Plant-Based Diet vs. Vegan Diet: What’s The Difference? – Women’s Health

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In my second week of going vegan, it randomly occurred to me to check the ingredients list of a “plant-based” protein bar before sinking my teeth into it. I’d been conditioned to believe that “plant-based” meant “vegan,” and so I definitely felt cheated when I realized that protein bar actually contained whey protein, which is made from milk.

Turns out, I’m not the only one who conflates the two terms. “The general population does confuse these terms, but I don’t blame them,” says Dan Nguyen, RD, nutritionist for HelloFresh. In fact, lots of people in the vegan community actually use “plant-based” to describe their diets.

Both plant-based and vegan diets put plants front and center. However, “while a vegan diet is a plant-based diet, a plant-based diet may not be a vegan diet,” says Nguyen. (I’ll explain, I promise.)

Whether you’re vegan or not, though, eating more plants is a sure-fire way to reduce your risk of disease and improve your quality of life and longevity, thanks to the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and beneficial phytonutrients found in plant foods like fruits and vegetables, says Gabby Geerts, RD, dietitian at Green Chef.

If you’ve hopped on the plant-based (or vegan) train and swapped ground beef for tofu (or Impossible and Beyond Burgers), you’d probably like some clarity on how to label your reduced (or nonexistent) meat consumption, though, right?

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What does a ‘plant-based diet’ really mean? Can a plant-based diet include meat?

A plant-based diet is just that: plant-based. “This means more fruits, vegetables, legumes, tubers, nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains,” says Nguyen.

Though you increase your focus on adding plant foods to your diet, you can technically still consume animal products—ideally just less.

When you change the ratio of plant-based to animal-based foods in your diet, you benefit from increased intake of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which can help lower blood sugar, bad (LDL) cholesterol, and blood pressure, says Nguyen.

Cutting back on animal foods also benefits the planet. Plants require a lot less energy and resources to produce than meat products, Nguyen explains.

“Animal agriculture, especially the raising of cattle for our food supply, produces a massive amount of carbon dioxide and methane, which can negatively impact the environment and lead to climate change,” says Sarah Rueven, RD, dietitian and founder of Rooted Wellness.

That’s right; you don’t have to ditch meat forever in order to make an impact on both your health and the planet.

Since “plant-based” isn’t a regulated term and thus has no exact definition, how—and if—you incorporate meat or animal byproducts into your diet is completely up to you, says Geerts. FWIW, yes, you can totally eat dairy on a plant-based diet.

“For some, having a plate that is a majority of plant-based food sources with a small amount of food from an animal source or byproduct is a successful plant-based diet,” adds Nguyen. “For others, success is consuming plant-based dishes the majority of the month with the infrequent consumption of animal sources sprinkled in on a few days.”

When getting started, most people find it easiest to begin with one plant-based meal per day or by limiting meat to just one meal a day. “Dinner can be difficult because we have a mentality of needing a meat-centered entrée, so start with breakfast and lunch,” Geerts says.

Plenty of popular breakfast foods (like oats) are plant-based, and you can swap plant proteins (like nuts, beans, tofu, or tempeh) in for meat in salads without much fuss.

Chickpea veggie burger with fresh vegetables

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What’s the difference between a plant-based diet and a whole food plant-based diet?

Another layer of nuance to consider about plant-based eating: the difference between a plant-based diet and a whole food plant-based diet.

Technically, a plant-based diet could consist of processed foods like chips and candy, sugar-sweetened beverages, and foods rich in simple carbohydrates like bleached flour and white rice, says Geerts. Not exactly the picture of health.

“Fiber, vitamins, and minerals may be stripped in the processing of the foods, so even foods like veggie chips are less beneficial than their natural counterparts,” she says.

A whole food plant-based diet, meanwhile, focuses on whole plant foods found in nature that have no added sugar or preservatives, and provide their naturally-occurring essential nutrients, explains Geerts. The goal: to eat foods that contain as few (pronounceable) ingredients as possible.

With that approach, you’d snack on a handful of roasted, unsalted peanuts instead of sweetened peanut butter from a jar, and actual veggie slices instead of veggie chips.

While many processed foods are technically plant-based, Geerts and other experts recommend a whole-foods approach.

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Got it. Then, what is a vegan diet all about?

A truly vegan diet involves complete removing animal products and byproducts from your diet; more like plant-exclusive than plant-based. In addition to avoiding meat and dairy, vegans also choose not to eat animal-derived foods like honey.

A vegan diet is associated with health perks like lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a reduced risk for chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

Of course, though, eating a vegan diet that emphasizes whole foods is a must. “Many vegans consume a lot of vegan meats, cheeses and other highly processed foods,” says Rueven. “These foods are typically not very nutrient-dense and, when consumed in excess, can lead to weight gain and chronic disease.”

Even on a whole foods vegan diet, you’ll need to go the extra mile to cover your nutritional bases, since animal foods provide key nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iron, and vitamin B12, which are more difficult to get from plant sources, Rueven says. (Since vitamin B12 is naturally derived from soil microbes, when you wash our produce or cut out animal produce, you essentially remove it from your diet.)

Also worth mentioning: In many cases, veganism is about much more than putting only plant foods on your plate. For many people, veganism refers to an all-around lifestyle.

“Since many vegans choose to be vegan for animal rights and environmental reasons, rather than simply for health reasons, veganism often extends beyond diet into cosmetic and apparel choices,” says Rueven. Vegans typically use cosmetics free of ingredients like beeswax, keratin, or shellac, and avoid clothing that uses leather, wool, fur, silk, or down feathers.

Even if you don’t apply veganism to all aspects of your life, though, a vegan diet requires going cold turkey on all animal-based foods. Period.

Plant based colorful vegan snack, variety of avocado toasts

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So, is a vegan diet or plant-based diet best for you?

If you eat a pretty standard American diet, going plant-based is a great place to start—especially if you’re curious about eating more plants, but not ready to commit to full-on veganism, says Rueven.

Since studies show plant-based diets can improve blood pressure, cholesterol levels, weight status, and cardiovascular health, you’ll reap plenty of health benefits by eating more plants—and without as much risk of nutritional deficiencies, which can be a concern on vegan diets, Rueven adds.

Not to mention, the increased fiber intake associated with eating plant-based will also do your gut a solid (and even help you reach and maintain a healthy weight), she says.

Though both a plant-based and vegan diet require some degree of planning, veganism is a more radical lifestyle shift that requires a baseline knowledge of nutrition.

“If you aren’t thoughtful about your food choices as a vegan, you can develop nutritional deficiencies,” Rueven says. “However, with the exception of B12, you can get adequate nutrients from a vegan diet if you eat a balanced, varied diet.”

Ultimately, a vegan diet requires more planning and tracking of your nutrient intake (and potentially more supplements).

If you have increased nutrient needs (like if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, for example), a plant-based diet may also be more sustainable for you, says Rueven. Same goes for those with a history of disordered eating, since studies suggest the restriction of a vegan diet may function as a socially acceptable way to practice disordered eating patterns.

When in doubt, talk to your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian about how to best shift your diet to focus more on plants.

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