What’s the Difference Between Plant-Based and Vegan?

What is a Plant-Based Diet
What is a Plant-Based Diet?
Is it the same as vegan or vegetarian diet?
What’s the difference?
Does this sound familiar? Don’t worry, many others are asking the same questions. There’s a lot of confusion about the difference between plant-based and vegan.
There’s a couple key distinctions. Let’s start with the food…

A plant-based diet is one that is based on whole plant foods, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. As the name implies, it is a diet with plant foods as the focus rather than a processed food or animal-based diet. Processed and animal-based more accurately describe the diet of westernized societies (however, this is shifting).

There are many doctors and other health professionals promoting a plant-based diet, with some adding unique specifics or emphasis. Most often a plant-based diet is referring to one that is 100% plants. However, technically one could eat a diet largely based on plants and still consume small amounts of animal products. As of yet, there is no legal regulation on what the term plant-based means.

A vegan diet, on the other hand, is one that eliminates the consumption of any other sentient being or their by-products. This means no animal flesh (beef, poultry or fish), no dairy products, no eggs and no honey. I love how Terry Mason, a urologist and Commissioner of Health for the city of Chicago, puts it: “If it walks, hops, swims, crawls, slithers, has eyes, a mom and a dad – don’t eat it.”

Depending who you ask, honey may or may not be an acceptable ingredient for vegans. A vegetarian diet comes with much more variety. Vegetarians generally don’t eat animal flesh, but are ok with dairy products and/or eggs. Ultimately, they limit their animal consumption based on what they are comfortable with. For instance some people call themselves pesco-vegetarians, meaning they eat include fish in their vegetarian diet.

A key piece to note is that even though a vegan may not eat any animal products, this does not mean they are eating whole, plant foods. French fries, Oreos and Coke can all be vegan. The food industry has caught on to the growing acceptance of a vegan diet, and thus vegan junk food has become easily accessible and increasingly palatable. These animal-free foods are still loaded with sugar, oil and salt so they are not just appealing, but can often be addictive. You can see that a vegan diet does not necessarily equate with a healthy diet.

In all honesty, I would say a whole food, plant-based diet that includes very small amounts of animal is healthier than a vegan diet consisting of highly processed foods.

If we go beyond food, the second difference between plant-based and vegan is that veganism is a lifestyle choice involving ethics and politics. Vegans abstain from eating and using animals products, including clothes and cosmetics; and reject anything treating animals as commodities, such as hunting and animal testing.

Both choices – to be plant-based or vegan – can stem from the desire for better health, animals rights, or to protect the environment. The intention depends on the individual.

That being said there are many people that consider themselves vegan and plant-based, which I think is fabulous! This would mean living a vegan lifestyle that includes a diet solely based on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. This way of living leads to vibrant energy and health, reduced suffering for thousands of animals; and protection for the environment all at the same time. It’s no wonder why every day more and more people are making the transition.

Have you thought about it, why not live in both worlds?

Here’s a fun Vegan Starter Kit if you’d like to know more about a vegan lifestyle. If you’d like more info about eating a vegan or plant-based diet, here’s a tasty resource from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Please share this message with any of your friends and family that are confused by the terms plant-based, vegan and vegetarian. Knowledge is power. The more we can bring clarity to these terms the more accurately they will be used in restaurants, on food packages, and in general conversations, ultimately helping to progress both the plant-based and vegan movements.

28 Comments

  1. Lynda Hahn
    August 16, 2014

    I have been living a plan based food diet for the past 2 months and am considering myself 99.9% there!
    However, please tell me why honey, which I use to sweeten lemon drinks is not allowed.
    There are a few “foods” which surprise me as not being on the plant based diet.
    Thanks, Lynda

    • Katie Mae
      Katie Mae
      August 18, 2014

      Hi Lynda,

      Congrats on eating a clean plant-based diet! My plant-based colleagues may have varying reasons for avoiding or limiting honey, which most likely align with my reasons. I don’t promote the use of honey for two main reasons: 1) it is a highly concentrated sweetener and 2) it comes from a sentient being. The conventional honey industry is not healthy for us or the bees, but local raw honey is another story. Yet I’m personally torn on whether we’re taking the sweet product of the bees’ labor or helping a sustainable ecosystem. By not promoting I let people make their own decision.

      In regards to health, honey does have a high glycemic index of 61 (can range from 35-70 depending on the variety), but in truth that’s not a great indicator of whether it’s healthy. It depends more on the quantity being used. A teaspoon in your morning tea is not going to affect your health, but using honey in baked goods is likely going to be a significant amount that if done repeatedly could affect your insulin resistance. The other issue is that because it is a concentrated sweetener it has the potential to 1) trigger our cravings for sweets and 2) desensitize our taste buds so we need higher levels of sweetness for the same amount of pleasure.

      If you can stick with just a small amount in your tea, than don’t worry about it. If a little bit will lead to excessive amounts than it would be beneficial to cut it out. Best Wishes!

      • Sandra Reed
        September 3, 2015

        This is a very good and concise description of a plant based diet. Thank you for your views on Honey. I use it very sparingly, usually in tea if I drink hot tea. I generally use Stevia for anything I drink to sweeten it. I am working on trying to totally convert to a plant based diet. So far….I have slipped about three times last month. I am an old woman and some habits are hard to break. Thanks for the info!!!

      • Nancy Gordon
        September 20, 2016

        Katie, what is your preference for a Sweetner. Dates of course are a whole food, but do not always mix in well. What is your preference for the most healthy, low glycemic sweetner that is low processed?

  2. Arthur E Ray
    August 27, 2014

    The China Study by T. Colin Campbell is, in my opinion, the basis for going on a plant based diet. His research (and the research of others), in my opinion, proves that it is the protein in meat that causes the problems (i.e. cancer, heart disease). Mr. Campbell recommends avoiding ALL animal products. Never have agree with the idea that eating a little poison was okay.

    • Katie Mae
      Katie Mae
      August 27, 2014

      Ray, thanks for mentioning that. I agree, the China Study is a fabulous book that has raised so much awareness about the dangers of eating animal products and the benefits of a plant-based diet. You’re probably right that Dr. Campbell wouldn’t say a little bit of animal products is healthy or okay to eat. However, I believe he would also say that a little bit of poison on occasion is better than loads of it daily.

      I want to note though that the plant-based diet was developed and brought to light by several doctors, some of which are not vegan. The China Study was first published in 2005, but the plant-based diet has been around long before that. Dr. McDougall for instance has been promoting a plant-based diet for the last 30 years.

      • Dovetta
        December 21, 2015

        Hello Katie,
        I just completed Dr. McDougall’s 10-day program, in Santa Rosa, Calif. Fabulous. One of the important things we learned, when going to the supermarkets, including the ‘BIG NAME’ chains, was how to read the labels. Forget about the marketing hype on the front of the package. Read the label on the back and calculate the REAL and TRUE % of fat and sodium etc. Next, read the ingredients: 1st five will give you a good idea of the product’s health value.

  3. Carmen DA
    October 7, 2014

    Thank you for writing such a detailed explanation, Katie! It’s easy to read and great to refer people to who have questions in this regard. I think that every single step we take into the direction of eating more plant-based is already wonderful and I hope that we can reach many, many more people with the message of how more vibrant health for our body and our beautiful planet is possible through every bite we take. I really love your website :)

    Cheers, Carmen

    • Katie Mae
      Katie Mae
      November 23, 2014

      Thank you Carmen! Every choice does matter so just a single step towards eating more plant-based helps create better health for our bodies, the animals and the planet. So glad to be spreading the message together!

  4. Mommy and Jonathan
    December 25, 2014

    Katie Mae, since you are so graciously answering queries, we would like to ask one more. i am raising my son on plant based, which he has fully embraced. in addition, it was his choice not to hurt animals. my question involves gluten and grains. we note that so many recipes include oats, and while he loves oats [he actually likes them raw], we were wondering about the consumption of them. we use beans and grind them up to create “flour” or we will use nuts as a base. we would welcome your thoughts. thank you for all the efforts you put forth to inspire all of us.

    • Katie Mae
      Katie Mae
      January 27, 2015

      Hi Mommy & Jonathan!

      That’s lovely that your son is so compassionate! Great job on raising him plant-based too!

      I think the rolled oats are a fantastic food. I recommend sticking with gluten-free grains, including gluten-free oats for anyone that is sensitive to gluten. If you (orJonathan) are not sensitive, than I think it’s not necessary to be as strict (unless you want to), but still beneficial to limit grains and grain products containing gluten.

      I think finding alternatives to traditional flour, like bean flour, is a great idea. Legumes are incredibly healthy, so I think a flour is an helpful way to give kids an extra serving.

      Katie

  5. Angie
    December 29, 2014

    I am trying to learn about all this stuff… I know it is the right thing to do… just getting the rest of the family on board is the challenge. I have a 16 year old that just want to eat burgers. Any suggestions on how to get teenager eating healthy… any resources you can recommend?
    thanks!

    • Brenda
      January 4, 2015

      Angie, I’ll chime in with what has worked for me with ‘less than enthusiastic’ family members. Watch together as a family the following three documentaries:

      Forks Over Knives
      Crazy Sexy Cancer
      SuperSize Me

      • Katie Mae
        Katie Mae
        January 27, 2015

        Angie, thank you for the great movie suggestions!

    • Katie Mae
      Katie Mae
      January 27, 2015

      Hi Angie!!

      Two of my absolute favorite movies are Cowspiracy and Speciesism. They seem to have more of an impact on young people than health-related movies because for the most part kids are not concerned with their health. The environment or the animals is another story. Sometimes they don’t realize they care about those issues until they see a movie like the ones I mentioned above.

      Also, I think NutritionFacts.org is a great way to open their minds to a specific issue. For instance, you say they love their burgers. Go to NutritionFacts.org and search beef. There will be many videos that show up that are all short, intriguing clips explaining how beef affects our bodies, mind, etc. Hope this helps!

      Katie

  6. ani
    February 11, 2015

    Would you consider honey “plant-based?”
    I’m going from carnivore to Plant-based (not vegan) and was curious if I could use honey…?

    • Katie Mae
      Katie Mae
      February 16, 2015

      Hi Ani, honey is not plant-based because it’s a plant or made from plants. It’s source is one issue, and the other is the health affects of honey.

      A quality honey can include beneficial nutrients, but it is highly concentrated sugar, even if it is more natural than others. To avoid sugar highs and lows, minimize sugar cravings, and overall optimal health, I do not include any highly concentrated sweeteners in my diet.

      Some non-vegan plant-based easters do include honey in their diet. These people may also include other sweeteners, like maple syrup or brown rice syrup. Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you want to include honey or not.

      Katie

  7. george
    February 15, 2015

    i am a plant based whole foods vegan myself, and just want to say great read for the people who want more info, and fantastic recipes.

    • Katie Mae
      Katie Mae
      February 16, 2015

      Thank you George! – for the kind words, and for making the transition yourself!

  8. Ken
    April 3, 2015

    Regarding honey:

    A bee’s life’s work is to make one teaspoon of honey which requires an immense amount of pollen collection. Nutrition aside, for those that want to identify as vegans, each bee is being “worked” for life to make a small amount of honey, so it’s almost like working a sentient being to death for human pleasure. Sound exaggerated? The bees do not produce honey for humans, humans steal it from them.

    • Katie Mae
      Katie Mae
      April 7, 2015

      Personally, I completely agree with you, Ken! However, I also recognize that everyone is on their own path. Where ever someone is on their path of transitioning to a plant-based and/or vegan diet, I’m grateful for the changes they have made and their willingness to continue to grow. Interestingly, I find that people who are completely vegan aside from the honey are holding on to their attachment to the sweetener. Letting go of that hyper-concentrated sweetener may be better for the their emotional and physical health, and more respectful to the bees! Thank you for the comment and bringing a little more attention to this!

  9. Slim Chandra-Shekar
    August 27, 2015

    Hi Katie, this is a great posting. Thanks for explaining these differences so succinctly and beautifully!
    We’ve been on a WFPB diet for over four years now.
    Have never felt better (or younger!) ….

  10. Nicole Stockton
    November 7, 2015

    I have been on a plant based lifestyle for 6 months now, for health beneficial reason. The health benefits to my lifestyle are just amazing, I don’t now how I didn’t know about this before . But as a 16 year old a lot of teens do not really understand my lifestyle and my choices, so It can be difficult . So I found it great to log my journey by creating my lifestyle blog the perks of life.
    Theperksoflifens.wordpress.com
    I love reading brilliant resources like this, because it provides me with amazing insight and precious knowledge, so thank you .

  11. Dovetta
    December 21, 2015

    Hello Katie,
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge. As we know, knowledge only has power when it’s shared. Keep up the good work!

    Dovetta Beamon

  12. Tori
    February 16, 2016

    Hi Katie,
    Thanks for the clear and respectful way in which you explained the different diets. Whether food comes from the animal or vegetable kingdom, gratitude for the sacrifices and gifts of nature, and for all the beings who made our abundant bounty possible also seems foundational to good health. We are lucky to be able to make choices that matter far beyond the plate of food in front of us. Blessings.

    • Katie Mae
      Katie Mae
      February 24, 2016

      You’re very welcome, Tori. I completely agree. The gratitude for the sacrifice, whether it’s of the animals or the plants, is a key piece of the overall health for ourselves and the planet. Thank you for expressing this! Lots of blessings. :)

  13. Deborah
    March 1, 2016

    Thank you for the clarification. Over the years I’ve always felt the best when focusing on plant based, mostly raw foods. Of course I’ve deviated from time to time due to social pressures. Animal protein has been touted so as an essential food group in popular opinion. If I don’t see meat for weeks at a time I feel better for it.
    Now my focus is 90% plant based, BLE and healthy! And I plan sticking to it!

  14. Nancy
    September 20, 2016

    Thank you Katie, this is the most concise, but complete, and helpful article I have read, clarifying vegan vs plant based. I have been on a plant based journey ( mixed with pescaterian) for two years. You have helped me so much. I look forward to coming up from San Diego one day for a cooking class!