Vegan vs vegetarian diets: You may be wondering what the differences are, whether these diets can effectively cover your nutritional needs, and whether the picture changes when it comes to raising vegan or vegetarian kids.
In the past few years, more and more Americans are going meatless and adopting vegan vs vegetarian diets. Since 2009, the number of vegans in the US has more than doubled and 7.3 million Americans now identify as vegetarian.
I’ve been a vegetarian now for almost five years and have watched many of my friends transition to a meat-free lifestyle, citing health, environmental, and ethical reasons for making the switch.
But what is really meant by vegan vs vegetarian diet?
Veganism is defined as “a 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.”
Vegans exclude all animal products from their lifestyle, which cuts out any meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, eggs, and honey from the diet.
Vegetarianism gets a little more complicated. Vegetarianism is defined as “a person who does not eat meat or fish, and sometimes other animal products, especially for moral, religious, or health reasons.”
This is broken down even further into a few subtypes of vegetarians:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians consume both dairy products and eggs.
- Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products only, but not eggs.
- Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy products.
- Pesco-vegetarians don’t eat meat, but do eat fish and seafood.
People decide to adopt these lifestyle changes for a variety of reasons.
Some do it for the beneficial effects on the environment.
- A study by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science found that 2.2 pounds of beef emits the same amount of carbon dioxide as a car driving 155 miles.
- A 2014 study found that dietary greenhouse gas emissions were twice as high for meat eaters compared to vegans.
- According to author John Robbins, it takes approximately 108 pounds of water to produce one pound of wheat while a pound of beef requires over 20,000 pounds of water.
Others turn to a vegan or vegetarian diet for animal welfare reasons as well as personal preference.
But putting aside the moral and environmental reasons for veganism and vegetarianism, can it really be healthy to cut out animal products from the diet? And is one diet healthier than the other? Let’s dig in.
1. A well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can be just as nutritious.
As always, any time you eliminate foods from your diet, it requires careful planning and consideration to fill the nutritional gaps.
By eliminating meat, both vegetarians and vegans need to pay special attention to:
- Vitamin B12
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Getting enough protein is easier than it sounds for vegetarians and vegans.
Despite the emphasis to load up on protein, we only need around 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per kilogram, meaning that if you weight 150 pounds (68 kg) you need about 54 grams per day.
For vegetarians, getting enough protein isn’t usually much of an issue with dairy products and eggs still in the mix. Milk, for example, contains 8 grams of protein per cup while scrambling two eggs for breakfast provides a hefty 12 grams.
Plant-based proteins are also readily available for vegetarians and vegans alike, with beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds all providing a considerable amount of your daily protein needs. One cup of black beans contains 15 grams of protein and a cup of lentils packs an impressive 18 grams.
Iron, Zinc, and Vitamin B12 needs can be met, but supplementation might need to be considered.
Vitamin B12 can be an issue for vegans, however. Commonly found in fish, red meat, dairy, cheese, and eggs, the only vegan sources of B12 are foods fortified with the vitamin.
Inadequate B12 intake can lead to anemia and damage to the nervous system, so if there’s not enough B12 coming from the diet, supplementation should definitely be considered.
Omega-3 fatty acids are another nutrient to consider, especially on a vegan diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also lacking in any diet without fish or eggs. Though there are certainly plant-based sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—a fatty acid that can be converted into long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA—it’s at a lower efficiency so special consideration should be given to including this nutrient in the diet or supplementing.
Vegan supplements containing DHA and EPA are available and might be a good investment if you’re considering a vegan diet. Otherwise, chia seeds, flax seeds, soybeans, and tofu are all good sources of ALA that should be included in the diet.
Vegans should also be sure to include plenty of calcium in the diet.
Calcium is another nutrient of concern when it comes to veganism. While vegetarians should have no problem meeting needs by drinking milk and consuming dairy products, a dairy free diet means you’re cutting out a good source of calcium from the diet and need to find other ways to make sure you’re not deficient.
A few vegan-friendly sources of calcium include leafy greens, fortified non-dairy milk, broccoli, and soybeans. Vegan calcium supplements are also available to help meet dietary needs.
Vegan vs vegetarian diet review: It is possible to meet your dietary needs on both a vegan or vegetarian diet, but make sure you pay special attention to a few key nutrients. For more restrictive diets, like veganism, supplementation might need to be considered if needs aren’t being met in the diet.
2. Diet quality doesn’t have to suffer in a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet is definitely going to bring some changes in terms of diet quality.
While there are definitely differences in overall diet quality with both diets, vegetarianism allows for a little more variability.
Probably a good chunk of my first year as a vegetarian, for example, I was relying on quick and easy convenience foods that, yes, were vegetarian, but were not exactly the healthiest choices. Not all packaged foods are bad for you, but many of the ones you’ll find at the store can be higher in calories, sodium, sugar, and trans fats.
With veganism, you’re a little more restricted since a pretty significant portion of processed and convenience foods contain some type of animal product. While it is possible to rely on pre-packaged convenience foods on a vegan diet, it is more challenging.
Research has demonstrated that diet quality can actually improve on a vegan or vegetarian diet.
A 2014 study in the journal Nutrients looked at nutritional quality of vegans, vegetarians, semi-vegetarians, pesco-vegetarians, and omnivores using a food frequency questionnaire.
While vegans had the lowest energy intake among all the diets, vegetarians had a significantly lower energy than omnivores. Vegans also had the lowest intake of fat, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, protein, sodium, and dietary cholesterol plus the highest intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids, dietary fiber, and iron. For those same nutrients, the difference wasn’t as pronounced between vegetarians and omnivores.
The Healthy Eating Index and Mediterranean Diet Score were used as indicators for diet quality. These scores take into consideration a variety of factors, including intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein foods, nuts, fish, fatty acids, sodium, empty calories, and refined grains.
Based on the Healthy Eating Index, a tool developed by the USDA that measures diet quality and assesses conformance to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the participants following a vegan diet scored highest in terms of diet quality followed by semi-vegetarians, vegetarians, pesco-vegetarians, and finally omnivores.
Using the Mediterranean Diet Score, a measure used to assess compliance to the Mediterranean diet which has been associated with lower incidence of cancer and cardiovascular disease, vegans also scored highest, tailed by pesco-vegetarians, semi-vegetarians, vegetarians, and omnivores.
This is significant because a high score on the Mediterranean Diet Score has been
So while it is definitely possible to have a high-quality vegan or vegetarian diet, planning is key to make sure you’re meeting all of your nutrient needs (see #1).
Vegan vs vegetarian diet review: There is definitely such a thing as an unhealthy vegan or vegetarian diet. Planning it out to include the nutrients that you need can ensure that diet quality doesn’t suffer and can actually improve on a vegan or vegetarian diet.
3. Vegan and vegetarian diets come with some health bonuses.
Many people decide to adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet for the well-documented beneficial effects on health alone.
More and more research has demonstrated that regular consumption of some types of meat may have undesirable effects on health. Most notably, the World Health Organization recently released a report classifying processed meat as carcinogenic and red meat as a probable carcinogen.
Though meat certainly does have its own set of health benefits, the nutrients found in meat can also be found in plant sources.
In fact, by nixing much of the saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium found in meats and upping your intake of fruits, vegetables, and legumes, it’s true:
A well-planned vegan or vegetarian diet definitely comes with some added health benefits.
According to a review in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vegetarians were found to have lower rates of coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and some types of cancer.
A 2009 review by Craig noted that, compared to vegetarians, vegans tend to have lower total and LDL cholesterol levels plus lower blood pressure and a lower BMI.
Furthermore, a meta-analysis by Sabate and Wien found that vegetarians tend to weigh less; vegetarian men weighed an average of 17 pounds less while vegetarian women weighed about 7 pounds less.
Vegan vs vegetarian review: Excess meat consumption can have negative effects on health while nixing meat from the diet altogether has been shown to have some beneficial effects on health.
4. Kids can be healthy on a well-planned vegan or vegetarian diet.
Now for an issue that’s a little more controversial; we know these diets can be safe and effective for adults, but how about for kids?
Putting aside the ethical question of whether or not a vegan or vegetarian diet should be “enforced” on a child before they can make the choice themselves, there are nutritional considerations that come into play as well.
Just a few months ago, Italian lawmakers proposed a bill that would ban veganism for kids, equating veganism to “child abuse” and setting a maximum sentence of up to four years for parents.
A little harsh, but understandable considering the many health problems and deficiencies that can arise if a vegan diet is poorly planned.
In fact, this bill was proposed following four high-profile cases in the last two years in which children in Italy were hospitalized for malnutrition after following a vegan diet.
In one case, a 14-month old baby was taken to the hospital and found to weigh just slightly more than a 3-month old. He had not been receiving any kind of supplementation and his calcium levels were dangerously low, aggravating a congenital heart condition and forcing doctors to perform an emergency operation.
Children require a well-balanced diet and lots of important vitamins and minerals to promote growth and development.
However, many of the nutrients that they require are found in abundance in meat and animal products.
Calcium, for example, is necessary for building strong bones and teeth. Iron is important to help blood carry oxygen throughout the body. And protein is crucial for supporting growth, especially in infants and toddlers.
That doesn’t mean that a vegan or vegetarian diet is out of the question for kids, but it does mean that ensuring an optimal nutritional quality of a child’s diet should definitely be a top priority.
Both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics agree that a vegetarian or even vegan diet can be healthy when properly planned.
A few guidelines from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics when it comes to proper nutrition for infants and toddlers:
- If breastfeeding is stopped or decreased, make sure to use iron-fortified formula to help meet needs.
- Because breast milk is so nutrient dense, vegan mothers in particular should consider breastfeeding for at least the first year or longer.
- Infants should be weaned using fortified soy milk instead of other milk alternatives like rice or almond milk, which are lower in protein and calories.
- Vitamin B12: requirements should be met using milk products and eggs or fortified foods/supplementation for vegans.
- Vitamin D: all breastfed infants should be receiving a supplement with 400 IU of vitamin D starting after birth until the same amount is able to be consumed from fortified milk
- Calcium: for vegetarian infants and toddlers, this isn’t usually a problem as long as calcium-containing foods like yogurt, cheese, and milk are in the diet. For vegans, calcium-fortified foods and/or supplementation should be added to meet calcium requirements.
- Iron: babies are born with iron stores that last the first 4-6 months since breast milk is not typically high in iron. After this point, babies should be receiving iron from an outside source, such as a fortified cereal or iron supplement.
- Protein: needs are met through breast milk and/or formula for the first 8 months, but then additional protein sources should be added in the diet. Plant-based proteins like beans, cereals, and tofu, yogurt, eggs, and fortified soy milk are all good ways to add in extra protein.
The bottom line is that a vegan or vegetarian diet shouldn’t be a problem as long as the nutrients taken out of the diet by meat and animal products are replaced to meet nutritional needs.
That being said, there are definitely factors that need to be considered on a case-by-case basis and parents thinking of putting their kids on a vegan or vegetarian diet should absolutely consult with a registered dietitian and pediatrician beforehand to ensure adequate growth and development.
Vegan vs vegetarian review: A poorly-planned vegan or vegetarian diet can end up being detrimental to a child’s health. When planned and executed properly, however, it can be done safely.
5. Being vegan or vegetarian is not always convenient.
For the few years that I’ve been a vegetarian, I’ve had no trouble finding something to eat, whether at home or in restaurants. Sure, there have been times that I’ve had to ask if a soup is cooked in chicken broth or if those chunks are bacon bits or tomatoes, but for the most part, going meatless is pretty easy overall.
Veganism is a bit more challenging. Since so many foods are cooked with eggs or dairy, the options are a bit more limited.
On the go, you can easily find veggie burgers, bean burritos, or veggie sandwiches at popular fast-food restaurants that are vegetarian-friendly. As a vegan, however, a little more research might be necessary to find options that cater to your diet.
Vegan vs vegetarian diet review: Adopting either a vegetarian or vegan diet might make things a little harder, especially when eating out. Especially for the more restrictive vegan diet, options may be especially limited.
Vegan vs Vegetarian Report Card
Sustainability: B (good)
A vegan diet can be difficult to sustain, without plenty of motivation and dedication. It also requires a solid base of nutritional knowledge to be able to follow and maintain this diet.
Effectiveness: B (good)
The vegan diet is definitely effective when it comes to weight maintenance and improving health. The health benefits of the vegan diet, however, can be diminished if not executed properly.
Nutrition: C (fair)
When planned well, a vegan diet can be very nutritious and comes with numerous health benefits. However, several nutrients found in animal products are eliminated from the diet and should be given special consideration to include from food sources or supplemented.
Ability to Harm: D (poor)
Unfortunately, if not done properly, the vegan diet can cause some harm. Nutrient deficiencies and problems with growth and development in children are common problems when careful consideration isn’t given to nutritional quality while on this diet.
Overall Grade: C
(Determined by an average of above subcategories)
Sustainability: B+ (good)
Though easier to sustain than the vegan diet, depending on your current diet, switching to a vegetarian diet can be tricky in the long-run for some people.
Effectiveness: A- (excellent)
The health benefits of the vegetarian diet are well-established and there is less of a margin for error when it comes to deficiencies than with the vegan diet.
Nutrition: B (good)
A vegetarian diet can definitely be very nutritious when planned properly. That being said, it is still entirely possible to follow a vegetarian diet and be unhealthy.
Ability to Harm: C (fair)
With a vegetarian diet, there is still the possibility to have nutrient deficiencies, but to a lesser extent than the more restrictive vegan diet.
Overall Grade: B
(Determined by an average of above subcategories)
So you’ve decided to go meatless? Here’s what you need to know.
It’s important to make sure that you’re replacing the animal products in your diet with healthy, whole foods instead of empty calories or starch to make sure you’re filling in the dietary gaps.
Don’t be afraid of fortified foods, like cereals, fortified soy, and grains; these should be included in the diet as they have important nutrients that might be lacking in a vegan or vegetarian diet.
And especially if you’re vegan, you might want to consider supplementation to meet your needs. Finding a good vitamin B12 supplement or multivitamin with B12 and some vegan DHA capsules can help ensure that your needs are being met.
Are you a vegan or vegetarian? Would you ever consider it? Comment below and let me know your thoughts!
Clarys P, Deliens T, Huybrechts I, et al. Comparison of nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet. Nutrients. 2014;6(3):1318-32.
Craig WJ. Health effects of vegan diets. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(5):1627S-1633S.
Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets: what do we know of their effects on common chronic diseases?. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(5):1607S-1612S.
Sabaté J, Wien M. Vegetarian diets and childhood obesity prevention. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(5):1525S-1529S.
Scarborough P, Appleby PN, Mizdrak A, et al. Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Clim Change. 2014;125(2):179-192.