Have you seen the meme about how to tell whether someone’s a vegan? The punchline: “Don’t worry, they’ll tell you!” That’s because veganism, for many, is more than a diet; it’s a way of life.
But you’re not alone if that has you scratching your head, wondering, “What is a vegan?” As it turns out, the definition of vegan differs depending on whom you ask.
Basically, a vegan diet is one that excludes all animal products, so it is 100-percent plant-based — but it’s not that simple. There’s also what’s called a whole-foods, plant-based diet, which also excludes animal products and is also 100-percent plant-based.
So what’s the difference between a vegan diet and a whole-food, plant-based diet? Good question! First, let’s look at what makes someone a vegan versus a vegetarian.
What’s the Difference Between Vegan and Vegetarian?
The term “vegetarian” has been in our vocabulary for awhile, but “vegan” is a term that’s not used as widely. In short, a vegetarian eats dairy and/or eggs; vegans do not. There are different reasons for adopting both diets, including health, ethics, and the environment.
Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they are very different. For example, if you’re reading a menu, the word “vegan” would mean that a dish is suitable for vegetarians, too, but a vegetarian dish might contain dairy and/or eggs, or even honey, another animal product vegans avoid. To further complicate matters, vegans sometimes are called “strict vegetarians.”
Both vegan and vegetarian diets, if appropriately planned (meaning they contain all the nutrients you need for a balanced diet), can promote overall health as well as a healthy weight, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
What Do Vegans Eat?
So what do vegans eat? Let’s start with what they don’t eat: Vegans do not eat food that comes from an animal.
That includes obvious things like meat, poultry, and fish (as well as any dish cooked with those ingredients, like the noodles in chicken noodle soup or the vegetables in bouillabaisse), and it also includes ingredients that come from an animal product, including cheese, ice cream, and desserts made with eggs.
Vegans usually avoid honey, too, as well as white sugar (because it is sometimes processed using bone char). Since veganism is a way of life, vegans also avoid non-food products that come from animals, including leather, wool, down, and silk. This distinction will be important to remember later on.
That brings us back to what vegans do eat. Simply put, vegans eat plants. This can include whole foods such as beans, nuts, seeds, grains, veggies, and fruit, but it can also include processed foods like potato chips, energy bars, and pizza (hold the cheese).
A vegan diet may also include meat substitutes like tempeh (a fermented soy product), seitan (wheat gluten that’s seasoned and cooked to mimic the texture of meat), and the plethora of “fake meats” on the market that are usually made with soy.
Vegans sometimes say “anything you can eat, I can eat vegan.” And while that means that giving up animal products doesn’t require you to pass on the cupcakes, ice cream, and even bacon, it unfortunately means that a vegan diet could potentially contain a lot of unhealthy junk food.
What’s the Difference Between a Vegan and Plant-Based Diet?
In addition to a vegan diet, there is also what’s called a plant-based diet. They both completely exclude meat and animal products, but the motivation behind them and the nutrition guidelines differ.
Although vegans eat a meat-free diet that is plant based, not all vegan foods are whole, unprocessed, or even all that healthy. A plant-based diet emphasizes the health aspects of forgoing meat and animal products like dairy and eggs.
For many — or some say all — vegans, the term carries ethical, political, and other beliefs with it. Being a vegan extends beyond the dinner table. That’s one reason why not all people who eat plant-based diets use the term “vegan.”
Similarly, some vegans feel like not everyone who eats a plant-based diet is entitled to use the term. For many, the motivations behind shunning animal products are key, so some people clarify by calling themselves an ethical vegan or a health vegan. Ethical vegans adopt a philosophy of veganism, which means following a vegan lifestyle, not just the diet.
Ethical Vegans vs. Health Vegans
“There is an important distinction between ethical vegans and health vegans,” explains Michael Battey, a vegan activist who founded a nonprofit based in Houston and hosts a vegan radio show. “In addition to not eating animal foods, ethical vegans do not exploit animals for their labor or intentionally use any animal products, such as leather, down, and wool.”
“If you identify yourself as vegan but do not live by this concept, then you are labeling yourself inaccurately,” adds Jill Carnegie, co-founder of a large vegan meetup group based in New York.
Some health vegans agree and prefer not to be called vegan because they do not want to be associated with an animal-rights agenda. “The term may invoke certain stereotypes and turn people away from a plant-based diet,” says Dr. Robert Ostfeld, M.D., a board-certified cardiologist and director of the Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore Health System in New York, where patients are encouraged to adopt a plant-based diet.
This association between vegan food and an animal-rights philosophy has not gone unnoticed by food manufacturers.
“Surveys have shown that the term can be alienating, and if you call something vegan, non-vegans can think it’s not for them,” explains Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group that develops and markets plant-based alternatives to animal foods. “I want people to eat more plant-based food, and if calling it plant-based instead of vegan will help, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Junk Food Vegans vs. Plant-Based Diets
While a vegan diet can help you lose weight, many health-care professionals say not all vegan diets are created equal.
A vegan diet “may not accurately reflect what is or should be eaten on a plant based diet that physicians recommend to maximize health,” says Dr. Ostfeld. That’s why health vegans have adopted the term “whole-food, plant-based diet” (WFPB). This term was first coined in the 1970s by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., nutrition professor emeritus at Cornell University and co-author of “The China Study.”
Campbell came up with the phrase to distinguish his diet from a junk food vegan diet and the philosophical aspects of veganism. Think of whole-food, plant-based diets as referring to the healthiest version of eating vegan — this diet even shuns oils.
“I find that people are turned off by the term vegan, so I, too, use ‘whole foods, plant based, no oil’,” says Kendra Julian-Baker, a registered nurse who teaches patients how to follow a plant-based diet. In today’s terms, a WFPB diet could be called a “clean” vegan diet.
Unlike with a vegan diet, there is no specific definition for plant-based diets, so this term could also be used to describe a flexitarian diet, too, says Krista Haynes, R.D., C.S.S.D., and nutrition manager at OpenFit. “In the nutrition world, we refer to a plant-based diet as a diet that can include a few animal foods; however, the majority is vegan,” she says.
“Plant-based” in that case refers to a diet based on plants, but one that may include animal products from time to time. Most references to a plant-based diet are likely to be using the whole-foods, plant-based criteria, but others are more inclusive or flexible.
If a diet does include a bit of, say, salmon, beef, or goat cheese now and again, you may see some type of qualifying adjective (think: mostly, primarily, or usually plant-based). And it’s why the crowd that follows Campbell’s diet calls their way of eating whole-food, plant-based.
What is a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet?
With all those modifiers, a WFPB diet may sound complicated, but it’s really not. It’s a vegan diet that consists of whole plant foods and no processed foods — including oil and added sugars.
So what does you eat on a whole food plant based diet? Well, plants: beans and legumes (aka pulses), nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, perhaps tofu and tempeh, whole grains, and herbs and spices.
A typical meal might include brown rice with black beans and spices, along with greens like spinach or kale “sautéed” in veggie broth. Dessert might be fresh fruit or a baked cobbler made with fresh fruit, dairy-free milk, and whole dates instead of sugar.
Pro tip: Try these healthy vegan recipes to get started.
The Bottom Line
There’s no rule that says you have to label your eating style, so keep it simple and eat what makes you feel good and helps you reach your goals.