Plant-Based vs. Vegan: What's the Difference?

A registered dietitian weighs in on the similarities and differences between these diets that have exploded in popularity.

The interest in plant-based and vegan diets has risen steadily over the past 20 years. According to Statista, over 5% of the American population follows a vegetarian diet and 2% a vegan one. And the interest continues to grow, spurred by growing mainstream awareness around the health, environmental and sustainability benefits of limiting animal products. For example, there's a plethora of books, documentaries and podcasts on plant-based diets, along with several prominent fast-food chains and restaurants adding vegan options to their menus.

You've probably heard of family or friends who have adopted a plant-based diet or "gone vegan." But what's the difference between plant-based and vegan diets? Should you choose one over the other? Is plant-based healthier than vegan? Let's explore the similarities and differences between these diets regarding their health and nutritional benefits.

Plant-Based vs. Vegan: Similarities and Differences

As the name suggests, a plant-based diet consists primarily of whole plant foods, focusing on fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. However, "plant-based" is an ambiguous term with varied definitions. The term generally refers to a 100% plant-based diet that contains zero animal products, but some consider themselves plant-based while still consuming some animal products. So whether you're vegetarian, flexitarian, pescatarian or even vegan, you could fall under the umbrella of "plant-based."

In contrast, a vegan diet is more strict and clearly defined. According to Penn State University, veganism is entirely plant-based, excluding all animal-derived products and ingredients. Translation? To be "truly vegan," you must do away with the purchase or use of any products derived from animals. That includes food, clothing, cosmetics and household products. This then presents the argument that you can eat a vegan diet but not consider yourself a true vegan.

Those who adopt a plant-based diet generally do it for health benefits or to reduce their carbon footprint. Vegans, however, tend to scrap animal products out of compassion for their fellow Earth-dwellers, hence the term "ethical vegan," which is a vegan who eats not only for their own health but also for animal welfare, environmental or social justice reasons.

Dana Ellis Hunnes, Ph.D., M.P.H., RD, a senior dietitian at the UCLA Medical Center and author of Recipe for Survival, says, "Most people who identify as vegan do so for ethical reasons. The term "plant-based" can be used synonymously with vegan, but often refers to someone who chooses to eat primarily plants. Someone who's plant-based may do so for ethical, environmental, and health reasons, or any combination thereof. It's primarily the ethical positioning and identification that distinguishes vegan from plant-based."


Is Plant-Based Healthier Than Vegan?

You can't say definitively whether plant-based is healthier than vegan or vice versa. A diet's label alone doesn't determine its quality, since there are several other factors to consider. Both plant-based and vegan diets can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on what you eat and how much you eat. People who eat plant-based can decide whether they want to include animal products, but regardless, they make plant foods the star of every meal, so they tend to be healthier than people who don't focus on eating plants. For example, a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that adherence to a plant-based diet was associated with a 19% and 11% lower risk of cardiovascular disease-related mortality and all-cause mortality, respectively.

The term "vegan" is often synonymous with health, but just because something is labeled vegan doesn't necessarily mean it's good for you, per a 2022 review in Nutrients. For example, suppose you're plant-based and get 80% to 100% of your calories from whole plant foods with some animal products. In that case, you're eating a healthier diet than a vegan who consumes no animal products but gets most of their calories from less-nutritious vegan foods.

Many marketing-savvy brands will promote their products as being healthy because they're vegan, when in reality they may be loaded with added sugars, sodium and additives. For optimal health, be a conscious consumer and read nutrition labels when grocery shopping, limit less-nutritious foods in your diet and prioritize getting most of your daily energy from whole plant foods.

Ellis Hunnes says that many vegan foods are highly processed, which she doesn't consider nutritious foods: "Plant-based, on the other hand, tends to be more the idea of a whole-food, plant-based diet, meaning less-processed." Regardless of which diet you follow, the best thing you can do for your health is to get most of your calories from a wide variety of plant foods, limit processed foods, avoid overeating and ensure adequate nutrient intake.

Should You Choose One over the Other?

Ultimately, you don't need to identify with any one diet label. If deciding on a label for your diet causes stress, then forget it and be flexible with your diet. Make nutritious foods the easy option by keeping your house stocked with plant foods. In addition, the National Institutes of Health recommends avoiding dietary restrictions if you have a history of eating disorders.

When viewed this way, there's no need to choose one over the other. However, when looking at food packaging, be aware that many companies will take advantage of the "vegan" identity, states Ellis Hunnes.

When to Talk to a Dietitian about Your Diet

If you're looking to go plant-based or vegan, Ellis Hunnes recommends speaking with a registered dietitian who supports the lifestyle and way of eating and is knowledgeable on the nutritional aspects of eliminating animal products from your diet. This will help make your transition as smooth as possible.

The Bottom Line

Growing awareness around the health and planetary benefits of removing animal products from your diet has more people interested in plant-based and vegan diets and lifestyles. While some choose to avoid dietary labels, many people use the terms "plant-based" and "vegan" interchangeably. Being an "ethical vegan" means you consider not only your own health but also animal welfare, the environment or social justice issues when choosing foods. Plant-based diets focus more on the health aspect of eliminating animal products, with an emphasis on getting most of your energy from whole plant foods and minimizing processed, refined foods. You can include animal products in your diet and still eat a healthy plant-based diet. Both plant-based and vegan diets can improve your health and prevent chronic disease when they're planned appropriately and balanced nutritionally.

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