With increasing scientific studies promoting the health benefits of consuming plant-based foods, it’s no wonder vegetarian and vegan diets have surged as popular ways to eat. Many people choose to follow either diet for a variety of reasons. Animal rights, protecting the planet, religious beliefs, and improved health are just a few. Followed correctly, each can offer substantial health benefits such as lowering the risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and many types of cancer. However, if animal products are not substituted appropriately, the risk for developing deficiencies in certain nutrients, including protein, vitamins, and minerals is increased. Plant-based eating can improve your health–just make sure that your meals are well-planned, so you consume the nutrients your body needs.
If you’re interested in following either diet you should be fond of vegetables, whole grains and non-meat alternatives such as tofu, nuts, and beans as these will all serve as the basis for many of your meals. It is essential you take the time to educate yourself on how to properly follow these diets. If well-thought out and well-planned, nutrition deficiencies can be avoided, health benefits gained and you will be fit and fueled. To guarantee you follow a well-balanced vegetarian or vegan diet, you should meet with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) to receive expert nutritional guidance.
Let’s look at these two styles of eating and see how they differ:
*Vegetarian diets can be sub-divided into a few different categories:
True vegetarians (also known as lacto-ovo vegetarians) avoid all meat, fish and poultry but do consume eggs and dairy products.
* Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid eggs, meat, fish and poultry, and ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but avoid dairy, meat, fish and poultry.
*Similarly, “flexitarian” and “semi-vegetarian,” which are basically the same, describe a diet that consists largely of vegetarian items with the occasional meat, fish or poultry source thrown into the mix.
*Vegetarians who also eat fish are known as pescatarians.
True vegetarians typically obtain protein from dairy (milk, yogurt and cheese), eggs and soy products. Tempeh, a texturized protein made from soybeans, brown rice, millet and barley, and seitan, made from wheat gluten (a protein found in wheat), are two meat alternatives many vegetarians also include in their diet. With a wide variety of protein sources available, the vegetarian diet is easy to follow with little risk for deficiency.
Compared to the vegetarian diet, following a vegan diet requires more planning to ensure that adequate protein, vitamins and minerals are consumed. Vegans omit all foods from animal sources. Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy and butter are avoided. Many vegans also avoid honey. With fewer options for protein, plant-based proteins, such as soy products (tofu and soy milk), protein-fortified almond milk, tempeh, beans, nuts, legumes, seitan, vegetables and whole grains become the staples at meals.
Those who want to follow a vegan diet need to make sure that they get sufficient nutrients, such as protein and calcium. To ensure adequate protein is consumed, a variety of these plant-protein foods mentioned above should be consumed regularly at meals. As stated before, you may want to meet with a RDN to ensure that the diet is well-planned. Because vitamin B-12 is found only in animal products, vegans need to supplement their diet with this vitamin. Vegans may seek out fortified food sources, such as soy milk fortified with vitamin B-12, to obtain this vitamin or simply take in the form of a pill supplement. Since dairy products are not consumed, calcium can also become an issue so appropriate food alternatives, such as calcium-fortified tofu, soy or almond milk and dark green leafy vegetables, need to be included in the diet daily. If nutritional needs for calcium can’t be obtained through food alone, a calcium supplement should be taken. Vegans also need to pay special attention to getting enough vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc and iodine. In order to obtain the health benefits of either a vegetarian or vegan diet, either diet needs to be followed properly.
Differences between Vegetarian and Vegan Diets
Foods included: Milk, cheese, butter, eggs, grains, tofu, seitan, tempeh, nuts, beans, fruits, vegetables,
Foods avoided: Meat, fish, chicken
Foods included: Tofu, seitan, tempeh, nuts, beans, whole grain breads and cereals, fortified-soy and almond milk, fruits and vegetables.
Foods avoided: Milk, cheese, butter, meat, fish. chicken, eggs, dairy (some vegans also avoid honey)
Nutrients which may be lacking:
Vegetarians should be able to easily meet all of their nutrient needs if they make healthy food choices.
Supplements required: Vegans need to take a vitamin B12 supplement. If food sources of vitamin D, iron, calcium, zinc and iodine don’t meet nutritional needs, a supplement may be needed.
Lisa Stollman, MA, RDN. CDE, CDN is a nationally-renowned teen and adult weight management expert with offices in Huntington, NY and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Lisa is the author of The Trim Traveler: How to Eat Healthy and Stay Fit While Traveling Abroad (Nirvana Press 2014) and The Teen Eating Manifesto: The Ten Essential Steps to Losing Weight, Looking Great and Getting Healthy (Nirvana Press 2012), the premier guide on healthy eating and weight management for teens. To find out more about Lisa, visit her website.