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Vegetarian vs vegan: what you need to know before doing a plant-based diet

Vegetarian vs vegan eaters face challenges you should consider before converting to one of these diets – whether following the trend or for other reasons.

Up to 5 percent of American adults consider themselves to be vegetarians, according to a July 2012 Gallup poll, and 2% consider themselves vegan (livestrong.com). This percentage of vegetarians isn’t drastically different from other European countries, surprisingly. But, a 2006 survey found that 40% of India’s population, or 399 million people, are vegetarians (raw-food-health.net). This represents more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined.

Meanwhile, according to a report by research firm GlobalData, 1% of U.S. consumers claimed to be vegan in 2014, with this percentage rising to 6% in 2017. The numbers of vegans in United Kingdom and Australia are also growing rapidly (foodrevolution.org).

Before changing from a meat eating to a plant-based diet, be sure you consider the facts, because done improperly, the change can be devastating to your health.

Defining vegetarian vs vegan diets

Both vegetarians and vegans eat plenty of vegetables (surprise!), fruits, grains, nuts and legumes. Both typically avoid eating meat, poultry (chicken, turkey, duck, etc.) However, some people modify a straight vegetarian diet to:

  • pesco-vegetarian, also eating fish and seafood.
  • ovo-vegetarian, eating eggs but not dairy.
  • lacto-vegetarian, eating dairy but not eggs.

Even more rigid than those diets, vegans do not eat eggs, dairy products or any other animal products, including gelatin.

Why consider vegetarian vs vegan anyhow?

As I reference in my book, Digested – eating healthier made easier 3 ways, we should all ideally choose vegetables for 40-50% of what we eat. Our standard American diet does not come close to achieving this!

The most obvious reason for choosing any plant-based diet is for better health. Vegetables give us more nutrients and minerals than other food groups while being easier to digest.

vegetarian vs vegan pizza

One study found that people who eat a pro-vegetarian diet (70 percent of food intake is derived from plants) were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease (medicaldaily.com). Plant-based diets tend to reduce risk for many diseases and health conditions, from allergies to cancer.

When comparing vegetarian vs vegans specifically, vegans tend to have lower serum cholesterol and blood pressure, reducing their risk for heart disease. However, vegans also run the risk of not getting enough essential nutrition without supplementation.

Besides for better health, people choose to eat vegetarian or vegan diets due to:

  • environmental concerns (less water is needed to yield vegetables vs beef, beef emits more carbon dioxide, etc.).
  • religious beliefs.
  • animal welfare concerns (these people also typically choose cruelty-free cosmetics and other goods NOT made from animal by-products such as wool or leather).
  • cost.

Critical considerations for vegetarian and vegans

When not done carefully, vegetarian and vegan diets can leave you lacking several nutrients that are critical to your health. Let’s look at a list of those nutrients, along with the foods rich in them. Bolded items pertain only to vegetarians, whereas unbolded foods below are typically eaten by both vegetarians and vegans.

Calcium: broccoli, beans, leafy greens, sea vegetables, dairy, soy (fortified tofu), rice milks, almonds, sesame seeds

Vitamin D: eggs or dairy products, other products fortified with vitamin D

Protein: dairy, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, soy, quinoa, oatmeal

Iron: dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, etc.), beans, peas, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, soy nuts, tofu, peanut butter, cereals or breads fortified with iron

Omega-3 fatty acids: eggs (mostly in yolks), winter squash, pumpkin, nuts, seeds, soy

Vitamin B-12: eggs, dairy, cereals, orange juice or soy drinks fortified with vitamin B-12

Zinc: spinach, mushrooms, cashews, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, cocoa powder, yogurt, kefir

Vitamin B-12 remains the biggest concern when eating vegan, in particular, because eggs and dairy are our greatest food source for it. B-12 plays a significant role in the health of our bones, brain, heart and energy – so crucial without doubt!

For more information about getting protein from other foods sources, read High-protein diets: are they just a trend or truly healthy?

Also, whether eating vegetarian or vegan, it’s best to choose organic grain and soy products, since they are commonly genetically modified (GMOs) and sprayed with pesticides.

When contemplating vegetarian vs vegan:

  • consider your why, so you can better stick to it.
  • be sure you’re getting enough of all the essential nutrients.
  • only encourage kids to eat vegan under the care of a healthcare professional, because many of the essential ingredients will impact their growth and development.
  • if you do eat vegan, seriously consider taking supplements to ensure proper nutrition.

Even if don’t choose to go plant-based, at least choose to eat more plant-based – aiming for the 40-50% in vegetables each day!


*This blog is intended for use as a source of information and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice.