This is one of the most common questions I get asked as a plant-based chef. The terms can be confusing, especially for those who do not associate with either dietary lifestyle. Both “plant-based” and “vegan” can be used interchangeably, but can also have different meanings depending on who you’re talking to. Let’s explore the difference and why I prefer to lead with plant-based in my approach to wellness in the kitchen.
I’ll never forget when a couple showed up at my cooking class and shared that they googled the definition of plant-based and how it is different than vegan. Likewise, vegans who attend my classes often double-check that there are no animal products used, since plant-based doesn’t always ensure this.
See how this can be confusing?
Veganism has much more defined boundaries, while plant-based is often left open for interpretation. This doesn’t necessarily mean that veganism is the better route to take and here’s why.
#1: There’s such a thing as a “junk food vegan.”
When an individual decides to adapt to the vegan lifestyle, it can feel overwhelming in knowing what to eat for each meal. Veganism excludes any animal-based products, from meat and seafood, dairy products and eggs – the very foods that make up most of the traditional American plate.
To compensate for the lack of options, it’s common for vegans to turn to highly-processed, starchy, and sugary foods. Examples of this include breads, pasta and highly-processed meat and cheese alternatives. While these foods eliminate animal products, they aren’t the most nutritious long-term and can lead to unanticipated side effects like weight gain, skin issues, low energy and malnutrition.
#2: The plant-based approach is fueled by a foundation of… plants.
In other words, the plant-based lifestyle is nutrition forward. We are talking about whole foods that are minimally processed and full of phytonutrients.
Phytonutrients are natural chemicals or compounds produced by plants that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They are found in fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, nuts and seeds.
I always say that no matter what diet and lifestyle you choose to follow, everyone can agree that we need to be eating more plant-based foods. Why? Because these phytonutrients support both short and long-term health benefits. Plant-based foods have been shown to promote a healthy weight, improve gut health, boost the immune system and decrease risk of disease.
While all of that sounds like enough reason to make some changes to your plate, it can be overwhelming at first. It doesn’t just mean eating a plate of pasta with red sauce ( as would a junk food vegan). Plant-based cuisine is a whole new way of looking at ingredients, flavors and your plate.
I was recently listening to Louie Psihoyos, producer of the popular documentary Game Changers. He was sharing his story in going plant-based and that when someone asks what he eats, he says “everything else”.
I love this because there is so much flavor and nutrients that is offered through plant-based foods, and a plate without meat, seafood and dairy can be satisfying if done the right way. Eating a plant-based meal doesn’t mean salads for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It can be full of flavor, decadent and incredibly satisfying and my goal is to show you how.
#3: Restrictive vs. empowered approach to food.
I believe most people want guidelines, black and white. Veganism gives you this. It is a more restrictive approach to food that requires removing any animal or animal-derived product from your diet. The motivation behind this dietary choice is often rooted in animal cruelty and environmental concerns.
The plant-based movement creates a bit more grey area. With this approach, the focus is more on the whole, minimally processed foods that can be added to the plate, not the foods that need to be removed.
I often lead with the disclaimer that it is possible to reap the benefits of plant-based foods without having to go vegan. By incorporating more plant-based foods into your lifestyle, it will naturally crowd out meat, seafood and dairy. Traditional animal-heavy foods go from being the star of your plate, to a team member sitting on the sideline.
This, I believe, is where the magic happens.
Final Thoughts on the Difference Between Plant-Based and Vegan
It is entirely possible to be vegan and plant-based. However, when talking about nutrition on your plate, the plant-based approach trumps veganism. I believe you can be a plant-based vegan or a plant-powered eater (leading with plants, but allowing for some animal products) and aim for optimal health. I personally lead a plant-powered lifestyle and choose to eat about 85% of my meals made up of whole, plant-based foods.
Are you interested in learning more about the plant-based movement and how it can positively affect your health? Here’s how you can get started:
Learn. I recommend checking out these resources that have helped me better understand the plant-based role in overall wellbeing:
- What is a plant-based diet? (article)
- The Blue Zones (book)
- Game Changers (documentary)
- In Defense of Food (book)
Do. If you’re inspired to take what you’re learning and put it into action, let me help you! My mission is redefine healthy through an easy and delicious approach with a focus on plant-based foods.
- Grab your copy of my best-selling cookbook, Simply Swapped Everyday, on Amazon here. This book is a lifestyle guide that is full of tips for how to swap in more nutritious alternatives, plus over 75 plant-powered recipes that are easy and delicious!
- I offer customized 7-day menu plans for individuals who are looking to cook more at home, but stuck on putting a plan together that is healthy and easy to execute. Menu plans are customized to your dietary and taste preferences and include a 7-day plan, recipes and grocery shopping list. Click here to get started.
Get inspired over on Instagram by following me (@fitlivingeats) for cooking tutorials, new recipes and inspiration to help make this whole healthy thing feel doable!