Whats the difference between vegan and plant-based

What’s the difference between vegan and plant-based?

The number of people adopting and touting plant-based and vegan diets has skyrocketed in recent years. These terms get thrown around a lot and are sometimes used interchangeably, leaving many wondering “what’s the difference between vegan and plant-based”?

The answer is… well, it’s a little technical. When friends ask us this question (and many have), we take a deep breath and bust out a little history.

According to the Vegan Society, the term “vegan” was defined in 1949 as “The principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man”, which was later clarified as “to seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man.” In a nutshell, vegans don’t eat or use any animal products. That includes everything from meat, to leather, to makeup (it needs to be free of animal testing, animal ingredients and animal-derived ingredients), and beer (yes, animal-based products are traditionally used to clarify beer). The choice to become vegan is an ethical one, which can veer toward the political with animal rights activism. Deserved or not, vegans have a negative reputation, being viewed as “holier than thou”, preachy or even downright extreme. Many also associate the vegan diet with a sense of deprivation.

The term “plant-based” was born as a more inclusive and descriptive alternative to traditional vegan terminology. A plant-based diet mostly or completely excludes animal products in favor of plant-derived foods including vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes and fruit. Reasons for choosing a plant-based diet include health and environmental concerns. Unlike a strict vegan diet, individuals can adopt a partly or mostly plant-based diet. Emphasis is placed on positive outcomes (a healthier body, a glowing complexion, a happier planet…) rather than the guilt associated with eating animal products (“meat is murder”). Plant-based has no direct association with animal activism and does not necessarily imply a plant-based lifestyle that would exclude items like leather or non-vegan makeup.

In short, vegan and plant-based diets are essentially the same since they exclude all animal products. The main difference is what these terms evoke and the degree of flexibility involved in the different diets.

New terms were created as a result of the growing interest in vegan/plant-based diets and to distinguish between different subgroups. For example, you may have heard “ethical vegan”, a word that has a tendency to anger those it describes. The term was widely used prior to the popularization of “plant-based” to categorize those following vegan diets for ethical (animal rights) reasons. Traditional vegans were annoyed by the term because “ethical vegan” implied there could be other kinds of vegans. Others found it useful to avoid the stigma associated with veganism (“Oh no, I’m a dietary vegan, not an ethical vegan.”) This might seem like a clear case of you say potayto, I say potahto, but it matters deeply to those taking an ethical stand through their consumption choices.

“Junk food vegan” and “whole foods plant-based” (or WFBP) are other more nuanced terms that fall under the umbrella of vegan/plant-based diets. A junk food vegan will eat anything provided it’s free of animal products, whereas someone on a WFPB diet will consume whole, unprocessed foods and avoid highly processed items like many meat alternatives found in supermarkets. The distinction here is stark and makes all the difference in the world. WFPB highlights that vegan and plant-based diets are not necessarily healthy diets. One of the upsides of the growing interest in animal-free eating is the swelling number of products available in stores and restaurants. The catch is that many of these are highly processed, contain high levels of salt and sugar, and are full of preservatives and ingredients we can’t even pronounce.

In the end, anything labeled as vegan or plant-based is safe to eat if you’re dropping animal products from your diet. How you choose to identify is really up to you. Go with the term that resonates with you and your reasoning for making this lifestyle choice. The important thing to retain is however they are named, vegan and plant-based diets aren’t synonymous with healthy. These are descriptive words that are tangled in a long history of politicized dietary choices and a new burst of awareness from the general public. What really matters is the content of what you put in your mouth, even more so if you have, or are thinking about, reducing or eliminating animal products from your diet for health reasons. Like with any diet, the key is to eat minimal amounts of processed food, read label carefully, make smart choices when you eat out, and to cook primarily WFBP recipes at home.