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Vegetarian/Vegan Definitions

Please help me out here - I used to think that I knew what defined a vegan and what defined a vegetarian, but lately a couple of comments from friends and family members have me scratching my head.

Vegan - I think that this means nothing from animals, period (no flesh, no milk, no eggs, no honey, and someone once mentioned to me that they don't eat anything with "yeast", etc.).

Vegetarian - I used to think that this meant no flesh (no red meat, no poultry, no fish, no seafood).

And then there's ovo-lacto vegetarian, which I understand to mean no flesh, but okay with eggs and dairy.

And then there's my friends and family members - one who won't eat mammals or poultry, but loves fish and seafood (and pepperoni, but that's a whole other topic in itself); another who doesn't eat mammals but is okay with poultry and fish/seafood; and yet another who won't eat "flesh" of any kind, but happily consumes some foods based on a don't ask/don't tell policy (such as meat broth-based soups, etc). All of these people have told me that they consider themselves to be vegetarian.

And then there's two other friends, both of whom have told me that they're vegans - their dining preferences fit pretty much with my definition of "vegan" except that one only eats "fruits" that is, food that can be taken from the plant without killing the plant (okay with strawberries, not with potatoes) and the other only eats raw foods.

Is this a situation where the definitions are dynamic and still being agreed-upon in common usage? Or are my friends and family members calling themselves vegetarians when they should be calling themselves something else? And is there a polite way to ask someone (say an aquaintance coming to dinner) to explain their definition of vegetarian (or vegan)?

I once had an aquaintance (now a friend) coming for dinner, and she'd told me that she was a strict vegetarian. I decided to make a "safe" main dish of black beans and rice (onions, red bell peppers, black beans, steamed white rice, cilantro, Worcestershire sauce) which I serve with Sauce Lizano. Well, about 45-minutes before she was to arrive, as I finished the cooking and pulled the Lizano from the fridge to place it on the table, I glanced at the bottle's ingredients: whew, no meat listed. But then it hit me - I'd already added Worcestershire sauce! Ugh! So the rice and beans were set aside for the night and I quickly "filled-out" the sides I'd made (a big salad and some roasted vegetables) and served those instead.

Some time later I "confessed" to my friend about that almost disaster of serving her the food containing anchovies - she laughed and reassured me that she would have happily eaten the rice dish, even knowing that it had Worcestershire sauce, 'cause I'd been kind enough to cook a special meal for her in the first place. (See, that's why she's now a friend.)

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  1. people can call themselves what they like (i can call myself empress of the universe, ya know?) that doesn't make it so. your previously held definitions were correct. pardon me, but your family are the types that give restaurants fits. just say, "i don't eat meat, but i eat fish." pescatarian, btw. i realize they don't often feel like giving a lengthy explanation, but if special alterations actually DON'T need to be made to a dish, because you're NOT a vegetarian, be fair.

    the other examples are a fruitarian and a raw foodist. your last example is a nice friend who doesn't get sanctimonious about her food. nice that she was so appreciative of your gesture. :)

    1. I think a lot of people who would like to be strict vegetarians have realized that having a social life is just a lot easier if they can occasionally "not ask" about things like chicken broth, worcestershire, fish sauce, and gelatin. Otherwise they risk being very difficult guests / restaurant companions. Personally I think this is a very adult compromise and one I have respect for.

      3 Replies
      1. re: julesrules

        I agree that the "don't ask, don't tell policy" makes it easier to go out or visit friends. But I think you can stick to your principles (if you're veg for ethical reasons) without being a pain - and you shouldn't do something you're not comfortable with just to fit it.

        (Of course, none of this applies to people who are veg for other reasons, like health or personal taste.)

        1. re: piccola

          Sure. I am generally talking about people who have been veg for many years - since they were teenagers and actually *were* kind of a pain about it ;). This is the compromise they have worked out for themselves over time and they are happy with it.

          I also understand and respect people who are more absolutist and I don't expect them to go against their principals. And I understand that an all-or-nothing approach can sometimes be the only way to make people respect the diet. But I wish there was a little more respect/understanding for people who take other approaches. I think it's still better overall for the environment and animal welfare to reduce one's meat consumption by 99 or even 50%, it doesn't have to be all or nothing.

          I am not talking about "vegetarians" who won't eat steak on the bone but are seen eating Chicken McNuggets - the picky eaters or dieters. Now *those* people are annoying ;-P

          1. re: julesrules

            I've been veg for 10 years, and there's almost nothing that bugs me more than a veggie on a crusade. :)

            To each his own, I say. Just be consistent and clear. If you eat a bacon sandwich every couple weeks, or you like a little gravy on your potatoes, you're not veg - own it.

      2. "I am a vegetarian." When I say this, people often ask me either- "so you dont eat eggs"? or "do you eat fish"? So I elaborate - I am lacto-ovo, I eat eggs and dairy, but no meat fish or poulty, including when it's hidden in sauces or broths.

        That usually covers it, but most people don't know that there is anchovy in worcestershire or in caesar salad. they dont think about the beef bones that have made the gravy. they dont think about the chicken stock in the broccoli soup. Even restaurants, if I ask, "is that made with anchovy?" they say no, then will occasionally follow that up with, there's anchovy paste in the sauce. As if that's any better.

        I'm not a veg so that I can look down on everyone, or so that I can be special. I do my best to ask questions so that I can be informed and then make my decision. If I find out theres something hidden, I just won't eat it, even if it's in front of the host. That's my choice, and I have the right to make it. I don't pout or act rude about it, I just don't eat it. If I take a bit of a veggie in a dip, and then someone mentions there was bacon in it, I don't get angry at myself or the host, I just won't eat any more.

        It's impossible to know every ingredient in every dish, even when someone tells you what's in it. It would be nice if everyone knew what it was to be veg, but they don't. This was my lifestyle choice, not theirs, so I'm the one who has to decide how to do it.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Nalega

          I don't eat mammals, but that sounds extremely strange, so when I go out I will just say I don't eat red meat for health reasons.
          If you say you are a vegan or a vegetarian and then I see you eating the cream based dessert or a bite of your friends' steak, I am just plain baffled.
          Say whatever you wish, but be prepared for people's incredulous gazes.

          1. re: momof3

            agreed. theres a difference between a vegetarian and someone who just doesnt like meat. i have a friend who calls herself a vegetarian, because she likes to put definitions on things. fact is, she doesnt like meat, and eats it ones in a while. i dont look down on people who eat meat, but some people just like the so called trendiness of being "a vegetarian". It's none of my business what they want to call themselves, but it leads to people like me being completely misunderstood. I haven't knowingly eaten anything from a dead animal in over 15 years, and find it a little tedious to have to explain this decision.

        2. When someone says they are vegetarian. I usu ask what specifically they will not eat because there are too many types of vegetarians. Also, many vegetarians will only eat non-GMO food. When entertaining it is incredibly difficult to satisfy everyone's dietary restrictions. No meat, dairy GMO, allergies, diets, carbs, sodium, fat content, etc.
          I tell guests it's preferable (and not insulting) to bring a dish and enjoy the company.

          8 Replies
          1. re: tom porc

            I find this is the best way to handle potentially difficult dinner party and pot luck situations. I always bring a yummy vegetarian entree, prepared the way I like. That way, I have something to eat if there are no other veg options, the hosts don't feel bad for not accommodating me AND I get tickled when meat-eaters like it!

            1. re: hypertomatoes

              me too! (okay hyper, you made my mood better again on this topic) - i find this is the best way to showcase 'what it IS that i actually eat, since I don't eat meat' and generally it's always one of the first dishes to go!i've converted my meat & potatoes OR brown and white foods Dad to eat anything I place in front of him.....AMAZING.

            2. re: tom porc

              The irony of this is that even the most certified non-GMO food has generally undergone some form of GMO.

              That said, I generally refuse to dine with vegetarians and those who restrict themselves like this if the choice is present.

              1. re: jpschust

                it's not hard to avoid gmos if you avoid processed foods-- probably what you meant when you said "most," right?

                to the op: yes, your family members are incorrectly labeling themselves as something they are not. you can't be ticked off by it, because they're family, but be prepared to get some raised eyebrows from people who understand what vegetarianism is and who can appreciate that it is a lifestyle choice and not just a trendy diet.

                unfortunately a lot of people see vegetarians as finicky eaters, or that they're more of a pain then they're worth. omnivores range over wide territory as to their savviness about food choices-- some are extremely informed, but the average s.a.d. eater can be appallingly uneducated about food. most people, veg & non-veg, could afford to learn more about their food, its sources, and the nutritional benefits of different diet choices.

                1. re: soupkitten

                  Well even with things like corn and soy- so much cross pollenation occurs that you can have what was raised as non GMO food being cross pollenated unintentionally with GMO food.

                  Being informed and being a picky eater are two separate issues- it's worth knowing about your food no matter what you choose to eat, but I will not deal with picky eaters if given the choice.

                  1. re: soupkitten

                    It's a shame that us veggies are usually categorized as picky eaters. I know MANY meat-eaters that are picky as hell....all they eat are "brown and white" foods (as lollya says).

                    Speaking for myself, I eat just about everything that isn't meat or meat derived. Veggies, fruit, grains, beans, legumes & soy products, most cheeses, cereals, pasta, rices, interesting ethnic foods - all good in my book. In my 12 years as a vegetarian, I've never once gone hungry at a restaurant, pot luck, dinner party, cafeteria, cookout, etc.

                    1. re: hypertomatoes

                      I agree. I'm the least picky eater of my family (and the only veg) - many of my relatives are of the "pizza and burgers only" school of thought, others have a long list of banned veggies/cuisines/condiments.

                      I've yet to find produce I don't like; I love carbs of all kinds; I eat eggs and dairy; I'm open to all cuisines. The only thing I don't really dig is candy. I don't think that's particularly picky.

                      1. re: piccola

                        "I'm the least picky eater of my family"

                        Agreed! I eat almost anything, except flesh. I'm lacto-ovo and the only lifetime vegetarian in our family (a few who eat vegetarian often, to the point of having several vegetarian cookbooks in their library). And if for some reason I don't particularly like a particular fruit/vegetable (melons come to mind) I won't say a word to the host. They went through the trouble of preparing a meal I can eat, taking my life-choice into consideration, so it is worth trying!

              2. Your (some/specific) meat-eating friends aren't vegetarian. I do understand the "ease" of saying you are - i.e. they're invited to dinner at someone's house and instead of giving them a huge long list of likes/dislikes they simply say they eat "a mostly vegetarian diet." Maybe I'm kind, but I wouldn't persecute them for that. They just simplified the meal planning process!

                I have several friends who eat only meat, pasta, breads, etc. Vegetables play a tiny role in their diets. I don't invite them over for dinner! It's too much hassle, and no meat of any kind is welcome in our house, so what would they eat?? Of course these are the same people who equate vegetarian food with tasteless blah and are unhappy when I invite them to meet at an Indian restaurant!

                2 Replies
                1. re: odkaty

                  Yes I have a friend who keeps kosher at home and finds "vegetarian" is just the easiest way to eat out and at friends' places. We are happy to oblige.

                  1. re: julesrules

                    That's different. My brother - who only eats organic meat - does the same. But he doesn't actually consider himself vegetarian; it's just something he says to strangers to make things simple.

                    My issue is people who call themselves veg seriously, then break all the rules.