Back in the day, there were only vegetarians and meat-eaters, the only question being whether or not you ate animal products. Today vegetarianism comes in all forms: you have pesco-vegetarians (vegetarians who eat fish), pollo-pescotarians (fish and poultry), lacto-vegetarians (dairy), and ovo-lacto-vegetarians (dairy and eggs). But no branch has sparked as much debate as the vegetarian vs. vegan movement.
Veganism, a term first coined in 1944, can be considered an extreme form of vegetarianism. While a vegetarian diet can be fairly loose–in some cultures “meat-free” dishes can include clams and fish–veganism rules out all animal products. There are two types of vegans: dietary vegans, who only avoid animal products in their diet, and ethical vegans, who avoid them altogether. Ethical vegans don’t just avoid meat and dairy; they also stay away from foods whose production involves animals in any way, and non-food products such as leather, fur, and cosmetics tested on animals.
In other words, vegetarianism is just another kind of diet, while veganism is a way of life. One can become a vegetarian for health or avoid meat on a purely gustatory level. The decision to go vegan usually runs much deeper, driven by personal and philosophical beliefs. Many vegans are against animal cruelty, and tend to have very strict ideas of what constitutes cruelty (e.g. is it still cruel if your bacon lived a good life and died painlessly?). Environmental, social, and political concerns can also come into play.
Veganism can be very limiting, especially for someone coming off a fairly unrestricted diet. It’s a well-known fact in vegan circles that gelatin contains collagen, a protein found in animal bones, and that red food dyes are made from insects called cochineals. But a closer look reveals that animals are involved in seemingly innocent products. Some sugars are whitened with bone charcoal. Wines and beers are sometimes made with animal albumin, milk proteins, and isinglass, which comes from fish bladders. That’s why many vegans start off with a vegetarian diet and go into it gradually.
So at the end of the day, the choice depends on how far you want to go. Not everyone is motivated enough to expand dietary choices to their entire lifestyle, but both are a step in the right direction when it comes to sustainable living. As long as your health and budget allow it, going vegan just as good a choice as going vegetarian.