The Difference Between the Vegan and Vegetarian Diets

vegetarian and vegan diet

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Although both vegan diets and vegetarian diets are considered “plant-based," there are subtle differences between the two. While veganism is completely devoid of any animal products, vegetarianism includes byproducts from animals, like dairy, eggs, and honey.

Both diets have considerable health benefits and are gaining popularity. But before diving into a vegan or vegetarian diet, it's important to learn the difference between the two and determine how to make either option work for you.

What Is a Vegan Diet?

A vegan diet restricts the consumption of any meat or animal by-products, including poultry, beef, pork, fish, shellfish, dairy, eggs, and honey. Certain supplements, such as whey protein, collagen, or gelatin are also off-limits on a vegan diet. 

Although it may sound restrictive, there are plenty of foods to eat on a vegan diet.

For example, a vegan can consume all fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, oils, and soy products. Plus, vegans can get ample protein from plant-based sources, such as soy foods, like tofu, tempeh, and edamame, as well as beans, legumes, and whole grains. Nuts and seeds also contain small amounts of vegan protein, and they contribute healthy fats to the diet.

People choose a vegan diet for a variety of reasons, like animal welfare, environmental impact, or health. Many vegans avoid other products made from animals, too, like leather or suede, as well as cosmetics tested on animals. 

What Is a Vegetarian Diet?

Similar to a vegan diet, a vegetarian diet includes all plants, as well as foods produced by animals, like dairy, eggs, and honey. Vegetarians do not eat any animal meats like chicken, turkey, beef, or pork. They do consume whey protein, because it’s a byproduct of milk, but avoid collagen and gelatin.

Some vegetarians may even eat seafood, but they are usually called “pescatarians" if they do.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there are four types of vegetarians. A vegetarian may or may not eat dairy and eggs while a lacto-ovo-vegetarian includes dairy and eggs in their diet.

Meanwhile, lacto-vegetarian eats dairy, like yogurt, milk, and cheese, but does not eat eggs. Lastly, an ovo-vegetarian consumes eggs without dairy. Most people who fall into these categories simply call themselves a “vegetarian," though.

Similarities and Differences

Both vegan and vegetarian diets are centered around eating plants, but a vegan diet is more restrictive than a vegetarian diet. For instance, on a vegetarian diet, you can have baked goods made with eggs and dairy or any food with cheese.

The larger array of options makes eating at a restaurant or ordering take-out a bit easier on a vegetarian diet than on a vegan diet. That said, vegan eating is absolutely doable with some simple swaps.

For example, there is a variety of plant milks like soy, rice, pea, oat, almond, or hemp, that can be subbed in for dairy. In addition, vegan cheeses are becoming more prevalent in grocery stores and at restaurants. You can even make a chia egg or use aquafaba to replace the egg in a recipe. 

Vegans and vegetarians also can enjoy a variety of plant-based meat substitutes, such as crumbled tempeh in place of ground beef or shredded jackfruit instead of chicken.

Some companies, like Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, make vegan meat substitutes that taste like the real thing. Keep in mind that some bean-based veggie burgers may contain eggs or dairy, so it’s important to read the label.  

Benefits of Vegan and Vegetarian Diets

Vegetarian and vegan diets have been well studied for their role in disease prevention. Because plant-based diets are rich in whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, soy, seeds, and whole grains, they contain plenty of beneficial nutrients like vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants.

In the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, vegetarian diets are recommended as one of three healthful dietary patterns.

The benefits of plant-based eating for overall health are numerous. For instance, vegan and vegetarian eating has been linked to an overall lower body mass index (BMI).

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age. 

Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

A vegetarian diet has also been associated with improvements in several heart disease risk factors, including abdominal obesity, blood pressure, blood lipids, and blood glucose.

In addition, a vegetarian diet may reduce cholesterol levels and improve heart health without the use of cholesterol-lowering drugs. As a result, vegetarians are at a reduced risk of developing and dying from heart disease. Researchers attribute these benefits to the abundance of fiber and lack of saturated fat in vegetarian and vegan diets.

Lastly, compared with meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cancer, especially gastrointestinal cancer. Furthermore, a vegan diet appears to offer greater protection against overall cancer incidence than any other style of eating.


Any diet that restricts food groups puts you at risk for nutritional deficiencies. Certain nutrients, like iron, Vitamin B12, calcium, and Vitamin D, are more abundant in animal meats, dairy, and eggs. In addition, animal meat is rich in protein, and vegetarian and vegan eaters may miss out on this important macronutrient if they aren’t careful.  

Iron is an important mineral that vegetarians and vegans need to make sure they are getting plenty of especially because it is necessary for growth and development. There are two types of iron—heme and non-heme. Heme iron comes from the blood of animals and is better absorbed by the body.

Most meat-eaters get plenty of iron in their diet. On the other hand, non-heme iron comes from plants and is not absorbed as well by the body.

While data indicates that vegetarians and vegans consume the same amount, if not more, iron compared to non-vegetarians, they may have lower iron stores overall due to the consumption of non-heme iron. This puts them at risk for an iron deficiency, which can lead to fatigue and issues with concentration. 

In addition, Vitamin B12 is available in dairy and eggs but it’s not made by plants. Vegans may have a hard time getting this nutrient, which aids in energy production. Many vegans opt to take a Vitamin B12 supplement to avoid deficiency but ask your healthcare provider before adding any vitamin to your routine. 

Research has also shown that vegans may lack ample amounts of calcium in their diet, due to the avoidance of dairy. Luckily, calcium is abundant in leafy greens, soy products, and certain beans and nuts. A calcium deficiency can negatively affect bone health, especially as you age.

A Word From Verywell

Eating a vegan or vegetarian diet is doable with a little bit of thought and education. The key is to focus on well-balanced plates that include protein, carbs, and healthy fats at every meal. When you’re building a meal, ask yourself what’s the protein source on the plate?

Make sure at least one-quarter of the plate contains some sort of protein, like beans, legumes, or soy foods. And, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to get all the vitamins and minerals your body needs on a daily basis. If you think you’re deficient in a certain nutrient, talk to a healthcare provider for a simple blood draw to assess your levels. 

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the academy of nutrition and dietetics: vegetarian diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016;116(12):1970-1980.

  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015.

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

By Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD
Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD is an NYC-based media Dietitian, food and nutrition writer, national spokesperson, and owner of Greenletes, a successful plant-based sports nutrition blog, and podcast. Natalie has bylines in many national publications, such as NBC News, SHAPE, Runner’s World, Bicycling, All Recipes, and Prevention.