Nicole Duxbury | April 2, 2018

We all want to eat healthier, right? We all do our best to try and cut out foods that are “bad” for us, like saturated fat and refined sugar, and do our best to eat more that are “good” for us, like fruits and veggies. 

One approach that some people take in order to eat healthier is going vegetarian or vegan. Diets rich in plant foods, such as grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, reduce the risk of many chronic diseases. Animal products, especially fatty cuts of meat and full-fat dairy products, are linked to clogged arteries, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. 

But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s discuss the two different philosophies.

What’s the difference?

The defining line is pretty clear, yet can be confused by food companies. Both vegetarians and vegans do not eat any animal flesh: no chicken, pig, cow, seafood or any other animal. However, in addition to rejecting animal meat, vegans also choose not to eat eggs, dairy or any other product derived from an animal. The majority of vegetarians generally do eat eggs and dairy products like milk and butter, though some also choose not to. Vegans also do not use any products that have been tested on animals, like makeup and skin creams.  They also avoid use of goods made from animal skins such as leather belts and shoes. Vegetarians tend to be a bit more lenient when it comes to using products derived from animals, but of course preferences vary from person to person. For example: You might meet a vegetarian who doesn’t eat meat or dairy but eats eggs, or a vegetarian who doesn’t eat meat or eggs but still wears leather.

Fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts are staples of both the vegan and vegetarian diets. Many who take on these diets also introduce tofu as a replacement for meat-based products. 

Reasons for changing

While some vegans may cite nutritional concerns or food allergies as the primary reason for adhering to the diet, most adopt a vegan lifestyle for moral and political reasons. The vegan point of view tends to be that an animal’s purpose in his or her lifetime is not to be exploited by man, and that commercialization of animals involves a fundamental, inhumane component and lack of respect for basic life. 

There are many reasons one might be vegetarian. A prominent aspect is for health concerns, as the vegetarian diet is often high in fiber while also being low in sugar and saturated fats. Similarly, some adopt vegetarianism due to growing concerns about food safety when it comes to meat. Moral and/or political reasons are also common; for example, some have embraced vegetarianism (and veganism) for environmental reasons.

Others make their decision based on religious practices, like Hinduism and Jainism, which prescribe or encourage vegetarianism. Even some Christian sects practice abstinence from animal products during Lent. 

Health benefits of going plant-based

In general, most studies show that vegans and vegetarians are as healthy, if not healthier than, their meat-eating counterparts. Veganism is clearly good at eliminating common food allergens, such as shellfish and dairy, as they are simply not consumed. A plant-based diet is high in complex carbohydrates from whole grains and root vegetables, such as potatoes and carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, etc. 

There are many ongoing studies of the advantages and disadvantages of the vegan and vegetarian diets, which indicate health benefits. U.S. News & World Report ranked the vegan diet number nineteen on its list of best diets overall. It also ranks in the top ten for best weight-loss diets, best-heart-healthy diets, and best diabetes diets. However, it's important to note that these benefits could also be attributed to the fact that the vegetarian group tended to exercise more, consume less alcohol, and smoke less compared to meat-eaters. 

Overall, determining whether these diets directly affect long-term health outcomes is difficult. The different types of vegetarians are rarely studied against each other, for instance, and vegans and vegetarians often tend to be more affluent or health-conscious, both of which positively affect long-term outcomes. 

Risks of a vegan diet

A notable downside to the vegan diet is that vegans often need to take B12 supplements — and sometimes (depending upon how thoughtful you are to craft a well-balanced diet) other dietary supplements, such as amino acids, iron or vitamin D — as their diet tends to lack these essential nutritional components. There is also a risk that a meatless diet does not contain enough protein, which is especially concerning for growing children. It’s also a concern for those looking to put on significant muscle mass: vegan bodybuilders do exist, but you better believe that they get a LOT of their protein from powders and supplements. If you're interested in learning more about supplementing your diet, check out our post on that topic here.

Famous Vegetarians and Vegans

Many well-known celebrities, activists and politicians, artists, and sports figures adhere to vegan or vegetarian diets. Famous vegans include singers Carrie Underwood and Erykah Badu, Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis, actor and musician Jared Leto, and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. Among vegetarians, there is Coldplay singer Chris Martin, comedian Ellen DeGeneres, Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi, and actors Natalie Portman and Peter Dinklage. 

Other factors to consider

Vegan and vegetarian diets are beneficial to humans, animals, and the environment. They’re also nutritionally sound; eating more fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains and legumes, generously increases a person’s daily dose of healthy vitamins, protein, and fiber.

That said, there’s a lot to consider when making a decision regarding either one of these diets. For one, veganism is very restrictive. While protein and iron can be otherwise sourced, vitamin B12, usually found in animal products, is harder to get. B12 is important for the way the body functions: it helps in the production of healthy red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body.

Despite the advantages, some vegans and vegetarians abandon the diet after time, deciding that they feel too restricted. A dietary shift this large is certainly not a decision to take lightly, and does carry various responsibilities with it.  But those who stick with it often find improvements in their health that make it worthwhile.

Experts like Mark Bittman, food journalist, would suggest not to go all-vegan or all-vegetarian at once. Just like with fitness, it’s unrealistic to expect that you can make a massive life shift in one day. Bittman suggests gradually phasing meat out of your diet, while adding more vegan- and vegetarian-friendly options. “Meatless Mondays” are a great way to do this, for example. If you are considering making a switch to a plant-based diet, we advise you to consult your doctor or a registered dietitian or nutritionist before making this change.