Vegan vs Vegetarian Diet — Which is Better?

by Alena

What are the differences between vegan and vegetarian? Which diet or lifestyle should you choose? Read our article to find out.

It’s long been shown that plant-based diets are beneficial for our personal health, the environment and for reducing harm to animals.

Nutriciously Transition Course iPad

join our free vegan course!

Learn how to thrive on a plant-based diet with practical tips & a 3-day meal plan!

But with all those types of plant-based and even vegan diets, which one is right for you?

This article covers the differences between vegan and vegetarian diets, touches on some subtypes and goes over the top reasons for choosing one over the other.

What is a vegetarian diet?

A vegetarian diet consists of plant-based foods, dairy products, eggs and honey. It omits meat like poultry, beef or pork, fish and seafood.

Generally speaking, vegetarians don’t want to consume anything that costs an animal its life directly — this usually only includes food, not materials like leather.

Some vegetarians abstain from eggs (lacto vegetarians or Veggans), while others don’t consume dairy products (ovo vegetarians).

Vegetarian food list

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Herbs & spices
  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Honey 

What is a vegan diet?

A vegan diet is a “strict vegetarian diet” and consists of 100% plant-based foods. Vegans avoid all animal products, including meat, dairy, eggs, honey, fish, red meat, white meat and seafood.

But there are also some less-obvious animal-derived ingredients like gelatine, royal jelly, rennet and more sneaky stuff that needs to be avoided.

Vegan food list

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Grains
  • Legumes like soy
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Herbs & spices

What is veganism?

Veganism refers to the belief that animals shouldn’t be harmed or exploited whenever possible.

Therefore, vegans don’t eat any animal-based foods, buy leather, wool, products tested on animals or tickets to the zoo.

Nutritional differences

Let’s start with the similarities between vegetarian and vegan diets: they are usually both high in fiber, vitamins and minerals.

It’s suggested that everyone, no matter if or how many animal products they consume, should base their diet on nutrient-dense foods like whole grains, fresh produce, nuts, seeds and legumes.

Vegetarians consume a wider range of foods than vegans, making it easier for them to stick to their diet. They may also be less likely to fall short on protein, calcium and vitamin B12.

Special attention should be paid to nutrients like iron, zinc, omega-3 and vitamin D for both diet groups!

Vegetarians are more likely to consume too much saturated fat from dairy products and have to be careful about salmonella in eggs. Dairy can also inhibit iron absorption.

Both vegetarians and vegans generally have lower BMIs than meat-eaters, with vegans being the lowest on the scale — even when corrected for other lifestyle factors. 

According to the American Dietetic Association and several scientific reviews,

both vegetarian and vegan diets can be considered appropriate for all stages of life, as long as the diet is planned well!

This means that a vegetarian diet full of cheese and fries or a vegan diet based on cookies and soda are both unhealthy.

Meet nutritional needs

Here are the best plant-based sources for potentially critical nutrients.

  • Calcium: dark leafy greens, tahini, tofu, fortified plant milk, whole-grain bread, dates, raisins and apricots.
  • Iron: dark leafy greens, lentils, legumes, dates, tomatoes, brown rice, and quinoa.
  • Zinc: oatmeal, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes and nutritional yeast.
  • Omega-3: flax, chia, hemp seeds and walnuts.
Mockup of two sheets of the vegan food pyramid printables

download our free vegan nutrition printables

Grab your free PDF and sign up for our newsletter by entering your email below!

Environmental impact

It’s no secret that animal agriculture has an enormous impact on our environment, from greenhouse gas emissions to land use, water use and pollution.

That’s why some people choose to eat more plant-based foods — however, vegans and vegetarians leave different ecological footprints.

Though vegetarians can undoubtedly 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 has a severe impact on the environment.

Dairy

One hundred pounds of feed is eaten by a dairy cow every day — crops that need to be grown, harvested and transported. About 9% of available US cropland (34 million acres) is used to feed dairy cows.

This land could either be used to grow plant food for humans or to be turned into a natural habitat for wildlife.

It takes 144 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk — this number includes water used to grow feed.

Another huge problem is animal manure and methane produced by cows.

several chickens in a factory farm eating and laying eggspin it

Eggs

Compared to dairy, eggs have a smaller footprint; but there are still significant problems with large-scale egg facilities, including environmental damage.

From water and air pollution to bacterial infections and excess nitrogen production from manure, chicken farms are no joke!

Plus, egg-laying hens need to be fed crops that could otherwise be put to better use.

Ethical considerations

From an ethical standpoint, it can be argued that replacing meat with plant-based protein while not increasing the consumption of other animal products is a good thing.

Many vegetarians don’t like the thought of an animal having to be killed to end up on their plate as a steak — however, they may not be aware of the fact that literally every animal on a small or big farm ends up being slaughtered.

Chickens don’t lay eggs just for fun or for humans to take them. Cows don’t magically give milk — they, just like all other mammals, produce it for their young when they are pregnant.

However, the calf isn’t allowed to drink that milk if we as humans want to consume it. As a by-product of dairy production, the calf will be slaughtered and sold as meat. 

Almost the same fate awaits male chicks, who cannot lay eggs and are killed the day they are born — around 7 billion each year.

Sadly, the meat, dairy and egg industries are intrinsically linked: by purchasing dairy and eggs, vegetarians may be unknowingly causing just as much harm as if they were buying meat.

top view of white table on which two hands cut a sweet potato into cubes next to some chopped tomato, zucchini and leafy greenspin it

Vegan vs vegetarian – which is better?

If you’re already on a mostly plant-based diet, great job! Here’s how a vegan vs vegetarian diet stacks up in the different categories.

  • Nutrition: both can be healthful when well-planned.
  • Health: vegan diets may offer additional benefits.
  • Environment: a vegan diet is better, with the exception of backyard eggs and perhaps honey; it always comes down to the specific foods eaten!
  • Social life: it’s easier to be vegetarian when being with friends or eating at a restaurant, but there are more and more vegan options.
  • Ethics: definitely a vegan diet and lifestyle.

Steps towards veganism

Now, what if you cannot be fully vegan? Is a vegan diet really for everyone?

Those who live on very little money or are dependent on someone else to buy and cook their food don’t necessarily have the choice to be vegan. That’s why it’s the responsibility of those who can make this decision to do so!

The more demand for vegan alternatives, the more accessible they become everywhere.

If your health issues don’t allow for a fully plant-based diet, buy cruelty-free cosmetics and be as vegan as you can!

Find our vegan transition guide and tips for being on a budget or living with non-vegans on our website! We have plenty more free resources for you, too.

Browse our plant-based recipes that are suitable for all eaters for some inspiration!

Going vegetarian is often a great and manageable first step towards a fully plant-based diet and vegan lifestyle — we’re here to support you.

Mockup of three sheets for transitioning to a vegan diet

download our free vegan transition cheat sheets

Grab your free PDF and sign up for our newsletter by entering your email below!

More guides

Do you prefer a vegetarian or vegan diet? Did you learn something from our article? Comment below and share it with your friends or Pin the article here.

Browse these categories

Alena sitting in a cafe with a bowl of fresh plant-based food and a glass of coffee in front of her

About Alena Handwritten FontAlena Schowalter is a Certified Vegan Nutritionist who has been a vegetarian since childhood and vegan since 2012. Together with her husband, she founded nutriciously in 2015 and has been guiding thousands of people through different transition stages towards a healthy plant-based diet. She’s received training in the fields of nutrition, music therapy and social work. Alena enjoys discussions around vegan ethics, walks through nature and creating new recipes.

13 thoughts on “Vegan vs Vegetarian Diet — Which is Better?”

  1. I love all this great info and motivation to switch to a plant-based diet!! I switched 6months ago and couldn’t be happier with that choice. Now, finding nutritiously.com has upped my game with all the fantastic and super well-organized meal plans! So impressed with you two. :)

    Reply
    • Sounds fantastic! Thanks so much for the great feedback, we’re really glad to know that our work has impacted your life in such a positive way.
      Feel free to get in touch if you need any additional support!

      Reply
  2. What a well written and in depth article! Scientifically backed and fun to read. Thank you so much for this! I wrote an article that’s a bit more on the emotional side of why people are already vegan at heart. I’ll be linking this to it. Thank you again?

    Reply
    • Thanks for the feedback, Jenni. We have learned a lot ever since we started blogging and backing our articles up with good science has become very important to us! But totally get that emotional article have their place, different styles speak to different people.
      Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  3. Aloha from Hawaii.
    I was a vegetarian for 33 years. Three years ago,l I startede living a Vegan Lifestyle. (It’s all about the animals).

    I will be 74 in October, and my blood work, is all good.
    I take one pill a day, for low Thyroid, which I had before becoming Vegetarian, then Vegan. I also take one Vitimin B12, a day, which my Dr. prescribed, as I was at the lower end in this regard. Now, it’s where it should be.
    My Dr.s have told me, that my way of eating, has contributed to my good health and active lifestyle.
    I never smoked (I grew up breathing my mom’s smoke), I gave up all alcohol, over 28 years ago (beer), I stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, and I walk a lot.
    I’m also, a very active Activist!
    I love to cook and find joy in the preparation, of my food! I have found many wonderful Vegan Recipes on-line.
    I am joyfully living on my own and I’m thankful every day.
    Take care. Kanani

    Reply
    • Dear Kanani,
      thank you so much for sharing all of this about you! It was so inspiring to read, we still have a long way to go but hope to stay as healthy as we get older. Really great that you’re an active activist! Until now, we mostly talk about veganism online but plan on joining some outreach group in our local area soon.
      Feel free to get in touch if you ever need more support!
      Best wishes,
      Lars

      Reply
  4. If you are anything other than Vegan for health reasons then I guess that’s ok. But if you say it’s for the animals and/the planet, then anything less than Veganism is a waste of time. Dairy is more cruel than all the meat industry, cows cause more problems with the planet. Fish have the same feelings as a lamb, and also suffer pain and fear. So please don’t say it’s because you are an ‘animal lover’ if you eat or wear any living creature.
    Lesley x

    Reply
    • You cannot love and kill someone at the same time – we agree! Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. We are also aware and care about all the different reasons for being vegan, such as the environment which has become such an urgent topic.
      Thanks for the positive feedback on the article :)
      Best wishes from us

      Reply
  5. Oh dear i just made a comment but want to amend it but don’t know how. I just wanted to add what a brilliant article this is. It covers everything and is helpful and interesting. x
    Lesley Hatfield x

    Reply
  6. Thank you for sharing this. I love your Blog and the way you communicate your ideas. It’s so eye opening to know what happens to animals just for the sake of our pleasure, it’s madness. Keep up the good work! Have a great day!

    Reply
    • Hi Ines,
      feedback like yours mean a lot to us! Thanks for taking the time to comment. We’re happy to share important information in a kind and motivating way – doing our best to reach as many people as possible. It’s been a bit quiet around the blog lately but we’re so excited to get back into it now!
      Best wishes,
      Lars

      Reply
  7. Did any vegan noticed that “Sweet Potato Hash with eggs” IS NOT A VEGAN option. I know it’s a typo, just letting the author know :)

    Reply
    • oh, haha! Thanks so much for pointing it out – we mistakingly copied that one list item. It’s now replaced! Thanks again and stay egg-free on a vegan diet ;)

      Reply

Leave a Comment