Vegan vs. Plant-based: What’s The Difference?
Updated: Feb 28
The number of people intentionally reducing their meat consumption has soared in the past few years. More and more people opt for plant-based alternatives to their favorite products. However, there is still some confusion regarding some terms and their usage. For example, can every person following a plant-based diet be considered vegan? Or do vegans only eat (organic) plant-based food? Let’s break it down!
The term “vegan” was coined by a British animal rights activist Donald Watson in 1944. He used the word to describe a person who for ethical reasons refused to use animals in any way.
Over the last 75 years, the vegan movement and veganism itself have evolved. With the rising threats of global warming, animal rights activists have started pointing out the environmental damage caused by livestock farming. Animal agriculture accounts for 44% of anthropogenic emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. Besides, it is one of the key drivers of deforestation. Over 75% of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest is connected to animal farming.
As you can see, being vegan reaches far beyond the food people consume. Many vegans describe veganism as a holistic lifestyle for people who want to cause as little ethical, environmental, and economical damage as possible. Vegans try to avoid products that are either made with animals or are tested on animals. For example, they don’t wear leather, wool, or fur and only go for certain type of cosmetics. All these habits are unified by one core principle - compassion towards every form of life.
The term plant-based is much younger. It was shaped by a biochemist Colin Campbell in 1980. He first used it while presenting his research about a plant-based diet’s effect on human health. The research showed that refraining from large amounts of meat and dairy can help reduce the risk of some types of cancer and other diseases.
At that time, veganism was already a popular but a rather controversial topic, so Campbell felt a need to avoid V-terms, as he calls them. While veganism has already evolved into a powerful movement with a certain philosophy, Campbell wanted to highlight that his research is pure scientific facts and nothing more.
Many scientists have confirmed the benefits of a plant-based diet since then. Research has proven that eating (organic) plant-based food can lower blood pressure, prevent diabetes, and improve cholesterol levels.
Looking at the terms and their origins, it is easy to understand how these terms are different. The first important difference is that veganism is a life-style, while plant-based is a diet. Even though everyone’s perspective is different, the majority of vegans apply their principles not only to the food they eat but to every aspect of their lives. A plant-based diet is, on the other hand, a term that is preferred by people who don’t want to make such “extreme” changes to their lifestyles. Their diet is not necessarily a representation of their moral principles, but a way to take better care of their health.
Health is also an important aspect to consider when comparing these two terms. For plant-based eaters, improving their health is usually the main goal. In fact, Colin Campbell, who introduced the term 40 years ago, has recently started calling it “ whole food, plant-based” diet. The change was supposed to bring attention to the quality of the food, not only its plant origin. Since their health is not the biggest motivation for vegans, a vegan diet doesn’t always have to be healthy. There are plenty of junk food vegan products such as veggie burgers, vegan (dark) chocolate, chips, etc. While such products are suitable for vegans, people who follow a whole food plant-based diet would not eat them. A plant-based diet aims to reduce the consumption of processed and refined foods such as added sugars, white flour, and processed oils.
Besides, plant-based eaters also believe in moderation. While many people who follow a whole food plant-based diet are vegan, not all of them are. A plant-based diet implies a significant reduction of meat consumption but doesn’t necessarily eliminate it. Vegans who make their decisions based on moral principles don’t consume animal products at all, even when it comes to honey or gelatine. Although many people have adopted such a lifestyle, there has been some criticism regarding the strictness of a vegan diet. Some psychologists believe plant-based is a more inclusive and positive term. It doesn’t set any strict limits, so you can listen to your body and find what works best for you.