Plant-based or vegan? Here’s the difference between the terms, according to experts

·3 min read
Vegan burger with beetroot cutlet, sweet potato sauce and guacamole.
What's the difference between a "plant-based" diet and a "vegan" diet? (Photo: Getty)

Most people agree that you really can’t go wrong with incorporating more plants into your diet. Yet when it comes to the term “plant-based” to describe one’s eating habits, many people are unsure about its official definition. Is it the same thing as “going vegan”? Does it mean eliminating all animal and animal-derived products from your plate?

The word “vegan,” on the other hand, was created by Donald Watson in 1944 as a way to describe vegetarians who did not consume dairy. The intention of the word was to connect it with the larger animal rights movement: Watson, who founded The Vegan Society alongside Elsie Shrigley, sought to eliminate animal suffering for the benefit of humans as best as possible.

The term “plant-based” sought to eliminate any social and political associations. According to Eater, it was first coined in 1980 by biochemist Thomas Colin Campbell, as a way to describe his animal-free diet in more neutral terms.

The philosophy behind these ways of eating is what differentiates “plant-based” eating from a vegan diet. A plant-based diet is more about one’s individual health, while a vegan diet is about harm reduction of animals. While many vegans do believe their diets are healthier than diets rich in animal products, that’s not the primary driver of the diet.

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“If someone calls themselves a vegan, it means not just that they eat not only plant-based food, but there’s an ethical component that goes along with it,” says Ashley Byrne, Director of Outreach and Communications at PETA. “They see it as a whole lifestyle of not using products that use animals or exploit animals. You’re more likely to see someone call themselves plant-based if they’re just eating plant-based foods, but not eating a completely vegan lifestyle. If someone is calling themselves vegan, they’re likely applying that broadly to other areas of their lives.”

While people who call themselves vegan tend to stick to habits that reduce animal harm across all areas of their life, not all plant-based dieters have identical habits. Some who say they are plant-based eaters may even occasionally fold animal products into their diet, according to Lauren McNeill, a registered dietitian who focuses on plant-based nutrition.

“A plant-based diet can mean different things to different people, so there isn't one hard and fast definition,” McNeill explains. “Some people define a plant-based diet as a brand of a vegan diet, where you eat mostly whole, plant-based foods like legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds. Others consider a plant-based diet to mean eating mostly vegan, but occasionally including some animal based foods.”

For Byrne, the labels we put on an animal-free, or even mostly animal-free diet, is less important than its overall impact.

“The words we use to describe our diets don’t matter nearly as much as the act of leaving animals off of our plates,” she explains. “Whether you call lifestyle vegan or plant-based, the impact is still the same for our health, for the environment, and certainly for the animals, who benefit from us choosing oat milk and pea-protein nuggets regardless of what label we slap on them.”

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