The rise of plant-based diets continues at pace throughout the Western world, as people look to reduce their meat consumption and make more informed eating choices.
In the UK, for example, some 10% of the population identify as being either vegetarian or pescatarian, while a further 3% were recorded as being vegan in 2021.
Even in the US, a 2018 poll from Ipsos Mori found that 5% of respondents were vegetarian, while a further 3% identified as pescatarian and another 3% as vegan.
While there are numerous similarities shared by vegetarianism and veganism, there are also important differences that set them apart. We’ll explore them in the article below:
What is Vegetarianism?
According to the broad definition on the Vegetarian Society, the word ‘vegetarians’ describes people who don’t eat either the products or by-products of animal slaughter.
In addition to meat and poultry products such as beef, pork, game and chicken, for example, vegetarian diets also prohibit animal proteins like gelatin and rennet.
Vegetarians are also unable to consume any stocks or fats that are derived from the process of animal slaughter, while insects, fish and shellfish are also prohibited.
While some people who eat fish but no other animal products may occasionally describe themselves as being vegetarian, they actually have a category of their own (referred to as pescatarian).
But what can vegetarians eat? Well, they typically consume a broad range of fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts, along with grains, pulses and so-called “meat substitutes” that are either natural or processed by nature.
Vegetarians are also able to consume some animal products that aren’t derived from slaughter processes. These include dairy products (such as cheese and milk), honey and eggs.
Interestingly, vegetarians have a much larger and more flexible range of dietary choices than vegans. To this end, there are several subsets of vegetarianism, including the following:
· Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian: This is the classic iteration of vegetarianism, with its followers known to avoid all types of meat and fish while consuming eggs and dairy products.
· Lacto-Vegetarian: This type of diet is slightly stricter and prohibits the consumption of meat, fish or eggs while allowing you to eat dairy products and honey.
· Ovo-Vegetarian: Individuals following this particular diet don’t eat any meat, fish or dairy products, but are allowed to consume eggs.
· Pescatarian: As we’ve already touched on, this diet follows the primary tenants of vegetarianism while allowing you to consume fish and other types of seafood. This is technically classed as a semi-vegetarian or flexitarian diet.
Technically speaking, veganism is in itself the strictest and most inflexible version of vegetarianism.
It certainly focuses on similar dietary choices and is derived from entirely plant-based foods, while also prohibiting the consumption of any animal products or by-products at all.
Often, veganism is described as more of a lifestyle choice than a simple dietary plan, as it can also be extended to exclude materials like leather, wool and silk from your wardrobe. It can also effect the medicine that you take over time, as you look to exclude any products that exploit animals as a way of deriving profit.
By the same token, cosmetic products including beeswax and some soaps may be prohibited, as are any such items that have been tested on animals during their development.
Solely from a dietary perspective, vegans will avoid consuming any types of meat, poultry, fish, shellfish and eggs (alongside dairy, animal and animal by-products including honey).
Like vegetarians, vegans will also not consume insects, or animal proteins like gelatin. They’ll also avoid stock or fats that have been sourced directly from animals or questionable farming processes.
Exploring the Differences Between Vegetarianism and Veganism
As we can see, both vegetarians and vegans largely rely on plant-based diets, comprising healthy fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts alongside grains, pulses and legumes.
At the same time, both vegetarians and vegans refuse to eat meat, but this is largely where the similarities end between these two demographics.
More specifically, a vegan diet is much stricter and narrower than a vegetarian alternative, as it prohibits the consumption of eggs, dairy and honey. Depending on how studiously its core principles are followed, it may also influence lifestyle choices and encourage you to discard animal products like silk, wool and leather.
Veganism can also be described as the most extreme iteration of vegetarianism, the latter of which can be split into four different subsets and also influences dietary choices such as being a pescatarian or a flexitarian (the latter of which allows for the occasional consumption of meat and prohibited animal products).
Do Both Diets Offer Health Benefits?
Another similarity that unites veganism and vegetarianism is their potential health benefits, with numerous studies having explored these in detail over time.
For example, one study from 2017 examined the efficacy of a plant-based diet on various chronic health conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heightened cholesterol levels.
Featuring 49 carefully chosen respondents that were subsequently separated into ‘normal’ and ‘plant-based’ diets, the latter of which was an ‘intervention’ group that was provided with cooking training and nutritional education by participating doctors.
At both the six and 12-month follow-ups, participants in the plant-based foods group showcased marked reductions in their average body mass index (BMI) values and cholesterol levels, compared with those in the normal care group.
That same year also saw a systematic review and meta-analysis carried out by Nutrition Reviews, with this uncovering evidence that plant-based diets may help to directly lower ‘bad’ cholesterol levels significantly over time.
This includes low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which can play a significant role in ill-health and are associated with various chronic health conditions.
Another piece of research in 2019 (commissioned by the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology) found a direct association between a balanced, plant-based diet and a significantly reduced risk of developing chronic kidney disease.
Conversely, participants who followed an unhealthy plant-based diet that comprised a large proportion of high sugar foods and refined grains had a much higher risk of chronic kidney disease, which highlights the importance of avoiding processed foods even when following a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
Which Diet is Best for You?
At this stage, we’ve begun to understand the core differences that separate vegetarian and vegan diets, while also comprehending the health benefits associated with consuming plant-based foods.
But which diet type is best for you? Well, this depends on numerous factors, including the precise nature of your healthy living goals and your reason for opting to follow a plant-based diet in the first place.
For example, let’s say that you’re overweight or obese and want to reduce your BMI. The UK is in the midst of an obesity epidemic, with some 28% of adult classed as being technically obese while a further 36% are overweight.
If you’re among this number, you should note that this observational study from 2016 discovered that vegetarians living in the Americas and South East Asia were far less likely to develop obesity than most non-vegetarians.
However, it can be argued that a vegan diet is the most effective in this respect, primarily because it eliminates dairy products like cheese that are high in saturated fats and sodium.
Certainly, avoiding dairy and eggs as part of a vegan diet helps you to maintain healthy levels of cholesterol, which is key to sustaining a healthy weight and minimising the risk of developing heart disease.
When looking to change your diet as part of cultivating a healthier overall lifestyle, many people initially opt for a vegetarian diet. This is because lacto-vegetarians are able to access natural sources of calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D, primarily through dairy products like cheese and eggs.
As for vegans, they’re at a much higher risk of associated vitamin deficiencies, which are indirectly linked to a number of short and long-term health complications. A strict vegan diet can also put you at a higher risk of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency when compared with vegetarians, thanks largely to the elimination of eggs and seafood.
Interestingly, omega-3 is rich in acids such as DHA, which is necessary for brain function and optimal cognitive performance and minimising the risk of suffering with so-called “brain fog” on a daily basis.
Ultimately, you’ll need to make an informed choice based on your motivations, objectives and ethical preferences, but both vegetarian and vegan diets can deliver myriad health benefits.
The Last Word – Our Tips for Adopting a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet
Before we go, we thought we’d offer a few tips to help you create a balanced (and healthy) vegetarian or vegan diet that can leverage any potential health benefits. These include:
· Make an Informed Choice: It’s important to seek out expert advice and nutritional information when choosing between a vegetarian and vegan diet, particularly if you’re prone to various deficiencies associated with iron and Vitamin D.You may also want to consider embracing a vegetarian diet before transitioning to a vegan alternative over time.
· Focus on Whole Foods Rather Than Processed Alternatives: As the number of vegetarians and vegans has increased in the UK, retailers have developed a much larger selection of processed, plant-based foods. While these enable you to eat conveniently even on a restricted diet, they’re also likely to be much higher in sugar, sodium and saturated fat. So, they should be avoided where possible and eschewed in favour of whole foods and cooking from scratch.
· Hydrate Well and Exercise Daily: Regular hydration and a disciplined exercise regime are also key to a healthy lifestyle, no matter which type of diet you choose to adopt. Focusing on these elements will help you to realise the benefits of a plant-based diet and achieve your fitness objectives much easier, while we’d recommend exercising out in the open where possible to access the sunshine and absorb Vitamin D naturally!