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Vegan vs. Plant-Based Diet: What’s the Difference?

When it comes to food and diet, there are always countless terms being thrown around in what seems to be a constantly-evolving landscape. With so many dietary options available to people today, and so many possible combinations due to individual preferences and requirements, it can be difficult to put effective labels on our individual dietary choices. 

Vegan and plant-based are terms that can be used to describe anything from a type of restaurant or cookbook, to a single meal, or to a person’s entire diet or lifestyle. We’ve been starting to see these particular terms a lot more frequently over the past couple of decades, and their increasing popularity is a trend that is expected to continue well into the future. The plant-based food market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 11.9% from 2020 to 2027 to reach $74.2 billion by 2027.

So, what do these terms actually mean, and do they describe the same thing? Although there is a lot of overlap between their meanings, the terms vegan and plant-based are technically not interchangeable. A vegan diet is plant-based by nature, but the word vegan signals more than that; and a plant-based diet can be, but is not necessarily, vegan. Let’s break it down further:

What does it mean to be vegan?

A vegan lifestyle, put most simply, does not include any animal products. Although not a new concept—evidence of humans choosing to avoid animal products goes back thousands of years—the actual term vegan was created in 1944 by Donald Watson and a group of vegetarians who avoided animal products beyond meat. They wanted a way to distinguish themselves from vegetarians without having to go into a lengthy explanation every time, so they borrowed some letters from the word vegetarian and coined the term vegan.

Veganism means avoiding more than just meat. A vegan diet does not include eggs, dairy products, honey, whey, gelatin (made from animal collagen), or anything else that comes from animals. Products like refined white sugar and some types of wine (which are processed using animal products) are also excluded from a vegan lifestyle. 

The choice to be vegan usually extends beyond diet into all areas of life. For example, people that are vegan use alternatives to other animal-based products as well, like leather, fur, and wool. To be vegan means your diet is plant-based, but it is generally understood to mean more than just that.

It’s difficult for lifestyle terms to be all-encapsulating, and there are some grey areas. For example, some argue that people may include honey in their diet and still consider themselves to be vegan, while others adhere to the definition in its strictest sense. Grey areas or not, for a food product on the shelf in your grocery store or on a menu in a restaurant to be certified vegan, it cannot contain any animal products or by-products.

People new to the idea of veganism often wonder how it’s possible to find vegan protein sources, but there are endless sources of plant-based protein. There are high-protein vegan options available that can fool even the most discerning of meat-lovers. Veganism is by no means a limiting diet, and as the movement grows, it keeps getting easier to find informative resources online and to find vegan options in places like restaurants and grocery stores. 

For years, social media influencers and celebrity chefs have been showing people how to make easy vegan meals at home, or turn your favourite meaty and cheesy dishes into healthy and delicious vegan alternatives. With so many new vegan products, and more coming out all the time, the options are endless even for those who don’t cook very often at home. Vegan restaurants, bakeries, cafes, greasy spoons, upscale dining, even vegan “butcher” shops have been opening up in cities to meet with increasing demand for vegan options. Whether choosing to go vegan as a lifestyle, or just choosing vegan for Friday night’s dinner, it’s widely recognized as a healthy and environmentally-friendly choice. 

What is a plant-based diet?

Whether or not a person is vegan, they can follow a plant-based diet; it means that the majority of what you eat is derived from plants. So yes, someone who is vegan has a plant-based diet, but it doesn’t necessarily work the other way around. People who are vegetarian probably have a plant-based diet as well, although it isn’t a certainty. 

There are no restrictions inherent to a plant-based diet; it might occasionally include things like meat or cheese, but the idea is that the food you eat mostly comes from plants. A plant-based cookbook might include eggs in a couple of recipes. A plant-based restaurant could offer a cheese-based dish on their menu. Think of plant-based as an overarching theme, whereas vegan is a more concrete definition.

Labels often try to narrow complex ideas into a word, so it’s understandable that things get a bit confusing. For some people, saying they follow a plant-based diet allows for some flexibility, even if they rarely consume animal products. It can be guilt-inducing to eat cheese once in a while if you tell people you are vegan, and the label plant-based creates some wiggle room. For others, their strict exclusion of all animal products is a lifestyle choice rooted so deeply in ethics that the term vegan is a very important label tied to their identity. 

As with everything in life, you get to describe yourself with the terms you most identify with. At Vegano, we are 100% vegan; however you’ll still find us using the term plant-based interchangeably from time-to-time! 

Wherever you find yourself on the dietary spectrum, it is widely agreed upon that reducing the amount of animal products you consume is a practice that benefits not only your personal health, but also the health and wellbeing of all living things on our planet, and of our planet itself. 

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