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Vegan v. Vegetarian: Differences, Benefits & Risks

Updated: Jul 2, 2018

By Devan Sticka (06/22/18 4:01 p.m.)

A vegetarian is defined as, “a person who does not eat meat: someone whose diet consists wholly of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and sometimes eggs or dairy products,” according to Merriam-Webster dictionary. While a vegan is defined as, “a strict vegetarian who consumes no food (such as meat, eggs, or dairy products) that comes from animals; also: one who abstains from using animal products (such as leather),” also according to Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Vegetarians and carnivores differ in the type of protein they intake, according to the Vegetarian Society. They define a vegetarian as, "someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, fungi, algae, yeast and/or some other non-animal-based foods (e.g. salt) with, or without, dairy products, honey and/or eggs. A vegetarian does not eat foods that consist of, or have been produced with, the aid of products consisting of or created from, any part of the body of a living or dead animal. This includes meat, poultry, fish, shellfish*, insects, by-products of slaughter** or any food made with processing aids created from these.”

There are different variations of a vegetarian. There’s a lacto-ovo-vegetarian, meaning an individual in this practice eats both dairy products and eggs, but only free-range; and it is the most common type of vegetarian diet. The second type is a lacto-vegetarian. An individual in this practice would eat dairy products, but not eggs. The third is an ovo-vegetarian, and an individual practicing this diet would eat eggs, but not dairy products. Then lastly, there’s the vegan diet. Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs or any other animal product, according to Vegan Society.

Within the vegan diet, it is full of antioxidant-rich foods like vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes. Antioxidants have the ability to protect cells from free radicals caused by a number of pollutants in the air, such as tobacco smoke and radiation, according to Purple Carrot.

People will choose to switch to a vegan diet based on morals, religious convictions, health purposes or the desire to eat a diet that eliminates excessive use of environmental resources, according to Harvard Health.

About 6 to 8 million adults in the United States eat no meat, fish or poultry, according to a Harris Interactive poll instructed by the Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit organization that propagates information about vegetarianism. Many more have eliminated red meat from their diet, but have kept chicken, fish or both. Another 2 million Americans have gone vegan.

Appropriately planned vegan and vegetarian diets have enough health benefits to prevent diseases, according to the American Dietic Association. Importance falls on lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. As well as replacing saturated and trans fats with good fats, like those found in nuts, olive oil and canola oil. However, there is no difference between eating too many calories on good foods and eating too many calories in junk food. Read labels and engage in exercise. Even if you don’t want to practice a full vegan or vegetarian diet, you can adjust your diet to be similar with a few tips, including make substitutions like beans, tofu or fish instead of red meat for protein, according to Harvard Health.

The pros of going vegan are an improved health potential, an increase in antioxidants and a healthier lifestyle choice. This means that vegan diets can be cholesterol-free and low in saturated and trans fats. For those at risk for chronic diseases, like heart disease or cancer, a vegan diet can be ideal after discussing options with a health professional, according to Health Scope.

According to Health Scope, there can be a few cons to a vegan diet, including sticking to a strict diet and potential vitamin and mineral loss. This means that when eating out – or otherwise eating outside of your own kitchen – it can be difficult to choose off a menu or find options appropriate for your chosen lifestyle. Many vegans also do not consume enough iron or vitamin D, which can cause problems down the line. There is a lack of protein within the diet, as well.

The vegetarian diet includes its own list of pros and cons. The pros include better weight control and potential health benefits, meaning that with a vegetarian diet an individual would have a much lower chance of becoming obese due to higher consumption of lower-calorie foods. The health benefits include a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure and a longer life expectancy, along with the diet being low in dietary cholesterol, according to Live Strong.

The cons of a vegetarian diet include possible nutrient deficiencies and some false assumptions of automatic health benefits. A vegetarian diet is low in vitamin B-12, a nutrient found in only natural animal-based foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. It is also low in omega-3 fatty acids, but supplements can help provide the appropriate amount of omega-3 along with walnuts and flaxseeds. Many people who try a vegetarian diet, can get off track with health benefits through eating many junk food products that are technically bad vegetarian, but are high in calories through sugar, refined grains and solid fats, according to Live Strong.

Choosing to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet is a big change that requires strict discipline and lots of rules. If wanting to try this diet, it is recommended to speak to your health professional beforehand.

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