Many assume the same meaning when they hear the words vegan or plant-based.
But are they the same?
In simple terms, one is a lifestyle and extends beyond food, and the other is strictly a style of eating.
There are many overlapping similarities and a few key differences… so let us dive in and compare vegan versus plant-based.
What Does Vegan Mean?
Veganism is a lifestyle that extends beyond food.
All products used or consumed do not use animals in any part of producing the product or in the actual product.
This includes things like clothing, makeup, skincare, materials, household items, furniture, etc.
The main reason people go vegan is to reduce animal use and animal suffering, especially in regard to factory farming practices.
While the main reason is for animal ethics, health and sustainability are commonly reported as reasons for going vegan.
What Does Plant-Based Mean?
Plant-based eaters consume a diet comprised of 100% plant foods.
Many people go plant-based for health reasons since plant-based foods are often high in fiber, phytonutrients, and micronutrients commonly missing from the Standard American Diet (SAD).
Fiber is important for gut health, blood sugar maintenance, and healthy bowel movements.
Phytonutrients have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that combat chronic inflammation and disease, such as cancer.
Plant foods are typically low in added sugar, saturated fat, and trans-fat, which have known associations with chronic nutrition-related diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis.
Some people also go plant-based for ethical and sustainable reasons in addition to health.
Whole Food Plant-Based (WFPB)
Those who consume a whole food plant-based diet (WFPB) also pursue it mainly for health reasons.
A WFPB is similar to plant-based, except that it minimizes things like processed foods, oils, and added sugars.
It is comprised mainly of minimally processed, 100% whole plant foods.
Plant foods that are closest to their natural form are high in fiber, phytonutrients, and micronutrients commonly missing from SAD, as discussed previously.
WFPB is usually the lowest in saturated fat, trans-fat, and added sugar compared to the previously described styles.
Weight maintenance may be more successful on a WFPB diet since the foods are low in calories yet nutrient-dense.
While health is typically the main reason people go WFPB, ethics and sustainability may still be motivating factors.
Low-Fat Whole Food Plant-Based
The main difference between a low-fat WFPB diet and a WFPB diet is that fats and oils, like olive oil or margarine, are not consumed.
People consuming a low-fat WFPB diet get their fats from the plant foods themselves.
Most plant foods, even vegetables, contain small amounts of fats that are adequate for nutrient absorption and other needs.
Avocados, seeds, and nuts also contain larger amounts of fats but are also kept to a minimum.
The main reason for following this diet is for optimal health and fighting inflammation that contributes to chronic disease.
Vegan Versus Plant-Based: Is One More Healthy?
It is possible to have an unhealthy and non-nutritious diet while consuming a 100% plant-based or vegan diet.
Processed foods are not off-limits on these diets, and there is no requirement to avoid junk food (hello, Oreos!).
Plant-based processed foods often contain high amounts of oils, added sugar, and are often low in fiber.
Additionally, processed foods are often calorie-dense with little nutritional value and may contribute to weight gain.
Low-fat WFPB is technically the healthiest but is also restrictive and may not be suitable for everyone.
Vegan Versus Plant-Based: Key Similarities
- Similar ‘why’
- Reduce animal use and suffering, health, sustainability
- 100% plant foods
- Often used interchangeably in restaurants to mean the food is 100% made from plants
- Does not necessarily mean healthy, but can be
Vegan Versus Plant-Based: Key Differences
- Veganism is a lifestyle and extends beyond food, whereas plant-based is strictly an eating style
- Veganism has a large animal activist mission whereas some plant-based eaters do not have this as a priority
Veganism or plant-based eating may be the right lifestyle for you if you value animal ethics, sustainability, and/or health.
If it’s not right for you, no worries! There are many benefits to reap from eating more plants no matter the type of diet you consume.
The important thing is to take a holistic approach and get clear on your why for eating, and not restrict yourself from meaningful experiences due to food choices.
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Rachel Badtke, RDN, CPT is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). She specializes in holistic wellness and whole food plant-focused nutrition. Rachel holds a Bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and an ACE-approved certificate of completion in Advanced Sports Nutrition.