What is the Difference Between a Vegan and a Vegetarian?

A vegan is a kind of vegetarian, but not all vegetarians are vegans.

Tofu, almonds, broccoli and olive oil, still life
[Tom Grill]/[The Image Bank]/Getty Images

Updated and Edited by Michelle A. Rivera, About.com Animal Rights Expert,May 6, 2016

To many people, the difference between a vegan and a vegetarian may not seem clear. When talking about issues other than diet, things can get even more confusing.

What is a Vegetarian?

Though most of us don't like being labeled, being tagged a vegetarian or a vegan let's others know where they may find common interests.

It does sound a lot like you are being judged when asked if you are a vegetarian or vegan, and in some cases you probably are. Rabid animal rights activists, who are usually new to the movement, will be quick to tell you all the reasons why you suck, But take heart, the fact that you are even exploring this subject makes you cool and proves you don't suck. So let's bring out the label maker and see what we can learn,

A vegetarian is someone who doesn't eat meat. If they don't eat meat for health reasons, they are referred to as a nutritional vegetarian. Those who avoid meat in deference to the environment or the animals are called "ethical vegetarians." The term "lacto-ovo vegetarian" is sometimes used to specify that the person does eat dairy and eggs.

Anyone who doesn't eat meat is considered vegetarian, including vegans, lacto-vegetarians, ovo-vegetarians, and lacto-ovo vegetarians. A vegetarian diet is sometimes called a meatless or meat-free diet.

Vegetarians do not eat animal flesh. While some people may use the terms "pesco-vegetarian" to refer to someone who eats fish, or "pollo-vegetarian" to be someone who eats chicken, they are not types of vegetarians. Similarly, a "flexitarian" - someone who chooses to eat vegetarian some of the time but eats meat at other times - is not a vegetarian.

And lets be clear on this, animal flesh includes fish and shellfish. Sneaking a shrimp in now and then won't get you thrown out of the vegetarian society, but if you get caught, we'll be keeping a closer eye on you.  

What is a Vegan?

There was a time when vegans were considered really radical and "out there." Actually, that time still continues to this day. It may appear as though vegans are sacrificing but the truth is, for ethical vegans, it's not even a thing. Vegans happily do not consume animal products, including meat, fish, fowl, eggs, dairy, honey or gelatin. Vegans are often asked what the hell they eat if they can't eat meat. A good answer to that is, let me just tell you what I don't eat, because that list a a lot shorter than the list of things I can eat. Sure, vegans eat grains, beans, nuts, fruits, vegetables and seeds. While the diet may seem severely restricted compared to the standard American diet (often abbreviated "SAD"), it's not just salads. A look at vegan gourmet foods should convince just about anyone that a vegan diet can be delicious and filling. But veganism is not just about food. Any recipe calling for meat can be made vegan with the use of seitan, those mysterious ancient grains used in Gardein products and the mycoprotein that comes from God knows what (but not meat) produced by Quorn.

 Oh, and that four-letter word carnivores love to throw around, tofu.

Diet v. Lifestyle/Philosphy

Veganism is more than a diet.

While the word "vegan" may refer to a cookie or a restaurant, and mean only that there are no animal products present, the word has come to mean something different when referring to a person. A person who is vegan is generally understood to be someone who abstains from animal products for animal rights reasons. A vegan may also be concerned about the environment and their own health, but the main reason for their veganism is their belief in animal rights. Veganism is a lifestyle and a philosophy that recognizes that animals have a right to be free of human use and exploitation. Veganism is an ethical stance.

Because veganism is about recognizing the rights of animals, it's not just about food.

Vegans also avoid silk, wool, leather and suede in their clothing. Vegans also boycott companies that test on animals, and do not buy cosmetics or personal care products that contain lanolin, carmine, honey and other animal products. Zoos, rodeos, greyhound and horse racing, and circuses with animals are also out, because of the oppression of the animals.

There are some people who follow a diet free (or almost free) of animal products for health reasons, including former U.S. president Bill Clinton. In these cases, the person is usually said to be following a plant-based diet. Some also use the term "strict vegetarian" to describe someone who does not eat animal products but may use animal products in other parts of their life, but this term is problematic because it implies that lacto-ovo vegetarians are not "strict" vegetarians.

When referring to diet, the main differences between vegans and vegetarians are eggs, dairy and honey. But veganism is about so much more than diet.

Doris Lin, Esq. is an animal rights attorney and Director of Legal Affairs for the Animal Protection League of NJ.