Vegan vs. Plant-Based, Whole-Food Diets

Learn about the differences between veganism and plant-based, whole-food eating plans.

The practice of meat-less eating has been around for generations but only recently has it started to gain traction in our daily news and conversations. You may already know someone who follows a vegan diet. However, even more recently, we’ve seen an increase in the amount of attention that plant-based, whole-food diets are getting. Wait…vegan eating and plant-based, whole-food diets? Aren’t these the same thing? The simplest answer here is NO, however, of course additional clarification is needed. Read on to learn how EN teases out the differences in these two ways of eating.

Let’s be very clear here: although there may be several similarities between the two, vegan diets and plant-based, whole-food diets are not exactly the same thing.

Vegan. A person who follows a vegan plan does not eat, use, or wear any animal products in any way or capacity. When someone says that they are a vegan, you can pretty safely assume that in addition to them avoiding meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy food in their diets, they also do not use honey, leather, fur, and other products derived from animal sources. The Vegan Society states that veganism is “A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals, and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.” The key words to notice here are “way of living”—veganism tends to encompass a willing choice to abstain from use of animal products in any aspect of consumption.

Plant-Based, Whole-Food. On the other hand, a person who follows a whole-foods, plant-based plan emphasizes highest intake of whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains and steers clear of (or limits) intake of animal products and processed foods, however the intention here is typically solely health-related. There are no true guidelines to this type of eating plan aside from the simplistic summary previously mentioned. At the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, they note the following benefits: “…you can eat when you’re hungry and eat until you’re full…no portion control, calorie counting, or carb counting. Simply choose from the right food categories, and you can eat until you’re full.” Take a look at the accompanying list for greater detail into foods and how they fall into a whole-foods, plant-based dietary plan.

Food Choices. Although vegans keep the well-being of animals at the fore-front of their dietary intentions, this does not mean that they automatically follow a whole-food eating plan. With so many new food and beverage products entering the market each year, a person could subsist on vegan-friendly chips, gummy candy, and cookies! To be clear, this type of vegan eating may not be the norm and it is obviously not a nutritional goal!

For a whole-foods plant-based diet follower, this means that even though there are a plethora of vegan-friendly treats and goodies available, the simple fact that they are made with sugar or bleached flour means that they remain off-limits to this group, however, a plants-based, whole-foods follower may have no qualms about purchasing a leather belt or handbag.

The Bottom Line. Overall, veganism tends to be an animal-free way of eating and belief system, whereas the whole-foods, plant-based diet tends to be (for many people) solely focused on the inherent health benefits. That said, it is entirely possible that a vegan person can also follow a whole-food, plant-based diet and vice versa. However, the two are not automatically or always interchangeable.

—Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN

 

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