods to emphasize in the form of an easy-to-digest cheat sheet that can be printed out.
Environmental Impact of Vegan and Vegetarian Diets
One reason someone may choose a vegan or vegetarian diet is for the environment. But vegans and vegetarians actually leave different ecological footprints.
As most of us know by now, animal agriculture is putting strain on the planet. Though many people blame the consumption of certain plants like soy to be the main cause of deforestation, what they may not realize is that 70-80% of the grains produced in the US and 80% of the Amazon’s soy actually goes toward feeding livestock!
Here’s how the production of beef, dairy, chicken and eggs is impacting our environment.
It is becoming increasingly known that animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of destruction to the planet, with studies suggesting that cattle farming in particular is contributing to global warming.
Though vegetarians can certainly reduce their carbon footprint by forgoing meat, unfortunately that’s only one side of the coin. The other side is that the consumption of dairy and eggs still contributes to the farming of cows and chickens, which is in turn having a severe impact on the environment.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of total greenhouse gases worldwide – more than the entire transportation sector! However, a later report by the Worldwatch Institute suggested that this number was vastly underestimated, and that animal agriculture actually accounts for 51% of the world’s annual emissions.
By simply existing, bulls and cows are estimated to produce about two billion metric tons of CO2-equivalents per year. The clearing of tropical and rainforests to make room for grazing and farmland is also a huge issue, thought to be responsible for 2.8 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. In certain parts of the world, such as Latin America, 70% of former forest land has now been turned over to grazing (FAO).
And it’s not just the air and the land that suffers. A 2017 report by the FAO also claimed that animal agriculture is a leading cause of water contamination in the US – overtaking other major causes like industry and human settlements. Wastewater from agriculture is said to be a leading factor in the degradation of inland and coastal waters, and nitrate from agriculture is the most common chemical contaminant in the world’s groundwater aquifers (FAO).
This kind of pollution isn’t just limited to cattle. Chicken farming also contributes to environmental damage in its own way.
In nature, chickens and turkeys will range over wide areas in small flocks, with their waste contributing to the health of the land (United Poultry Concerns). Chicken farming, however, forces thousands of birds to be crammed unnaturally into a concentrated space, which has disastrous effects on the surrounding land.
A huge amount of fecal matter, along with feathers, bedding and thousands of dead chickens, is difficult to manage in landfills and compost. Chicken waste, which contains toxic elements like phosphorus and nitrogen, as well as wastewater and pesticide residue all run into rivers, lakes and ponds causing algal blooms (OMICS International).
Runoff from areas with chicken manure and waste also contaminates both surface and groundwater, which are both used for drinking water. The nitrogen in the waste converts easily to nitrate in water sources, which can be fatal when ingested and requires more extensive special treatment to remove.
The Difference it Makes to Animals
Vegetarians are oftentimes opposed to eating meat because they don’t believe that an animal should have to be killed for our convenience or taste pleasure.
But what they may not realize is that the meat, dairy and egg industries are intrinsically linked. By choosing to still purchase dairy and eggs, vegetarians may be unknowingly causing just as much harm as if they were buying meat.
By choosing to leave dairy and eggs off their plates, they’d be doing a huge favor to the cows and chickens that suffer for these practices.
The Dairy Industry
A mother cow needs to be pregnant in order to produce milk. But the demand for milk doesn’t allow us to wait until this happens naturally. Cows are artificially inseminated with bull semen in order to give birth to a calf. Like humans, a cow will carry her baby for nine months, and the bond between a mother and calf is just as strong as with a human mother and her baby.
Once born, almost all calves are taken from their mothers within the first 24 hours of their lives. This is said to prevent them from bonding and ‘help’ the separation process. Yet this is highly distressing for both the calf and mother, who will be heard bellowing for her baby – in some cases for up to four days.
Female calves will be kept in confinement and fed an inferior milk powder formula, whilst humans drink the milk that was intended for them. Once they are of age, they too will become repeatedly impregnated for milk, just like their mothers.
Male cows, meanwhile, are of less use to the dairy industry. After birth they will either be killed for veal or sent to other farms to be fattened up for beef. It is estimated that around 15,000,000 male calves are killed for veal globally each year.
Due to biological manipulation, today’s cows produce six to ten times more milk than they would naturally (according to the organization Compassion for World Farming). This can lead to painful swelling and inflammation of the udders, a condition called mastitis.
Around 90% of dairy cows in the US are kept primarily indoors, with either no or limited grazing available. More than 60% of them spend their time tethered by the neck in barren stalls, unable to engage in natural and instinctive behaviors (Humane Society of the US).
Once her calf is born, the mother will be artificially impregnated again two or three months later. This means she is almost always pregnant, repeatedly, until around the age of five, when she is too exhausted to produce milk and sent to slaughter. In nature, cows normally live until they are 20-25 years old.
The Egg Industry
Buying unfertilized eggs seem harmless enough. But have you ever wondered why all chickens in the egg industry are female?
Male chicks are of no use to the egg industry because they cannot lay eggs. And because there is no way to tell whether fertilized eggs are male or female, over 6,000,000,000 male chicks are killed globally each year by being gassed, suffocated or ground up alive. This process occurs on all kinds of egg farms, whether caged, organic or free range.
Though labels like ‘free range’ conjure images of vivid green, lush pastures, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, free-range farms involve thousands of birds crammed into confined spaces, with no room to move or engage in natural behavior. Caged birds, meanwhile, are often crammed into tiny cages – potentially five to ten birds to a cage – with no room to even stretch their wings. They also often injure their feet on the cage’s hard wires.
Being trapped in such a confined and crowded space is extremely stressful, so hens may react by pecking one another or plucking out their own feathers. Farmers treat this by cutting off a section of their incredibly sensitive beaks without anesthetic – a painful process known as ‘debeaking’.
Chickens naturally live for up to 10-15 years, but once their egg production declines they are usually gassed or sent to slaughter at around 12-18 months (Humane Society of the US).
For egg-laying hens sent to slaughter, the journey is not easy. Many hens die or become injured from being thrown and crammed into the tight transport crates, suffering from dehydration, broken limbs, heat stroke, heart failure, hyperthermia or other ailments (Humane Society).
Chickens are killed by being hung upside down on a conveyor belt-type contraption and having their throats slit by an automated blade. Some chickens miss the blade and are still conscious while being plunged into the scalding hot tank used to remove their feathers.
By choosing a vegan diet, you’re no longer supporting this cruel industry, meaning fewer chickens who live a miserable and short life will be brought into existence.
Vegan vs Vegetarian – the Bottom Line
If you’re a vegetarian, nice work! You’ve already thought about the impact your food choices have and made it clear that you care about animals, the environment, or your health – maybe even all of these aspects are important to you.
Vegetarian diets have been shown to be healthier than omnivorous diets, with a balanced vegetarian diet lowering your risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. It’s fairly easy to eat out as a vegetarian at all kinds of restaurants – pretty much all of them will have a vegetarian section on the menu and be very familiar with the term.
However, mainstream vegan options are also on the rise, with massive international chains like Ben & Jerry’s, Domino’s Pizza and McDonalds all rolling out vegan flavors and options.
When eating in a non-vegan restaurant, it may be a little more difficult to ensure all of your food is vegan, but with a few simple questions, you can easily communicate your needs. Plus, with veganism becoming much more well-known, most places are happy to accommodate in any way they can – remember, it’s okay to make mistakes during that early transitionary period.
Both vegetarian and vegan diets can be a fantastic introduction to foods and ingredients you may not have thought to try before, such as tofu, tempeh, different types of beans and lentils, jackfruit, and even new types of fruits and vegetables.
Some may see vegetarianism as a stepping stone to veganism, making the transition phase easier by crowding out meat and fish before tackling dairy products and eggs.
If you’ve already cut out meat and fish from your diet, then you’ll find the transition to veganism easier than most people. However, we understand it can feel a little daunting at first, and you may not be sure how to replicate some of your favorite vegetarian meals. Feel free to check out our guide on transitioning to a vegan diet, which includes some tips and tricks to make the process easier.
We do encourage people who follow a vegetarian diet to think about taking things a step further. If they are looking to really supercharge their health or strengthen their ethical resolve, going vegan is the next logical step.
As we have seen, veganism saves more animals from misery and suffering each year, and comes with even more health and environmental benefits than vegetarianism.
Luckily, with so many amazing vegan options around in both supermarkets and restaurants, going vegan is easier than ever before. With advice on what to eat, how to stock your kitchen and how to keep things fun and stress-free, you’ll be more keen than ever to dive into your new lifestyle!
Are you personally following a vegan or vegetarian diet? What are your personal reasons and how has it benefited you? Let us know in the comments below.
About the Author
Lars is the guy for all things technical of this site but likes to write the occasional article, too. He has a degree in computer science and media and has been vegan since 2010. He loves nourishing plant-based food (that one was obvious), playing tennis, and making noises with his guitar sometimes. Oh, and he's got a weird obsession with peanuts & coconuts.