The Vegetarian Spectrum: A Rainbow of Terms That Mean "Eating Green"

rainbow spread of fruits and vegetables including tomato, purple cabbage, oranges, lemons, celery, and more

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Our food system has a huge impact on the environment, which is why changing the way you eat is one way you can live more sustainably. One fifth of energy consumption in the U.S. is gobbled up by food production.

As most TreeHuggers know, eating local and organic benefits the environment in myriad ways, but perhaps the greenest thing you can eat is your greens. That's because animal products are particularly energy-intensive and contribute heavily to greenhouse gasses. One study found the production of meat and diary contribute far more to greenhouse gasses in the U.S. than the emissions associated with shipping these products around the country.

From freegans to vegans, this glossary of terms shows the many ways people approach eating sustainably.


A flexitarian could be anyone who isn't ready to commit to a full-on vegetarian lifestyle, but is reducing his or her meat consumption. The term emerged in the late 1990s to describe someone who is largely vegetarian, but still occasionally consumes meat and animal products.

There are a number of small steps you can take to reduce your meat consumption. A very popular movement is Meatless Mondays, which is exactly what it sounds like: cutting out meat for one day a week. A more aggressive approach is the Weekday Vegetarian, an idea promoted by TreeHugger's founder Graham Hill. Some people who could be considered fexitarian only eat meat they feel is ethically sourced.


According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term "pescetarian" is a portmanteau that joins the Italian word for fish--pesce--with the English word vegetarian. Pescetarians are people who typically eat seafood, dairy and eggs, but no other meat.

Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian

"Ovo" is derived from the Latin word for egg and "lacto" is derived from the Latin word meaning milk. Ovo-lacto vegetarians don't eat meat or fish, but consume products produced by animals like dairy and eggs. When someone describes themselves as vegetarian, this is usually what they mean. Many vegetarians also cut out gelatin, found in Jell-O and marshmallows, because it's made from collagen derived from animal skin, bone or connective tissue.


Vegans avoid animal products more or less completely, but what this includes can vary greatly. Vegans eat an exclusively plant-based diet, which usually means no meat, fish, diary, eggs or honey. Some vegans also avoid animal products in their wardrobes and beauty products, such as fur, leather, dyes made from insects, goose down and wool. The question of how far to take a vegan lifestyle is a much debated subject.

As noted above, raising animals is highly energy intensive, and when done on an industrial scale usually results in various forms of pollution. So, becoming vegan will likely lower your personal carbon food print. There is also debate about how widely applicable the vegan lifestyle can be, or in other words, what would a vegan world look like?

Just as participating in Meatless Mondays may ease people towards a vegetarian lifestyle, 30-day vegan challenges have been a popular way for many people to test out a plant-based diet.

Raw Vegan

Most raw vegans follow this demanding lifestyle because they say it's healthier, although there are some cases where cooked food has been showed to have more nutrients. While TreeHugger has explored the benefits of low-carbon cooking techniques, eating raw only food may not represent an energy savings because raw foodies will need juicers and dehydrators in order to get sufficient nutrients.

There are few who can manage to sustain this type of lifestyle. Perhaps the ascetic nature of the raw veganism is why it's often discussed, but infrequently practiced.


A common definition of freegan is "vegan unless it's free." Like veganism, it may also extend to purchasing choices for all types of goods. Freeganism is often associated with dumpster diving, but can also be a social choice. For some, being freegan means eating animal products to honor cultural traditions (like Thanksgiving) or when turning down a meaty dish would be offensive.

One of the goals of a freegan diet is to reduce food waste, because 30 percent of the food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten.


Given the nature of globalism, being a locavore is more of an aspirational goal that a widely practiced diet. There are probably few New Yorkers who would be willing to give up coffee, chocolate or other tropical foods. Nonetheless, local eating is a powerful idea that says we should pay attention to the geographic origins of our food as much how it's produced. Cutting down on the miles food travels reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Eating local foods helps us reconnect to the seasons and nature of our habitats, by asking us to appreciate the plants and animals that thrive in our region. Here's some great advice on how you can eat local.

Are there terms we missed? Let us know in the comments.