Common Special Diets: A Glossary

It seems like everyone you meet is eating a special diet right now, and it’s easy to mix them up.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has suggested the gluten free or paleo option when I ask about what’s vegan on a menu, for example. Special diets can overlap, which, I think, is where the confusion comes in. If the only vegan you’ve ever met is also gluten free, you might think that vegans don’t eat gluten. But many of us do, with glee!

Here are some of the most common special diets and what they’re about.

Why People Choose Special Diets

You can sort of break down the why behind common special diets into two broad categories:

The ethical reasons for choosing a special diet are usually about animal rights, human rights, or the environment. Maybe you’re eating vegan or plant-based, because you want to reduce your carbon footprint or fight climate change or protect animals, for example.

Health is an even more broad category when it comes to why people choose special diets. Some folks are looking to lose weight or maintain weight loss.

There’s also evidence that some special diets can prevent or even cure chronic disease. Sometimes, a special diet is not a choice, and a gluten free diet is a great example. Going gluten free is very hip right now, but for someone with celiac disease, it’s a life or death decision.

Common Special Diets

There are dozens of nuanced special diets out there, and this glossary is meant to address the ones that you are most likely to encounter. It doesn’t include short-term weight loss diets, and it leaves out some special diets that are less popular.

These are some of the most common special diets that you’ll encounter, arranged alphabetically.


DASH is a special diet aimed at controlling high blood pressure. It is a low-sodium diet that focuses on whole grains, fruits, and veggies. You can eat small amounts of low fat dairy, lean meats, fish, nuts, and seeds on the DASH diet.


This is a somewhat broad special diet, and how flexible a flexitarian is depends on why he or she chose to eat this way. A flexitarian avoids meat (and sometimes all animal products) but will sometimes still eat meat or dairy.

Gluten Free

Someone who is gluten free avoids all food with gluten. This includes foods you may already know about, like conventional breads and pastas, but gluten hides in all kinds of other products, like soy sauce and even makeup. Depending on why someone is gluten free, eating gluten can potentiall cause serious health problems.

Locavore (or Local Diet)

A locavore is someone who focuses on eating food grown locally. This can include or exclude animal products. Like a raw diet, not every locavore eats 100 percent local, but they will choose local options whenever possible.


Macrobiotic diets have come a long way since the 70s and 80s when they were even more popular. Back then, they were very restrictive, but people have reimagined the macrobiotic diet since then. In a nutshell, it can describe a vegetarian or pescatarian diet with a focus on whole foods and mindful eating.


A paleo diet is supposed to mimic the way people ate during paleolithic times. It focuses on meat, eggs, fruits, nuts and seeds, and unsaturated oils. There are paleo vegans, as well, who follow a paleo diet, minus the meat and eggs.


A pescatarian diet is a vegetarian diet, plus seafood. Pesca is Latin for fish.


A plant-based is another way to refer to a vegan diet. Someone who is plant-based usually eats this way for health reasons, so they don’t necessarily live a vegan lifestyle. There’s also a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet movement, which describes a plant-based diet that’s free from processed foods, refined sugars, refined oils, and alcohol.

Raw Diet

Raw food is a dish that hasn’t been heated above 117F (48C). The idea is that cooking food destroys some of the nutrients in it. People on a raw diet may or may not eat 100 percent raw, and they can eat animal products, as long as those are also raw.

Raw Vegan Diet

A raw vegan follows a raw diet without any animal products.


Vegan diets, like plant-based diets, are free from all animal products: meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, honeygelatin, etc. Unlike someone eating plant-based, though, veganism is mainly about ethics, not health. Though, of course, some people do choose a plant-based diet for ethical reasons. Veganism just takes that further in some ways and is less discriminating in others. Vegans can eat refined foods, drink alcohol (as long as it’s not processed with animal products), eat gluten, and eat sugar. If a food doesn’t come from an animal, it’s vegan whether it’s healthy or not.


A vegetarian diet is a vegan diet, plus eggs and dairy. Before veganism became popular, early vegans sometimes described themselves as “strict vegetarians.” Here are the sub-categories of a vegetarian diet:

  • strict vegetarian – This is just another way to say vegan.
  • ovo vegetarian – Eats only plant foods, plus eggs.
  • lacto vegetarian – Eats only plant foods, plus dairy.
  • ovo-lacto vegetarian – Eats only plant foods, plus eggs and dairy.

A pescatarian diet is not a type of vegetarian diet, because fish are not plants. For a definition of pescatarian, see the section on that diet above.

Related at Care2:

It seems like everyone you meet is eating a special diet right now, and it's easy to mix them up. Here are some of the most common special diets and what they're about.

All images via Thinkstock.

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