Vegan vs. Plant-Based: What Different Dietary Terms Actually Mean
The plant-based movement continues to gain devoted advocates, but this approach to eating doesn’t look the same for everyone. A common question is what differentiates these diets – vegan vs. plant-based vs. predominantly plant-based. Here are some common types of plant-based diets and what they mean.
One of my favorite things about plant-based diets are that they can be designed to perfectly fit YOU. While other intentional diets can be rigid, many people are making plant-based eating entirely their own.
Eating more plants is a universal truth about the best way to fuel your body for optimal health. The details of what that looks like is up to you.
Vegan vs. Plant-Based + Other Types of Plant-Rich Diets
There are so many positives to eating more plants and eating fewer animal products. Not only are plants incredibly healthy, they also offer environmental and ethical benefits that drive many people to choose this way of eating.
What should your plant-based diet look like? Below we discuss common types of plant-based diets – vegan vs. plant-based vs. vegetarian and others – and what they mean.
This is actually a pretty generic term and can be open to interpretation. Saying that one follows a plant-based diet may actually indicate several of the other terms I’ll discuss below.
With that being said, a plant-based diet is based primarily on plant foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes (beans, peas, lentils) – and products made from them.
Some people who follow a plant-based diet may include small amounts of animal-derived ingredients and packaged foods, whereas others may avoid these things.
This is the diet pattern that my family subscribes to. It’s also where I often recommend others begin when looking to make a plant-based transition.
A predominantly plant-based diet is heavily based on whole plant foods but allows for the occasional animal-derived product. For instance, while I eat plant foods most of the time, I’ll sometimes have eggs or certain dairy products in my diet.
Practicing a predominantly plant-based diet allows the flexibility my family needs to feel our best and eat in a way that’s most sustainable for us.
A vegan diet excludes animal products and animal-derived ingredients.
It’s formally defined by The Vegan Society as:
“…a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
As you may have guessed, veganism commonly extends beyond the plate. This isn’t always a characteristic of the other plant-based diet variations.
That means that most people practicing a vegan diet also apply similar ethical considerations to other areas. For example, avoiding consumer items (like cosmetics, personal care products, and clothing) that contain animal-derived ingredients or that have been tested on animals.
Whole food, plant-based
While a plant-based diet means eating mostly (or all) plants, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s always made of the healthiest foods.
The plentiful plant-based food options today can be seen as both a blessing and a curse, in a sense.
It’s never been easier to adopt a plant-based diet, especially if you’re looking for plant alternatives to popular foods like hotdogs, burgers, and ice cream. But these types of products aren’t exactly as healthful as whole plant foods.
A whole food, plant-based diet emphasizes food choices that are in their most natural form. This means minimizing or avoiding packaged foods and the aforementioned plant versions of traditional animal products. Instead, you would prepare meals using primarily whole fruits and veggies, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Some people on a whole food, plant-based diet also avoid oils, as well as added salt and sugar.
A vegetarian diet emphasizes plant foods, but also includes eggs and/or dairy products. It excludes meat, fish, and poultry.
To get even more specific, a lacto-vegetarian eats plants and dairy products, an ovo-vegetarian eats plants and eggs, and a lacto-ovo-vegetarian eats plants, eggs, and dairy.
A pescatarian diet is a vegetarian diet that includes fish and seafood. This may include eggs and/or dairy products, but still excludes meat and poultry.
Sometimes in scientific literature, a pescatarian diet is called a pesco-vegetarian diet.
The name of this diet indicates that it’s a flexible vegetarian approach to eating.
The basic concept is to eat mostly fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes, emphasize plant-based protein, and limit added sugar and processed foods, but include meat and animal products when you want to.
The pegan diet highlights minimally-processed, whole plant foods, with the intention of reducing inflammation, stabilizing blood sugar, and eating the best foods for overall health.
It’s meant to be a combination of paleo and vegan diet patterns, while including small amounts of responsibly-sourced animal protein. It discourages dairy, grains, oils, and added sugar, and emphasizes low glycemic index fruits and non-starchy vegetables.
If this sounds like it could be confusing, that’s because it is. There are a lot of rules with this diet. For instance, you can eat nuts, but not peanuts, and you’re supposed to avoid legumes, but can have small amounts of lentils.
It’s quite restrictive and lacks scientific evidence supporting many of its health claims.
Which Plant-Based Diet is Right For You?
At the end of the day, my advice remains the same: eat more plant foods and fewer animal products. What exactly this looks like is up to you. I encourage eating in a way that’s enjoyable, nutritious, and feasible to maintain and doesn’t feel restrictive.
There’s robust science behind the health benefits of a plant-based diet, particularly ones that emphasize minimally processed whole foods. How you choose to approach a plant-based diet depends on what aligns best with your goals and lifestyle.
Remember, it’s YOUR plant-based diet, and can be adjusted at any time as you see fit.
Weigh-in: Have you wondered about the difference between vegan vs. plant-based? Which of the types of plant-based diets above best describes your approach?
For more guidance around making plant-based eating work for you, check out these other posts:
- How to Properly Wash and Store Fresh Produce
- Vegan Swaps for Baking and Cooking
- A Plant-Based Ketogenic Diet: What, Why, and How to Do It!