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Do you know people who use the words “vegan” and “vegetarian” interchangeably, as if they are one and the same?  Does it drive you nuts or are you sitting there thinking, “I know that’s wrong, but I’m not really sure what a vegan is.”  Here’s your primer.

A vegan is a type of vegetarian who doesn’t eat meat, and also eschews all dairy products, eggs and all animal-derived foods, as well.  Some even refuse foods that are processed using animal products such as white sugar and wine. Veganism isn’t just about what goes into one’s mouth though.  Many vegans also avoid using any product tested on animals or non-food products derived from animals like wool, fur and leather.  A vegetarian, on the other hand, by definition, only abstains from meat—red meat, poultry, and fish—although some vegetarians also include by-products of animal slaughter, such as animal-derived rennet and gelatin, on their list of “don’ts.”

There are also sub-groups of vegetarians like ovo-vegetarians (they include eggs as part of their diet but not dairy products), lacto-vegetarians (include dairy products but no eggs), and ovo-lacto vegetarians (include both eggs and dairy in their diets).  Then, there are pescetarians (they only eat fish, no meat) and semi-vegetarians (who eat no meat, only fish and/or poultry).  Usually these groups define “meat” as the flesh of mammals.  Veganism is said to be a stricter form of vegetarianism.

It’s becoming clearer now, isn’t it, why the terms “vegan” and “vegetarian” are not interchangeable.  Say your friend is a member of the Vegetarian Society and you buy them a leather journal for their birthday—good choice or no?  You’re probably safe, but who knows?  It can be confusing sometimes to know what exactly is appropriate and what is not.  So, maybe we need to get to the root of the decision to go veggie or vegan in the first place.

According to Vegan Action veganism is “the natural extension of vegetarianism, it is an integral component of a cruelty-free lifestyle. Living vegan provides numerous benefits to animals’ lives, to the environment, and to our own health–through a healthy diet and lifestyle.”  Veganism, then, is larger than the self and the body’s wants or needs.  It takes a larger view of the world than perhaps the average Joe does, an “it’s not all about me” attitude, if you will.

Vegetarians list all sorts of reasons to go veggie.  According to the Vegetarian Times, there are at least 15 reasons why you should fill your plate with vegetables and leave the steak on the cow, most of which are health related.  That doesn’t mean that vegetarians don’t care about animals or the environment—in fact, a large number of veggies first came to the lifestyle through their love of animals, and then learned about the health benefits of this diet.  Wondering what they are?  Here are a few reasons to think about eating more greens (and yellows and reds and oranges):  You’ll live longer, lose weight, be more regular, ward off disease better, build strong bones and have more energy. It may be that vegans embrace their lifestyle for the very same reasons, but it seems like very often there is a commitment to something larger going on here, something almost spiritual.

This not to say that vegans are more enlightened than their more numerous vegetarian brothers and sisters—every person has their own way into this way of life and their own reasons for staying there. This is just to say that all vegans are vegetarians, but not all vegetarians are vegans—there is a difference and we recognize it. Maybe now, you will too.  And if you’re still not sure, ask a vegan or vegetarian why they chose to go meatless (or more)—they’ll probably be more than happy to tell you and you just might learn something new.