The Real Difference Between Dairy-Free And Vegan Diets

If you've been confused by the difference between a vegetarian and vegan diet, you may also be confused about the differences between eating a dairy-free diet, or being a dairy-free vegetarian or a vegan. But the three mean very different things.

According to WebMD, as many as three percent of Americans identify as vegan. The term vegan is very specific: A vegan will eliminate all animal products and by-products, not just meat and dairy. While vegetarians can still eat dairy products and eggs, and most will eat honey, a vegan will eschew all of those in favor of a diet that contains nothing made by or from animals (via WebMD).

That doesn't mean a vegan only eats vegetables, though: There are plenty of meat alternatives available now that contain no actual animal products. A vegan can enjoy soy or coconut milk based ice cream, or mushroom based buffalo wings, or a pizza made with cashew cheese and soy pepperoni.

What about dairy-free?

On the other hand, a dairy-free vegetarian may still include eggs in their diet, while skipping milk, cheese, butter, and other dairy-based products. Like a vegan, a dairy-free vegetarian will also exclude meat products, including fish and poultry. However, if you hear the term 'lacto-vegetarian,' that actually means that a vegetarian chooses to consume dairy products (via the Mayo Clinic).

Someone on a dairy-free diet is typically eschewing dairy for medical reasons rather than ethical ones. They may have lactose intolerance or some other milk-based allergy, which means all foods containing dairy products are off-limits. They typically will continue to eat other animal products, including red meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs (via Healthline).

Avoiding dairy products is perfectly healthy, but remember that since dairy is a great source of protein, calcium, and Vitamin D, it's important to make sure that your diet is balanced to include enough of those micro and macronutrients, by adding in vegan-friendly options like tofu if necessary.