If you’re trying to decide between a plant based vs. vegan diet, you may find yourself confused. There are a lot of similarities between the two, as both lean heavily on plant based foods, but it can also be unclear as to what other types of foods are allowed or not.
Here’s what you need to know to decide.
What is a Plant Based Diet?
In general, a plant based diet is one that focuses mainly on food from plants. These would include fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. Whether that diet may also include small amounts of fish, eggs, dairy, or meat, however, remains up to interpretation.
The documentary “Forks Over Knives” brought the phrase, “whole food, plant based diet” into national prominence in 2011. It followed the diets espoused by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a nutritional biochemist from Cornell University, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a former top surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic.
Their research led them to conclude that today’s modern disease, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes, could be prevented and perhaps even reversed by adopting a whole food, plant based diet.
Today, Forks Over Knives defines a plant based diet as “…centered on whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plants. It’s a diet based on fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, and legumes; and it excludes or minimizes meat (including chicken and fish), dairy products, and eggs, as well as highly refined foods like bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil.”
Other health groups, however, have far less strict interpretations of the term. Harvard Health, for instance, notes that a plant based diet focuses primarily on foods from plants, but doesn’t necessarily mean you avoid meat or dairy entirely.
So overall, a plant based diet is usually considered to consist mostly of plant foods, though you may be able to eat small amounts of animal-based foods as well.
What is a Vegan Diet?
The vegan diet is very similar to a plant based diet, except it excludes completely all animal products, including meat, dairy, fish, eggs, and even honey and gelatin. People may choose this diet not only for its possible health benefits but for ethical reasons as well if they believe that it’s wrong to use animals for food.
What is a Vegetarian Diet?
A vegetarian diet is also a plant based diet, but it may allow some animal products like eggs or fish. There are some sub-sets of this diet as well:
- Lacto-vegetarian: Excludes all animal products except for dairy products.
- Ovo-vegetarian: Excludes all animal products except eggs.
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Excludes most animal products, but allows eggs and dairy products.
- Pescatarian: Excludes all animal foods except for fish.
Is a Plant Based Diet Vegan or Vegetarian?
As noted above, vegans and vegetarians have different types of foods they may restrict or allow. A vegan diet is usually the most restrictive, as it includes absolutely no animal-based foods whatsoever.
So we can say that a vegan diet is plant based, since it contains all plant based foods, but we cannot, in turn, say that a plant based diet is vegan, because a plant based diet may include small amounts of meat and dairy.
Are Plant Based Diets Healthy?
Several scientific studies have suggested that plant based diets may be healthier than the typical Western diet, which is often high in meat products. In a 2013 study, researchers noted that plant based diets may lower body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels, while potentially reducing the number of medications needed to treat chronic diseases.
A recent 2019 study also found that diets higher in plant foods and lower in animal foods were associated with a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and of death overall in the general population. Researchers reported in a 2003 review, too, that a diet with very low meat intake was associated with greater longevity.
Other research suggests that plant based diets may play a role in managing some chronic health conditions. In a 2019 study, researchers found that a plant based diet may help improve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and a 2018 review found that plant based diets were associated with significant improvements in patients with type 2 diabetes, including improvements in weight, total cholesterol and LDL “bad” cholesterol, general health, HbA1c levels, and emotional well-being.
Can a Plant Based Diet Be Unhealthy?
There are some risks with plant based diets that people need to be aware of, however. Those that don’t contain any meat or animal foods, especially, may result in a low intake of protein and some vitamins and minerals.
According to a Mayo Clinic study, vegans are at risk for deficiencies in vitamin B-12, iron, ferritin, calcium, and vitamin D. Vegans must also watch their levels of zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, as these may be low in the absence of animal foods. Scientists warned in 2019 that choline, an essential dietary nutrient for brain health and found in animal foods, may be low in vegan and vegetarian diets, as well.
Even more concerning is the potential for stroke. Researchers from the United Kingdom analyzed the risk for stroke and other health problems over two decades among nearly 50,000 people based on the diets they followed. Results showed the rates of stroke were 20 percent higher in vegetarians than in meat-eaters. We need more research on this issue, but it does suggest that there are pros and cons to every diet.
Plant Your Plant Based Diet Carefully
If you do choose a plant based diet, it’s important to plan it out carefully. In the Mayo Clinic study mentioned above, researchers found that some vegans relied heavily on processed foods and weren’t eating a sufficient variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Indeed, scientists from the American College of Cardiology warned in 2020 that people following a plant based diet who frequently consumed less-healthful foods like sweets, refined grains, and juice showed no heart health benefit compared to those who didn’t eat a plant based diet.
“Based on these results,” stated lead study author Demosthenes Panagiotakos, Ph.D., “it seems that simply following a plant based or vegetarian diet is not enough to reduce cardiovascular disease risk.”
In the end, the important thing is to focus mainly on whole foods for optimal health, make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need, and choose the diet that works best for you and your lifestyle.