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The Difference Between Vegan and Vegetarian Diets

May 07, 2022 | Supplements and Nutrition

The history of vegetarianism stretches back through the ages; as far back as the Jain peoples in ancient India.  As a concept and practice, vegetarianism was directly linked to the non-violence towards animals and was widely endorsed and encouraged by various religious groups and philosophers of the time.  While the practice nearly dropped off entirely between the 4th and 6th centuries, a resurgence occurred during Medieval times, when monks eliminated meat from the diet for ascetic purposes. The upward growth of vegetarianism has seemingly continued from that point onward and from that, we’ve witnessed the birth of veganism. 

According to the Vegan Society, established some 75 years ago, the non-consumption of animals and animal based products has been around since as early as 500 BCE, though the concept of veganism didn’t arise until much, much later – 1806 approximately, when Dr. William Lambe and Percy B. Shelley were among the first people in Europe who refused to consume eggs and dairy for ethical reasons. Modern day veganism can be traced back to 1944 when a small but passionate group of people gathered to discuss the objection of the consumption of dairy and eggs.  In spite of the opposition they faced, even from within the vegetarian community, they held fast to their belief and decided that a new word would need to be ascribed to their cause, something a little more succinct, clearer than ‘non-dairy vegetarians’. ‘Vegan’ was settled on for two reasons. The first, is that it was concise, containing the first three and last two letters of ‘vegetarian’. Simple. The second, notable reason Donald Watson, founder of the society said, was that it was the ‘beginning and end of vegetarian’.

While both dietary lifestyles are similar in that the primary components of the diets are plant based, there are differences in the fundamental practices and impact on performance. Furthermore, vegetarianism can be subdivided into categories such as lacto-ovo vegetarianism, pescatarian, ovo-vegetarian and lacto-vegetarianism which means that eggs and dairy, fish, eggs only and dairy only (respectively) can also be consumed in these diets.  Veganism on the other hand, does not allow for this and therein lies the chief difference between the two lifestyles.

The research into the adequacy, in terms of nutritional expectations and whether or not those are met, within both vegetarian and vegan diets, is extensive and the studies conducted suggest that there are overall, short term general health benefits to both. The longer-term effects of these diets are less studied and as such, not as much information has been gathered and compiled to understand the consequences or effects of years spent consuming a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Both diets involve the intake of nutrient dense, antioxidant rich whole foods and make the health benefits obvious from the outset.  Like all diets, each has its pros and cons.  Vegetarians for example, particularly those who consume dairy (lacto-vegetarians) are able to attain phosphorus, calcium and vitamin D which are key components of nucleic acids, energy production, cell membrane maintenance and they ensure optimal bone health.  These nutrients work in conjunction with one another, enabling proper absorption of each in adequate amounts.  Vegans on the other hand may be able to keep their cholesterol levels down by avoiding the consumption of eggs and dairy, which in turn makes for good cardiovascular health.  A 2007 study in the magazine, Diabetes Voice, referenced by nutritionist, wellness coach and founder of NutriFit, the LA based food-delivery service, Jackie Keller, on AARP’s website, found that people with type 2 diabetes, who adopted a vegan lifestyle were able to reduce their LDL cholesterol by 21%, some 12% more than those individuals studied on the American Diabetes Association diet, which saw a 9% reduction in LDL cholesterol. 

A 2017 systematic review of observational vegetarian and vegan diet impacts on health studies found that in 86 cross-sectional studies, a noteworthy reduction in body mass index (BMI), total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and blood glucose levels was reported among the vegans and vegetarians who participated in the studies against their omnivore counterparts.  Additionally, the evidence from these studies suggests that a significant reduced risk of mortality due to ischemic heart disease and incidence of total cancer, was present as a result of engaging in a vegan and/or vegetarian lifestyle.  While the prevalence for chronic diseases amongst vegetarians and non-vegetarians was differentially reported, it was found in studies, that the general risk for this factor was reduced amongst non-meat eaters, when compared to meat eaters.

Extending beyond the basics of components going into the body, are the behavioral changes associated with adopting either a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, particularly the latter of the two.  According to Dr. Michael Applebaum, a physician and the president of fitness consulting firm, FitnessMed Inc., “The self-control needed to eat in a vegan way can be extended to other behaviors requiring self-control, commitment and dedication”.  He further states that part of a vegan lifestyle allows for the “(slowing) down (of) the eating process”, not only optimizing digestion, but by creating awareness of what is going into the body he maintains, helps a person to cut down on impulsive eating habits.  A vegetarian diet is more lenient and does not necessitate the strict commitment to the lifestyle that veganism requires.  For those who are unable to adhere to the confines and dictates of veganism, but wish to reduce or mostly eliminate animal products from their diet, a vegetarian plan might be better suited to them.

The nitty gritty of the pros and cons of both diets are as fine-tuned as nutrition on a cellular level can get, which means that splitting hairs between whether vegans or vegetarians are healthier is less easy as far as scientific studies go.  The effects, it seems, are thus consigned, not as much to the health aspect of the lifestyle, but rather on the ethical practice and environmental impact of each.

The sustainability of a meatless diet and the impact it has on the environment is evident; greenhouse gas emissions of these diets are between 29 and 60% less than a diet which is inclusive of meat-based products.  According to the FAO, 18% of global emissions are resultant from livestock, and the reduction of meat consumption has been a topic that’s hotly debated.  A common contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is animal feed, due to the fossil-fuel inputs resulting from cultivation, transportation and processing of the feed.  Additionally, the necessary land coverage required to cultivate the feed contributes indirectly to the GHG emissions, which leaves room to consider the human impact of meat consumption on the carbon footprint of each person and how dietary effects are more far reaching than just what’s put into the body.

The cons of the diets encompass not only the environmental impacts, but nutritional value as a whole, as well as effects on general health for those who have preexisting medical conditions. As mentioned, adopting a vegetarian diet may prove easier than adopting a vegan diet as the former allows for more food groups to be consumed than the latter.  As the change of diet is so radical, knowing what to eat and how to prepare new foods, can become frustrating for beginners.  While the food industry has certainly made veganism easier to navigate by providing more packaged, vegan friendly options, the processing of these items does little to promote health and wellness in the individual consumer purchasing the products.  In addition to this, either of these lifestyles could interfere with certain medical conditions, such as osteoporosis so talking with a primary care provider to help manage such a fundamental lifestyle change, is critical in keeping as healthy as possible. 

With the added negative of loss of essential vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin B 12 which plays an integral role in cell replication and fatty acid metabolism, manifestation therefore, of a B 12 deficiency would be seen in the blood and nervous systems and the consequences of which can include numbness in the hands and feet, balance problems, anemia, weakness and fatigue among others.  While the decrease in prevalence of issues such as type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease via modifiable factors, such as BMI, blood pressure and blood serum glucose reduction, after adopting a vegan lifestyle is notable in many studies, a vegan diet that is not nutritionally balanced and lacking in essential vitamins and minerals that only animal based products are able to provide in any significant quantities, can nullify these health benefits. Studies have shown that all-cause mortality among vegetarians and vegans in comparison to meat eaters, was not different in any significant way.

Whether vegetarian or vegan, both diets can unfortunately, lack the nutrients needed to keep a person healthy.  With that being said, substitutions for animal products, that contain these key nutrients, can be made to ensure optimal nutrition. Embarking on a lifestyle change can be a large undertaking and overwhelming to say the least, however, with sound information from reputable sources, the ability to make informed decisions that will benefit the needs of the person adapting their life goes a long way in helping traverse this sometimes rocky landscape.

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