Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw, Plant-Based — Decoding the Language Around Meatless Diets

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: courtesy of Fox)

There’s a little joke that goes around vegan circles — the concept of the “level-five vegan,” someone who is unflinchingly committed to the plant-based lifestyle. The term is a reference to an episode of The Simpsons, in which Lisa Simpson — one of television’s most celebrated vegetarians — develops a crush on a guy who chuckles dismissively when she says she’s thinking of going vegan. “I’m a level-five vegan,” he says. “I won’t eat anything that casts a shadow.”

There are so many ways to go meatless today that you could be forgiven for falling behind on the terminology. No, veganism doesn’t have “levels” (at least, not that we know of), but it has plenty of variations. Below is your glossary of vegetarianism in its many forms, from the basic meat-abstinent to the purely plant-based.

And what if — despite our trusty guide — you should find a vegetarian at your dinner table, and you’re at a loss for what (not) to serve? When in doubt, ask. Just ask! Ask early and ask often. Ask with genuine curiosity and then actually listen to the answer. It really is that easy.


Vegetarians don’t eat meat. That may seem pretty straightforward, but become a vegetarian and you’ll learn how “meat” is not a straightforward term. “Not even chicken?” an incredulous omnivore will ask. No, you’ll say with a straight face, you don’t eat chicken, because it’s a meat. “You don’t mind just a little bit of bacon in these beans/potatoes/eggs/etc., do you?” they will wonder aloud, mostly out of politeness. “Indeed I do mind,” you will say, trying to be polite in return, but mentally rolling your eyeballs to the moon and back.

There are a lot of ways to be a vegetarian, but generally speaking, none of them involve eating anything with a face, or anything made with anything with a face, like beef stock or lard. If you’re hosting a dinner party, it’s always good to clarify the parameters of your vegetarian guests’ diets. Some who identify as vegetarians will make exceptions for fish. Lacto- or ovo-vegetarians (aka veggans) may also avoid eggs or dairy for personal or religious reasons.


Or otherwise known as a “semi-vegetarian.” Flexitarianism is the driving force behind “Meatless Mondays” and Mark Bittman’s concept of vegan before six p.m. (VB6) and the general trend of eating less meat, if not no meat. Flexitarians are fairly open to the power of suggestion, but check in with them before serving up a steak. You wouldn’t want to catch one on an off (or is it an on?) day.


Nothing that walked or crawled is on the menu for a pescatarian, but if it swam in the ocean, it’s generally fair game. This raises a rather curious philosophical question about why fish often doesn’t count as meat — one that Lent-observing Christians may have pondered for some time. St. Thomas Aquinas may have given believers a decent reason for distinguishing fish from all other animal flesh early in the last millennium, but for everyone else left pondering the fish/meat divide, the answer remains a mystery.


Vegans avoid eating animal products of any kind, which means no meat, naturally, but also no dairy or eggs. Many vegans steer clear of honey, although individual vegans disagree on the importance and ethics of this (more on that here). They generally avoid gelatin, beer and wine made with non-vegan filtering and fining agents, and sugar that’s processed with bone char. They also often abstain from wearing or purchasing items made with animal byproducts as well, like leather and silk or cosmetics that were tested on animals.

Times are changing, to be sure, and veganism is definitely becoming more mainstream and more widely understood. But it still isn’t uncommon for vegans to be asked to make exceptions to their diet for the convenience of the people around them. Before you ask “You don’t mind a little butter, do you?” or “There’s an egg in this — that’s not a problem, is it?” just assume that your vegan acquaintance does mind and that it is a problem. For most vegans and raw vegans, “veganism” indicates more than a dietary preference. It’s an entire lifestyle, guided by a set of ethical principles they hold close.

Raw Foodist

Now that the weather has warmed up, it’s a little easier to be a raw vegan than it was in the dead of winter. Raw foodists avoid food that was prepared above a certain temperature — usually somewhere in the 104 to 118 degrees Fahrenheit range — at which food’s enzymes begin to unravel and raw foodists believe its natural nutritional properties begin to diminish.

So what do you eat after you go raw? Tons of vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, leafy greens, and juices. Serious raw foodists of means develop close working relationships with their blenders, food processors, and dehydrators, and they’re turning out some of the most inventive “cooking” you’ve ever seen — and some of the most colorful.


To anyone who equates “vegan” and “healthy,” consider that Oreos, Ritz crackers, and Wise Onion Rings are all made entirely without animal products. Committed vegans may be happy to consume these foods, but not someone on a plant-based diet. Plant-based eaters are after food that closely resembles the plant(s) it came from. They avoid processed, packaged food and sometimes eschew white sugar, flour, and oils.

But generally speaking, “plant-based” eating isn’t an “-ism” — plenty of people are eating closer to the source whenever and wherever possible, without becoming plant-based dieters. They’re ramping up the good stuff and scaling back on anything factory-farmed, over-processed, or artery-clogging. And whether you’re an omnivore or a herbivore, we can all agree that’s moving in a positive direction.