Vegan vs. Vegetarian: What’s the Difference?

If you are considering giving up meat, dairy, or other animal-based products for health reasons or to support your values and beliefs, you’ve probably pondered the difference between a vegetarian diet and a vegan diet.

On either diet, you’ll restrict your consumption of animal protein, animal by-products, and other food products made from animals — the differences lie in the level of restriction, as well as the reasoning behind undertaking the diet. 

Both of these plant-based eating styles can help you develop healthier eating habits and provide oodles of health benefits. For example, a 2017 literature review of 96 studies reported a 25% decrease in incidence and/or mortality from heart disease in people following a plant-based diet. A vegetarian diet decreased the incidence of cancer by 8%, while a vegan diet decreased the incidence by 15%.

Still, both eating patterns take a great deal of dedication and consistency. Clearly alike in many ways, vegan and vegetarian diets do differ in a few ways (and in one big way). In this article, you’ll learn the difference between the two and how to choose the right diet based on your goals. 

What Is the Vegetarian Diet?

A vegetarian diet involves avoiding all animal protein, including beef, poultry, pork, fish, game, seafood, or shellfish. Vegetarians also do not eat any by-products of animal slaughter, such as bacon fat, bouillon cubes, and chicken broth. Vegetarian diets consist mainly of grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, peppers, and healthy fats such as avocados, olives, and many oils. 

However, there’s no single template for a vegetarian diet: Vegetarianism limits animal foods to varying degrees, depending on each person’s own values and preferences. Some types of vegetarians include: 

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: Excludes meat, fish, and poultry, but allows eggs and dairy. 
  • Lacto-vegetarian: Excludes meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, but allows dairy.
  • Ovo-vegetarian: Excludes meat, fish, poultry, and dairy, but allows eggs.
  • Pescatarian: Excludes meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and eggs, but allows seafood and shellfish.

Vegetarian diets continue to increase in popularity, especially with more availability of plant-based foods and the idea of a plant-based—but not plant-only—lifestyle. Many people follow vegetarian diets because they like the flexibility of being allowed eggs, dairy, or seafood, but also enjoy the health benefits of eating mainly plants

What Is the Vegan Diet?

A vegan diet eliminates consumption of all animal products. Like the vegetarian diet, this includes beef, poultry, fish, and game. But a vegan diet does not allow for the choice to consume eggs, dairy, or seafood. You can’t eat any animal by-products or food products made with animal-based ingredients, such as whey and casein proteins, amino acid supplements, collagen, gelatin, and honey. 

Many vegans also restrict or eliminate their usage of non-food products and clothes made from animals. Examples include leather handbags, suede shoes, and silk scarves. Some unsuspecting products aren’t allowed on a true vegan diet, either, such as many alcohols, jams and jellies, dyed foods and beverages, and white sugar (bone char is used to make the sugar white). 

However, many vegans uphold the belief that veganism isn’t about being perfect: It’s mainly about doing the best you can for animal welfare. So you don’t need to scour the ingredients list of every product you buy, but definitely do your research to understand if any products you use or foods you eat (especially processed foods) actually contain unsuspecting animal ingredients. 

Veganism Is More than a Diet for Some

Although vegans and vegetarians may choose to restrict animal foods for similar reasons, veganism typically extends much farther than just food consumption. Vegans may have a higher bar for what’s considered an acceptable use of animal products; often, vegans only feel it is acceptable when there is absolutely no other choice. 

Veganism is considered a lifestyle strongly rooted in animal welfare, and some vegans don’t eat this way because of the health benefits—they do it more for the animals than themselves. Many vegans also boycott companies that test on animals and only buy cruelty-free beauty products; live very sustainable and minimalistic lives; and avoid zoos, circuses, aquariums, rodeos, and other scenarios in which animals are used for entertainment. 

You needn’t pick up these lifestyle factors to eat a vegan diet. If animal welfare is one reason you wish to stop eating animal products; simply adopting the diet part of veganism is a very good start. 

The Core Difference Between Vegan and Vegetarian Diets

Vegan and vegetarian diets revolve around the same premise: Eat plant-based. The main difference between the two diets is that veganism is more restrictive than vegetarianism. 

Depending on what type of vegetarian diet you decide to undertake, you may very well be able to eat some of your favorite foods without worrying about what’s in them. For instance, a lacto-ovo-vegetarian can eat brownies, yogurt, cheese pizza, whole-milk lattes, and a scrambled egg and veggie burrito. 

A vegan, on the other hand, would need a brownie recipe with no eggs and a plant-based milk; a soy milk or nut milk latte; and a tempeh or tofu scramble in place of eggs. 

Similarities Between Vegan and Vegetarian Diets

If you were to eat a vegan diet one week and eat a vegetarian diet the next week, both weeks could potentially look exactly the same. That’s because vegan and vegetarian diets both stipulate plant-based eating, so you’ll encounter a lot of produce, grains, beans, legumes, and vegetable-based oils. 

One other similarity between vegan and vegetarian diets is that the rise in popularity of plant-based eating has led to the creation of plant-based versions of snacks and processed foods. This isn’t always a bad thing, but remember that plant-based doesn’t always equal healthy. A vegan cookie can still have more than the daily recommended intake of sugar. However, the increase in the availability of vegan and vegetarian snack foods can certainly make it easier to stick to either diet.

Is A Vegan or Vegetarian Diet Healthier? 

It’s hard to definitively say whether a vegan diet is healthier than a vegetarian diet, or vice versa. There’s a lot to take into account, and much of it has to do with your individual food choices. Below, learn about the health benefits and risks of vegan and vegetarian diets. 

Health Benefits

Both vegan and vegetarian diets can be extremely healthful at all stages of life, including during childhood and pregnancy, as long as the diet is planned properly. Vegan and vegetarian diets can also be healthy for athletes, despite beliefs that a plant-based diet can’t support physical activity. Some shared benefits of the two diets include: 

  • Reduced risk of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some cancers
  • Plant-based diets generally promote anti-inflammatory eating
  • May help you lose weight by naturally reducing calorie intake
  • Can improve blood sugar control
  • Replacing animal proteins with soy protein may have beneficial outcomes on kidney function in people with diabetes who have kidney damage
  • May lower cholesterol and blood triglycerides

Vegan and vegetarian diets naturally encourage you to eat more plants, which may increase your intake of certain essential nutrients. Plant-based diets are often higher in folate, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, and E—all nutrients found in varying degrees in fruits, vegetables, starches, legumes, and other plant foods. Plant foods also tend to be high in fiber, as well, which helps with digestive health

Speaking of nutrients, however, vegans and vegetarians are both at risk of nutrient deficiencies if they don’t properly plan their diets and pay attention to the types of foods they consume on a regular basis.

The US Department of Agriculture's Healthy Eating Index scores vegan diets as healthier than vegetarian diets, but vegetarian diets still sit relatively high on the index. How healthy your vegan or vegetarian diet really is depends on your food choices: Eating a plant-based diet of primarily processed foods is not necessarily better than eating an omnivorous diet of mainly whole foods. When in doubt, whole foods trump processed foods. 

Health Risks

Any time you cut a food group from your diet, you present to yourself the risk of nutrient deficiencies. In the case of vegan and vegetarian diets, those potential deficiencies include iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, selenium, iodine, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Some vegans and vegetarians also don’t eat enough protein to support their bodies, especially if they are very active.

Plant foods just tend to be lower in these nutrients and void of some (like B12), but this is not to say that you can’t get adequate nutrition from a vegan or vegetarian diet. In fact, studies show that even athletes can consume enough protein and nutrients on a vegan or vegetarian diet. It’s all about choosing a wide variety of foods, supplementing smartly to fill in any gaps, and choosing fortified foods when possible.  

Vegans may have a higher risk of nutrient deficiencies than vegetarians because of the higher level of restriction that the diet requires. Research has shown that this is especially true for calcium, which is primarily found in dairy products, but vegans can get enough calcium by eating plenty of dark leafy greens, certain seeds and fruits, and pulses. Studies also show that vegetarians are likely to get more vitamin B12 than vegans because B12 is primarily an animal-derived vitamin which vegetarians can get from eggs and dairy products. 

While the risks are there, it’s also worth noting that some of these deficiencies aren’t unique to vegan and vegetarian diets. For instance, most diets—plant-based or not—don’t contain much vitamin D since most of your daily vitamin D intake comes from sun exposure. It’s also easy to be protein-deficient on omnivorous diets, so this is not a risk that applies only to vegan and vegetarian diets. 

Which Is Better for Weight Loss?

Vegan diets, in particular, might aid in weight loss more than vegetarian diets. However, it’s difficult to tell whether the diet is solely responsible for weight loss. Many people who follow vegan diets also have other habits, such as daily exercise, a commitment to getting quality sleep, and stress-reduction practices, that may also aid in weight loss.

In the end, weight loss comes down to calorie intake and caloric expenditure. You must burn more calories than you eat in order to lose weight—either the vegan or vegetarian diet can help you with that. 

Again, food choices are incredibly important for weight loss, regardless of how many animal products you eat or don’t eat—it’s possible to be a vegetarian while drinking soda, eating fried foods, and indulging in desserts every day. LIkewise, it’s possible to rely on high-calorie processed foods as a vegan. 

Should I Eat A Vegan or Vegetarian Diet?

The short answer: It’s up to you! Choosing a diet is a complex decision that has many, many factors at play. Whether you should go vegan or vegetarian depends on your health concerns, food preferences, values, beliefs, and the lifestyle you want. To help yourself decide, ask these questions and let your answers do the choosing: 

  • How important to you is animal welfare?
  • What foods are you actually willing to give up? 
  • Are there any foods that, if you don’t allow yourself to eat them, will make you feel overly restricted and unhappy?
  • Do you have any medical conditions that may preclude you from complete veganism? 
  • Which one seems to align with your values and beliefs the most? 
  • Is this more about yourself or helping animals? Both? 

A Word From Verywell

As you shift to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, remember to utilize the vast selection of resources available to you. The FDA, USDA, CDC, and many other health organizations post helpful, accurate content about vegan and vegetarian diets to help guide consumers.

When making the decision about which diet to start, consider how each will fit your current lifestyle and what things you’ll need to change. Most importantly, don’t beat yourself up for falling into old eating habits every now and again—change is hard and takes time, self-trust, and commitment. Before you know it, you’ll be enjoying all the benefits that come with eating more plants.

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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.
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By Amanda Capritto, ACE-CPT, INHC
Amanda Capritto, ACE-CPT, INHC, is an advocate for simple health and wellness. She writes about nutrition, exercise and overall well-being.