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

The terms vegan and plant-based are used a lot these days, and most people think they mean the same thing. The distinctions between the definitions, ‘whole-food, plant-based’, ‘plant-based’ and ‘vegan’ are becoming more blurred, but it’s important to know the difference. We want to help clear up some of the confusion and explain the different types of plant-centred diets.

With the popularity of films such as What the Health, people can be forgiven for thinking that simply giving up animal products means they’re eating a healthy diet. But it’s important to understand that good health comes from eating unprocessed, nutrient-dense plant foods, not from simply giving up animal-based foods but eating whatever else you fancy. This is not to judge anyone’s choices, of course, it’s just about making sure the definitions are clear so that people don’t unwittingly make unhealthy choices.

“Say what?! You mean pop, fries and vegan Häagen Dazs aren’t healthy?”

The dietary term plant-based was coined by nutritional researcher T. Colin Campbell (1.) in order to differentiate the diet he was researching from a vegetarian or vegan diet. He avoids using the terms vegetarian or vegan as he believes vegetarians consume too much animal-based foods and both vegetarians and vegans consume too much processed food and fat.

Campbell added ‘whole-food’ in front of ‘plant-based’ to define it as food that is unprocessed and not food that is extracted in any way from its original form, such as refined carbohydrates, sugar, extracted oils and supplements.

A whole-food, plant-based diet (WFPB) is a way of eating that consists of eating whole, unprocessed vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds. Whole-food, plant-based diets are also often described as being SOS-free, which means they do not include salt, oil or sugar/syrup, which are processed foods.

As you can see, the ‘whole-food’ part is important, as without it the term plant-based just means something made from plants, which could include processed foods.

Now let’s face it, ‘whole-food, plant-based diet’ is a bit of a mouthful (pun intended) so it’s easy to see why the terms plant-based and vegan are often used instead, adding to why people are getting confused about what’s what.

Taking it a step further, in the plant-based nutrition world there are certain doctors who have defined their own take on the healthiest form of the whole-food, plant-based way of eating, and these are referred to under different names.

NUTRITARIAN – a whole-food, nutrient-dense, plant-rich way of eating designed by Dr Joel Fuhrman to help people achieve optimal health. Dr. Fuhrman coined the term Nutritarian to define a diet style which provides a high ratio of micronutrients per calorie and a high level of micronutrient variety.

MCDOUGALL DIET – a whole-food, plant-based way of eating designed by Dr John McDougall, which places a heavy emphasis on starches, particularly potatoes.

ESSELSTYN DIET – a whole food, plant-based way of eating designed by Dr Caldwell Esselstyn that is low in fat and designed to help people heal from heart disease. Nuts and avocados are not allowed for those suffering from heart disease, but small amounts are allowed for everyone else.

ORNISH DIET – designed by Dr Dean Ornish, this a mostly plant-based diet that is low in fat and designed to heal heart disease. Some dairy and fish is allowed.

PLANT-STRONG – a trademarked term used by The Engine 2 Diet. The recommendations follow the Esselstyn diet but without the heart disease restrictions.

Phew, we’ve got the plant-based definitions covered! But how does the term, ‘vegan’ fit into all this?

Rescued piglets at Edgar's Mission Farm Sanctuary

Rescued piglets at Edgar’s Mission Farm Sanctuary

Whilst a vegan diet is 100% plant-based, it is not necessarily ‘whole-food, plant-based’, and being vegan is about much more than just diet. The term vegan actually defines an ethical way of living that minimizes suffering to animals. The word vegan was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson of the UK Vegan Society. This definition states, “Veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose.”

The vegan way of living does not include any animal products or by-products and vegans do not wear or use animal products for any purpose. With regards to the vegan diet, there are no restrictions other than the food not being from animals, fish, birds etc. So, while the food is all sourced from plants, processed foods can be consumed if they don’t come from animal products.

Ok, with all the definitions out of the way, let’s talk about what we’re supposed to eat to be healthy!

Do you want to feel energetic and vibrant, recover quickly after working out, heal from illnesses and live your best life? Then you want to focus on eating a nutrient-dense, plant-rich diet. Think leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, non-leafy green vegetables, root vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds. Avoid or minimize oil, salt, sugar and syrup and get your fats from avocados, nuts and seeds. Buy organic where possible and enjoy as much variety of vegetables and fruits as you can. Buy the majority of your food from the produce section and challenge yourself to eat 30 different types of vegetables each week.

Make leafy greens your best friend!

Focus on eating foods that are high in nutrient-density and low in calories. Leafy greens are nutritional powerhouses, topping the charts in terms of micronutrients and phytochemicals. Use Dr Fuhrman’s ANDI scores to help you select other foods high in nutritional density too.

Note that there are some nutrients that are harder to get a on a plant-based diet, such as B12, and we highly recommend supplementing this. Depending on where you live and where your food comes from, you may also need to supplement nutrients such as D3 (which we get from the sun) and iodine. This handy guide will help you decide what nutrients you may need to supplement or get tested by your doctor.

So if you want to minimize your harm to animals AND keep yourself in tip-top shape, a plant-rich, nutrient-dense, vegan diet with appropriate supplementation is the way to go!

Happy Eating!

Dr Fuhrman's Nutritarian Food Plate

(1.) https://nutritionstudies.org/history-of-the-term-whole-food-plant-based/
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About Earthsave Whistler (93 Articles)
Earthsave Whistler is a chapter of Earthsave Canada, a non-profit, educational organization promoting awareness of the environmental, health and ethical consequences of our food choices.

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