Vegan and vegetarian diets have a long history but are becoming increasingly popular as people want to eat healthy and explore other options. According to a study commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group about 1.6 percent of Americans practice veganism, and another report estimates that around 3.3 percent of Americans identify as vegetarian. While both practices are a minority, there’s a good chance that we will continue to see the interest grow, especially as more products and options become readily available. Many people assume that vegans and vegetarians are the same. What is the difference between vegan and vegetarian? While there are some similarities, it’s important to know the differences, especially if you’re planning on adopting either practice.

What Does It Mean To Be Vegetarian?

As we discuss vegan vs. vegetarian, we’ll start with vegetarianism since it has the longest known history. While a vegetarian diet is likely to have been common well before the Greeks, some of the first self-proclaimed vegetarians were the Pythagoreans, who named themselves after the Greek philosopher, Pythagoras. Pythagorean was replaced with “vegetarian” in 1847 in England by the first vegetarian society. While vegetarians remained somewhat of a minority, the practice gained in popularity, in the U.S. during the early 1970’s. So what exactly is a vegetarian? The Vegetarian Society describes a vegetarian as someone who lives on a diet that doesn’t contain meat from any animal, including poultry, fish, shellfish, insects or by-products of slaughter. One significant difference between vegan and vegetarian diets is that there are a variety of types of vegetarians. Here are the most common types of vegetarians:

Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians

A Lacto-Ovo vegetarian doesn’t eat any meat but consumes dairy and egg products. This type of vegetarian diet is most common, and while dairy and eggs are consumed, many vegetarians will only eat free-range eggs (due to the living conditions of egg-laying hens).

Lacto Vegetarians

A lacto vegetarian will eat a meat-free diet and avoid any product that uses eggs but consumes dairy products (whether they are from a cow or goat).

Ovo Vegetarians

An ovo vegetarian eats eggs or products containing egg, but refrains from eating any other animal product such as meat and dairy.

Pescatarians and Flexitarians

While The Vegetarian Society doesn’t recognize pescatarians or flexitarians as a type of vegetarian, both are worth mentioning. A pescatarian is someone who follows a vegetarian diet but will eat fish. Some pescatarians find that the ability to eat fish makes it easier to transition to a full vegetarian diet. A flexitarian is someone who eats a vegetarian diet most of the time but will occasionally eat meat.

What Is Veganism?

As we continue to explore vegan vs. vegetarian practices, you may be wondering where veganism fits into the spectrum of eating a meat-free diet. A vegan is considered to be a type of vegetarian and is the most strict vegetarian diet. While vegans have most likely been around as long as other vegetarians, the term “veganism” wasn’t created until 1944 by Donald Watson. According to the Vegan Society, vegan by definition is a philosophy and way of living which excludes the use of animals for food, clothing, and other purposes. Although vegetarians and vegans abstain from eating meat, vegans avoid eating any food or using any product that contains an animal product. A true vegan is likely to avoid using any medication that has been tested on animals or support animal exploitation such as zoos or racetracks. Vegans typically do not wear wool, leather, suede, silk, or fur and avoid using products that contain lanolin or beeswax.

The Benefits Of Becoming Vegetarian or Vegan

People choose to eat vegetarian or vegan diets for a variety of reasons. Some do it for ethical and environmental reasons while others follow a diet for religious purposes. Since both diets are fairly healthy, many choose to eat a meat or animal-free diet for the health benefits. While the benefits may vary from one individual to another, here are some of the most common health benefits of eating a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Lower Risk of Cancer, Heart Disease, and Diabetes

Cancer, heart disease, and diabetes claims lives every year, and while there are many factors to consider in a diagnosis of any of the diseases, a plant-based diet may be helpful in lowering the risk of any of the conditions. Some studies suggest that vegetarians and vegans have a significantly lower chance of developing heart disease, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes.

Lowering Blood Pressure and Cholesterol Levels

Research suggests that eating a well-balanced plant-based diet (either vegan or vegetarian) can help lower blood pressure and reduce “bad” cholesterol. For vegans or vegetarians that already have healthy cholesterol or blood pressure, their diets can help maintain healthy levels. By improving blood pressure and cholesterol, the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular issues may be reduced.

A Good Diet For Weight Loss

One of the main reasons why people explore special diets is to lose weight. Choosing a vegan or vegetarian diet may help people lose weight and have an easier time of keeping the weight off. Since a well-balanced plant-based diet is rich in fiber, people who follow vegan or vegetarian practices often feel fuller and are less likely to eat more calories than they need, which can aid in dropping pounds and maintaining a healthy weight.

Improving Overall Health 

A variety of diseases and health problems can stem from chronic inflammation. Some people, who eat plant-based diets, notice less inflammation, feel less pain, and are healthier overall. While a vegan or vegetarian diet is not a magic “cure-all” it may be an excellent option to explore if you have health concerns.

Is One Practice Better Than The Other?

Like other types of diets, vegetarians and vegans must eat healthy foods to reap the benefits of healthy eating. Not all vegetarian and vegan-friendly foods are considered healthy as some foods (especially pre-packaged meals) are full of sugar and sodium.

While it comes down to personal preference and the kind of commitment one is willing to make in regards to dietary and lifestyle changes, veganism is arguably the healthier diet of the two. While vegetarian diets can be healthy and are a step in the right direction towards health, they can still contain products that can contribute to high cholesterol, plaque build up as well as intaking producs that are linked to diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Things To Consider When Eating A Plant-Based Diet

Whether you plan on eating a strict vegan diet or exploring a lacto-vegetarian diet, it’s important to make sure that you are getting all of the nutrients you need. Many people who begin a meat-less or dairy-free diet struggle with finding the right kind of proteins and other substitutions. If you have any health conditions or take medication for a medical issue, you should talk to your doctor before changing your diet. Your doctor may even recommend visiting a nutritionist to make sure that you’re eating a well-balanced diet.

Don’t Get Hung Up On Limitations

A plant-based diet can be a little overwhelming at first, particularly when you consider all the restrictions. If you want to enjoy being a vegan or vegetarian, you need to approach your new lifestyle with positivity and be open to trying new things. If you focus too much on your limitations, you’re not likely to succeed or enjoy what you eat.

Embrace Substitutions

Another way to make your transition to a plant-based diet a little easier (and more enjoyable) is to find out ways to substitute some of the food items you might miss the most, such as eggs. Learning about vegetarian or vegan substitutions early on, can make shopping, cooking, and eating a more pleasant experience.

Be Patient With Yourself

Like any lifestyle changes, eating a plant-based diet can take some patience and practice. While some people have an easier time making the transition, some struggle and even have a few “slip-ups.” Allow yourself to make mistakes and view them as a learning experience. Search the Internet for recipes, explore your local farmer’s market, connect with local vegetarian or vegan groups; choose fun and exciting things to keep you motivated and to help educate yourself. Above all, be patient with yourself; big changes don’t always happen overnight.

Reassess Your Diet

Whether you’ve chosen to eat a strictly vegan diet or some type of vegetarian diet, it’s a good idea to reassess your practice after a few months. Do you feel satisfied with what you’re eating? Are you getting essential nutrients? Do you feel good physically and mentally? Are you able to afford this lifestyle? These are all good questions to ask yourself, and if you have any doubts, you may want to reconsider your plant-based diet plan. Maybe you’re a vegan who would be happier and healthier as a vegetarian (or vice versa). Whichever you choose, vegan vs. vegetarian, your choice should be fulfilling and easy to manage.

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