Plant-Based, Vegan and Vegetarian: What’s the Difference?

Eating more plants is all the rage - and from a health and environmental standpoint - it just makes sense. But what's the difference between plant-based, vegetarian and vegan? Look no further, we'll set you straight.

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Considering going “plant-based” but not sure if that means vegan, vegetarian, or something entirely different? Don’t fret! We’ll get to the bottom of what each diet style encompasses, as well as make sure you’re confident in understanding what you can eat on each one. Rest assured, you will no longer stare at the dairy case wondering if that plant-based label on the yogurt is vegan or not.

What Does a Plant-Based Eating Pattern Mean?

Whatever you want it to mean! Some individuals define plant-based eating to include only foods that come from plants, whereas others focus on eating a variety-filled diet abundant in plants that also allows for some animal proteins (like seafood, meat or dairy) on occasion. Unlike a vegan or vegetarian eating pattern, a plant-based diet has no standard definition just yet. Even research regarding plant-based diets has varying descriptions that allow individual scientists to define the eating pattern according to the needs of their study.

According to The Plant-Powered Dietitian, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RD, “there is movement to define a plant-based food as 100% plant-based per the Plant Based Foods Association (PFBA), though no current standard definition exists for this way of eating. A recent survey by the Vegetarian Resource Group (VGR) found that people define plant-based in many ways: chefs usually mean vegan, yet researchers and health care professionals often mean a mostly plant-based diet.”

Palmer went on to note that she believes a plant-based diet is a diet that focuses primarily on eating foods that come from plants. She noted that there is a wide spectrum of eating patterns that encompass this, with vegan the most plant-based through vegetarian, pescatarian, and semi-vegetarian or flexitarian.

Regardless of how the individual defines the plant-based diet amongst their own eating pattern, all plant-based diets have one thing in common: eating more plants, like fruits and vegetables. And, frankly speaking, this is never a bad thing!

What Is a Vegan Diet?

According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a vegan diet is an eating pattern that includes only foods that come from plants. This means that any animal products or animal product derivatives, like honey or gelatin, are not consumed.

A well-planned vegan diet is usually rich in fiber thanks to a large amount of produce picks incorporated, as well as nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and pulses. It’s important to note that a vegan diet does not necessarily mean a healthier diet as the research points out it still incorporates fats and sugars and does not have to be whole-food-based. This means a poorly planned vegan diet could be rich in vegan cookies made with coconut oil and sugar without really being a nutritional benefit.

Following a vegan diet may demonstrate improvements in lipid profiles and overall health for specific individuals with underlying disease states, but it’s important to make sure you work with a trained dietitian or healthcare provider to ensure your diet and supplement regimen is sufficiently meeting common nutrient shortfalls that come with a vegan diet.

What Does a Vegetarian Eating Style Mean?

There are actually a few different eating patterns that encompass a vegetarian eating style. Here’s the breakdown of the three largest types below!

  • A lacto-vegetarian consumes plants and milk-based products, like yogurts, cheese and milk, but excludes eggs and animal proteins (including seafood, meats, and poultry.)
  • An ovo-vegetarian consumes eggs, but excludes milk-based products and animal proteins (including seafood, meats, and poultry.)
  • A lacto-ovo-vegetarian consumes both milk and egg products but excludes animal proteins (including seafood, meats, and poultry.)

Now, since some vegetarian eating patterns include some forms of animal proteins (like eggs and dairy), they will not need to be supplemented with additional nutrients like a vegan diet.

Let’s take a closer look at supplementing for meeting your nutritional needs on these plant-based diets.

Are There Specific Nutrients to Consider Supplementing With Following One of These Diets?

Yes! Take note that you really should work with a dietitian that specializes in plant-based diets to ensure your vegan or vegetarian eating patterns are meeting your total vitamin and mineral needs.

Palmer advises considering the following nutrients specifically when following a plant-based (vegan or vegetarian) eating style to ensure your body is getting what it needs.

  • Vitamin B12: If you eat very few animal proteins you should supplement with vitamin B12, but vegans specifically need to supplement at greater levels because they do not receive this nutrient in sufficient quantities in their diets.
  • Calcium: While calcium is more prevalent in vegetarian diets than vegans, it doesn’t need to be supplemented if you are consuming dairy. But, vegans should make sure to get calcium sources in their diets each day. This also applies to vitamin D, since dairy milk is fortified with D it may be higher in vegetarian diets compared to vegan diets. Plant-based milks can be fortified with both calcium and D, which should be chosen as a preferred plant-based milk source if following a vegan diet.
  • Iron: Since iron content is about the same for vegetarians and vegans, both should get ample plant iron sources in their diets from foods like dark leafy greens, beans, legumes, peanut butter, and other fortified foods like breakfast cereal, breads, and oats.
  • Zinc: Similar to iron, make sure to get plenty of whole grains, pulses, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds in your diet to help meet your zinc needs.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Both vegetarians and vegans should look for omega-3 fatty acids sources. Vegetarians could look into omega-3 rich milk and eggs. But, it’s also a good idea to incorporate plant-based omega-3 sources such as walnuts, chia seeds, and hemp seeds in both diet types. In addition, you can consider algae supplements for long-chain omega-3s.

Read on for our top plant-based articles right now:

The ultimate meat alternative recipe you can use to make just about anything

Embrace plant-based grilling this summer

Your 1-week plant-based meal plan


From Vegetarian Times

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