The Conscious Gut

Vegan vs Vegetarian: Is There A Winner In This Tug-Of-War?

There are numerous diets out there that promise to get you back in shape, but not all of them can do so in a healthy way. The process of weight loss can either be extremely dangerous or completely safe depending on which method you use. And since your wellness should always be your number one priority, you should always opt for healthy weight loss methods. Some people consider vegan and vegetarian diets to be the healthiest and the most effective ones. But if you compare vegan vs vegetarian, which is better? What is the difference between vegan vs vegetarian diets? Read on to find out more about these two popular nutrition plans.

Vegan vs Vegetarian Diet

Before bogging down in the details of how similar or different vegan vs vegetarian diets are, first you need to understand their definitions.

Vegan diet

The Vegan Society defines veganism as a nutritional philosophy and a lifestyle that completely bans the consumption of any animal products with the aim of reducing the levels of all forms of exploitation of and cruelty towards animals. It encourages the use of animal-free alternatives for the sake of animal and environmental wellness (8).

In terms of food consumption, you are required to exclude all types of foods, fully or partially derived from animals, including meat, dairy, eggs, and even honey. And while some choose to stick to this dietary plan in order to reach their desired weight, for others, veganism is a full-time philosophical lifestyle choice.

There are different types of vegan diets, such as raw-food veganism, which is based on the consumption of raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and other plant-based foods. There is also a whole-food type of vegan diet, which requires the consumption of whole plant foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds (3).

Vegetarian diet

Vegetarianism is a diet free of meat, fish, and fowl flesh. But like with veganism, there are different types of a vegetarian diet. Here are some of the most popular types of this nutritional plan (24, 22):

  • Lacto-vegetarian diet

Lacto-vegetarian diet allows you to consume dairy but bans meat, fish, and eggs.

  • Ovo-vegetarian diet

The ovo-vegetarian diet limits the intake of meat, fish, and dairy but allows you to eat eggs.

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet

Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet requires you to avoid meat and fish but allows eggs and dairy.

  • Pescatarian diet

People who follow a pescatarian diet can eat fish, seafood, dairy and eggs but are not allowed meat.

  • Fruitarian diet

The Fruitarian diet is based on fruits, nuts, seeds, and other plant food.

  • Flexitarian diet

A flexitarian diet mostly follows the rules of a basic vegetarian diet but allows occasional consumption of moderate amounts of meat and fish.

Vegan vs Vegetarian Health Benefits

Both these nutritional plans have similar health benefits to offer since they overall encourage quite healthy eating habits. However, besides certain advantages, these two diets could also have potential risks. Since it is extremely important to know both before you decide whether to go on a certain diet, let’s start with the vegan vs vegetarian health benefits. Here are the health benefits of a vegan diet:

Vegan diet health benefits

  • Improved heart health

In a 2019 study on plant-based diets associated with lower risk of incident cardiovascular disease, authors found that nutritional plans that include more plant foods and limit the consumption of animal products are linked to a lower risk of death from cardiovascular diseases in a general population (10). Such diets as a vegan diet also provide for a lower calorie intake, which promotes lower body mass index (BMI) and reduced chance of obesity, which is a major risk factor for heart disease.

  • Reduced risk of diabetes

A 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis of studies on the effects of a plant-based diet on the risk of type II diabetes showed that increased intake of plant-based foods, rich in essential nutrients, such as various vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, is associated with the reduced risk of this chronic disease (2). This means that following a mostly plant-based diet may help you prevent type II diabetes.

  • Lower risk of cancer

According to a systematic review with meta-analysis, eating a vegan diet may reduce a person’s risk of cancer by 15%. This health benefit may be due to the fact that plant foods are high in fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals — biologically active compounds in plants — that protect against cancers.

  • Reduced risk of cancer

A 2017 systematic review implies that sticking to a vegan diet may reduce one’s risk of cancer by 15%. Such a beneficial effect of this nutritional plan is associated with a high content of fiber, vitamins and minerals, and other biologically active components that protect against cancer in plant foods (28).

Vegetarian diet health benefits

  • Reduced risk of chronic kidney disease

A recent study on plant-based diets and incident CKD and kidney function showed that following a healthy plant-based diet is linked to a reduced risk of developing chronic kidney disease. The study also showed that those who followed a diet rich in sugary foods and refined grains had a significantly higher risk of chronic kidney disease (17).

  • Lower cholesterol

A 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis on the effects of vegetarian diets on blood lipids showed that sticking to a vegetarian diet may lower the levels of total cholesterol along with “bad” and “good” cholesterol. It also suggests that following this type of diet can be recommended as a non-medicament method of managing dyslipidemia and hypercholesterolemia (12).

  • Improved blood sugar control and insulin response

Studies show that following a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts may promote better insulin response and boost blood sugar control. Both these aspects can help people reduce the risk of diabetes and various diabetes-related complications (23).

  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases

A 2014 study on the association between vegetarian diet and cardiovascular disease risk factors found that following a vegetarian diet may have a positive effect on heart health, in the form of reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (20).

  • Lower risk of cancer

A 2014 study on vegetarian diets and the incidence of cancer in a low-risk population implies that following a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet may reduce the risk of cancers overall and gastrointestinal cancer (27).

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Vegan vs Vegetarian Diet Health Risks

The American Dietetic Association states that properly planned vegetarian and vegan diets are safe and even beneficial at any stage of the life cycle. But they work only when they are well-balanced and provide you with all the essential nutrients. If they fail to do that, they can bear certain health risks, such as the following:

  • Vitamin B12 deficiency

Vitamin B12 is extremely important for the proper functioning of the human body. Lack of this micronutrient can lead to various health problems. Since vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal products, such as meat, eggs, and dairy, those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet may need to consider taking vitamin B12 supplements. This can help them prevent such unpleasant side effects of a vitamin B12 deficiency, as nerve damage and depression (26). People following a vegetarian or vegan diet should also opt for food items enriched with vitamin B12 when available.

  • Low bone density

Results of a meta-analysis that combined several studies imply that vegans may have a slightly higher risk of bone fracture compared to non-vegetarians. The results suggest that vegetarian diets, particularly vegan diets, are associated with lower bone mineral density, but the magnitude of the association is clinically insignificant (11).

Another study on the comparative fracture risk in vegetarians and nonvegetarians found that fracture risk was similar for meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians. In vegans, however, this risk was higher. This is associated with a lower calcium intake (7).

  • Micronutrients deficiency

A 2017 study shows that some vegetarians may not obtain the proper amount of vitamin B6 and B3 from their food, while those who follow a vegan diet may experience a higher risk of zinc deficiency than people who consume some animal products (16).

  • Coronary heart disease

Although a plant-based diet is considered to be beneficial for patients with coronary heart disease (CHD), not all plant-based foods always have such a positive effect. A 2017 study showed that a plant-based diet that emphasizes less healthy plant foods can lead to a significantly higher risk of a CHD, compared to the plant-based diet that focuses on healthy plant foods (14).

So, if you compare all the benefits and risks of the vegan vs vegetarian diet, you may still find it difficult to decide which is better, because they both have their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, lacto-ovo vegetarians obtain a proper amount of such essential nutrients as calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D from their diet, however following a vegan diet, which bans the consumption of dairy and eggs may help you reduce your cholesterol levels.

What to Eat When on Vegan vs Vegetarian Diet?

As you may have figured out by now, sticking to a plant-based diet doesn’t always lead to health improvements. Even vegetarians and vegans can lead a relatively unhealthy lifestyle and consume lots of empty calories in a form of junk food. That is why you should always make sure that you obtain all the essential nutrients from your diet. Here are some of the best vegetarian food sources of different nutrients for your body (25):

  • Iron: cereal products fortified with iron, whole grains, legumes, tofu, green leafy vegetables, and dried fruits.
  • Zinc: nuts, tofu, miso, legumes, wheat germ, and whole-grain foods.
  • Calcium: dairy products, plant-based milk drinks fortified with calcium, fortified cereals, fruit juices fortified with calcium, tahini (sesame seed paste), some brands of tofu, leafy dark green vegetables, legumes, broccoli, bok choy, some nuts such as almonds and Brazil nuts.
  • Iodine: bread (except those marked as ‘no added salt’), dairy products, eggs, seaweed, some plant-based milk drinks that include seaweed extracts, and iodized salt.
  • Protein: Eggs, milk, tofu, soy milk, nuts, nut butters, seeds, pulses, and cereals.
  • Alpha-Linolenic Acid (Omega-3): Canola oil, ground flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts, walnut oil, soybeans, and tofu.

If you follow a vegetarian nutritional plan, your menu can include the following foods (29):

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Legumes such as peas, beans, and lentils
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Breads, rice, and pasta
  • Dairy alternatives such as soymilk, oat milk, and almond milk
  • Vegetable oils
  • Hemp, flax, and chia seeds
  • Tofu and other minimally processed meat substitutes
  • Calcium-fortified plant milks and yogurts
  • Seaweed

How To Follow Vegan Or Vegetarian Diet?

As you already know, it is extremely important to make sure that your diet satisfies your daily nutritional requirements, otherwise you may fall victim to various nutrient deficiencies, which in turn lead to a slew of bad health-related chain reactions. Both vegetarian and vegan diets require thorough planning. In order to be able to obtain all the necessary nutrients from your diet, make sure that your meal plan includes a great variety of foods that your diet allows. You should also limit your consumption of such unhealthy foods and components as saturated and trans fats, sugary foods and beverages, and refined grains.

If you have already decided to start a vegan or vegetarian diet, make sure that you integrate slowly. Don’t rush and take your time. The period of transition from your regular diet to vegan or vegetarian can take from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. To make a transition more gradual start by replacing some of the animal-source ingredients in your meals with plant-based foods. Slowly increase the number of plant-based ingredients in your menu, eventually substituting all the restricted foods with the allowed products.

Vegan vs Vegetarian Weight Loss

Although vegan and vegetarian diets are quite similar, and the vegan diet is often considered a type of a vegetarian diet, these two nutritional plans differ when it comes to weight loss.

  • Vegetarian diet weight loss

A 2015 study on the high vegetable fats intake associated with high resting energy expenditure (REE) in vegetarians implies that a vegetarian diet high in vegetal fats may even boost metabolism. This means that Vegetarians and Vegans might burn more calories while at rest, making their weight loss efforts more effective. However, prospective studies are needed to recommend this type of dietary intervention in the general population (15).

  • Vegan diet weight loss

The results of a 2015 study of comparative effectiveness of plant-based diets for weight loss showed that vegan participants significantly decreased their levels of total fat and saturated fat, more than the pescatarian, flexitarian, and omnivorous groups at both 2 and 6 months. Research has also found that people who follow a vegan diet tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) (6).

A two-year randomized weight-loss trial comparing a vegan diet to a more moderate low-fat diet suggests that sticking to a vegan meal plan is more effective at weight loss than the diets it is compared to (1).

Another 2015 study on the dietary adherence and acceptability of five different diets, including vegan and vegetarian diets, for weight loss, implies that because the rates of acceptability and adherence among the diet groups are the same, following a vegan or vegetarian diet may lead to better weight loss results even among non-adherent participants (9).

Besides that, those who follow a vegan diet tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than vegetarians and seem to gain less weight as they age. A study implies that following a vegetarian diet may offer such benefits as reduced risk of cardiometabolic outcomes and some cancers, as based on the results of participants of the study. A no-meat diet and reduced intake of eggs and dairy products may offer an additional benefit, in the form of a reduced risk of obesity (4).

Another cross-sectional study implies that people who stick to a vegan diet overall have a lower BMI than vegetarians or those who follow a regular diet. This may possibly be explained by the fact that compared to other groups, Vegans tend to  have a lower daily calorie intake (31).

The Bottom Line: Which Diet Is Better, Vegan vs Vegetarian?

With the abundance of various diets circulating in the internet, it may be extremely difficult to choose the one that will fit your needs perfectly. One option is to try out some of the most popular weight-loss nutritional plans that have been previously tested and have scientific evidence to back up their results. Let’s take, for example, a vegan vs vegetarian diet. Both of these diets are very popular and gain more and more followers every day. It’s hard to say which one is safer since they both have their benefits and drawbacks. But when it comes to shedding pounds, people who follow a vegan diet seem to have better results than those who stick to vegetarianism.

It is important to remember that shifting to a vegan or vegetarian diet will not make a person healthy overnight. To notice any improvements in health, it is essential to plan your meals properly, include a variety of food to avoid any nutritional imbalances. Both of these diets require a lot of planning and attention to the nutritional value of your meals. This can be a good thing since it helps people think about the foods they eat and make positive choices. Make sure that you consult a dietitian before switching over to a new diet. Supplement your diet with some exercise to double your results.

Alexandra Danieli

Alexandra Danieli, CHC, The Conscious Gut
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