Vegan vs. Vegetarian: The Differences and Health Facts

Written by Jane Chertoff on September 13, 2016

Thinking about giving up meat and adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet? Whether you stop eating meat for environmental reasons or for the health benefits, here’s more information about going meatless.

Approximately 5 percent of the United States population is vegetarian, and around 2 percent is vegan. That might seem like a small percentage, but more and more people are giving up meat for certain meals or days of the week.

For example, Meatless Mondays is a movement that started in 2003, in which individuals or families don’t eat meat for one day of the week. It’s now active in 36 countries around the world.

But what exactly are the differences between a vegetarian and vegan? Here’s more information and a look at the health benefits of each.

What is a vegetarian?

Vegetarians typically don’t eat meat, poultry, or fish. The vegetarian diet consists of:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • grains
  • eggs
  • dairy products

But there are different types of vegetarian diets. Here’s a look at them:

Type of vegetarianDiet restrictions
lacto-vegetariansdon’t eat eggs, but eat dairy products like milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter
ovo-vegetariansdon’t eat any dairy products, but eat eggs
lacto-ovo vegetariansdon’t eat meat, fish, or poultry, but eat dairy products and eggs
pescatariansdon’t eat beef or poultry, but eat fish
pollotariansdon’t eat red meat, but eat poultry

What is a vegan?

A vegan diet is similar to a vegetarian diet, but vegans don’t eat any:

  • meat
  • poultry
  • fish
  • eggs
  • dairy products

Vegans may also avoid using or buying any products made from animals, including:

  • leather
  • fur
  • silk
  • wool
  • cosmetics
  • soaps
  • honey

What are the health benefits of a vegetarian diet?

Following a vegetarian diet may offer health benefits, including a lower risk of:

  • obesity
  • coronary heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • some forms of cancer

What are the health benefits of a vegan diet?

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vegan diets may contain lower amounts of saturated fat and higher amounts of cholesterol and dietary fiber, compared to vegetarian diets.

Vegans also tend to:

  • be thinner
  • have lower serum cholesterol
  • have lower blood pressure
  • have a lower risk for heart disease

On the other hand, vegans are at risk for some nutritional deficiencies. Ask your doctor if you’ll need vitamins or other supplements.

Can you get enough protein on a vegetarian or vegan diet?

Getting enough protein as a vegetarian or vegan is important for a number of reasons.

According to the Mayo Clinic, protein helps you maintain healthy:

  • skin
  • bones
  • muscles
  • organs

Healthy vegetarian and vegan sources of protein include:

  • tofu
  • lentils
  • beans
  • chickpeas
  • peanut butter
  • almonds

How to stay healthy on a vegetarian or vegan diet

If you’re thinking about going vegetarian or vegan, it’s important to eat a balanced diet. Foods like pizza, french fries, and spaghetti are meatless, but might not be the healthiest options.

Don’t eat too many sweets or processed foods. Try to eat whole grains instead of refined bread, cereal, and pasta. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits. Be sure to include sources of protein like beans and tofu in your meals every day.

Where can you find vegetarian or vegan food?

You can usually find plenty of healthy vegetarian and vegan options at any grocery or health food store.

Look for these healthy vegetarian and vegan snacks and staples:

  • hummus and carrots
  • peanut butter and apples
  • guacamole, salsa, and chips
  • sweet potato fries
  • kale chips
  • air-popped popcorn

When dining out, try looking to vegetarian- and vegan-friendly cuisines. You may find more options on menus at Chinese, Thai, and Indian restaurants.

Look for the following vegetarian-friendly or vegan dishes on the menu:

Type of cuisineWhat to order
Mediterraneanhummus and falafel
Chinesestir-fried vegetables with tofu and rice
Thaitofu curry or pad thai noodles (with no egg, if vegan)
Mexicanvegetable fajitas or black bean tacos (make sure the beans are made without lard/bacon)
Japanesevegetable sushi made with carrots, avocado, and cucumber
Italianeggplant parmesan (contains cheese) or pasta primavera

Vegetarian recipes

Cherry tomato, leek, and spinach quiche

Dishes like quiche are an easy way to enjoy vegetarian-friendly eggs for breakfast, brunch, and dinner. This recipe recommends a store-bought pie crust, but you can also make your own.

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Eggplant parmesan

Cheesy eggplant parmesan might be vegetarian comfort food at its best. In this healthy version, the eggplant is baked instead of fried.

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Enchilada-stuffed portobello mushrooms

For a twist on enchiladas, use mushrooms as a base instead of tortillas. This recipe is an easy option for a weeknight dinner. It even includes black beans, which are full of protein and will help you feel satisfied.

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Vegan recipes

Vegan black pepper tofu

Vegans should take inspiration from vegetarian cuisines. In this case, a Chinese-style tofu is stir-fried with hot chili pepper for a kick. Serve with brown rice for a filling, healthy vegan meal.

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Creamy vegan avocado pesto pasta

Creamy pasta recipes are usually made with fat-laden heavy cream, butter, and cheese. This vegan version instead uses blended avocado for the sauce. You might be surprised how creamy it will taste!

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Vegan Caesar salad

A traditional recipe for Caesar salad dressing includes egg and anchovies. This vegan version is instead made with creamy, blended avocado and oil. The salad recipe also includes chickpeas for protein.

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Vegan brownies

Easily create vegan desserts by substituting flaxseed, water, and oil for eggs and butter. This recipe includes vegan chocolate chips and almond butter for a delicious combination.

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Next steps

If you’re thinking about becoming vegetarian or vegan, be sure to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein in your diet each day. Look to vegetarian- and vegan-friendly cuisines for recipe inspiration.

With a healthy diet, you’ll likely get all the nutrients you need from food. But you still might want to ask your doctor if you’ll need to take a multivitamin or other supplements to make up for any deficiencies. 

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