Vegetarian vs. Vegan? Some Sense 'Holier than Thou' Condescension

For centuries, people have been crowing about the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle. While it's not for everyone, more and more folks want to reap the green goodness sown by means of a vegetable-dominated diet.

Traditionally, vegetarians have stood together as a group, but there is evidence of a growing rift among those who say "no" to meat. Why? It just may be that some noncarnivores think they are better than others.

"It is really a matter of great distress," says Dr. Stanley Sapon, professor emeritus of psycholinguistics at the University of Rochester.

Sapon, a long-time vegetarian crusader, is concerned about the effect of a division among the flock, which he says "would seriously diminish the power to effect social change that a single, large, unified organization can exert."

By definition, all vegetarians are not created equal.

Most dictionaries describe them in general as people who do not eat meat or fish but instead eat vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds and sometimes eggs and dairy products.

It's that last bit that sticks in the craw of many a hardcore noncarnivore. The problem is most people have very different ideas about the word and the lifestyle.

"I know people who eat fish and call themselves vegetarians," says Hyland Fisher, 33, an 11-year vegan and an apprentice architect from Nevada City, Calif. "I wouldn't consider them vegetarians."

While there are numerous variations, the meat-free family tree is made up of two main branches.

On one side is ovo-lacto vegetarians, who swear off the consumption of flesh but will readily partake of animal products such as eggs, milk, cheese and honey.

This is thought to be the most common type of vegetarian. A 2006 national poll conducted by Harris interactive bears that out. Of 1,000 adults surveyed, 2.3 percent counted themselves in the ovo-lacto category.

On the other side and in the minority are the vegans, those who claim to shy away from animal products of any kind. Just 1.4 percent of those asked in the Harris poll said they were vegans.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

It seems it's the ovo-lacto addendum that has scattered the herd, with all sides clinging tenaciously to the central "vegetarian" moniker.

"It's a small part of the language that causes division," Fisher says.

"Vegans do try to separate themselves, but we don't look down on vegetarians," he adds. "Vegan people have a religious verve, always encouraging people to go further with their faith."

Jason Atkins, 29, a Web reporter for SuperVegan.Com, agrees.

"I know people who are pretty militant about it," he says, "but most of them would not condemn anyone for not being a vegan."

The biting question: If one consumes some animal products, are they really a vegetarian?

"Eating cheese is not the same as killing an animal," says Eric Johnson, a 34-year-old vegetarian and ad agency music supervisor from Portland, Ore., who has come across a "holier than thou attitude" from some vegans.

"I've heard people say, 'If you eat dairy, you contribute to the problem as much as any meat eater,'" he says, adding that such a line of thinking puzzles him.

"It's like, 'Hey, I'm trying to do something good, and then you come across a jerk with an attitude,'" he says. "And you're just like, 'Come on.'"

While few vegans will admit to a full-on bias, most do say they wish more people would see it their way.

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