The difference between vegetarian and vegan

May 24, 2012 at 9:00 p.m. ET

More and more people are jumping on the meat-free bandwagon, as research continues to link vegetarianism with higher levels of overall health and energy. But with so many different types of diets – and just as many labels for each one – how do you work out whether a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is the one for you?

Woman eating salad

The topic of eating a meat-free diet has become hotly debated in recent years, with federal government’s Australian Sports Commission going as far as to conduct research on vegetarianism in an effort to help “vegetarian athletes [who are] striving to maintain health and optimise their performance.”

“The popularity of vegetarianism in athletes has been fuelled by the success stories of athletes who are world champions and also vegetarians, such as Dave Scott (vegan and five-times winner of the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon), Martina Navratilova (tennis champion) and Edwin Moses (Olympic Hurdling champion),” the commission reports.

There is a big difference between a vegetarian diet and a vegan diet, however, and each represents a different level of commitment to a lifestyle without eating meat or meat by-products.

The Australian Vegetarian Society (AVS) says labels for vegetarians can “seem limiting,” although they admit that they can be useful to help determine suitable dietary habits when preparing or offering food.

Types of vegetarians

The AVS states that vegetarians can be broadly divided into the following categories:

Lacto-ovo vegetarians – eat dairy products and eggs

Lacto vegetarians – eat dairy products, but not eggs

Ovo vegetarians – eat eggs but not dairy products

Vegans – consume no animal products at all, including foods made with animal by-products. In the purest sense, vegans do not buy or wear clothing that has come from an animal or take drugs that have been tested on living animals

Fruitarian – eat raw or dried fruits, nuts, seeds, honey and vegetable oil

“Numerous studies have reported on the variety of health benefits associated with eating a vegetarian diet… and studies have demonstrated that a well-chosen vegetarian diet contains adequate energy and protein, is high in carbohydrate and low in fat – making it ideal for athletes striving to meet the dietary guidelines encouraged for sport,” the commission concludes.

Their only red flag is for all people who consume a meatless diet – athletes or otherwise – to ensure that they eat enough protein.

This can be particularly challenging for vegans who don’t eat any dairy products, including eggs, but the inclusion of foods such as tofu, tempeh, textured vegetable protein and meat substitutes – such as supermarket ranges of lentil patties, vegetarian burger patties and vegetable sausages – can be beneficial.

“Diets of vegetarians often provide less protein than those of non-vegetarians, so you may need to target protein-rich vegetarian foods,” they suggest.

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