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

Many people have trouble understanding what I eat. Even though the word “vegan” has become much better understood than it used to be, I talk with a surprising number of people who think vegan means gluten-free. When I say “plant-based,” there are those who simply can’t wrap their heads around a diet with no dairy or eggs. The confusion doesn’t surprise me: even among people who follow a plant-based diet or vegan lifestyle, there’s disagreement about what those terms mean.

I originally started following a plant-based diet for health reasons. Within a few months of eliminating all animal products from my diet, the arthritis in my hands completely disappeared. I lost weight. I felt great. But there was more to it than that.

When I stopped eating animal products, I didn’t know that I was stepping into a lifestyle. It didn’t take long before I stopped wearing any leather. I could no longer stand the thought of wearing a dead animal. That’s when I became vegan. I changed my skin care products, make-up, and supplements. I started reading the ingredients on every bottle, box, and bag.

Origin of “Vegan”

The term vegan was coined in 1944 by English animal rights advocate Donald Watson. When the Vegan Society became a registered charity in 1979, this is the definition they used:

a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Many people don’t want to associate themselves with what is considered the extreme position of veganism; they use the term “plant-based diet” to mean a vegan diet but without the focus on animal rights. However, the term “plant-based” is used in many different ways. For some, it means a whole-foods, plant-based diet that eliminates not only all animal products but processed foods in the form of refined sugar, white flour, and oils. For others, “plant-based” means a diet of mostly plants that may include some dairy or even meat.

Vegans of Different Stripes

There is a wide spectrum of people call themselves vegan. I’ve known people who say they’re vegan, but don’t care if their cake is made with milk and eggs. I’ve known others who won’t eat anything made with sugar unless it’s organic because most commercial white sugar is processed with bone char. Many vegans eat Oreos (an accidentally vegan cookie). I’m vegan, but I don’t touch Oreos. My diet is primarily based on whole, minimally processed foods, and I won’t knowingly eat anything made with any animal product.

The differences in our perceptions of these diet and lifestyle choices can set off holy wars. Put three vegans in a room and you’ll have four opinions about what it means to be vegan, and sometimes those opinions are expressed in unfriendly ways. Many consider “plant-based” to be friendly and more positive. I’ve seen people who are curious about a vegan lifestyle completely put off by the militant, “holier than thou” approach taken by some vegans. That can spark nasty responses, such as the meat-eating chef who said his favorite thing was serving meat to vegans.

What amazes me is that some people allow distinctions between those who eat a plant-based diet and those who call themselves vegan to divide them. I choose to focus on what we have in common: a fundamental agreement that animal products have no place on our plates.

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