Vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, flexitarian — there are many names for different types of diets and eating habits. But what’s the difference between vegan and plant-based?
A vegan diet excludes all animal products, such as meat, butter, eggs, dairy products, honey, and even most gelatins. If a food comes from an animal in any way, it’s a no-go. Veganism may also include certain ethical and moral beliefs that go beyond food.
A whole-food, plant-based diet doesn’t always carry the same ethical connotations as veganism, nor does it affect anything beyond nutrition. But it’s actually possible to eat a diet that’s both vegan and whole-food, plant-based.
The term “vegan” was coined in 1944 to describe people who didn’t eat meat or animal products for ethical reasons. A vegan diet doesn’t include any animal-based foods or products.
That means no meat, dairy, eggs, fish, or poultry, and no foods made with animal products like butter, cheese, and honey. Veganism used to (and still sometimes does) go beyond diet into lifestyle and product choices.
A devoted vegan won’t wear any clothes with animal-derived fabrics and will use only vegan beauty products. For some people, it’s more than a way of eating — it’s a conscientious lifestyle.
Today, the term “vegan” isn’t used as strictly as it once was. It can still refer to ethical/social concerns in addition to nutritional ones, but some people eat vegan for reasons unrelated to their feelings about animals.
The use of antibiotics, human growth hormone, and other artificial methods of enhancing animals’ growth and development has led many people to adopt a vegan lifestyle for nutritional rather than ethical reasons. For example, some people adopt an organic, vegan diet to protect the environment and themselves from harmful chemicals.
Manufacturers have caught on to the popularity of eating vegan and now make vegan cookies, crackers, and other processed foods. Although they don’t contain animal products, these foods are often lacking in nutrients.
So just because a food is vegan doesn’t mean it’s the healthiest option. Check those labels.
This type of diet emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods, starting with plants. Whole fruits and vegetables and whole grains are the foundation.
Unlike a vegan diet, a plant-based diet doesn’t exclude meat or animal products. But because plants are the base, meat and other animal products take a back seat. Meat is usually eaten sparingly but can include everything from beef and pork to poultry and seafood.
Remember those packaged, processed vegan foods? They’re typically limited on a whole-food, plant-based diet even though they’re technically plant-based.
A focus on whole, unprocessed foods provides maximum access to vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in their natural packages. Whole foods also tend to contain more fiber and less fat than more-processed products.
|beans, lentils, and legumes
|whole grains (wheat, barley, oats)
|fruits (apples, oranges, grapes)
|vegetables (carrots, eggplant, peas)
|animal-free processed foods
|limited or restricted
|beef and pork
|poultry and fish
|nuts and seeds
Both vegan and plant-based diets can be healthy if you monitor your nutrition.
A 2020 study found that eating a plant-based diet improved blood pressure. However, it also found that low quality plant foods like refined grains and sugary beverages had the opposite effect on blood pressure. It’s all in how you implement the diet.
Start by understanding your basic nutritional needs and where your nutrients are coming from.
For example, animal products are the most common sources of protein and vitamin B12. People following a strict vegan diet are more at risk for developing a B12 deficiency, which can lead to serious health consequences.
People following vegan diets should carefully plan their diets to include foods fortified with B12 and consider taking a B12 or B complex supplement.
Vegan and strict vegetarian diets are also commonly low in vitamin D, iron, calcium, zinc, iodine, and essential fatty acids. While some of these nutrients can be found in plant sources, it’s difficult to get optimal amounts on a vegan diet.
For example, although plant-based foods like flaxseed contain the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, the conversion of ALA to the important omega-3 fats DHA and EPA is extremely inefficient. Therefore, people following a vegan diet should consider supplementing with algal oil, a plant-based source of EPA and DHA.
Also, although some vegan foods are fortified with vitamin D, many people are deficient or low in this nutrient. Taking a vitamin D supplement can help those on plant-based diets maintain optimal vitamin D levels.
Research suggests that consuming red meat and processed meats may increase the risk of certain cancers, including breast and colon cancers. But it’s the entirety of your diet, rather than individual foods, that matters most for cancer prevention.
More research is needed to determine the best diet for preventing cancer and other diseases. But existing evidence strongly suggests that eating more nutrient-dense plant foods — like vegetables, fruits, nuts, and beans — can protect against chronic disease development.
A whole-food, plant-based diet, if done correctly, can also provide excellent nutrition. But just as with a vegan diet, you need to be intentional about getting the right nutrients.
Because whole foods are free of the added fats and preservatives found in many processed foods, eating more of them can help ensure that you get all the beneficial substances your body needs.
You can still eat meat and animal products to get protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and calcium. Just be mindful of which ones you choose. Iron from chicken and fatty acids from salmon and other fish are great choices.
Although red meat is an excellent source of nutrients, it’s best to choose unprocessed red meat products whenever possible and to choose other animal-based protein sources, like chicken, fish, eggs, and turkey, more often.
If you have certain diseases, like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, or they run in your family, either of these two diets may help manage or even prevent these illnesses. Both diets are typically rich in fiber and low in saturated fats, and either one may also help you maintain a healthy weight.
Many factors can influence which diet is right for you, so it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor to make sure you’re getting the right nutrition for your individual needs.
The right diet for you depends on your reason for changing your eating habits. Is a moral or ethical belief driving the change, or are you strictly looking to drop a few pounds or get the best nutrition?
A whole-food, plant-based diet is usually less restrictive and makes it easier to meet all your nutritional needs. You can implement this diet in a way that works for you. If eating more healthfully is your goal, the whole-foods route gives you more flexibility.
But if certain moral and ethical issues weigh heavily on your mind, a vegan diet might be the right choice for you. Social, environmental, and animal welfare concerns are all reasons to consider a vegan diet.
You’ll have to be more careful about meeting all your nutritional needs when following a vegan diet. Some vegan foods are heavily processed, and although they’re animal-free, they may not be the most nutritious options. Be sure to include plenty of whole foods in your diet as well. It’s all about balance.