Vegan vs. Vegetarian: What’s the Difference?

a group of vegetables in foil packets

While the word vegan sprouted from vegetarian, they are two very different things. While vegetarians are largely concerned with dietary matters, vegans are often focused on much broader issues through their dietary and lifestyle choices. Here’s a look at the difference between vegetarians and vegans.

What is a Vegetarian?

A broad definition of vegetarian would be someone who avoids meat. However, there are several different kinds of vegetarians based on exactly which animal products they choose to exclude.

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians do not eat meat, birds, or fish but do eat eggs and milk.
  • Lacto vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid forms of meat and eggs.
  • Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, but not dairy products or meat.

While these are the specific types recognized by the Vegetarian Resource Group, many people choose to customize their vegetarianism. For example, some vegetarians might choose to include fish in their diet, but exclude all other forms of meat. (“Meat” in these instances refers to anything that comes off an animal, from steak to bacon to chickens to salmon.)

What is a Vegan?

A vegan diet is much more exclusive and requires a complete removal of animal products and animal byproducts. This means that vegans not only abstain from meat, fowl, fish, eggs, and dairy products, but anything else that comes from a living thing, such as honey or butter. The most extreme form of veganism also excludes products from all avenues of life: no clothes, cosmetics, soap, accessories, or anything else that animals make or has animal parts.

Depending upon the reason for becoming a vegan the dietary restrictions may vary.  Not all vegans avoid leather belts and beeswax candles as well as hamburgers and omelets. Some forms of vegetarianism take veganism under their wing, but veganism tends to consider itself a separate entity from vegetarianism.

Vegetarian vs. Vegan

The biggest difference in vegetarians and vegans is what they exclude from their diet. Differences in these dietary choices might be based on an animal’s level of intelligence (for example, while a cow might be reasonably considered able to express pain, a bee is less likely to be considered as taking much notice of its environment). Others choose to become a vegan or vegetarian based strictly on health concerns. Avoidance of animal products may provide considerable cardiovascular benefits, and even protection against, some cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and obesity.

Environmentalism may also play a part, although this is normally more emphasized through veganism. Agricultural exploits release considerable greenhouse emissions, uses massive amounts of water, and can contribute to concerns such as deforestation. For many vegans, all of these reasons play a role in their decision to avoid any and all animal products.

The reasons for becoming either overlap considerably. This choice might encompass a desire to minimize violence, recognize animal rights, or even religious beliefs. While vegans are focused largely on compassion for all ways animals are involuntarily used, ethical vegetarians are generally more concerned about animals losing their lives for human consumption. Ultimately, being a vegetarian generally tends to be dietary restrictive, while being a vegan can affect every avenue of life.