Veganism vs plant-based diets: a beginner’s guide

October 15, 2020

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veganism vs plant-based

Have you ever been overwhelmed by all of the ever-changing health trends year to year? According to a survey from Food Insight, one third of Americans go on a diet every year for a variety of health motives. 1 Our population spends a lot of time and money trying to reach their health goals.

One positive result of these trends is that people have slowly but surely been shifting to eating more plants and less animal products. And while Americans have fundamentally made “veganism” and “plant-based” diets profoundly popular, there is still some confusion as to whether there is even a difference between the two. This article explains veganism vs plant-based diets, whether they are simply an eating pattern or more of a lifestyle, and what food choices are included or excluded with these diets.

Veganism vs plant-based: an overview

When trying to determine the difference between veganism vs plant-based diets, it helps to start by looking at what “veganism” means. Veganism is defined as:

“…a way of living that excludes cruelty to animals for food, material use, and entertainment; and promotes the use of animal-free alternatives to benefit humans, animals, and the environment…” 2

Essentially, this definition shows that veganism is not limited to food choices and a single diet, although it does enhance sustainable practices which can include food and dieting as well.

In contrast, a plant-based diet is considered more of a change in dietary choices where more fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes are included. 3 Plant-based eaters look to various cultures around the world for inspiration on how to include more plant-predominant or vegetarian meals in their lives.

What is veganism?

Veganism was introduced in 1944 by a man named Donald Watson who wanted to start a group, mainly for support and discussion, of like-minded vegetarians who didn’t consume dairy. 2 This group, which was later titled “The Vegan Society,” recognized the impacts this food-based lifestyle had on animals and the environment. They knew early on the impacts humans have in the world and the effects of it.

There are many foods that vegans consume which are nutrient-dense and can make delicious meals. These include:

  • leafy greens (kale is a good source of Calcium)
  • soy products (tempeh is popular and high in protein)
  • peanut butter (a good source of protein)
  • whole wheat bread (contains more fiber than white bread)
  • non-dairy beverages (choose those that are fortified with Vitamin D and Calcium)
  • nutritional yeast (high in Vitamin B12 and used for its cheesy flavor) 4

Today, there are a large variety of vegan alternatives to foods that contain meat, dairy, or other animal products. This can include vegan meats, ice cream, cheese, milk, eggs, and even honey. This gives people the option to eat foods they used to like before, such as burgers, pizza, and omelettes. 

Although these vegan alternatives can be found in almost all supermarkets and grocery stores, they tend to be mostly processed. Consistently consuming these vegan alternatives might not be a healthy option because they may contain added ingredients and might be high in sodium, sugars, and trans-fats. 5 So it seems that veganism is more of a movement for improving the environment and treatment of animals, and is not fully focused on health.

But a vegan diet and lifestyle does not have to mean you forsake nutritious foods. Replacing meat, dairy, and eggs by adding more fruits, vegetables, and grains to your meals is beneficial to overall health. And, rest assured, you can still reach your goals of meeting your protein, vitamin (B12, D, A), and mineral (iron, calcium, zinc) needs while following a vegan diet.

What is “plant-based”?

There are a few clear differences between veganism vs plant-based diets. For one, eating plant-based does not prevent you from eating specific food groups as veganism does. People who follow plant-based diets may not identify themselves as vegetarian or vegan, and they may still choose to consume meat, dairy, or other animal products. 3 So if you choose to eat plant-based, you don’t need to leave the scrambled eggs or your favorite chicken dish off your plate.

Another difference between veganism vs plant-based diets is, as mentioned above, that veganism is heavily focused on animal welfare and environmental activism. Many people change their lifestyles to veganism when they are concerned about ethical issues and the environmental impacts of their food choices; therefore health tends to be an added bonus to the transition.

As with vegan diets, a plant-based diet, or the inclusion of a greater number of plant-based foods, has been shown to prevent chronic illnesses by decreasing the rates of the symptoms altogether. This is because these foods contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and are low in or do not contain cholesterol and saturated fats. 6 Eating more plant-based may help prevent or decrease the risk of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

Implementing plant-based eating has numerous benefits which improve physical and mental well being. These could include better weight management, decreased chronic disease risk, improved digestive functions, increased energy, boosted cognitive function, and prolonged life expectancy. 

When you decide to follow a plant-based diet, there are a few successful ways to implement more whole foods and less processed foods into your life and kitchen. Try new varieties of the main food groups, shop and eat seasonally, and get cooking or meal inspiration from restaurants and cookbooks from various food cultures. 7

Veganism vs plant-based: what it means for you

Regardless of the eating plan you follow, one universal goal should be to eat more whole foods, with nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes topping the list. This should be sought to be achieved by all populations because these foods could start improving your health right away. When compared to those who don’t prioritize whole-plant-foods in their diets, the majority of people who eat mostly plant and whole foods have shown improved health results. 8

If you are interested in transitioning toward either a vegan or a plant-based eating pattern, it’s important not to begin either diet straight away without understanding your health status and doing additional research. Each person is different in their nutrient needs, eating habits, and preferences, so become informed, and figure out what eating style works best for you. And whether or not you decide to refrain from eating animal products entirely, it’s important to include foods high in vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. Vegans and many plant-based eaters are at greater risk of deficiency in these nutrients. 

What’s your favorite vegan or plant-based recipe? Share it in the comments below.


Sources
  1. One-Third of Americans Are Dieting, Including One in 10 Who Fast … While Consumers Also Hunger for Organic, “Natural” and Sustainable – Food Insight. Food Insight. (2020). Retrieved 8 October 2020, from https://foodinsight.org/one-third-of-americans-are-dieting-including-one-in-10-who-fast-while-consumers-also-hunger-for-organic-natural-and-sustainable/.[]
  2. History. The Vegan Society. Retrieved 8 October 2020, from https://www.vegansociety.com/about-us/history#:~:text=The%20first%20modern%2Dday%20vegans,dairy%20vegetarian%20diets%20and%20lifestyles.[][]
  3. Katherine D. McManus, L. (2020). What is a plant-based diet and why should you try it? – Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved 8 October 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-a-plant-based-diet-and-why-should-you-try-it-2018092614760.[][]
  4. Veganism in a Nutshell — The Vegetarian Resource Group. Vrg.org. Retrieved 8 October 2020, from https://www.vrg.org/nutshell/vegan.htm.[]
  5. Greger, MD, FACLM, M. (2020). Is Vegan Food Always Healthy? | NutritionFacts.org. Nutritionfacts.org. Retrieved 8 October 2020, from https://nutritionfacts.org/video/is-vegan-food-always-healthy/.[]
  6. NewYork-Presbyterian | Ask A Nutritionist: Plant-Based Diets. NewYork-Presbyterian. Retrieved 8 October 2020, from https://healthmatters.nyp.org/plant-based-diet/.[]
  7. Palmer, S. (2011). Fruitful Endeavor — Adopting a Plant-Based Diet May Offer a Bounty of Benefits. Today’s Dietitian, (5), 16. Retrieved 8 October 2020, from https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/050311p16.shtml.[]
  8. Ponder, J. (2019). Vegans found to have highest amount of disease-fighting biomarkers. News.llu.edu. Retrieved 8 October 2020, from https://news.llu.edu/research/vegans-found-have-highest-amount-of-disease-fighting-biomarkers.[]
Helena Ramadan, MS, RDN

Welcome to Spark Change Nutrition! I’m Helena, and I love sharing nutrition info, meal ideas, and strategies for balanced living.
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About the Author

Dalila is a Nutrition & Dietetics student at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, FL. Her future career plan is to work as a Registered Dietitian in Public Health to help improve health for people, mostly focusing on malnutrition, environmental nutrition, food systems, public policy, and education. She aspires to travel the world and own a business one day. When she's not studying, working, or volunteering, she like baking, thrifting, exploring new destinations, and she is also really interested in photography.

While Helena, the creator of Spark Change Nutrition, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), she is not providing Medical Nutrition Therapy on this website. Anything found here, including downloads and other content, should not be construed as medical advice. The information provided by her is general nutrition/health/fitness information, and is not individualized to your specific medical condition. Helena is not liable for any losses or damages related to any actions you take (or fail to take) as a result of the content presented herein. Please note that the information presented here is not intended to diagnosis or treat any health conditions. Talk to a qualified health professional, such as a doctor or a registered dietitian, about your specific health questions or concerns. 

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