What is a Vegetarian?

“This is not true!” My friend said, looking at an article about vegetarianism on my refrigerator with a small measure of alarm. “It says here that vegetarians don’t eat fish.” She looked at me for confirmation that this could not possibly be right.

“Actually, it is true.” I said, surprised to see her face fall. “Kind of by definition.” My friend had recently stopped eating meat, and had assumed that made her a vegetarian, even though she still sometimes eats fish (as do I). I had to tell her that eating fish means we don’t conform to what people usually mean when they say vegetarian.

It’s easy to understand my friend’s confusion. I tend to tell people that I’m a vegetarian so they won’t expect me to eat products made of animals. That’s because when I say “I don’t eat meat” people sometimes want to serve me chicken or beef stock or lard. (Did you know that some piecrusts are made with lard?) Or my hosts specially prepare fish, when I’d much prefer something vegetarian. Plus, this blog is vegetarian, so when I do eat fish I generally don’t write about it here, except to gripe about people serving me too much fish.

Technically, I might say I’m a lacto-ovo-pesco-vegetarian or explain I’m a vegetarian who eats milk, eggs, and sometimes fish. “That makes me not really a vegetarian,” I tell my friend.

Feeling confused? Here are some diet definitions, from least meaty to meatiest:

Fruitarian:  If you really want to go minimal impact, you could try this diet of foods that “fall to the ground,” which means the harvesting does not kill plants (or animals).  Generally fruitarians eat only fruits, nuts and seeds.

Vegan: [usually pronounced vee’-gan, though I’ve heard some funny pronunciations]. A strict vegetarian diet; vegans do not consume any animal products, including milk, eggs, or even honey. (Bees are included as animals, and therefore honey is an animal product.) I note some of the recipes on my blog that are vegan as I made them; many can be adapted.

Vegetarian: A diet that does not include meat or meat products. Some vegetarians may also avoid animal products such as milk and eggs. Throughout its history, the label has meant different things to different people. The Vegetarian Society in England brought the term into vogue in 1847, but meatless diets were not new even then. The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (ca. 570 to ca. 490 BCE) advocated abstaining from eating animals and this lifestyle was known into the mid nineteenth century as the Pythagorean diet.

Lacto-ovo Vegetarian:  A diet that does not include meats, but does include milk (lacto) and eggs (ovo). In my experience, this is what most people mean by “vegetarian.” My blog is lacto-ovo vegetarian, since some of the recipes include milk or eggs.

A side note: A couple of my meat-eating friends accused my hot chocolate post of being not vegetarian. It is lacto-ovo vegetarian because of the milk (and would be vegan, if you substitute soy milk). Had I topped it with marshmallows, however, it would likely not have been vegetarian, since marshmallows generally contain gelatin, which is made from…well, hooves.

Lacto-ovo-pesco Vegetarian: I kind of made this one up. The proper term, according to Wikipedia, is pescatarian. I don’t like that label though, since it might further encourage people to serve me fish all the time. I only cook vegetarian food and I rarely order fish unless there’s nothing else on a menu I can eat. I still love lox, though, which may be part of my Jewish DNA, and occasionally I like to have sushi. I prefer my fish uncooked, I guess. Anyway, this term kind of summarizes my diet, and my friend’s, which I mention here in the spirit of clarification and full disclosure.

Omnivore: Humans are omnivores, meaning we can eat all kinds of foods, derived from fruits, nuts, grains, vegetables, fungi, molds, fishes, animals, and bugs. As a teen I saw guinea pigs roasting on a spit in South America and I learned that a pet (my pet) in one culture is dinner in another.  What we actually choose to eat usually is determined by habits and convictions from our parents, society, religion or spirituality, personal ethics, and concerns for our health.

Carnivore: Some people eat a lot of meat, but a true carnivore is an animal that survives only or primarily on flesh. I sometimes call my meat-eating friends carnivores to imply they eat nothing else. Some carnivorous animals mainly consume bugs. According to a New York Times article, bugs and larvae are an environmentally friendly source of protein growing in popularity in Europe and the U.S., but are “similar in price” to meat, and perhaps not for everyone.


  1. I’m a vagan; that is I only speak in broad generalities and never with great specificity. In other words I am vague about everything–including my age and weight.

    I suppose you could be a vegan-vagan (or a vagan-vegan) but I don’t think I fit in that category.

  2. I think we should definitely promote the use of this word, “vagan.” Are you sure you don’t want to spell it “vaguean,” though? That might address the pronunciation difficulties encountered by vegans. I know people who say “vegan” as if it referred to people from the planet Vega. (“Vay-gin,” like your word.) I also have a friend who says vegan like the first syllable of vegetarian so that it sounds like something you might do on a couch in front of the tv.

  3. I thought of “vaguean” but the vegan/vagan has a symetry that appealed to me.

    (Also I thought that others not familiar with the cult of vaganism might pronounce it “vage-you-en”, and thus experience the same pronunciation issue that “vegan” suffers.)

    But we digress. I do recall being forced to eat in a vegan restaurant once and I ordered the ersatz meatloaf and while it did not chew like the real thing it was very tasty and I enjoyed it.

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