Vegan, vegetarian—basically the same, right? Not so much. Both are diets in which people avoid eating meat, including beef, pork, chicken, seafood, and any other type of meat product derived from animal sources. But there are a few key differences that separate a vegan from a vegetarian.
Vegans typically adopt veganism as a holistic lifestyle, while vegetarianism is, in most cases, strictly about diet. Vegans:
Vegetarians are generally more flexible. Some wear leather, wool, and silk, and eat eggs and dairy. There are three different types of vegetarians:
In general, many of the core foods in a vegan or vegetarian diet are the same. Vegans, however, avoid honey (since it’s produced by bees) and products using gelatin, which comes from animal bones and hooves.
Ideally, both vegan and vegetarian diets consist of plenty of fruits and vegetables. Grains—rice, oats, barley, bread, and pasta—may also be a staple in both diets. Nuts such as almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, and hazelnuts can be healthy sources of protein for both vegans and vegetarians. Legumes, like lentils, black beans, and chickpeas supply both protein and fiber.
Many people decide to go vegan or vegetarian for ethical reasons. Vegans in particular tend to be passionate about the issues surrounding meat production and consumption. For them, refraining from consuming products derived from animal sources is a philosophical choice fueled by compassion.
Vegans often believe the meat industry, including factory farms, contributes greatly to the inhumane treatment of animals. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, also known as PETA, is the flagship organization supporting the vegan lifestyle. Not only are factory-raised animals typically kept in overcrowded enclosures, but often they’re pumped with hormones and antibiotics to help them grow bigger and survive the unsavory conditions at the farms, respectively. On top of the mistreatment of animals, vegans and vegetarians alike may also be worried about consuming meat products containing these hormones and antibiotics for personal health reasons.
And then there’s the adverse environmental impact linked to meat consumption. According to an article in the Washington Post:
“Any way you slice it, beef has the highest environmental cost of just about any food going, and the cow’s digestive system is to blame. Ruminants—cows, sheep, goats and also yaks and giraffes—have a four-chambered stomach that digests plants by fermentation. A byproduct of that fermentation is methane, a greenhouse gas with some 20 times the heat-trapping ability of carbon. One cow’s annual output of methane—about 100 kilograms—is equivalent to the emissions generated by a car burning 235 gallons of gasoline.” —Tamar Haspel
All of these concerns may be echoed by some vegetarians, although some individuals are less strict than their vegan counterparts.
Not all vegans and vegetarians choose their diets for moral reasons, however. Some opt out of meat, eggs, or dairy products because of food allergies or lactose intolerance. Defaulting to a diet free of shellfish and dairy eliminates the risk of reactions to these common allergenic foods.
Following a vegan or vegetarian diet can come with a host of health benefits:
A healthy version of these diets emphasize high fiber intake from foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. High-fiber diets are associated with digestive regularity and healthier body weight.
Going meatless can be beneficial to heart health. One in four deaths in the United States is caused by cardiovascular disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meat eaters are at a higher risk for this silent killer, according to a study in Cell Metabolism:
“Bacteria in the intestines convert carnitine, a protein building block that’s especially plentiful in beef, lamb, and venison, into compounds that speed up hardening and thickening of artery walls…” —Rita Rubin
Because it improves cardiovascular health, eating less meat has been shown to increase life expectancy. This is evident among residents of “blue zones”—areas around the world home to the highest number of centenarians (people who live to the age of 100 and more). According to observations by Dan Buettner, author of the New York Times best-selling book Blue Zones, many of these cultures consume a largely plant-based diet with little to no meat.
Excessive consumption of processed and red meat is linked to a higher cancer risk, according to the World Health Organization, via a study in Lancet.
Vegan or vegetarian diets are not without their risks, though. It’s easy for vegans and vegetarians to fall into a habit of eating processed foods and sugars, which can also increase cancer risk. Eating excessive refined carbohydrates (white rice, white flour pasta, white bread, potatoes) instead of whole grains can lead to weight gain, and even obesity and type II diabetes.
If the ethical reasons and health benefits of going vegan or vegetarian inspire you to take the leap, the best way to make the switch initially is to ease into it. Start with “Meatless Mondays”—experimenting with one vegan or vegetarian meal per week will help you to figure out if the lifestyle works for you. Going cold-turkey and putting too much pressure on yourself to overhaul your diet might set you up for failure.
There are so many delicious vegan- and vegetarian-friendly recipes to choose from, so your meatless meals will never be boring. Try these to start:
Remember, vegan recipes also qualify as vegetarian—so vegetarians can pull from either list!
Be mindful not to gravitate towards processed foods. In the absence of meat, frozen veggie burgers and fake hot dogs can look pretty tempting. Starchy foods can also be a trap for vegans and vegetarians—rice and potatoes are easy to access and prepare, and they’re very filling. As much as possible, stick to whole grains like:
Since the most convenient sources of protein—meat, eggs, and dairy—are animal-derived, vegans are at risk of running dangerously low on this nutrient. (Vegetarians can often meet their protein needs by eating eggs and/or dairy.) Luckily, some of the whole grains mentioned above contain some protein, including quinoa and buckwheat. Here are some excellent vegan protein sources:
Vegans can also easily become deficient in iron, which is critical for hemoglobin production. This protein facilitates red blood cells in delivering oxygen throughout the body. Low levels of oxygen can cause not only shortness of breath, but also inflame the sympathetic nervous system, causing irritability, anxiousness, and lack of focus. Over time, iron deficiency can lead to anemia. Optimally, women between the ages of 19 and 50 need around 18 milligrams of iron every day. Leafy green vegetables, legumes, and whole grains are good plant-based sources, but the iron in these foods are not as easily absorbed by the body as the iron found in animal protein. However, pairing them with vitamin C-rich foods can help with absorption. Try these:
Getting enough B12 is the trickiest part of the vegan nutritional puzzle—animal products are unmatched sources of this nutrient, which is responsible for making red blood cells, nerves, and DNA. The average adult needs 2.4 micrograms of B12 per day, and a deficiency can get pretty serious. Symptoms include numbness in the hands, impaired ability to walk, cognitive difficulties, and severe joint pain. A lack of B12 can potentially lead to neurological issues, so if these symptoms sound familiar, get yourself to the doctor for a diagnosis.
Before it becomes a problem, add a B12 supplement to your routine. For some individuals, the only way to fully absorb B12 may be in liquid form—either via a spray or regular injections.
Wondering who else is on the cruelty-free bandwagon? Here are some famous animal-loving vegans and vegetarians.
Vegan and vegetarian diets are not the only options for healthier eating. Closely related to veganism, the raw foods diet involves eating only uncooked vegetables, fruit, and grains out of the belief that heating food breaks down its nutrients and natural enzymes.
Pescetarians are people who eat seafood, but eschew other types of meat, including beef, pork, chicken, and other land animals. Pescetarianism echoes the Mediterranean diet, which is inspired by how people have traditionally eaten on Mediterranean islands: They favor plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, healthy fats such as olive oil, and herbs and spices over salt. Seafood replaces red meat, which is rarely consumed, if at all.
Some people go the opposite end of the spectrum from veganism to the Paleo diet. Followers of this lifestyle attempt to mirror the diet of our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors. Lean protein, particularly grass-fed beef, along with fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are at the center of this diet. Hardcore Paleo eaters avoid the following foods:
Proponents of Paleo believe it’s the healthiest diet for humans. Robb Wolf, a former research biochemist and New York Times best-selling author of The Paleo Solution – The Original Human Diet, is one of its more ardent supporters. Wolf’s take:
“The Paleo diet is the healthiest way you can eat because it is the ONLY nutritional approach that works with your genetics to help you stay lean, strong and energetic! Research in biology, biochemistry, Ophthalmology, Dermatology and many other disciplines indicate it is our modern diet, full of refined foods, trans fats and sugar, that is at the root of degenerative diseases such as obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression and infertility.”
Any of these can be healthy when done properly. (Even omnivores who eat plant-based foods as well as meat can enjoy perfectly good health.) Individual reasons for wanting to go vegan, vegetarian or Paleo vary. Some people do it for ethical reasons; some want to lose weight; and others might just feel better when sticking to a particular diet. Whatever diet you choose, be sure to pay attention to your nutritional needs.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont
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