Plant-Based vs. Vegan Diet

Plant-Based vs. Vegan Diet

Author: Tammo Walter

What is the difference between a plant-based and vegan diet and which is right for you?

In recent years, many Americans have adjusted their diet to include less animal products as part of their long term efforts to improve their health. Some make the switch for ethical reasons, some for environmental and some for health reasons or a combination or all of the above. As a result, plant-based and vegan diets have become popular options for people trying to cut down on their consumption of animal products like meat and dairy. 

The rise in popularity of these two diets has led many people to wonder: What is the difference? Which is best for me? We’ll explain the difference between the two and help you identify which one best fits your lifestyle.

The Plant-Based Diet

What is a plant-based diet?

The exact definition of the diet depends on who you ask, but many health professionals recommend a focus on foods like whole grains, nuts, fruits and a wide range of vegetables. Therefore as the name suggests, a plant-based diet is based mostly on plants. However, unlike common perception, this diet typically allows for some meat or dairy products as well. A rule of thumb is that plant-based foods should occupy two thirds of your plate and fish, poultry (e.g. chicken) and dairy products should account for no more than the other third.

What can I eat on a plant-based diet?

It actually is much more similar to a vegetarian than a vegan diet, the main difference is that a plant-based diet does not restrict the consumption of meat, it just puts much less emphasis on it. In fact, moderation is a key part of this diet. 

Many people on a plant-based diet incorporate animal meat or fish to introduce more grams of protein, amino acids, and B12 into their meals. Plant proteins such as tofu and beans are also alternatives. Health professionals recommend this inclusion of high protein foods to balance out the diet.

With its looser structure, meal plans for those on a plant-based diet often shift depending on seasons, moods, or a desire for different flavor profiles. This can make finding new snacks and meals a fun process of discovery as you learn which plant-based foods satisfy your diet, appetite, and desire for flavor.

What can’t I eat on a plant-based diet?

The plant-based diet does not require any lifestyle changes, and there are no restrictions on using or wearing animal products. While this diet is relaxed when it comes to occasional use of animal products, it is much stricter on the consumption of processed foods such as potato chips, bread and sweets. If you want to achieve consistent weight loss from your plant-based diet, avoiding these ingredients and foods is key.

What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?

Health benefits from a diet centered on plant foods include lowered risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other illnesses. Studies have also shown this type of diet to reduce inflammation, improve the immune system and help cognitive functions. Of course, weight loss is another well documented benefit of eating a consistent diet of plant based foods with protein.

Plant-based diets have been shown to have positive environmental impacts as well, according to studies from the National Instiute of health. These benefits include a substantial reduction in the impact of agricultural land expansion on ecosystems and a reduction of devastating carbon emissions. One of the most well-known environmental benefits of this diet is its elimination of beef. The production of beef has long been known to have drastic, negative effects on the environment and the industry of beef production is a contributor to deforestation and a depletion of resources.

What professional athletes are on a plant-based diet??

Plant-based diets have become very popular among professional athletes seeking a competitive edge. NFL quarterback Tom Brady, NBA All Star Chris Paul, Multiple Ironman champion Jan Frodeno and USA triathlete Matt Mcelroy are all examples of plant based athletes at the top of their respective fields who tout the benefits of their plant-based diet.

The Vegan Diet

What is a vegan diet?

The vegan diet is much more defined and has grown in popularity especially over the past decade among people who want to alter their diet in accordance with their lifestyle and beliefs.  How does the vegan diet accomplish this? Total elimination of animal products from your life. This is accomplished by having a diet made up entirely of plant-based foods and a lifestyle entirely devoid of animal byproducts. Vegan foods are typically labeled or certified V (vegan). 

What can I eat on a vegan diet?

Beginning a vegan diet can be a scary task for the uninitiated. It can often be difficult to know which foods are actually vegan as well as  which vegan foods  have the best combination of nutrition and flavor. But, as this diet has grown in popularity, some vegan “staples” have begun to emerge.

Some of the typical vegan options are fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, legumes, rice and tofu. In addition, there is an ever-growing market of alternative vegan products for popular foods such as beef, chicken, turkey, fish, pizza, yogurt, ice cream, butter and many more.

What can’t I eat on a vegan diet?

Veganism is very restrictive when it comes to any animal consumption or use of animal products. Vegans can't eat red meat, poultry, fish or dairy products. Honey is also off the table. Aside from food consumption, they also cannot wear leather jackets or buy any product tested on animals. 

The full list of foods/drinks and other products prohibited by the vegan diet can be extensive and often surprising, so make sure to do your research before you begin. If you’re interested in a more comprehensive guide to what’s allowed and prohibited on a vegan diet, it is worth doing more research before you begin the diet.

What does it do for me?

Health benefits from a vegan diet include lower blood sugar levels, improved kidney function, lower risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol and potential weight loss. Many benefits overlap between vegan and other plant-based diets, except the protein gained from fish, chicken or other sources of lean, meat protein consumed in a plant-based diet.

When on a vegan diet, it is especially important to monitor your nutritional intake to make sure that you are fueling your body with everything it needs to succeed. Those on a vegan diet may have a higher risk of deficiencies in calcium, iron, protein, vitamin b12, omega-3 fatty acids and more. 

In order to counteract these risks, vegans need to be vigilant and specific about the foods they consume while also ensuring their diet has the variety that it needs. There are food options to help vegans overcome possible deficiencies, such as spinach to increase iron intake, calcium-fortified soy milk to increase calcium intake and quinoa to increase the intake of amino acids. 

Who else is on it?

There are many vegan athletes who embraced the vegan diet as a tool for longevity and success in their fields. Examples include NBA star Kyrie Irving, ultramarathoner Scott Jurek and star US soccer player Alex Morgan. If you are an athlete looking to embark on a vegan diet, this study from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition has comprehensive advice to help you formulate a successful plan.

Should I eat a plant-based or vegan diet?

As stark as the few differences might be, there are clearly many similarities among these two diets. Any vegan diet is going to be plant-based, but not every plant-based diet is going to be vegan. Your decision comes down to what you are looking for in your diet and lifestyle.

If your main purpose is to improve your health and/or lose weight without making substantial lifestyle changes and/or you care for the environment, then a basic plant-based diet is for you. It allows flexibility and experimentation with both the plants you eat routinely and the sources of lean protein (chicken, fish, etc.) that you choose to incorporate. 

If you are equally as concerned about ethics related to animals as you are with improving your health and helping the environment, a vegan diet may be  the better option of the two for you. Many people take pride in creating flavorful, healthy vegan recipes to enjoy and share with others as a way to promote their healthy lifestyle and love of the environment. While you won't eat meat or wear your favorite leather jacket, you will eat plant-based and be able to enjoy many of the same foods as other plant-based diets. 

While there has been much confusion between the vegan vs. plant-based diet, the truth is that there is not a “wrong” answer. The diet you choose should be specific to you and fit your goals and desires. Many people find that there is not one “perfect” diet for them, so experimentation and change will be an inevitable part of this process.



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