Vegan, Vegetarian, and Plant-Based Are All Different. Here’s How.

If you’re feeling a bit confused by all the names for diets for people who don’t eat meat and other animal products, you’re not alone.

“It is easy to mix up the labels for different types of plant-based eating,” says Sarah Skovran,R.D.N., a vegan dietitian. “One reason is that people aren’t always consistent in the words they use to describe eating, and another reason is that there are words that sound similar but have important distinctions, like the difference between vegan and vegetarian.”

And then there are the many subsets of eating approaches within these categories—like dietary nesting dolls: ovolactovegetarians, flexitarian, pescatarian, raw vegan.

“For as long as there have been people following vegan and vegetarian diets, there have been many other people confused about these diets,” says Ashley Petrie, R.D.N, L.D.N. “Many people believe that the terms vegan and vegetarian are interchangeable while others have some knowledge of vegetarianism, but have no clue what a vegan is.”

Even though there’s overlap between vegan and vegetarian diets, there are some major differences. “In terms of food, a vegan will not eat eggs or dairy or other animal ingredients. A vegetarian usually excludes only meat,” says Skovran. If a vegetarian were to eat a cheese pizza, for example, Skovran says a vegan eater could modify this by skipping the cheese or using a cheese-alternative. “If a vegetarian were to have scrambled eggs, a vegan could instead have scrambled tofu,” she adds.

If you’re reading this, perhaps you’re thinking about embracing a vegan diet. Or wait, is that plant-based? Or, hmmmm, is it vegetarian eating that you want to try after all? Well we’ve got you covered. Ahead, an in-depth breakdown of what being vegetarian, plant-based, and more really means.

What is a vegan?

A vegan is someone who does not consume any animal products including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and honey, says Petrie.

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That said, some vegans make an exception and consume honey; others even eat oysters since their farming is good for the environment. Like any diet, personal decisions are a big factor.

“Depending on the person, some avoid foods that are made using parts of an animal for manufacturing. For example, granulated sugar is made using cattle bone char,” she says.

One more thing to note about this lifestyle: “Additionally, most people who consider themselves vegan do not use animal products in other parts of their lives: skincare, haircare, clothing, furniture,” says Skovran.

What is a vegetarian?

Pass the vegetable omelet and cheese pizza, please.

“A vegetarian is a person who does not consume meat, but many will eat eggs and dairy. Some vegetarians will also avoid other ingredients that require killing an animal, like gelatin and collagen,” says Skovran.

As Petrie notes, vegetarians are also generally less concerned with the manufacturing process of foods than vegans.

Differences between vegan and vegetarian

As mentioned above, the biggest difference between a vegan diet and a vegetarian diet is abstaining from all animal foods (vegan) versus many animal foods (vegetarian).

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“A person following a vegan diet tends to avoid consuming all animal products. A vegetarian may be less concerned with consuming animal products that simply come from an animal (i.e., eggs, honey), but do not result in the animal’s death,” says Petrie, noting that many vegetarian meals can easily be made vegan by swapping out a few ingredients.

For example, Petrie says, a veggie burger with cheese on top could be substituted with dairy-free cheese or even avocado. “Pasta salad is another great example—you can either swap out the mayonnaise for a vegan mayonnaise or use an oil and vinegar-based dressing instead.”

What is plant-based?

Ah, the ever-popular buzzword.

As Skovran says, plant-based is a tricky term, as people use it differently. “Some people eat a completely vegan diet, but do not follow a vegan lifestyle (in personal care products, or clothing, for example), and consider themselves plant-based. Some people call themselves plant-based if they eat a mostly vegan or vegetarian diet, but make some exceptions,” she says.

In fact, when we polled dietitians, chefs, and plant-based experts a few years ago, no one could really agree on what “plant-based” actually means.

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“Some people consider themselves plant-based if they eat vegetarian or vegan at home, but not in restaurants or when guests at other people’s homes. Some people eat no meat or dairy or eggs, but will consume items with other animal-derived ingredients such as gelatin or collagen, and call themselves plant-based.”

She also elaborates that there are also people who are vegan for health reasons, rather than ethical reasons, and refer to themselves as plant-based. “And then there are people who are vegan, but don’t like the word, so they use plant-based,” says Skovran.

Skovran’s favorite definition of plant-based was a client who told her she wished she could be vegan, but couldn’t give up bacon. “I said, ‘So why not be vegan except for bacon?’ and so she is!”

difference between vegan and vegetarian

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This variety in use of this word makes it difficult to offer specific meal examples. Still, think vegetable-forward, minimally processed fare and you’re probably on the right track. “I personally would consider an entirely vegan meal to be plant-based. However, others would consider a meal that is plant-forward, like a stir-fry of vegetables over rice with just a small amount of meat, to be plant-based,” says Skovran. Petrie provides the examples of vegetable lentil soup or chickpea tikka masala as great examples of plant-based meal ideas.

The different types of vegetarians (flexitarian, lacto, ovo)

As you can gather, there are many ways to veg up your eating plan. Petrie defines the following categories:

  • Flexitarian: A flexitarian is someone who usually follows a vegetarian diet, but they do allow themselves to eat meat or fish occasionally.
  • Lacto: A lacto vegetarian avoids eggs in addition to meat and seafood, but will still consume dairy products.
  • Ovo: An ovo vegetarian avoids dairy products in addition to meat and seafood, but they will still consume eggs.
  • Lacto-ovo: A lacto-ovo vegetarian will consume both dairy and eggs, but will not consume meat or seafood. (As Skovran points out, this is the most common meaning when someone uses the word “vegetarian.”)
  • Pescatarian: A vegetarian who will consume fish.

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