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What are the Different Types of Vegetarian Diets?

Sharon Palmer

What’s the difference between vegan and vegetarian diets? Is one better than the other? What about flexitarian eating? I get so many questions on vegetarian-style diets in my work as a plant-based dietitian. That’s why I’m answering some of your top questions about these vegetarian eating styles on the blog today. Read more about the differences between vegetarian and vegan diets here.

What are the Different Types of Vegetarian Diets?

Question: How do you define plant-based?

Sharon’s Answer:

“Plant-based” doesn’t have a formal definition, although there is a movement to create a formal definition for it when it is used as a term on food labels. Surveys show that “plant-based” means different things to different people. Researchers and health experts often use the term to mean a diet based on primarily plants, while chefs, restaurants and food companies use the term to be 100% plant-based—or vegan. Consumers use the term in different ways. Increasingly, it’s becoming synonymous with vegan—completely plant-based.

Question: What is a vegan diet?

Sharon’s Answer:

A vegan diet is 100% plant-based, meaning it excludes all animal flesh (including poultry, fish, and red meat), dairy products (milk, cream, butter, yogurt, cheese), eggs, and honey. Some people follow different forms of vegan diets. For example, some vegans are extremely careful, and do not eat in restaurants where equipment touches animal foods, while others may be less cautious.

Vegetable Tofu Pancit

Question: Are there any benefits to plant-based diets?

Sharon’s Answer:

Research shows that there are health benefits for plant-based diets, including vegetarian and vegan diets. These benefits include reduced risks of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. In addition, there are environmental benefits linked with these eating patterns—in particular vegan diets. 

Question: How do you define vegetarian?

Sharon’s Answer:

Vegetarian is defined as avoiding all flesh from animals, including fish, poultry, and red meat, but it allows for eggs and dairy products. There are benefits for this eating pattern, as noted above. It is easier to meet your nutrient needs on a vegetarian diet—you have to be a little more careful and strategic on a vegan diet to make sure you get all of your essential nutrients

Jackfruit Black Bean and Quinoa Tacos

Question: In terms of subtypes, what are lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, and lacto-ovo vegetarian diets?

Sharon’s Answer:

Vegetarian diets are generally considered to be lacto-ovo vegetarian diets. Lacto vegetarians eat no animal flesh, nor eggs, but do eat dairy products. Ovo vegetarians eat no dairy products and no animal flesh, but they do eat eggs. It’s important to note that even within vegetarian diets, there are people who eat differently than these prescribed diet patterns, and they may call themselves “vegan”, “plant-based”, or “vegetarian”. People may be vegan, but when they travel switch to vegetarian to make it easier. Or they may be vegetarian, but a few times a year make an exception in their diets. I know vegetarians that will occasionally eat fish. There are no fast rules about how people manage their eating styles. It’s a personal preference. 

Question: How would you classify a pescatarian? 

Sharon’s Answer:

This diet avoids all animal flesh, except for seafood and fish, but allows for dairy and eggs too. Some people may be entirely vegan, but eat a small amount of fish, while others may be vegetarian and eat a certain amount of fish. There are different expressions of this diet.

Question: How would you classify a pollotarian?

Sharon’s Answer:

This would be a vegetarian diet, which excludes all animal flesh, but allows for chicken only, on top of dairy and eggs. Many people may avoid red meat, so they might fall into this category.

Question: How would you classify a flexitarian?

Sharon’s Answer:

A flexitarian diet doesn’t have a formal definition regarding what percentage of the diet is plant-based, but it is an overall diet plan primarily based on plants. Flexitarians (also called semi-vegetarians) may eat a large proportion of vegetarian meals during the week, but they are not exclusively vegetarian every day. In general, flexitarians try to limit their meat consumption.

Roasted Asparagus with Harissa-Spiced Sorghum

Question: Are there any other types of vegetarian eating options?

Sharon’s Answer:

There is also a diet called “whole foods, plant-based” which has come to mean a diet based solely on unrefined plant foods, so this diet includes no refined oil, sugars, or salt. People may have additional dietary preferences within plant-based eating patterns, such as “clean” eating, or allergies, or should be celiac disease. However, I recommend that if you are following a vegetarian or vegan diet you should not place additional restrictions upon your diet because of a food fad, such as going gluten-free, soy-free, or grain-free, because you think it’s “healthy”. You need these food groups to meet your nutrient needs. If you have a medical condition such as a known food allergy or celiac disease, that’s another scenario. I suggest you make an appointment with a plant-based dietitian to help you plan a diet that meets your needs. 

Swiss Chard Pecan Lasagna

Question: What should you base a decision to eat vegetarian on?

Sharon’s Answer:

it should be based on your personal health and values goals and your preferred eating style. There are a lot of reasons to go vegan or vegetarian. You can gain health benefits, reduce your impact on the planet, and reduce the suffering of animals in agriculture. If those are important values to you, you may want to consider it. At the very least, everyone can eat a more plant-based diet. Check out my tips on how to go plant-based.

Question: Are there any supplements vegans and vegetarians and should consider?

Sharon’s Answer:

Yes, vegans should be sure to supplement with vitamin B12—even vegetarians should supplement their diets with B12. In addition, it’s important to get enough protein, zinc, iron, omega-3 fats, and vitamin D. Learn more about my recommendations in this blog. Download my FREE Go Vegan Toolkit here.

Check out other nutrition questions I’m answering at The Plant-Powered Dietitian:

Does Roasting Veggies Ruin Nutrients?
Is “Clean Eating” a Healthy Lifestyle?
How to Prepare Dried Beans to Avoid Antinutrients

About Ask Sharon:

As part of my program “Ask Sharon”, I am answering the top question of the month submitted through my blogFacebookTwitter or Instagram to answer here. You can even win a prize! Don’t forget to submit your burning nutrition question via my blog, or other social media.

Main image: Mediterranean Edamame Quinoa Bowl, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN


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