Those who don’t eat meat often deem themselves a “vegetarian,” period. The end. Take a deeper dive into history and current dietary practices, however, and you’ll soon find that there are actually many types of vegetarians with varying rules about what animals and animal products (if any) earn a spot on their plates. It’s complicated to say the least, but each iteration of plant-inclusive eating banks its own benefits for health and the environment.
Skipping out on meat and animal-derived ingredients has a culturally-diverse history. The practice of “ahmisa” or nonviolence has long characterized the diets of Indian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Plant-based diets are deeply embedded in many African culinary traditions—particularly in Zimbabwean and Ghanaian cuisine. America has its own complicated history of skipping out on animal agriculture in the name of health, ethics, and even remedying climate anxiety. In fact, nearly every continent has its own connection with eating a diet composed of mostly plants.
With such an abundance of rich and varied lineages of vegetarianism, it makes sense that many degrees of plant-based eating are now practiced globally. So that you can get to know them all, dietitian Dana Hunnes, RD, PhD, adjunct professor at the University of California Los Angeles, breaks down the eight most common types of vegetarians below.
Get to know the 8 types of vegetarians—from flexitarians to ovo-vegetarians to raw vegans
“Vegetarians are people who do not eat meat, but may be flexible in terms of eating eggs, milk, cheese, and other products that may be derived from animals,” says Dr. Hunnes. “They simply do not eat meat.” Those other products may include things like honey, gelatin, collagen, or white sugar.
As their name suggests, flexitarians are flexible (like, the splits flexible) when it comes to diet. “Flexitarians are people who eat mostly vegetarian but who may be more willing to eat animal products sometimes,” says Dr. Hunnes. For example, they may okay a steak that’s grass-fed or opt-in to pasture-raised eggs. The Planetary Health Diet is an offshoot of flexitarianism, too.
“Pescatarians are vegetarians who will eat fish and fish products, and who may or may not also eat dairy or eggs,” says Dr. Hunnes. People often choose the pescatarian diet as a starting point for eating less animal-derived protein, then slowly phase out fish as well.
A more specific type of vegetarian is the lacto-ovo-vegetarian who eats both eggs and dairy products, but says no to poultry, fish, red meat, and other animals. This is the fancy Latin name for what most people mean when they call themselves vegetarians.
“Yes to milk, cheese, and yogurt! No to eggs,” say the lacto-vegetarians.
“I will eat eggs, but no dairy products or other animal products! None of that,” say the ovo-vegetarians.
“Vegans do not eat any animal products whatsoever—no eggs, no dairy, no fish oils, and no derived products either,” says Dr. Hunnes. Vegans will also abstain from eating things like honey, gelatin, collagen, and even white sugar, as well as using animal products in other parts of their lives, from cosmetics to clothing.
8. Raw vegans
Raw vegans do not eat cooked foods, period, as a testament to what human beings would eat in the wild without access to fire. These raw eaters will only consume unprocessed plant foods that have not been heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit. This type of diet is often met with a lot of scientific scrutiny because many vegetables—like asparagus, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes, for example—actually become more nutritionally valuable when you cook them up before nomming them down. (Plus, seems really difficult and limiting to practice.)
The benefits of eating more plants, less meat—no matter which type of vegetarianism you go for
1. Eating less meat is associated with positive health outcomes and better gut health
“Health-wise, most people would be much healthier to eat a plant-based diet, including vegetarian or vegan,” says Dr. Hunnes. “Most diseases that people die from in the United States are chronic nutrition-related diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Eating a standard American diet puts you at four times the risk of dying from cancer than eating a vegan, whole-foods diet.” In addition, vegetarian diets focusing primarily on whole, non-processed foods encourage you to eat a diverse array of plants, which researchers have linked with better overall gut health.
2. All types of vegetarians put less strain on the environment
A 2016 study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States demonstrated that switching from a traditional American diet to a vegetarian or vegan diet could result in a 29 to 70 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions. “From an environmental standpoint, eating a vegetarian or better vegan diet is one of the most impactful things you can do to lower your personal greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment,” says Dr. Hunnes. Eating fewer animal products can also significantly decrease the amount of water your diet requires and diminish the amount of land it takes to produce your food.
3. Skipping meat aligns with many people’s ethics
“There is no question that taking animal foods off the table is without a doubt far more ethical,” says Dr. Hunnes. “99 percent of the beef eaten in the U.S. live in CAFOs where they are confined and have no semblance of natural behaviors. The vast majority of dairy cows are forcibly impregnated so they will produce milk after birth and their babies are taken from them immediately after birth.” Sadly, these just scratch the surface of the atrocities that occur in big farming that may concern you if you are interested in what happens before your food reaches your fridge.
However, it should be noted that all farming—from meat production to plant agriculture—has some serious work to do when it comes to labor ethics, particularly in the treatment of immigrant farm workers. So don’t assume that your vegan diet is inherently cruelty-free without exploring and thinking about the treatment of the humans who grow, pick, and package your food.
The 2 most common FAQs people usually have before going vegetarian
1. How will I eat enough protein, though?
This is a BIG question for prospective vegetarians and vegans. Protein has many functions in your body, including building your hair and nails, repairing your body’s tissue, and helping you digest your food. So, of course, you want to do everything your power to hit your daily quota (about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which rings in at around 54 to 68 grams per day for a 150-pound woman). While meat and meat products are the clear front-runners in bang for your protein buck, with a little bit of craftiness, you can hit that number within the boundaries of vegetarianism. You’ll want to reach for high-protein plants like soy, pistachios, quinoa, hemp, seeds, and chia seeds. This recipe, for example, proves that a high-protein meal isn’t mutually exclusive from a vegan one.
More info on squeezing protein into a plant-based diet:
2. What about B12? I’ve heard that vegetarians and vegans struggle to get enough.
Also true! Vitamin B12 is essential for lifting your mood and keeping you keyed up energy-wise, and it’s found almost exclusively in animals and animal products. You don’t have to sacrifice those benefits with a vegetarian or vegan diet, however. The good news is that you can purchase B12 vitamins to help fill this gap, or if you’re only a vegetarian, you can make a point of eating milk and eggs to fulfill this need. Problem solved.
To keep things short and sweet, the various types of vegetarians are indicative of the long history attached to abstaining from excluding certain animals or animal products from your diet. However, any plant-forward eating plan has the potential to benefit your health and that of the environment. Before you dive right in, you’ll likely want to strategize how to stock your pantry so you can consume enough protein and B12, then you can test out what style of vegetarianism suits you best. Enjoy your veggies, fam.