What’s the Difference Between a Plant-Based Diet and a Vegan Diet?

The realm of dietary choices is full of pop-culture-driven misinformation. Thanks to your favorite well-meaning Instagram influencer or attention-seeking Facebook celebrity, you’re probably struggling with some misconceptions at this very moment. One of the most confusing is the contrast between vegan and plant-based diets, which aren’t the same things.

Fortunately, you no longer have to worry about whether you’re ordering the right things at your favorite eateries or cooking with ingredients that you shouldn’t be using. This primer clarifies the distinctions in the easiest possible terms.

But I Thought Vegans Ate Plants!

Some foods that fall into the plant-based category are also vegan. Many vegan foods are also acceptable for plant-based eaters and vegetarians.

The simplest way to grasp the difference is to look at how the diets are defined:

  • Vegan diets are intentionally defined in an exclusionary manner. They are dairy-free and exclude, or eliminate, all animal products and byproducts, such as milk, eggs, honey, fish, pork, beef and fowl.
  • Plant-based diets are inclusive up to a certain point. They emphasize whole foods and unprocessed fare. As the name suggests, they focus on deriving the majority of their calories and nutritional content from plant foods, such as vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruits and grains.

Vegans consider more than just what’s on their plates, which further clarifies the issue.

For instance, individuals who follow vegan lifestyles cut out all forms of animal product consumption if at all possible. This practice includes things like not wearing leather or using dryer sheets that contain lanolin, an oil derived from sheep.

A plant-based eater, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t care too much about wearing their favorite wool sweaters or even eating fish on occasion. As long as they’re getting the majority of their nutritional intake from plants, they’re still following their preferred diet.

If you’re still confused, think about it this way: A vegan is an exclusive plant-based eater. A plant-based eater, however, isn’t a vegan until they give up things like “cheat days,” and make other non-dietary lifestyle changes.

How Much Plant-based Food Should I Eat to Follow My Chosen Diet?

This is an interesting question, and the answer differs depending on which diet you follow. If you’re a vegan, then the answer is virtually 100 percent. All of your food — excluding things like salt and other mineral-based ingredients — should have originated from a plant without going through an animal to reach your plate.

If you’re a plant-based eater, then the answer is a bit more slippery. The majority of definitions merely say that these dieters should eat mostly plants, so there’s lots of wiggle room. For instance, someone might not eat meat at all yet still consume milk as would a lacto-vegetarian.

Plant-based diets can also get tricky because they come in different flavors. One popular example, the whole foods plant-based diet, or WFPB, tries to stay away from things like processed oils and other refined products, such as fast food and added sugar.

Should you weigh your ingredients with a scale and calculate percentages with a calculator to make sense of your plant-based journey? As humorous as the idea seems, you might find such strategies beneficial if you’re dieting for purposes like losing weight or improving your eating habits on a nutritionist’s orders after a health scare. On the other hand, being overly retentive tends to make any form of dietary regimen less pleasant. In other words, don’t stress out and overdo it.

Why Is There so Much Confusion About These Terms?

Vegetarian and other plant-centric or animal-exclusive diets date back thousands of years. Ancient Greek philosophers like Pythagoras were said to have avoided meat for health reasons.

Various religious and social groups have also promoted the benefits of plant-based eating, including the Seventh-day Adventists and some Ital Rastafarians. Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and other southern Asian diets also have long track records of abstaining from animal products.

A few millennia and diverse cultural influences offer plenty of space for things to get confusing. As with many things that get taken up by popular culture, veganism and plant-based eating have become somewhat muddled. After all, you don’t need a nutritional science degree to start a YouTube channel and begin sharing your favorite recipes.

As a modern consumer, it’s essential to ask yourself some key questions:

  • What are my goals for maintaining a vegan or plant-based diet? Is it for health reasons, ethical purposes or simply to try something new?
  • How closely do my chosen sources of information actually follow the diet that I want to adhere to? Will I need to watch out for bad advice and misinformation?

Can I Get the Same Benefits From Either Option?

The benefits of vegan and plant-based eating vary widely. From lowering your cholesterol intake to reducing your consumption of preservatives, there are plenty of good reasons to make a switch.

What you get out of both diets reflects what you put into them, or in this case, onto your plate.

For instance, someone who “goes vegan” just by cutting out animal products without increasing their vegetable intake might not lose as much weight as they expected to.

Plenty of vegan products, like almond milk ice cream or potato chips, aren’t particularly healthy.

By the same token, a plant-based eater might experience less success than they anticipate if they only go halfway. For instance, saying you’re on a WFPB diet and eating a salad every weekday isn’t quite as valid of a weight-loss method if you consume a ton of meat and dairy every weekend to make up for the difference.

It’s also wise to consider the role your outlook plays in the whole affair. Plant-based eaters and vegans sometimes get similar results for entirely different reasons. For instance, a WFPB dieter might cut out added sugar because it’s refined. A vegan might only eliminate certain forms of cane sugar because some of it is whitened using animal bones.

Picking Your Diet of Choice

Plant-based and vegan diets may overlap from time to time, but they’re fundamentally distinct.

The biggest thing they have in common — apart from lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains — is that they’re personal.

Your diet should reflect your values and lifestyle. Bear this fact in mind, and you’ll feel good about your choices no matter what form your preferred menu takes.