Plant-Based versus Vegan, what’s the difference?

If you are plant-curious, and thinking about shifting toward a plant predominant diet, you are in good company. The EAT-Lancet Commission, one of the most comprehensive entities in nutrition, comprised of nutrition experts, environmental scientists, public health and policy leaders, has recommended that we all consider eating more plants, and less animal products. A diet that includes more plant-based foods and fewer animal source foods is healthy, sustainable, and good for both people and planet. It is not a question of all or nothing, but rather small changes for a large and positive impact.

There are many different terms and definitions thrown around regarding plant-based diets, are they vegan? vegetarian? pescatarian? It can get confusing. But an important distinction to make, is that not everyone who follows a plant-based diet is vegan. And not everyone who is vegan follows a healthful plant-based diet. Let’s break down the difference.

Although plant-based diets have no official definition, generally they are used to emphasize a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lentils, nuts/seeds, tubers. But other diets can fall into the plant-based category that are very healthful and include some animal products: plant predominant Mediterranean or DASH diets, or even plant predominant low carb/keto diets.

And contrary to what you had likely heard before, a healthful plant-based diet CAN include some fantastic “smartly” processed foods like plant oils (higher in unsaturated fat), or protein powders, or plant-based meat and egg substitutes that are low in saturated fat.

On the other hand, veganism is not a diet — it’s an entire lifestyle aimed to avoid animal harm. Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude animal harm as far as is possible and practical. This means not wearing fur, leather, and avoiding cosmetics and beauty products that have been tested on animals. Unfortunately, in an imperfect world, it is impossible to be a perfect vegan, therefore I whole heartedly support vaccination, medications, and other life saving medical endeavors even though they are not technically vegan. A person who follows a vegan lifestyle may choose to follow a healthful 100% plant-based diet, as mentioned above, or they may elect to eat a diet consisting of Oreos and French fries which are vegan, but are certainly not considered healthful foods. Therefore, abstaining from animal products in and of itself does not necessarily mean a diet is healthful. But remember, no one food in one dose will cause disease, and occasional treats like oreos are fine too :)

Various levels of nutrition science have repeatedly demonstrated that the more plants we eat, the more healthful our diet is, and the more we reduce our risk for chronic disease. That being said, you don’t have to go 100% plant-based for health. But every small step toward eating more plants, and less animal products, can be a huge step toward both human and planetary health.

Dr. Belardo is a cardiologist in a multidisciplinary practice in Newport Beach, California. Dr. Belardo sees patients for cardiovascular disease, preventive cardiology, advanced lipidology, cardiometabolic health, and weight loss. She is the co-chair of the American Society of Preventive Cardiology Nutrition Committee, a member of the American College of Cardiology Nutrition and Lifestyle Committee, and the Communications Catalyst for the California Chapter of American College of Cardiology.

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Preventive Cardiologist in Newport Beach, California

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Danielle Belardo M.D.

Danielle Belardo M.D.

Preventive Cardiologist in Newport Beach, California

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