Self, Health And Wellness

What's The Difference Between Vegan And Vegetarian Diets (And How To Know Which One's For You)

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difference between vegan and vegetarian

I grew up in Texas, which is considered a heavy meat-eating state. I've been anemic since age two, so when I chose to become a vegetarian, people were quite concerned for my health. Everyone thought I had to eat meat (including lots of liver) to prevent my anemia from getting worse.

What's more, my friends and family were shocked that I was going to raise my children with a vegetarian diet, too. They were certain my children would have stunted growth, and that I would be depriving them of a normal childhood.

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Even with these concerns, I pushed on, and now I’ve been a vegetarian over 30 years.

When I became a vegetarian, my health improved dramatically, and my children’s health was so good that my pediatrician said they were the healthiest children he had ever seen. My son grew to be 6’1” (not stunted growth for sure!) and was a great tennis and baseball player with an abundance of energy. 

However, in my many years of being a vegetarian, I've found that the difference between vegan and vegetarian diets often confuses people.

So what is the real difference?

Here's how vegan vs. vegetarian dietary choices differ — and how you can get started embracing a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle today:

What is a vegetarian?

The most mainstream understanding of a vegetarian is called an ovo-lacto vegetarian. This is a person that avoids any animal products that require slaughtering an animal, but still still eat animal by-products, including dairy and eggs. Specifically, non-fertile eggs and vegetarian milk products — such as cheeses that don’t have rennet in them (rennet is made from the stomach lining of an animal) — are allowed. Instead of using rennet, vegetarian cheeses are made with vegetable rennet, vegetable enzymes or figs.

Within the vegetarian category, there are sub-sets that each have different dietary practices:

  • Lacto-Vegetarians: A lacto-vegetarian only allows milk and milk products in his or her diet, no eggs.

People who eat chicken and fish are technically not vegetarians, but many call themselves vegetarian anyway — that’s why there is frequently confusion about this point:

  • Pescetarian: The people who eat fish, but no other type of meat, are pescetarian. However, many people who are pescetarian still refer to their diet as vegetarianism. This is very common and can also be called pesco-vegetarian.  
  • Pesce-pollo vegetarian: Then, there is the person who eats chicken and fish, but avoids red meat. This type of diet is not truly vegetarian.

What is a vegan? 

A vegan, on the other hand, avoids eating ALL products that have an animal origin. A vegan may even avoid honey because it is made by bees.

What's more, many vegans will even go so far as to not use products such as wool, leather, silk, fur, wool, gelatin, lanolin, rennet, whey, casein, beeswax, shellac, carmine, bone, or fat for their bodies or lives. They don’t use products that can be made by exploiting a living creature in any way.

For example, if you really look into the dairy and egg industries, you will find very cruel treatment of the chickens, roosters, turkeys, gees, and cows. If you are wishing to avoid purchasing foods that are obtained by treating creatures in a horrific and cruel manner, then a vegan diet may be the best option for you. 

When I started learning about how the egg industry treats their chickens, and the dairy industry treats its cows and calves, it made me switch to a virtually all vegan diet. (If you want to learn more about this, I have three interviews with the Woodstock Farm sanctuary on my podcasts.)

What are the health benefits of eating a vegetarian or vegan diet?

If you are wondering if a vegetarian or vegan-based diet is right for you, you might consider these finds: In a recent study of over 6,000 people, those with a high protein intake (of particularly animal proteins) were at three times the risk of death due to cancer than those in the low protein intake groupWhat's more, these associations of death by disease were completely eradicated if the ingested proteins were "plant-derived." 

That's because the composition of complex amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, that are derived from animals act very differently than the amino acids derived from plant proteins. What our bodies need are amino acids — not the proteins themselves. 

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How can you make a vegan or vegetarian diet work for you?

Every new change requires that first step. After that, it gets easier. The more you try to do it, the more comfortable it becomes. And before you know it, you are completely vegan or vegetarian and loving it!

If you decide to give a vegan or vegetarian diet a try, you will learn how to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet, and as a result, you will find that you have more energy and feel better.

Some people fear that adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet means you have to give up all the good foods you're eating now. But there are ways to make those items healthier and fit into a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.

For example, the other day, I was in charge of making macaroni and cheese for a dinner party — yet, there was some apprehension from the dinner party hostess. I used organic, whole-grain pasta and flour, coconut oil, and rennet-free, organic cheeses from a farmer I know, who raises his animals in a truly cruelty-free way without hormones or antibiotics. And guess what — everyone loved it!

You can also use totally vegan cheeses in your recipes, and they taste just as delicious. (I have a few of these vegan cheese recipes in my book, Diabetes And Your Diet, if you're interested in giving one a try!)

On another occasion, I made nut cheese for the cheese dish I was asked to bring to a dinner party. It was received well and with curiosity. I am not sure I converted anyone to my way of eating, but I did enlighten some to the fact that you can make cheese that is actually pretty tasty from nuts, rather than dairy. 

All in all, I believe that you should see body and health react to certain foods and lifestyles.

A healthy lifestyle is all about balance — and a degree of flexibility to make these changes attainable.

For instance, I've found that I need to have a little flexibility when I travel to foreign countries, where I don’t always have everything exactly as I am used to. Some people, who have everything “set in stone” about how they are going to eat or live, often run into circumstances that are difficult, and they fall off the bandwagon entirely when things don’t go as planned.

Balance, flexibility, and the ability to adapt as well you can is often the difference between success and joy, or anger and frustration — whether it comes to vegan and vegetarian eating choices or other aspects of your lifestyle.

Listen to your heart, and try to do the best and right thing for yourself at the time. Life and our health are just that: personal choices. That's why I try not to push my way of thinking on others, but I do encourage others to adopt a similar dietary practice when they ask me for advice or help. 

For many of us in transition with new food choices — or life in general — it takes baby steps. Some people will find that eating a little cheese or eggs now and then makes the transition easier. Later, they may be able to cut something out completely.

Becoming a vegan or a vegetarian is a journey. Simply start the journey, and see where it takes you!

Nancy Addison CHC, AADP, is a nutrition and health specialist, who's been a vegetarian herself for most of her adult life. For more information about healthy vegan and vegetarian diets, go to or check out her award-winning books on Amazon.

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Medical Disclaimer: The information from Nancy Addison and Organic Healthy Lifestyle LLC is not offered for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of any disease or disorder, nor have any statements herein been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). We strongly encourage you to discuss topics of concern with your health care provider. The information provided is for informational purposes only.