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How to choose between a vegetarian and vegan diet

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For anybody considering a lifestyle change, trying to decide between a vegetarian and vegan diet can be difficult. Here’s a helpful guide.

Let’s start with the simple question: what’s the difference between a vegetarian and vegan diet? Vegans consume nothing that has any animal derivatives included. Animal products of any kind are strictly negated, meaning that in addition to cutting out meat, fish and poultry, dairy and eggs are also excluded.

A vegetarian diet — also called a lacto-ovo vegetarian lifestyle — will usually include a fair amount of dairy, with calcium consumption being cited as a primary motivation. Deciding to avoid eggs results in the lacto-vegetarian label being applied.

The vegan diet is commonly combined with an ethical belief system with animal equality at its core.

Which is healthier?

vegetarian and vegan dietThere are demonstrable health benefits to both vegetarian and vegan diet choices, as plant-based food has been proven to reduce the risk of certain conditions, such as type 1 Diabetes, high cholesterol and even PCOS. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has even discussed how — despite many new parents’ fears — both vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy for babies and toddlers. But which is the most healthy, overall?

The word ‘healthy’ can be misleading, as lettuce is good for you, but won’t provide balanced nutrition with all of the minerals and nutrients that you need. Both vegetarian and vegan diets can be perfectly balanced and promote wellbeing, but certain elements must be considered.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Essential for heart health, reduced likelihood of inflammatory diseases and even defence against depression. Traditional sources are fish-based, making them unsuitable for both vegetarians and vegans, but supplements are easy to find, as are ingredients that can be added to daily diets. Good sources of omega include chia seeds, brussel sprouts, walnuts and flax seeds.

Adequate sources of iron

Bodies need iron to grow and healthy blood depends on it too, so this is not an area to skimp on. Omnivores will cite red meat as a good source of iron, but overlook the drawbacks. There are plenty of plant sources that give you the boost you need with no cholesterol fears, including red kidney beans, chickpeas, spinach and quinoa.

Sources of vitamin B12

This is a trickier issue for vegans, as there are no plant foods that naturally offer a dose of B12. Omnivores and vegetarians can get their fix from dairy products and eggs, but vegans will need to seek out either special supplements or fortified foods, such as certain cereals, that have the vitamin added in.

One of the most popular sources for vegans is nutritional yeast, also referred to as ‘nooch’. This is a dry product that can be added to cooking and brings a nutty and cheesy flavour to the table. Vegans the world over love nooch, so don’t let the name put you off.

As long as a balanced diet is maintained, you can be healthy as either a vegetarian or a vegan, but there are things to be wary of and ethical considerations to think about when choosing your path.

Vegetarian or vegan: which is right for you?

vegetarian and veganThere are three widely accepted main motivations when taking a radically different dietary path: health, environment and animals. Your driving force could help you decide whether you are destined for the vegan lifestyle or a vegetarian one.

Health

Both diets will necessarily include fruits, vegetables and a host of items that are healthier than meat, but beware the trappings of dairy. Often high in calories, fat and cholesterol, dairy products can quickly become a crutch when transitioning away from meat and fish, with cheese being likened to a drug in its ability to become addictive. Even vegan cheese producers are willing to admit that giving up their beloved snack was a near-impossible feat, but they manage and so can you.

To enjoy improved health, you should be looking to move away from processed foods high in salt and saturated fats. The easiest way to achieve this is to shift your attention to whole foods. Meat and dairy alternatives are fantastic, as a treat, but relying on them too heavily while you transition will replace one unhealthy eating habit with another, so radical thinking is required, as well as a commitment to yourself.

Many people find that moving straight to a vegan diet is better, as it cuts out the middle stage and gets them on a healthier path far more quickly. Though weight loss isn’t the primary motivator for a lot of vegans, it can be a welcome side effect of a drastic lifestyle change.

Environment

Climate change concerns are fast becoming a primary motivator for people looking to change their diet. An easy way to reduce personal impact, avoiding meat also contributes to a wider shift in consumer demand that is then addressed by food manufacturers. As global demand for meat falls, so too will the harmful effects of the industry. This is why initiatives such as Meat Free Mondays have taken off, as they ease people into a new way of thinking about their meal planning. From here, many move towards more vegetarian days than omni, before maybe signing up to Veganuary, to see if living meat-free could be a permanent change.

Environmental concerns can lead to either a vegetarian or vegan diet, with personal tastes usually driving the final decision.

Animals

When animals are cited as the reason for considering a new diet, there is no option but to head straight to vegan. This is a fully ethical motivation and to waste time trying to gradually move from omnivore to vegetarian before finally embracing veganism is merely a disservice to your guiding force.

When you consider that animals used in dairy production are subjected to untold cruelty and a total lack of autonomy, continuing to buy cheese, milk and the like will simply demonstrate a demand for the practices to continue. By voting with your ethics and your feet, a significant drop in demand can be recorded, leading to fewer animals being systematically abused.

It is worth noting that if ethics are your main motivation for moving towards a vegan lifestyle, you might also need to rethink the way you shop for clothes and other items as well.

All of the above can come together as one enormous shift in perception, which will mean that you are destined for a vegan lifestyle. If you are simply thinking about trying to improve your health or reducing your carbon footprint, vegetarianism is a viable option for you.

Can you try both and make a decision?

Of course. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to your diet and despite many jokes about them, there isn’t a vegan police force looking to come and arrest you for eating cheese. 

If you are interested in trying a vegan diet, by all means, do, but don’t punish yourself if you find it unsustainable. It might simply be that you need to do a little more research, spend longer meal planning or connect with other vegans for a bit of support. You might also just be better suited to being vegetarian, in which case, well done for still reducing your impact on the world.

It’s easy to fall into a judgmental mindset when comparing vegetarian and vegan diets but that doesn’t help anybody and detracts from the real issues. Stay focused, true to yourself and your body and you’ll be able to sleep easy knowing you made the right decision.

Amy
Amy Buxton
Amy is a committed ethical vegan, raising a next generation compassionate human with her husband and beloved dog, Boo. A freelance writer with a background in PR, she decided to use the COVID lockdown period to refocus her client base and has come to The Vegan Review as a senior writer and editor. "What we should be doing is working at the job of life itself" is Amy's mantra, courtesy of Tom from The Good Life.