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What is the Difference Between a Vegan and a Vegetarian?

A vegan is a kind of vegetarian, but not all vegetarians are vegans.


Tofu, almonds, broccoli and olive oil, still life
[Tom Grill]/[The Image Bank]/Getty Images

To many people, the difference between a vegan and a vegetarian may not seem clear. When talking about issues other than diet, things can get even more confusing.

What is a Vegetarian?

A vegetarian is someone who doesn't eat meat, whether the reason is health, the environment or the animals. The term "lacto-ovo vegetarian" is sometimes used to specify that the person does eat dairy and eggs.

Anyone who doesn't eat meat is considered vegetarian, including vegans, lacto-vegetarians, ovo-vegetarians, and lacto-ovo vegetarians. A vegetarian diet is sometimes called a meatless or meat-free diet.

Vegetarians do not eat animal flesh. While some people may use the terms "pesco-vegetarian" to refer to someone who eats fish, or "pollo-vegetarian" to be someone who eats chicken, they are not types of vegetarians. Similarly, a "flexitarian" - someone who chooses to eat vegetarian some of the time but eats meat at other times - is not a vegetarian.

What is a Vegan?

Vegans do not consume animal products, including meat, fish, fowl, eggs, dairy, honey or gelatin. Instead, vegans eat grains, beans, nuts, fruits, vegetables and seeds. While the diet may seem severely restricted compared to the standard American diet (often abbreviated "SAD"), it's not just salads. A look at vegan gourmet foods should convince just about anyone that a vegan diet can be delicious and filling. Because vegans do not eat meat, vegans are a type of vegetarian. However, veganism is not just about food.

Diet v. Lifestyle/Philosphy

Veganism is more than a diet.

While the word "vegan" may refer to a cookie or a restaurant, and mean only that there are no animal products present, the word has come to mean something different when referring to a person. A person who is vegan is generally understood to be someone who abstains from animal products for animal rights reasons. A vegan may also be concerned about the environment and their own health, but the main reason for their veganism is their belief in animal rights. Veganism is a lifestyle and a philosophy that recognizes that animals have a right to be free of human use and exploitation. Veganism is an ethical stance.

Because veganism is about recognizing the rights of animals, it's not just about food. Vegans also avoid silk, wool, leather and suede in their clothing. Vegans also boycott companies that test on animals, and do not buy cosmetics or personal care products that contain lanolin, carmine, honey and other animal products. Zoos, rodeos and circuses with animals are also out, because of the oppression of the animals.

There are some people who follow a diet free (or almost free) of animal products for health reasons, including former U.S. president Bill Clinton. In these cases, the person is usually said to be following a plant-based diet. Some also use the term "strict vegetarian" to describe someone who does not eat animal products but may use animal products in other parts of their life, but this term is problematic because it implies that lacto-ovo vegetarians are not "strict" vegetarians.

When referring to diet, the main differences between vegans and vegetarians are eggs, dairy and honey. But veganism is about so much more than diet.

Doris Lin, Esq. is an animal rights attorney and Director of Legal Affairs for the Animal Protection League of NJ.

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