Vegan Diet vs. Other Diets: Which Is Best?

vegan meal with grains

 Enrique Díaz / 7cero/Getty Images

Vegan diets have increased in popularity in recent years. In fact, some sources have reported a 600% increase in the number of people identifying as vegan between 2014 and 2017. The availability of vegan foods in mainstream grocery stores, vegan menu choices in restaurants, and media headlines reporting health benefits of vegan diets have contributed to this trend.

But the vegan diet isn't right for everyone. Some experts say the diet is hard to maintain and others have cited concerns about the lack of certain nutrients on the plan. If you are considering a vegan lifestyle, see how the eating plan compares to other similar diets before making your decision.

The 2019 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the vegan diet number 20 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 3.1/5.

USDA Recommendations

It can be tricky to compare a vegan diet to USDA recommendations—or to any diet for that matter—because there is no "standard" vegan diet. Unlike some diet plans for weight loss or improved health, there is no specific macronutrient requirement, calorie guideline, or required foods. Instead, the vegan diet simply requires that you avoid animal-based products, including meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs, and (in some cases) honey. As a result, there may be substantial nutritional variation from one vegan diet to the next.

However, some studies have evaluated vegan eating patterns and have been able to provide certain generalizations about the food and nutrient intake on a typical vegan diet. Using these assumptions, the vegan diet can be compared to USDA guidelines and other diets.

Food Groups

Current USDA nutrition guidelines suggest that we consume foods including vegetables, fruit, grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy, protein foods, and oils. The guidelines also suggest that Americans limit saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium.

On a vegan diet, you may consume foods in all but one of the suggested food groups. Studies have shown that vegan eaters typically consume more vegetables, grains, and healthy oils than those who follow a non-vegan diet. However, there is no dairy consumption on a vegan diet. Milk alternatives (such as nut-based "milk" products) are considered a protein rather than a dairy product in dietary assessments.

You are also likely to naturally limit foods in accordance with USDA guidelines. For example, most of the saturated fat consumed in a standard American diet comes from meat and dairy products. Those foods are not consumed on a vegan diet. Additionally, many vegan eaters also avoid processed foods for health reasons or because they include animal by-products as ingredients. Heavily processed foods often contain added sugars and excess sodium. And some processed foods still contain trans fats.

Nutrients

Nutrient consumption can be tricky for some on a vegan diet. Specifically, some studies have shown that protein, calcium, and vitamin B12 intake is lower when following this eating style.

Calcium

For example, USDA guidelines suggest that we consume 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day. For many people, consuming dairy products helps them meet that goal. But since you don't consume dairy on a vegan diet, you have to get calcium from other sources (such as kale, pinto beans, or fortified orange juice). One study reported that a typical vegan eater consumes closer to 738 milligrams of calcium per day.

Vitamin B12

Your vitamin B12 intake may be lower on a vegan diet. Vitamin B12 helps to regulate metabolism and is found primarily in animal and seafood products. The USDA recommends that adults consume 2.4 micrograms (mcg) of B12 per day. Some studies have shown that vegans consume less than one microgram per day. For this reason, some vegans choose to take a vitamin B12 supplement.

Protein

Lastly, protein may be another concern for some. There are numerous vegan-friendly protein sources, such as tofu, nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains. Yet, it is still typical for vegans to consume less protein than non-vegans, although the intake may still be adequate.

USDA guidelines suggest that adults consume 10% to 35% of their total calories per day from protein. Different studies evaluating vegan diets have found that an intake of 13% to 14% from protein is typical. While it is still lower than the amount typically consumed by a non-vegan, the estimate is still within recommended guidelines.

Calories

A vegan diet does not restrict your caloric intake. There is no reason to count calories on a vegan diet unless your goal is to lose weight. Even then, you may be able to slim down simply by reducing portion sizes and choosing nutrient-rich, lower-calorie foods. But you may not need to.

Studies have shown that those following vegan diets naturally consume fewer calories than those following other diets. In fact, research has shown that even if you don't stick to a vegan diet perfectly, you are likely to consume fewer calories and lose more weight than you would on a vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, or omnivore diet.

But you may want to make sure that you are getting enough energy if you shift to a vegan diet. To estimate your total calorie needs for the day, you can use a calorie calculator. This calculator takes your age, gender, goals, and activity level into account to determine the best number for you.

Variety

You might feel that a vegan diet is more restrictive than a conventional American diet—also called an omnivore diet. After all, many people who shift to the eating style have to eliminate many of their favorite foods from their diet plan. However, going vegan may inspire you to eat a wider variety of foods.

Without meat on your plate at mealtime, you may be inspired to try protein-rich grains or soy-based proteins, like tofu, tempeh, or edamame. And since vegetables will likely play a greater role in your daily diet, you may want to try new varieties. Shopping for seasonal fruits and vegetables can help you to enjoy the most flavorful selections at a lower price.

However, the increasing popularity of vegan-friendly processed foods may lead some to eat a vegan diet with less variety and decreased nutrition. Plant-based, processed, alternative foods (like meatless burgers or vegan-friendly microwave dinners) provide little in the way of good nutrition and make it easier for some to stay in a limited food rut.

Similar Diets

The diets most similar to a vegan diet are other plant-friendly eating plans. Not every one of these plans completely eliminates meat, but each one relies heavily on plant-based foods. Researchers have compared the vegan diet to a vegetarian diet, flexitarian diet, pescetarian diet, and an omnivore diet (no foods excluded) and concluded that a vegan diet is most healthy.

Vegetarian

A vegetarian diet is similar to a vegan diet in that meat and seafood (including red meat, white meat, fish or fowl) is not consumed. Most vegetarians consume eggs and dairy (lacto ovo vegetarians), but some avoid dairy and consume eggs (ovo vegetarians). Lacto-vegetarians avoid eggs but consume dairy.

General nutrition: When researchers compared a typical vegetarian diet to a vegan diet using a Healthy Eating Index (which evaluates how diets compare to recommended guidelines) the vegetarian diet scored lower than a vegan diet but still relatively high. Protein, calcium, and vitamin intake may be higher on this plan because dairy foods and eggs can be consumed.

Health benefits: A vegetarian diet is associated with many of the same health benefits as a vegan diet, including a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension .

Weight loss: Because eliminating meat and animal-based products helps to cut fat and calories from your diet, a vegetarian diet is likely to be effective for weight loss, according to several studies. However, since plant-based processed foods are becoming more common, it is still possible to overeat on a vegetarian diet—although it is less likely than on a standard American diet.

Sustainability: While a vegetarian diet may be easier to stick to than a vegan diet, some still find it hard to maintain. However, many vegan experts recommend that you try a vegetarian diet before moving to a vegan diet because the inclusion of dairy and egg products helps some people feel fuller and enjoy traditional foods. If weight loss is your goal, sustainability may not matter. Studies have found that adherence rates don't vary substantially between vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, pescetarian, and omnivore diets for weight loss.

Flexitarian

On a flexitarian diet, you eat primarily according to vegetarian guidelines. However, people who identify as flexitarian occasionally eat meat and seafood.

General nutrition: Comparisons of the flexitarian diet to the vegan diet using the Healthy Eating Index found that this variation of vegetarian eating may be slightly more nutritious than a vegetarian diet, but less healthy than a vegan diet. The occasional inclusion of meat and seafood may help some on this diet to increase their protein and vitamin B12 intake.

Health benefits: Because a flexitarian diet is primarily a vegetarian diet, those who follow this eating style are likely to gain the same benefits, including increased heart health and a lower risk for many chronic diseases.

Weight loss: Eating an occasional meat or seafood meal is not likely to change the calorie intake of a vegetarian diet enough to make it less successful when weight loss is the goal. For that reason, flexitarian diets are likely to be just as effective when you are trying to lose weight. Occasional meat-based meals may even help some stick to their diet longer.

Sustainability: While studies have found little variation between plant-based diets (including this one) when it comes to adherence, many experts suggest that a flexitarian diet is more sustainable simply because it allows for occasional indulgences. Traveling, eating out, and socializing with friends is likely to be easier on this plan.

Pescatarian

If you follow a pescetarian diet, you eat primarily plant-based foods but include fish and seafood in your diet as well.

General nutrition: Using the Healthy Eating Index, researchers scored the pescetarian diet lower than the vegan diet but almost the same as the vegetarian and flexitarian diet. However, when using a different healthy eating scale based on the Mediterranean diet, this eating style scored higher than both the vegetarian diet and flexitarian diet (but still lower than a vegan diet). The emphasis on fish consumption helps to increase not only your protein intake but also your intake of healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids.

Health benefits: You're likely to gain the same health benefits on this diet as you would on a vegan or vegetarian diet, but you may enjoy a few more if you consume fish that are higher in omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids help to maintain healthy arteries, lower LDL cholesterol and decrease both triglyceride levels and blood pressure.

Weight loss: As compared to a standard American diet, this eating plan is likely to be more effective for weight loss. As compared to vegetarian and vegan plans, it is likely to be just as effective. The consumption of fish may increase your calorie intake slightly (depending on the type you choose) but you may also increase satiety and adherence.

Sustainability: If you are currently a regular fish eater, this diet is likely to be sustainable. But for some others, it may be less so. Not everyone is comfortable cooking fish on a regular basis and fresh fish (which is more healthy than breaded or processed fish) can be expensive and harder to find.

Mediterranean

A Mediterranean diet includes all food groups recommended by the USDA. Animal products are consumed, but minimally. The focus is on vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and plant-based healthy oils.

General nutrition: This diet is more likely than the vegan diet to align with nutritional guidelines provided by the USDA. Foods that are higher in saturated fat (dairy and meat) are minimized and foods that boost health (whole grains, vegetables) are encouraged. But since animal products and dairy are still consumed in small quantities, calcium, protein, and vitamin levels are less likely to be compromised.

Health benefits: The Mediterranean diet has been widely studied and is associated with a wide range of health benefits including a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.

Weight loss: Many researchers have evaluated the Mediterranean diet's effectiveness when it comes to losing weight. Several have found the eating plan to be effective for weight loss (as effective as comparable low-fat diets) and others have found that while it may not boost weight loss substantially, it can help to prevent weight gain over time.

Sustainability: The Mediterranean diet may be the most sustainable diet when compared to other more rigorous plant-based diets, such as the vegan diet and the vegetarian diet. No foods are off-limits on this plan. Rather, healthy foods are emphasized and less healthy foods are minimized.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  1. Janet Forgrieve. The Growing Acceptance Of Veganism. Forbes. November 2, 2018

  2. Satija A, Bhupathiraju S. et al.  Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. AdultsJournal of the American College of Cardiology. 2017;70(4):411-422. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2017.05.047

  3. Elorinne AL, Alfthan G, Erlund I, et al. Food and Nutrient Intake and Nutritional Status of Finnish Vegans and Non-Vegetarians [published correction appears in PLoS One. 2016;11(3):e0151296]. PLoS One. 2016;11(2):e0148235. Published 2016 Feb 3. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0148235

  4. Clarys P, Deliens T, Huybrechts I, et al. Comparison of nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet. Nutrients. 2014;6(3):1318–1332. Published 2014 Mar 24. doi:10.3390/nu6031318

  5. Moore, W. J., McGrievy, M. E., & Turner-McGrievy, G. M. (2015). Dietary adherence and acceptability of five different diets, including vegan and vegetarian diets, for weight loss: The New DIETs study. Eating Behaviors, 19, 33–38. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2015.06.011

  6. Williams, K. A., & Patel, H. (2017). Healthy Plant-Based Diet. What Does It Really Mean? Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 70(4), 423–425. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2017.06.006

  7. Romagnolo DF, Selmin OI. Mediterranean Diet and Prevention of Chronic DiseasesNutr Today. 2017;52(5):208–222. doi:10.1097/NT.0000000000000228

  8. Agnoli C, Sieri S, Ricceri F, et al. Adherence to a Mediterranean diet and long-term changes in weight and waist circumference in the EPIC-Italy cohortNutr Diabetes. 2018;8(1):22. Published 2018 Apr 25. doi:10.1038/s41387-018-0023-3

Additional Reading