Happy Herbivore Blog

What is a Plant-Based Diet? (The Difference Between "Plant-Based" and "Vegan")

Posted by: Lindsay S. Nixon |

This point or, shall we say, "distinction" seems to come up often so I thought I'd clarify. In today's post, I'll address what a plant-based diet is (and what it’s not). 

As the name suggests, a plant-based diet is a diet that focuses around plant foods: fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, and zero animal products. No meat, fish, butter, milk, eggs, cheese, gelatin or other animal by-product. 


Due to the lack of animal products in a plant-based diet, some people assume it’s the same thing as vegan or vegetarian, but that’s not necessarily true. The difference between “plant-based” and “vegan” may be subtle or vastly different, depending on the context. I find it’s important to understand these distinctions. 

Veganism, according to Wikipedia, is “the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet, as well as an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of sentient animals. A follower of veganism is known as a vegan.” 

Veganism is deeply rooted in animal rights and being a vegan (noun) is a lifestyle choice that involves both politics and personal beliefs (ethics). Vegans not only eschew animal products from their plates but also from their entire life. Leather, fur, wool and silk are not worn. Products that are tested on animals, such as some cosmetics, are not used. Even products that come from insects such as honey and beeswax are generally not considered vegan or suitable for vegans. 


While a plant-based meal would qualify as vegan (adjective), a person who follows a plant-based (vegan) diet is not necessarily a vegan (noun). For example, someone could follow a plant-based diet but still wear leather and have no moral issue with hunting or killing animals for food. 

On the flip side, something that is vegan (adjective) may not be plant-based. When using the term “vegan” to describe something (not someone) I think of it as meaning there is an absence of animal products — no meat, fish, eggs, dairy or animal by-products. However, an absence of animal products doesn’t automatically mean it is “plant-based.” Allow me to explain:

The term “plant-based” is generally used to describe something that is healthy and made from whole, plant foods, so as to distinguish from something that is processed. 


For example, an Oreo is vegan. It doesn’t contain any animal products. However it’s not what I’d call plant-based. An Oreo doesn’t resemble a plant. It’s a plant fragment at best, it’s so processed. See the distinction? 

You could live on French fries, white bread, Twizzlers, Oreos and soda and still be vegan, but you wouldn’t be plant-based or following a plant-based diet. In fact, you could be vegan and never eat anything that looks like or resembles a plant. Take a look at vegan junk food such as faux cheese and imitation meat, for example. They may be vegan, but they’re not plant-based. When it comes to food, “Plant-based” refers to whole foods — beans, grains, fruits and vegetables, not processed foods that were once whole foods. 

I advocate a low-fat (no oil) whole foods, plant-based diet. 


Of course you don't have to be either/or. You can be a plant-based vegan or a vegan who follows a plant-based diet (I know many people who do) -- but not every person who is plant-based is a vegan and not every vegan follows a plant-based diet. 

Hope that helps!

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