At first glance, veganism seems pretty straightforward. No animals or animal products allowed, right?
But if you’ve spent much time online in vegan groups, you’ll quickly notice a spectrum of motivations and values. These differences can significantly shape a person’s food choices and the type of vegan diet they choose to follow. Different types of vegan diets vary drastically in their nutritional adequacy, so it’s important to be aware of their differences.
If you’re curious about the different types of vegans, why they choose to go vegan, or how these motivations influence the different types of vegan diets and how healthy they are, I’ve got you covered!
What’s a vegan, anyway?
To start off, let’s define what vegans actually are. According to The Vegan Society, veganism is:
“…a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans, and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
Since this post is focused on vegan diets and nutrition, I’ll also be discussing people who adhere to a vegan diet but who don’t necessarily hold as strongly to the philosophical, animal rights-based aspect of veganism.
I won’t be including flexitarian, plant-based, or “plant-forward” diets that include small amounts of animal products, as these don’t meet the definition of a vegan diet.
The 3 main types of vegans
While all vegans avoid eating animals or animal products, their motivations for doing so can vary. In general, there are three main types of vegans:
1. Ethical vegans
Ethical vegans choose to avoid eating animals and animal products in an effort to reduce animal suffering and exploitation.
Often, an ethical vegan will have observed the poor living conditions and physical abuse of animals raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs, colloquially called “factory farms”), the repeated and forced insemination of dairy cows, unsanitary slaughterhouse conditions, or the practice of culling male chicks in the egg industry and have been mentally and emotionally disturbed by it.
To these types of vegans, it’s incredibly important to live a fully vegan lifestyle, which involves not only the avoidance of animal-based foods but also materials like leather, wool, and silk produced from animals.
2. Health-focused vegans
More and more people are turning to a vegan diet for health reasons, due in part to an increasing number of popular health documentaries. Vegan diets are sometimes suggested to people by their physicians as well.
These health-focused or “dietary vegans” choose a vegan diet for its lower saturated fat, cholesterol, and pro-carcinogenic compound content and higher content of anti-inflammatory fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients than diets heavy in meat and dairy.
The health benefits of vegan diets are supported by numerous scientific studies. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics1, vegans are at lower risk for ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, obesity, and hypertension.
As the scientific evidence base for the health-promoting potential of vegan diets grows, it’s likely that even more people will choose to go vegan for their health.
3. Environmental vegans
Given the significant concerns that exist surrounding climate change, many people are looking for effective ways to reduce their impact on the environment.
As it turns out, vegan diets are a great way to do this — especially when they consist primarily of nutrient-dense, minimally processed plant-based foods, as found in a 2022 paper in The Lancet Planetary Health2.
Of course, vegans are individuals and can’t all neatly fit into one box. People may choose veganism for a combination of two or three of these reasons.
Personally, I decided to go vegan for the health benefits but learned more about animal welfare and the environmental benefits over time. Today, all three reasons are important to me!
Different types of vegan diets
Just as the motivations for following a vegan diet can vary, the way in which a person chooses to follow a vegan diet can differ. This is usually related to their motivation for going vegan in the first place.
“Typical” vegan diet
A “typical” vegan diet is one followed by the majority of ethical vegans and some environmental vegans. The priority is on avoiding animal foods and animal products, so all non-animal foods can be enjoyed regardless of their nutrition profile.
Here, eating healthfully is generally not the biggest priority, although many vegans do want to make sure they’re eating balanced meals and getting the proper nutrition their body needs.
A typical vegan diet includes whole, minimally processed plant-based foods like beans, tofu, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. It can also include meat alternatives, non-dairy cheese and ice cream, vegan pizza, French fries, dairy-free chocolate, and other less nutrient-dense foods.
Basically, any food is fair game as long as it doesn’t contain animals or animal products and hasn’t been processed with animal-based ingredients.
This type of diet may also fit under the “junk food vegan” phrase you may commonly see mentioned, which I don’t consider a true type of vegan diet as I haven’t encountered many vegans who purposefully and specifically choose to focus on eating vegan junk food.
Often, people will carry their pre-vegan eating habits over to a vegan lifestyle. If someone was used to eating a typical Western diet high in ultra-processed, nutrient-poor foods, they can easily do the same with a vegan diet thanks to the plethora of plant-based convenience foods available today.
Whole food plant-based (WFPB)
WFPB is followed most commonly by vegans who chose to go vegan for health benefits and/or to improve certain health conditions. It focuses primarily on plant-based foods in their natural, unprocessed (whole) forms, but can also include minimally processed foods that retain the majority of their health-promoting nutrients.
The WFPB diet is based on:
- Whole grains (no refined grains or flours)
- Beans & lentils
- Minimally processed soy foods like edamame, tofu, soy curls, and tempeh
Some WFPB vegans also avoid added sugars, oil, and salt (abbreviated SOS). You may hear this preference referred to as the Whole Food Plant-Based No Oil (WFPBNO) diet or the WFPB SOS-free diet. This is the type of diet promoted by Forks Over Knives, a popular plant-based health documentary.
Raw veganism is a small subsection of the larger vegan community. As with WFPB, raw veganism is primarily concerned with improving a person’s health.
Taw vegans mainly avoid foods cooked at temperatures over about 115-118 degrees Fahrenheit. This includes foods like:
- Cooked fruits and vegetables
- Boiled grains or legumes
- Baked goods
- Roasted nuts and seeds
- Refined oils that aren’t cold-pressed
The rationale used to support raw diets is that cooking destroys valuable antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and natural enzymes, but this isn’t always true. Some nutrients, like the lycopene in tomatoes or beta-carotene in carrots, are more bioavailable when cooked, and not all compounds are destroyed by heat.
Because the impact of cooking on nutrient bioavailability is nuanced, there isn’t a scientific justification for eating 100% raw.
Fruitarianism is an even smaller sect of veganism, in which people consume mostly (or only) fresh or dehydrated fruit for perceived health benefits. Nuts, seeds, fatty fruits like avocados and olives, and vegetables that are botanically classified as fruits (cucumbers, eggplant, and squash, for example) are often allowed as well.
The high-starch/low-fat diet is very similar to the WFPB diet, but specifically focuses on starchy foods like potatoes, grains, beans, and fruit, with the diet made up of about 70% starchy foods, 20% vegetables, and 10% fruit.
This diet only allows very small amounts of plant-based fats like nuts, seeds, avocado, and olives. Oil of any kind is not allowed.
Promoted by Dr. John MacDougall, author of The Starch Solution, this diet and is meant to help with weight loss and prevent common chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Are all vegan diets healthy?
While vegan diets can be incredibly healthy, the nutrient density, nutritional adequacy, and long-term sustainability of different vegan diets can vary drastically, as we saw above.
Fruitarianism, for example, is one of the most restrictive diets you could follow. It’s very difficult to get enough protein, calcium, and iron since this diet entirely cuts out grains, soy, and beans, which also provide other crucial nutrients like B vitamins, insoluble fiber, isoflavones, and unique phytonutrients not found in fruit and nuts.
And if only eating 100% fruit, getting enough of these nutrients will be impossible. Serious nutrient deficiencies and muscle loss are almost guaranteed.
Raw vegan diets provide plenty of fresh produce, nuts, and sprouted legumes, but tend to be so low in calories and high in fiber that people fill up quickly and may struggle to get enough calories.
The WFPB and high-starch/low-fat vegan diets are high in fiber, nutrient-dense, and limit sweets and junk foods, but may be difficult for some people to follow. The high-starch/low-fat vegan diet, in particular, is extremely low in fat, making it nutritionally unbalanced. It may also limit the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
On the other hand, vegan diets that are too heavy in nutrient-poor foods like sweets, fried foods, and refined grains may be just as risky as the standard American diet for the development of chronic diseases like coronary heart disease, as found by a 2021 meta-analysis3.
So, what does a healthy vegan diet look like? It will vary for different people, but a healthy vegan diet in general is one that has a good balance of the three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) by including a variety of whole, minimally processed plant-based foods like beans, lentils, soy, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
In my opinion, I don’t think it’s necessary to avoid oils or severely restrict dietary fat as fat is necessary for the body to function optimally and helps make meals more filling and delicious. People with poor appetites, such as cancer patients or older adults, may not be able to get enough calories on diets that severely restrict fat.
I also disagree with the idea that all processed foods need to be avoided. Some processed foods like textured vegetable protein (TVP) or seitan are convenient ways to add helpful nutrients like protein and zinc to the diet.
And there’s nothing wrong with having a Beyond burger and fries or a dish of your favorite non-dairy ice cream every so often! Occasional indulgences won’t break your long-term health.
What matters most is consistently basing the majority of your diet on whole, minimally processed plant-based foods in a way that you enjoy, helps you feel your best, and can be sustained long-term.
There are three main types of vegans:
- Ethical vegans who wish to reduce animal suffering and exploitation
- Health-focused vegans who wish to improve their health by removing animal products from their diet
- Environmental vegans who wish to minimize their impact on climate change by choosing an environmentally-friendly plant-based diet
A vegan may identify with one or more of these motivations, which can shape their food choices and the healthfulness of their diet. It’s important for vegans to eat a balanced diet that prioritizes a variety of beans, lentils, soy, fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds while considering food allergies and dietary preferences.
Allowing for the occasional fun indulgence is okay, too!
The 3 types of vegans – FAQs
How many types of vegans are there?
There are three main types of vegans: ethical, health-focused, and environmental. They may follow a variety of vegan diets, ranging from “typical” vegan diets including both processed and unprocessed vegan foods, whole-food plant-based, raw vegan, fruitarian, or high-starch/low-fat.
Are there levels of veganism?
Different levels of veganism have been proposed in response to the varying motivations people have for going vegan, but these aren’t strict guidelines and aren’t discussed much in vegan circles.
Veganism can be expressed in different ways. Some types of vegans may follow more restrictive diets intended to improve their health, others may care less about health and choose to be vegan strictly for reasons of animal welfare or environmentalism, and others may value more than one of these at once.
Is plant-based the same as vegan?
The term “plant-based” is commonly used nowadays to refer to a dietary pattern heavy in plant-based foods, but may sometimes contain small amounts of animal products. Vegan diets never include animal-based foods and are 100% plant-based. A caveat is the term Whole Food Plant-Based (WFPB), which is also 100% plant-based.
The scientific information in this article was accurate at the time of publishing but may change over time as new research becomes available.
- Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(12):1970-1980. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025
- Musicus AA, Wang DD, Janiszewski M, et al. Health and environmental impacts of plant-rich dietary patterns: a US prospective cohort study. Lancet Planet Health. 2022;6(11):e892-e900. doi:10.1016/S2542-5196(22)00243-1
- Gan ZH, Cheong HC, Tu YK, Kuo PH. Association between Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. Nutrients. 2021;13(11):3952. Published 2021 Nov 5. doi:10.3390/nu13113952