As we read every day, whether on social media, an online article or yet another nutrition book, the American way of eating is evolving. Radical dietary change has become a widespread trend in the last few years. We keep hearing more and more people questioning if they really ought to keep consuming large amounts of animal-based foods to get the nutrients needed for their health. More and more people wonder if they should switch to whole plant foods to prevent or revert chronic illness, or just to feel energized or decrease their BMI. Many of us have a friend or family member who has “gone vegan” or has “adopted the plant-based diet” and cannot stop talking about how it has changed their life. For some people, this terminology is fairly new and for some others it has a long history. These two terms are evolving quickly and oftentimes mean different things to different people. What do these terms actually mean? Let’s take a deeper look and get some insight.
What’s the difference between the plant-based diet and veganism?
A whole plant-based diet mainly consists of plant-whole foods. The term “plant-based diet” originated in the health science community, led by Dr. T. Collin Campbell of Cornell University, who has been dedicated to human health for more than 60 years. He is primarily focused on the association between diet and disease, particularly cancer. Dr. Campbell sought a succinct term that encompassed this eating pattern without invoking ethical considerations. A few years later, after testifying against the supplement industry, Campbell appended the “whole-food” modifier to clarify that it was whole plant-foods, not isolated nutrients, that had health-promoting effects.
What’s the whole food plant-based diet about? This way of eating is centered on whole, unrefined or minimally refined plant foods and excludes meat, dairy products, eggs, and highly processed ingredients such as refined sugar, bleached flour, and cooking oils. A person who adopts the plant-based lifestyle will predominantly eat:
- Fruits of any type including apples, bananas, grapes, strawberries, citrus fruits, etc.
- Vegetables like peppers, corn, avocados, lettuce, spinach, kale, peas, collard greens, etc.
- Tubers: root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, beets, etc.
- Whole grains, cereals, and other starches in their whole form, such as quinoa, brown rice, millet, whole wheat, oats, barley, etc. Popcorn is a whole grain too.
- Legumes: beans of any kind, lentils, peas, and the like, not forgetting nuts and seeds.
On the flip side, the term “vegan” was coined by Donald Watson in 1944 and describes a person who fully abstains from all animal products, all the time, for ethical reasons. Those who follow a vegan diet do not eat any animal-based products, including meat, dairy, eggs or even animal derived ingredients like honey. This lifestyle extends far beyond food, excluding ingredients made from animal products in every aspect of life, for example avoiding shoes, clothes, accessories, or décor made from leather, silk etc. Over time, more and more people have adopted the vegan way of living for reasons such compassion for animals, health and the environment.
Paying attention to the whole-food part of the plant-based diet has become increasingly important as highly processed vegan foods have become more widely available, ironically making it possible to maintain a vegan lifestyle while eating very few whole plant-based foods. For marketing purposes, many food companies have begun labeling these highly processed vegan foods as “plant-based” which has effectively erased the vital distinction between “plant-based” and “vegan” when it comes to food labeling. Foods sporting the “plant-based” label are generally vegan; whether or not they’re healthful is another issue.
If your main motivation is the ethical treatment of animals, the vegan diet is perfect for you. However, if you go just a little further there are numerous health benefits. The whole food plant-based diet is also vegan, of course, but is a better choice than a regular vegan diet because in addition to not exploiting animals, it prevents diabetes, controls hypertension, helps you to lose weight, and maintains your vision. There are lots of people who dabble in both, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially in the beginning. Faux meats, faux dairy products, and even faux eggs can be a blessing for people who are transitioning to a diet free of animal protein, so take the steps that you need to in order to eat the way you want to.
Can you go vegan and plant-based at the same time?
Of course! you can! It’s not just possible but common to be both vegan and plant-based. Many people adopt a whole food plant-based diet strictly for health reasons, and after experiencing the dramatic health benefits they may become more interested in the deeper issues surrounding use of animal products, such as the environmental impact or the ethical nightmare that is factory farming. We have also heard from the vegan community that many people who initially gave up animal products for purely ethical reasons eventually decided to adopt a whole plant-based diet for their health. Those who turn to plant-based diets may share many of these same concerns but are often more focused on changing up their eating to reflect a commitment to personal health and to support sustainable farming practices. They may see the plant-based lifestyle as promoting health for themselves, their families, and their communities…but they may not share the vegan commitment to avoiding leather products or eschewing honey.
Whichever path you wish to take, it’s always suggested to seek advice from a plant-based nutritional consultant, to help you refine your meal plans and clarify your doubts about where your protein would come from. There’s extremely compelling scientific evidence that many chronic diseases can be controlled, reduced, or even reversed by moving to a whole-food, plant-based diet. Scientific research highlighted in Dr. Campbell’s landmark book The China Study shows that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and other major illnesses.
Here’s the easiest way to remember the distinction between the vegan diet and the whole food plant-based diet: people who are vegan can eat Oreo cookies (yup, by some weird glitch, Oreos aren’t made with animal ingredients), and people who are whole food plant-based cannot eat Oreos (well, we could, but simply just choose not to).
Choosing what's right for you
One way of eating isn’t better than the other; it all depends on the motivation behind your transitioning how, what, and why you eat. If your main motivation is losing weight, pumping up your immune system, and getting ridiculously healthy, the whole food plant-based diet is the way to go. For vegans, the emphasis is on avoiding animal products—not necessarily on eating whole foods. While some stick to a whole foods-focused vegan diet, others might load up on fried food (cooked in vegetable oil), processed snacks, frozen meals, dairy-free pizza, soda, or sugar. Whether you lean more toward the whole food plant-based diet or the vegan diet, there are huge benefits to both. And always remember, health doesn’t happen at the doctor’s office. Health takes place in your kitchen.