One question pops up routinely during dinner with friends. So, what is the difference between vegan and vegetarian? They confide they never have really known the difference, but hopefully I can answer.
Well, sure! I have a few ideas! Here are my interpretations of these two eating styles, how to get started with a new diet and a few resources to help you along your way.
How I Define Vegetarian and Vegan
From my perspective, a vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat any animal flesh. Yes, this includes chicken and seafood. This choice may be based on personal ethics or medical necessity. For example, I know my rheumatoid arthritis and eczema are best managed when I avoid all animal-based products.
A vegan is someone who doesn’t consume any animal products at all, including meats, milk, cheese, eggs and even honey! After all, honey comes from bees, which are living creatures.
Some vegans also choose to avoid animal products in their daily lives. This means they won’t wear things like leather shoes (made from animal hides) or silk clothing (made from silkworms).
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How to Manage a Restricted Diet
If you choose to forego eating animal flesh, or animal products altogether, speak with your physician first. You may need to make an adjustment to your medications, or they may want to check in on your health periodically to monitor things such as cholesterol levels, weight or iron intake (to catch anemia early on).
The Mayo Clinic explains that a vegetarian meal plan offers several health benefits including reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes if you eat a well-rounded diet. This means loading your plate with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Sure, you can have sweets and oils on a vegetarian or vegan diet, but just like on a traditional diet, you want to enjoy those foods sparingly.
When I first transitioned to a vegetarian diet in 1998, I did it the wrong way. I heavily relied on easy, carb-loaded foods like pasta, pizza, cereal, crackers and french fries. Sure, they tasted great and filled me up, but I wasn’t getting a balance of vitamins and nutrients in my diet.
I recommend speaking with a dietician at a local clinic or grocery store to help you understand what your body needs on a daily basis, and how to get it without animal-sourced foods. I also recommend the My Fitness Pal app to track your meals. I used to do this to ensure I was getting enough protein each day.
Are There Other Diets Without Animal Foods?
Some friends go a bit deeper with their questions. The one I hear most often is, “Well, as a vegetarian, you still eat chicken and seafood, right?” And the answer for me is no. That still qualifies as animal flesh in my personal opinion. However, there are various types of vegetarian diets that do pick and choose which animal products they exclude and allow.
- Pescatarian: They eat fish, but do not consume any other animal products including flesh, diary and eggs.
- Lacto-vegetarian: They eat dairy products such as milk, butter and cheese. They do not eat any flesh (including seafood) or eggs.
- Ovo-vegetarian: They eat eggs, but exclude all other animal products.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: They eat dairy products and eggs, but no flesh products. This is technically the type of vegetarian lifestyle I choose to follow.
Some people choose to follow one of these diets part-time. You’ve probably heard of Meatless Mondays or giving up meat for Lent. These would be examples of a flexitarian diet, or a flexible eating plan.
Additional Resources for Veggie Curious People
As I look around online for recipes for myself, I often stumble upon some great resources for those who are curious about vegetarian and vegan eating, or who need some guidance in getting started with a new way of eating. Maybe one of these resources will be helpful for you!
- A Complete Vegan Meal Plan and Sample Menu from Healthline
- The Plant-Based Diet for Beginners: 75 Delicious, Healthy Whole Food Recipes by Gabriel Miller
- The 22 Days Vegan Diet Plan: Love It or Leaf It? from Food Network
- The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook: A Fresh Guide to Eating Well With 700 Foolproof Recipes from American’s Test Kitchen
Do you have questions about starting or maintaining a diet free of animal products? Feel free to send me a message or reach out on social media. I’d love to answer your question in a future blog post.
Until next time,
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Note: This blog post was last updated on March 22, 2023.