Up to 5 percent of American adults consider themselves to be vegetarians, according to a July 2012 Gallup poll, and 2 percent consider themselves vegan. While the two diets are quite similar, there are key differences between them when it comes to types of foods eaten and nutritional concerns.
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Most vegetarians and all vegans avoid eating meat, poultry or fish. Some vegetarians consider themselves to be pesco-vegetarians, meaning they eat fish but avoid other meat products, or pollo-vegetarians, meaning they consume poultry but no other meat. Many vegetarians consume eggs and dairy products, though some may avoid one or the other. Vegans, however, do not include eggs, dairy products, any other animal products, such as gelatin, or any insect products in their diets.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium helps strengthen bones and teeth, and vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium properly, so both nutrients are important. Meeting daily calcium and vitamin D requirements is usually harder for vegans than it is for vegetarians who consume dairy products. Vegetarians can get enough calcium through dairy products, and most cow's milk is fortified with vitamin D. Eggs also contain vitamin D. Vegans can still get these nutrients through dietary sources. Some soy and rice milks, as well as tofu, are fortified with calcium. Dried fruits are other good sources of calcium. Some cereals are fortified with vitamin D. Vitamin D and calcium supplements can help make up for any deficiencies due to diet for both vegetarians and vegans.
Other Nutrition Concerns
Most omnivores get enough protein and iron from the meat in their diets. Vegetarians and vegans can both get protein from soy products, beans, lentils and nuts. Vegetarians also get protein from eggs and dairy products. Iron needs for vegetarians and vegans can be met with foods such as dark green vegetables, fortified cereals, beans and peas. One of the biggest nutritional concerns for vegetarians and vegans is vitamin B-12. Some cereals and soy drinks are fortified with the vitamin, but some vegans and vegetarians opt to take a multivitamin or B-12 supplement.
There are varying opinions on whether eating a vegetarian or vegan diet is healthier than an omnivorous diet including plants, meat and other animal products. Diet and overall health are closely linked, and it's important to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and only sparingly consume sweets and fatty cuts of meat. Excluding meat or all animal products doesn't make much difference in overall mortality rates, according to a 2006 study published in "The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society."