What’s the Difference Between Vegan and Vegetarian? Which Is Better? And Why Should You Care?
Vegan? Vegetarian? What are all of these labels people use? Is there really any significant difference, other than a little green V or VG on a restaurant menu?
Let’s break it down. We know all the articles say everything you need to know, but here’s everything you REALLY need to know:
Vegan: The first time people read about going vegan, it’s often defined as being an ‘exclusive’ diet – framed in a way that you’re giving up something or avoiding certain foods. Most people don’t want to hear the idea that they can’t do something, especially if it’s something they had enjoyed. So at first glance, reading all the foods they’re used to eating, which are then presented as a necessary sacrifice, can be very off-putting to people.
Veganism is seen as extreme, especially because it is often presented as more than just a diet, but instead also a lifestyle. In contrast, vegetarianism seems to mostly just concern what one eats. Veganism extends to everything from skincare products to shoes, as it is more of an ethical stance than just a diet change. So, vegetarians may pick the plain pizza rather than the pepperoni, but they may not think twice about either the harm that befell the cows in the dairy industry nor the process involved in making the Doc Martens they’re wearing.
Though diets based mainly on plants have been found historically in many places and cultures around the world, the word vegan itself was coined by Donald Watson in 1944 at the first meeting of what would become The Vegan Society. The history is quite interesting, you can read more about it on The Vegan Society’s website.
The heart of veganism revolves around taking an anti-exploitation stance towards animals and moving from cruelty to compassion in our treatment of them. This is one of the key differences between veganism and a plant-based diet, which may be done for say purely health reasons, but doesn’t involve a stance against the cruel treatment of animals. Veganism, by contrast, shines a light on the hidden everyday ways that animals are harmed in our society, from confined animal feeding operations that produce fast-food hamburgers, to male baby chicks ground up as waste from the egg industry, to the rabbits who are burned and blinded for unnecessary cosmetic testing, to the boiled animal bones hidden in candy, and even to the bees that are gassed for honey and beetles that are crushed for food dyes. Vegans seek to create a new paradigm where nonhuman animals are treated with respect and dignity in our society rather than bred, exploited, and killed for profit.
“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
As the above quote states, veganism is not about harmfully restricting oneself, but instead using one’s best judgment (which can sometimes err) to make more compassionate choices. Therefore, it wouldn’t make sense for vegans to avoid taking life-saving medicine that they need, for example, that might contain animal derivatives.
Rather than asking: “What is excluded from a vegan diet”, we find it more practical to ask, what in our society that is packaged as normal is actually hiding unspeakable cruelty?
Vegetarian: Back in the day (think like the 1800’s), the word vegetarian was actually closer to the modern-day definition of vegan. It meant someone who didn’t eat anything made from an animal and often ate only raw foods and fruits and vegetables.
Today, it usually is closer to someone who doesn’t eat meat, that is, animal flesh (what a gross term, right?). It can be confusing, as some vegetarians still eat poultry, whereas some still eat fish. It seems that the definition or label is up to the person themselves to determine. And then you get to the lacto or ovo distinction (fancy talk for milk or eggs), as some vegetarians don’t eat one or the other for a variety of reasons.
All in all, the Venn diagram of vegetarians and vegans has a lot of overlap, and many vegans likely started as vegetarians, but a key difference can be found in the scope of categories encompassed by the label. Vegetarianism primarily concerns food while veganism extends to clothes, cosmetics, medicine, transportation, hunting/fishing, entertainment, and treatment of household animals too in certain cases. So all vegans are by definition also vegetarian, but not all vegetarians could be said to be vegan.
It’s the Why That Counts
We would say that veganism is seeking to shift the paradigm of societal violence against animals, questioning beliefs and changing behaviors. Therefore, as a social movement, it has much more potential for wide-reaching positive effects. Some even call it the natural conclusion of vegetarianism. We believe it’s for everyone and that anyone can go vegan. We also acknowledge that it’s impossible to be 100% vegan, as we live in a very non-vegan world, and that the movement presents an imperative to try your best, not to be “perfect”.
“..Whereas before, veganism may have been viewed like you were giving up something, now it’s been reframed as what you gain: you gain health, you gain a greater sense of living in bounds with your values, you gain all the environmental benefits.” – Kip Anderson, co-director of Cowspiracy, as quoted in (theguardian.com)
Whenever making an important choice, it’s crucial to have your why. If the why behind a choice is strong enough, then it makes you more likely to follow through with the choice and make it become an ingrained part of your life.
Here are three common reasons why people choose to go vegan/vegetarian:
Many vegans cite the realities of animal cruelty as their primary ethical reason for choosing to be vegan. In modern society, animals are relegated to the status of property and are treated as commodities and profit-generators, with their only value being their productivity. Some vegans even situate their veganism within a larger critique of capitalism, as under this system humans are also only given worth in measure to their productivity, which many people recognize as being dehumanizing and problematic.
A system that breeds animals to produce meat and dairy products, and then kills off the excess animals born the wrong sex who can’t be as productive, seems both grossly inefficient and needlessly barbaric.
Once you become more conscious of the role of animals in our society, the underlying abuse and exploitation across industries becomes more obvious.
Many people claim to be animal lovers, but seem to support some of the very practices that are most harmful to animals. Being vegan allows you to put your values and concerns about animal welfare into action on a daily basis.
It’s common knowledge that eating a predominantly animal-based diet leaves a larger carbon footprint. This is largely due to the fact that industrial animal agriculture produces massive amounts of methane and waste, it’s water-intensive, the runoff pollutes the surrounding air and water, and it uses up land inefficiently and decimates wildlife and biodiversity. Environmental impact alone is a pretty convincing reason to give up supporting these industries and to eat lower on the food chain.
From the human rights perspective, more people around the globe could be fed if plant foods were grown rather than animal-based foods (vegan.org). Going vegan would also save approximately 1.3M gallons of water and 1.5 tons of carbon emissions per year per person (vegan.org). The environmental reasons behind going vegan are pretty convincing.
Variety is the spice of life, they say. Though some may worry that eating plants will cause them to miss out on key nutrients, by eating a varied diet, it’s easy to meet all your requirements and then some. And no, humans are not carnivores and don’t need meat to survive.
Vegetarians and vegans tend to have more fiber consumption and eat more nutrient-dense foods and less saturated fat, and be more likely to be a healthy weight and less likely to be obese (sciencedirect.com). Vegans have lower risks for ischemic heart disease, cancer, Type 2 Diabetes, Alzheimer’s and as a bonus, eating exclusively plants means no cholesterol and can even help lower total cholesterol levels (medicalnewstoday.com;healthline.com). Those who follow vegetarian diets and still eat eggs, dairy, and other animal products, which are often high cholesterol foods, run the risk of more health problems down the line. Dairy may be somewhat of a staple in Western diets, but its necessity seems questionable when globally over half of the world’s population is lactose-intolerant (livekindly.co).
The health of your wallet is also an important consideration: Plant-based foods are inherently cheaper (unless you want to buy schmancy artisanal vegan substitutes, which is totally not required). We often don’t realize the true cost of food due to heavy agricultural subsidies. The $1 burger at a fast-food joint is not reflecting the steep environmental and health costs that come with its consumption.
We want to once and for all break the myth that veganism means lacking in nutrients in any way. Like your mom always told you, eat your vegetables! Except you’re getting extra credit by eating exclusively vegetables!
Here are some common nutritional concerns and how to address them with your food choices:
The ever-elusive Vitamin B-12
This vitamin is made by microbes in the soil, and most meat eaters actually get it from the fact that in industrial agriculture, animals are given B12 supplements. Though you can get some trace amounts in good ol’ nooch (nutritional yeast) and fortified plant mylks, we suggest cutting out the middle man and simply taking it as a supplement yourself.
Important for your bone health and density, you can get your daily dose in your new best friends dark green leafy vegetables (DGLF), fortified tofu and cereals, and an array of plant mylks.
Find it in DGLFs (back at it again), dried beans, certain grains, and lentils
Make it naturally through sunlight exposure or consume it in fortified foods or supplements. It aids in calcium absorption (power couple!).
Found naturally in legumes, nuts, and grains, or you can supplement in a pinch.
Guaranteed you’ve heard the irritating yet somehow pervasive myth that vegetarians and vegans don’t get enough protein. Busted! Protein is actually found in most foods (aside from sugar, alcohol, and fats) (Vegetarian Resource Group).
So how much protein does a person actually need?
“If you’re at a healthy weight, don’t lift weights, and don’t exercise much, aiming for 0.36–0.6 grams per pound (0.8–1.3 gram per kg) is a reasonable estimate.
This amounts to:
56–91 grams per day for the average male
46–75 grams per day for the average female
0.5–0.65 grams per pound for those more active” (Healthline)
It shouldn’t be any problem to meet these daily requirements, but if you need an extra boost, legumes like beans, lentils, and peas are great, along with soy products like tofu and tempeh, or seitan (wheat gluten). Athletes in a time crunch can supplement with protein powders in all types of tasty flavors to meet their higher protein requirements.
Fatty acids, omega 3s, iodine
Boost your brain health with flax and chia seeds, walnuts, and fortified tofu and soy products, which are all great omega-3 fatty acids sources.
Iodine can be tricky, but buying iodized salt is a surefire solution, eating lots of seaweed, or supplementing with an algae-based formula.
You may have seen a strange trend of celebrities giving up veganism when pregnant, but being vegan is perfectly safe and beneficial for both pregnant women and for children (PubMed).
If this article hasn’t convinced you that veganism is the way to go, maybe some economics will: The vegan market is experiencing steady growth and is projected to reach USD 16440 million by 2026 (marketwatch.com)
If you go vegan, you’re in good company: from celebrities like Brad Pitt and Joaquin Phoenix to star athletes like Venus Williams and Scott Jurek.
We think we’ve covered it all here, but we’d love to know your thoughts! Drop us a line below.