Vegan vs. Vegetarian: The Diets’ Definitions and How They Differ

Written by Moss Lane Staff

From the outside looking in, vegan and vegetarian diets might seem more or less the same. Sure, neither diet includes meat. But the definitions of these two diets are actually quite different in practice. 

How veganism and vegetarianism differ is becoming more and more relevant to everyday life. Odds are, more of your friends are trying out challenges like “Veganuary” this year than they were last year. And someone you’re hosting for dinner has recently cut meat out of their diet for good. As data about the health benefits and environmental impact of a meat-free lifestyle become common knowledge, the number of vegans and vegetarians grow. 

You’ve landed in the right spot for nailing down how exactly the definitions of “vegan” and “vegetarian” differ. Whether you’re cooking for someone who follows one of these diets—or you’re thinking of making the leap into one of these diets yourself—here’s everything you need to know about veganism vs. vegetarianism.

Vegan vs. Vegetarian Definitions: The Key Differences

Before we get into some important details, we’ll give you a quick answer to the main question at hand. How is being vegan and being vegetarian different based on these diets’ definitions?

Long story short: While vegetarians don’t eat meat, vegans don’t eat meat or any animal products at all. So, vegetarians don’t eat poultry, beef, pork, seafood, or gelatin but they do eat dairy, eggs, and honey (unless they specify otherwise). In contrast, vegans don’t eat poultry, beef, pork, seafood, dairy, eggs, gelatin, or honey. On top of that, some stricter vegans avoid animal products even in their non-dietary choices, so they’ll avoid leather, silk, down, and even wool. 

If you’re trying to decide whether to become vegan or vegetarian, keep in mind that there are ways to customize your diet to fit your needs best. You can choose to be vegan in diet but not in lifestyle, and many people will follow a vegan diet without restricting honey. Even more, there are several subsects of vegetarianism that might work better for you than traditional vegetarianism, which we’ll describe in detail shortly.

On the other hand, if you’re here so you can prepare food for a vegan or vegetarian, we’ll also go over the exact foods you should remove from your cooking—and we’ll even provide a few recommendations for substitutions. But first, here’s your breakdown of the exact definitions of these diets.

While vegetarians don’t eat meat, vegans don’t eat any animal products at all.

Veganism Definition

Even within a diet as specific as veganism, definitions of what veganism is exactly can vary based on who you ask. Most vegans you meet will be dietary vegans. That means they follow a plant-based diet but don’t adhere to veganism in other choices. For instance, someone might follow a plant-based diet but still wear leather shoes and silk clothes and still call themselves vegan. 

Veganism is a diet without any animal products that excludes meat, dairy, eggs, gelatin and honey. That means chicken broth, butter, milk, cheese and more traditional staples are off the table for vegans who follow a plant-based diet. 

That said, The Vegan Society has a stricter definition of veganism that encompasses dietary and lifestyle choices. So, technically speaking, the definition of “vegan” means someone who avoids animal-derived materials, products tested on animals and places that use animals as entertainment—on top of avoiding meat, dairy, eggs, and honey in their diet. 

All told, the first members of The Vegan Society had a founding ideology of “the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man,” which you’ll be working towards regardless of how broad your definition of “vegan” is.

Vegetarianism Definition

Within the definition of vegetarianism, there is a lot more wiggle room. You’re probably somewhat familiar with the definition of traditional veganism, but we’ll also go over a few variations on the theme of a meatless diet, too. Here’s a look at what each of the four different versions of vegetarianism mean:

Traditional vegetarian

Unless someone who calls themself a vegetarian clarifies otherwise, they are likely a traditional vegetarian who eats everything but seafood, poultry, beef, pork, and gelatin. Be sure to note that vegetarians won’t eat stocks made from meat and seafood, either. Unlike vegans, traditional vegetarians eat eggs, dairy, and honey, so that opens their diet up to butter, milk, and cheese. 

Pescatarian

Another diet that can fall under the umbrella of vegetarianism is the pescetarian diet. Someone who follows a pescetarian diet doesn’t eat meat but does eat seafood, including fish, shellfish, and foods derived from seafood. You can think of pescetarians simply as traditional vegetarians plus seafood.

Ovo-vegetarian

Ovo-vegetarians are the specific types of vegetarians who eat eggs but don’t eat dairy. In other words, you can think of an ovo-vegetarian diet as a vegan diet plus honey and eggs. 

Lacto-vegetarian

Finally, a lacto-vegetarian diet is a vegetarian diet that cuts out eggs along with meat—meaning lacto-vegetarians don’t eat any animal products other than dairy and honey.

Foods That Vegetarians Eat That Vegans Don’t

If you’re trying to understand the differences between veganism and vegetarianism because you need to prepare food for someone who follows one of these diets, here’s a quick rundown of specific foods to avoid. 

Dairy

The biggest difference between vegetarians and vegans is that vegans don’t eat dairy. In fact, many long-term vegans develop a sensitivity to dairy akin to lactose intolerance. As a vegan cuts out dairy for longer and longer, their body stops producing lactase, the enzyme required to digest dairy. So, while you can run wild with the following dairy products if you’re preparing food for a vegetarian, you’ll want to be especially careful to avoid them when you prepare food for a vegan:

  • Butter
  • Milk
  • Cream
  • Cheese (including goat and sheep’s cheese)
  • Sour cream
  • Buttermilk
  • Yogurt
  • Whey
  • Casein
  • Creme fraiche

Be sure to also check the label for packaged ingredients you might use in your cooking—some dairy could sneak into your shopping if you don’t check for the “Contains: Milk” allergen warning.

Eggs

Avoiding eggs might seem straightforward, especially compared to avoiding dairy. Nonetheless, you’ll be surprised how many go-to products typically contain eggs. Though most vegetarians eat eggs, vegans don’t, so you should make sure the following types of food and drink are egg-free before you serve them to a vegan:

  • Breaded foods
  • Batter-fried foods
  • Caesar salad dressing
  • Baked goods
  • French toast
  • Foamy cocktails
  • Mayo
  • Certain breads
  • Crepes
  • Sauces like hollandaise and tartar sauce

Honey

Most vegetarians eat honey, so you can assume it’s a white-listed ingredient unless they clarify otherwise. Meanwhile, because the definition of veganism technically excludes honey from a vegan diet, you should either avoid adding honey in whatever you serve to a vegan—or confirm with them that they’re okay with eating honey. You won’t find honey sneaking into many surprising raw ingredients, but check labels for packaged items—especially crackers, granola, salad dressings, and desserts—for honey before you feed them to a vegan.

Easy Ways to Make a Recipe Vegan or Vegetarian

Luckily, preparing a delicious vegan or vegetarian dish can be extremely fun for adventurous chefs. If you’re eager to try a new recipe, you’ll be able to find endless vegan and vegetarian recipes online. 

If you’ve already settled on an omnivorous recipe you want to try, you can probably adapt that recipe to make it vegan or vegetarian. Take a look at these simple substitutes for taking the meat, eggs, dairy, and honey out of your cooking.

  • Cream: Oat milk, cashew cream, or coconut cream
  • Butter: Margarine, coconut oil, plant-based butter, olive oil, or vegetable oil
  • Milk: Oat milk, coconut milk, almond milk, soy milk, or hemp milk
  • Cheese: Nutritional yeast or plant-based cheese products
  • Honey: Maple syrup, agave nectar, or sugar
  • Meat: Tofu, seitan, tempeh, mushrooms, Beyond Meat products or Impossible Meat products
  • Egg: Egg replacement powder for baking or JUST Egg for cooking

Want to Go Vegan or Vegetarian? Here’s How to Decide

Now that you’ve mastered the definitions of being vegan and.being vegetarian, you’ve got the foundations you need to start considering which diet is right for you. Even if you came here so you can adhere to another person’s diet, you might be curious why they chose their diet in the first place. 

As a reminder, there’s no need to adhere to strict definitions of either diet. There’s no inherent virtue to sticking to strict veganism if it means you’ll burn out and return to eating meat in a few months. Find a sustainable diet for you—whether that’s being vegan, vegetarian, or some middle-ground—and find joy in how easy it is to stick to your new lifestyle that’s tailored just for you. 

Here are a few things to consider while you’re deciding on your perfect meat-free diet:

Health Benefits

Whether you go vegan or vegetarian, cutting out meat altogether will do wonders for your health. Overall, non-meat eaters consume less saturated fat and cholesterol than meat eaters, which makes vegans and vegetarians way less likely to die of heart disease. In a combined analysis of five studies with more than 76,000 participants, vegetarians were, on average, 25% less likely to die of heart disease than meat eaters.

There are also differences between the health benefits of veganism over vegetarianism specifically. Another meta-study found that while vegetarians are 8% less likely to die from cancer than omnivores, vegans are 15% less likely.. 

Additionally, a vegan diet—though not designed specifically for weight loss purposes—can naturally lead to weight loss over time. In fact, a 5-year study that monitored the weight fluctuations of 21,966 men and women showed that participants who shifted their diets over the course of the study to include less animal products gained the least average weight out of any other cohort. 

Environmental Impact

Many decide to go vegan or vegetarian to reduce their diet’s impact on the environment. This move is backed up by the facts, and even just cutting out beef is a huge step towards reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that your diet leads to. In fact, a breakdown of emissions for food products shows that beef emits 99.48 kg of greenhouse gases per kilogram of food it provides. Beef has a solid first place, but it’s followed up by a lengthy list of meats.

However, it’s worth noting that dairy cows come in third place on this list and emit 33.3 kg of greenhouse gases for every kilogram of food they produce. Cheese on its own produces a whopping 23.88 kg of those greenhouse gases. If you’re thinking about cutting out meat for environmental reasons, becoming vegan or ovo-vegetarian is the most straightforward way to make the biggest impact with the shift.

Ease of Adoption

As we mentioned, the best meat-free diet is the one you can sustain. Before you decide between being vegan vs. vegetarian, take a few moments to consider which diet will be the sweet spot between the upsides and the downsides of a new diet. 

Depending on where you live and your current diet, becoming vegan or vegetarian could be more difficult than you’d think. If you’re worried about the logistics of your ideal diet, consider ramping up gradually. If you want to eventually become vegetarian, try being pescetarian for a few months at first to get a feel for it. If your goal is to become a strict vegan, try out ovo-vegetarianism before you dive in. Gradual steps will help you get your footing in increments and set you up for long-term success.

Sources

  1. Dietary patterns and the heart | Evidence paper – Heart Foundation
  2. Vegetarians don’t eat fish, meat or chicken
  3. Definition of veganism
  4. The BROAD study: A randomised controlled trial using a whole food plant-based diet in the community for obesity, ischaemic heart disease or diabetes
  5. A plant-based diet in overweight individuals in a 16-week randomized clinical trial: metabolic benefits of plant protein
  6. Micronutrient status and intake in omnivores, vegetarians and vegans in Switzerland | SpringerLink
  7. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets
  8. Carbon footprint of self-selected US diets: nutritional, demographic, and behavioral correlates
  9. Can quitting dairy make you lactose intolerant? | Well+Good
  10. Egg Allergy? 22 Surprising Items Made With Eggs, Other Names, Vaccines
  11. Becoming a vegetarian – Harvard Health
  12. A two-year randomized weight loss trial comparing a vegan diet to a more moderate low-fat diet
  13. Environmental Impacts of Food Production – Our World in Data

Moss Lane Staff

The Moss Lane Staff is comprised of seasoned content professionals who specialize in synthesizing large amounts of information and making it accessible to every day readers. This article was written and edited by multiple members of our staff to ensure comprehensive coverage of the topic.