The Vegetarian vs. the Vegan vs. the Flexitarian Diet: Which One is Right for You?
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The Vegetarian vs. the Vegan vs. the Flexitarian Diet: Which One is Right for You?
by Elena, Move to Root
Drop the hamburger: It’s Veganuary!
It’s the perfect month to try something new. As you may have deduced from the name, Veganuary means going on a vegan diet for the month of January. For some, it’s a temporary but impactful change dedicated to a more sustainable future. For others, this month is the first step to a complete lifestyle shift, with many moving to vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian diets permanently thereafter. While the vegetarian diet is the most widely understood sustainable diet, vegan and flexitarian diets are becoming increasingly trendy. Aren’t quite sure what these diets entail? Let us explain.
Veganism is the growing practice of abstaining from the use of both animal-derived food and non-food products, making it as much of a lifestyle as it is a diet. Flexitarianism, on the other hand, is an increasingly popular diet among those who want to make a difference—but aren’t comfortable with abandoning meat entirely. Take Cardi B’s recent Tweet, for example:
True to its name, the flexitarian diet is more flexible than the vegan diet but still involves reducing the number of animal products consumed. Whether you’re a seasoned sustainability pro or just a little veg-curious, today we want to fill you (and Cardi) in on the basics of the vegan and flexitarian diets and how the two compare.
Vegetarian, Vegan, and Flexitarian Diets: The Basics
Last year in the US, demand for animal meat fell while plant-based food sales doubled. Similar statistics were seen in Brazil, the Philippines, Argentina, and beyond. What does this mean? Sustainable diets that focus on nourishment from plants and fungi other than animal protein—like vegetarianism, veganism, and flexitarianism—are here to stay. Let’s dive into specifics.
Pros and cons of the vegetarian diet
Surely, you’ve heard of the vegetarian diet and may even know a friend or coworker who has committed to a meatless lifestyle. Individuals who adopt a vegetarian diet avoid meat derived from animals. Vegetarians typically consume less saturated fat and cholesterol and have a higher intake of dietary fiber, potassium, and phytochemicals than their meat-eating counterparts. Thus, they may have a reduced risk of many chronic diseases. By reducing their animal meat intake, vegetarians have a smaller carbon footprint than those following an omnivorous diet (which includes plants and animals).
The challenges that vegetarians face when transitioning to the new diet are similar to those that come with other lifestyle changes. As humans, initially, it may require some extra planning to break old habits and form new ones. So if you’re accustomed to buying breakfast sausage made from pigs, there may be a slight transition phase while fungi-based breakfast patties become your new default. With that said, because there are so many delicious animal meat alternatives available today, going vegetarian has never been easier.
Pros and cons of the vegan diet
Think of the vegan diet as taking vegetarianism a step further. Veganism excludes all meat derived from animals as well as animal byproducts; think milk, eggs, etc. Being vegan also often means cutting out some unexpected foods such as gelatin (made from animal bones), foods fortified with vitamin D3 (usually derived from fatty animal sources), and bee products like honey. Some vegans also choose to avoid non-food items that include animal-derived products, like leather. This leaves foods such as legumes, nuts, vegetables, alternative proteins, and vegan meat as the bulk of a typical vegan diet.
Adhering to a vegan diet is one of the most impactful steps one can take to help build a more sustainable future for our planet. For starters, a vegan diet can help to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A larger vegan population also means improved animal welfare, further decreasing the possibility of inhumane farming practices or animal exploitation. When planned for, a vegan diet can also be highly nutritious. It is linked to a lower risk of heart disease, improved blood sugar control, and lower rates of obesity. Some health benefits may be observed after just a few weeks of making the switch (Veganuary, anyone?).
Like any lifestyle change, becoming vegan comes with its challenges, too. First and foremost, most vegans would agree; label-reading is a must. Many food items on shelves have sneaky animal-derived ingredients. Some examples include marshmallows made with gelatin, certain chip brands that contain milk powder, and various beer and wine brands that use animal-derived fining agents. Vegans may also avoid supplements such as omega-3-fatty acids derived from fish and most collagen. While it’s a myth that being vegan means you will not get enough protein or nutrients, one must indeed be more conscious of nutrition when first starting the diet to ensure adequate intake of vitamins such as B12 and minerals such as calcium. Most lifestyle changes require a learning curve, but with a little work, the initial challenges of a vegan diet can be quickly overcome.
Pros and cons of the flexitarian diet
The word flexitarian is, perhaps obviously, a combination of the terms flexible and vegetarian. The flexitarian diet is defined less by what it excludes and more by what it focuses on. Thus, many flexitarians consider themselves mostly plant-based while consuming the occasional animal product.
What do flexitarians eat?
- Whole grains
- Alternative proteins
- Meat or animal products (in moderation).
While plant-based foods are a major component of flexitarian (and vegan) diets, many people don’t realize that fungi-based ingredients are often involved and are a kingdom all of their own. Although flexible, there are guidelines around meat consumption depending on commitment level. Most flexitarians fall within a weekly meat consumption range of 9 to 28 ounces per week. To put this into perspective, Americans consume around 84 net-weight ounces of meat per week on average, not including seafood, fish, or individual food waste.
The flexitarian diet has few rules but a common goal: to reduce the number of animal products consumed. When consuming animal protein, many flexitarians look for meat and animal products for which animals have been raised to a higher welfare standard. Some flexitarians will have a meatless day each week, while others only have meat when meal planning is out of their control (like restaurant outings with coworkers, during travel, or when dining as a guest in someone’s home). What’s more, some flexitarians eat minimal amounts of dairy and eggs, while others opt for dairy-free and alternative proteins as their staples. The diet also boasts health benefits similar to the vegan/vegetarian diets, including a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. And the benefits of a flexitarian diet don’t stop at animal and human health. The improved health of the planet is another commendable reason to adopt a flexitarian diet. Research indicates that transitioning to a more flexitarian diet could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent.
Which is better: the flexitarian diet or the vegan or vegetarian diet?
The better diet is the one you can sustain, which differs by individual. Sure, the vegan diet works for many people. However, the flexitarian diet is also a great practice that helps slow the current cycle of livestock supply and demand that is not sustainable for our growing planet, especially in the face of climate change. Vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian diets are all paths towards a healthier, kinder, and more sustainable future, and we sure like the sound of that.
The bottom line
Let’s face it—feeding nearly 8 billion people consuming animal products the way we do now is not something we can continue throughout future generations. By making more food choices that nourish our bodies and nurture the planet, together, we can make real, lasting change.
Oh yeah, and that hamburger you dropped earlier? It saved us 660 gallons of water, 64.5 square feet of land, 13 pounds of feed, and five kilograms of CO2. Earth, and you, are a little healthier today — regardless of which forward-thinking diet you choose to pursue.
Check out our recipes on Pinterest for vegetarian, vegan, and flexitarian meal ideas that are ideal for Veganuary and beyond!