Vegan vs. Vegetarian: Which Diet Is Right for You?

Humans are omnivores, meaning we can eat a wide variety of foods. While some people thrive on diets that contain meat, others prefer to skip eating animals or animal products. And such diets can be perfectly healthy. In fact, they may be healthier than the alternative.

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Studies have shown that people who follow a plant-based diet that’s rich in whole foods, leafy greens, and high-fiber fruits and vegetables tend to have lower incidence of certain chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

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But there’s more than one way to go all-in with plants. Two popular versions are veganism and vegetarianism. These two approaches have some similarities, but some important core differences too.


Vegan Diet Overview

One of the stricter approaches to a plant-based diet is veganism. “Veganism is basically not consuming any animal products or byproducts of animals,” says Daryl Gioffre, celebrity nutritionist and author of “Get Off Your Acid: 7 Steps in 7 Days to Lose Weight, Fight Inflammation, and Reclaim Your Health and Energy.”

This avoidance of animal-based foods is often based in a philosophical opposition to using animals for gain, and may extend to not wearing leather or wool or otherwise using any products that are derived from animals. For most vegans, even foods derived from insects, such as honey, are out of bounds.

Cathy Leman, a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Dam. Mad. About Breast Cancer, a nutritional consulting firm based in greater Chicago that helps breast cancer patients and survivors, says that a good vegan diet would be rich in:

  • Whole grains such as brown rice, oats, barley, millet.
  • Legumes, dried beans and peas, including lentils, black beans, garbanzo beans, pinto beans and split peas.
  • All fruits and vegetables.
  • Nuts and seeds.
  • Whole soy foods such as tempeh, tofu, edamame and miso.

Adoption of the vegan diet is growing across the U.S. as more people learn of the potential health benefits associated with this approach. A 2017 report prepared by Report Buyer, a market research group based in the UK, found that 6% of people in the U.S. now identify as vegan, compared with just 1% in 2014.

Vegetarian Diet Overview

A vegetarian diet, on the other hand, excludes meat, fish and poultry, but may include some animal products. There are different types of vegetarians, with the most common classifications revolving around what’s included in the diet:

  • Lacto vegetarians. These individuals eat dairy products, such as milk, cheese, butter, yogurt and cottage cheese.
  • Ovo vegetarians. These individuals eat eggs.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians. These individuals eat both eggs and dairy products.

A balanced vegetarian diet will feature a lot of plants and whole grains, but also may include dairy, beans, legumes and eggs. Honey can be part of a vegetarian diet.


Similarities Between Vegan and Vegetarian

Health benefits

Following a vegan or vegetarian diet could improve your health. Specifically, it may:

  • Cause you to lose weight.
  • Provide cardiovascular benefits, such as lowered cholesterol and blood pressure and reducing risk of stroke.
  • Reduce the risk of developing diabetes.
  • Improve your ability to manage Type 2 diabetes.
  • Reducing cancer risk.
  • Improve bowel function, e.g. reducing or eliminating constipation or other bowel disruptions.

You might lose some weight on a vegan or vegetarian diet, but not necessarily.

“Due to their high fiber and nutrient density,” meaning more nutrients packed into fewer calories, “vegan and vegetarian diets may help reduce overweight and obesity,” Leman says. But, plant-based diets don’t automatically cause weight loss. “Plant-based diets can support a healthy approach to weight loss, but portion size, eating frequency and a focus on whole foods must be included,” she notes.

There may also be some cardiovascular benefits. “Plant foods naturally have a low saturated fat content, which helps reduce the production of cholesterol, which is good news for treating and/or reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke,” she adds. If you’re avoiding prepared or heavily processed foods and snacks, you may also be able to reduce your salt intake, which can promote healthy blood pressure levels.

Plants are also good for reducing the risk of developing diabetes and can help support people who are trying to manage the disease. “Vegan and vegetarian diets can help treat Type 2 diabetes, primarily through the benefit of weight loss, and the power of their high-fiber content to help stabilize blood sugar levels,” Leman says.

When it comes to cancer, there’s some evidence that plant-based diets are better for you. “With their huge variety of plant chemicals, called phytochemicals, fiber and healthy fats and oils, plant foods are recommended in cancer nutrition guidelines, although there is no definitive data on the exact benefit of any one specific diet for all cancer prevention, risk reduction or mortality,” Leman says.

Foods that are high in fiber are also good for reducing the risk of colorectal cancer. A high-fiber diet also reduces constipation and the risk of other bowel diseases such as diverticular disease.


The risk with any diet that excludes certain foods is that you could be missing out on some important nutrients. This doesn’t have to be the case with a vegan or vegetarian diet, but sometimes, followers of these approaches don’t get enough vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids.

Most Americans are deficient in B12, which is found in a variety of animal foods and added to some fortified foods, says Emilie Vandenberg, a registered dietician with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Therefore, for her vegan and vegetarian clients specifically, she recommends a B12 supplement.

“The omega-3 deficiency is a big problem for vegans and vegetarians,” Gioffre says. He says not consuming enough omega-3 fatty acids leads to systemic inflammation that’s associated with chronic diseases.

Making sure you’re getting enough of both nutrients may take a little planning, Leman says, but can go a long way. “A well-planned vegan and/or vegetarian diet is safe for people of all ages, including babies, children, teens and pregnant women.”

Some vegan and vegetarian diet followers worry about whether they are getting enough protein. This is largely a myth, Gioffre says. “Most Americans get five times the amount of protein they need,” he says, and when you consume too much protein, it gets converted by the body into sugar that can potentially increase inflammation in the body. “That’s why you need to moderate protein intake,” he says.

Still, protein is an important macronutrient you must consume, and dried beans, peas and lentils are all good plant-based sources of protein. But they “aren’t the only options,” Leman says. “There are whole soy products and whole nuts and seeds, as well as nut and seed butters,” all of which can be incorporated into a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet.

And for vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs, there are even more protein options available, including eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt and cottage cheese.


Leman says, “the thinking that vegan and vegetarian diets, with their emphasis on fruit, vegetables and whole grains, must be more expensive than meat-forward diets isn’t necessarily accurate. For the most part, the staples of a plant-based diet are wallet-friendly.” For example, because red meat typically costs between $3 and $8 per pound, “at $1.40 per pound, dried beans are a grocery bargain.”

She also points to a 2015 study that “compared the cost for a seven-day meal plan based on an economical version of MyPlate, which includes meat, and a plant-based diet that includes olive oil, which is more pricey than other oils.” (MyPlate is the current nutritional guide published by the U.S.Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. It advises people to get 40% of their calories from vegetables, 30% from grains, 20% from protein sources and 10% from fruits. A serving of milk or dairy is also included in the guidelines.)

The findings? “The economical version of MyPlate cost $746.46 more per year (than the plant-based), while providing fewer servings of vegetables, fruits and whole grains,” Leman says.

Where some vegan and vegetarian diets can get more expensive is when followers opt to buy only organic produce. Leman says to be vegan or vegetarian, you need not adhere to an organic-only approach. “What’s most important when adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet is to include a wide variety and significant quantity of produce on a daily basis.” Conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are just fine in fulfilling this aim.

If you’re looking to include processed meat and cheese alternatives, such as nut-based cheese and meat-alternative burgers, those can be expensive, and they might not be as healthy as eating whole foods. “While these products may ease the transition to a meat-free diet, they’re certainly not necessary, and may even be considered ‘luxury items’ by some,” Leman says.

Which One Is Better?

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that one is healthier than the other,” Vandenberg says. “They both have risks and benefits.”

A vegan diet is a good option for those who are philosophically opposed to eating meat or otherwise against using animals for human benefit. Animal lovers may find it a less troubling way of eating that honors other living beings in a peaceful way.

A vegetarian diet may work better for people looking to lower their risk of certain chronic conditions, but who don’t have any specific desire to be especially strict in eliminating dairy products or eggs. Here’s what to consider:

For those with osteoporosis, risk of not getting enough calcium.

Reduce the risk of developing diabetes and better manage Type 2 diabetes. 

Reduce the risk of developing diabetes and better manage Type 2 diabetes.

May be the better option (than veganism) for people with certain vitamin deficiencies.


Tips for Adopting a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet

If you’re considering adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet, Leman says you’re in for a delicious taste adventure with “never-ending variety” and options. “There are limitless options, which admittedly can feel overwhelming. If you’re unsure where or how to start, consider naturally plant-based ethnic dishes from Italy, Asia, the Mediterranean or the Middle East.” Traditionally, these cultures have emphasized plant-forward eating plans and have devised many ways of making vegetables the most delicious items on your plate.

Leman also offers a bit of temperance for the meat-free lifestyle, noting that “while plant-based diets are a great choice for supporting overall good health, no diet is bullet-proof. Heart disease, cancer and other chronic health issues can and do affect people who eat a ‘healthy’ diet.” Still, eating a healthy diet is important and lowers your risk of negative health outcomes.

Gioffre notes that just because you’re vegan or vegetarian, doesn’t mean you’re healthy. “There’s a healthy way to be vegetarian or vegan, and there’s an unhealthy way.”

You should always opt for whole, unprocessed foods versus anything that comes in a package. Even if the label says it’s vegan or vegetarian, it might not be a healthy option when you consider the ingredients and their sources.

Case in point: Sugar is considered vegan-friendly, but eating a diet high in sugar is not a healthy move. “Some of the sickest people who come into my office are vegans and vegetarians,” Gioffre says, because they’ve swapped out higher-quality foods with low-quality carbohydrates and processed meat substitute products. “They’re eating too much sugar,” which leads to erratic blood sugar levels, an increase in inflammation and potentially many chronic conditions.

Similarly, Vandenberg notes that “French fries are vegetarian,” but they’re not that nutritious. Strive for lots of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and legumes,” which will provide plenty of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals to keep your body running optimally. She also recommends eating a variety of whole foods to avoid falling into a rut or missing out on important nutrients.

If you’re just starting out, Vandenberg recommends working with a dietitian to make sure your diet is actually as healthy as you think it is.

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Daryl Gioffre, DC; Cathy Leman, RDN; Emilie Vandenberg RDN, LD

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