Are You Vegan or Are You Plant-Based?

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What's in a name? In the plant-eating world, a lot. Why two factions have formed over food politics.

Alex Jamieson
"I still use a vegan diet to heal people all of the time. I always encourage people to try it. However, vegan vitriol, it scares people away from even trying it," says Alex Jamieson.

When Alexandra Jamieson, author of Vegan Cooking for Dummies and Living Vegan for Dummies, decided to start eating animal products again, she hid grass-fed beef and eggs under bunches of kale in her co-op basket, fearful that someone would see her.

“I was in a war with myself because I'd been so emotionally and professionally invested in veganism,” Jamieson says. Her fears about what others would think were not unfounded. When she “came out” about her decision, she received angry emails, vicious comments, and threats.

Those who attacked her were the PETA-card carrying members of the animal product-eschewing world.

But within veganism, a new element is rising. More and more people are choosing to eat plant-centered diets for health reasons, and many don’t identify with the image that “vegan” tends to conjure up or with the inflexible rules that make less-than-perfect humans feel they need to smuggle home brie.

“The word 'vegan' has very negative connotations,” says Sarma Melngailis, the founder of One Lucky Duck and Pure Food and Wine, who initially went vegan for health and was later turned on to animal rights. “It’s some skinny dude in sandals and a hemp poncho or this angry vegan protestor image—those are sort of the stereotypes.”

What do you eat?

While veganism could mean chowing down on French fries and processed soy 24-7, the vegan-for-health community has taken to defining itself by what it eats, instead of what it doesn't. Vegan celebrity nutritionist Julieanna Hever, for example, calls herself the Plant-Based Dietician, and China Study devotees tend to also describe their diets as “plant-based.”

Julieanna Hever
"My goal is to help people understand that every bite makes a difference, and it doesn't have to be black and white. You don't have to throw away your leather shoes, protest at circuses, and eschew honey if you decide to start down the vegan road," says Julieanna Hever.

“The term ‘vegan’ is exclusive, defining what it is that one does not eat—animal products. Using the words ‘whole food, plant-based’ is inclusive, defining what it is that the diet actually consists of,” Hever explains.

"Plant-based" is the most popular term yet for these new-wave vegans.

Lisa Dawn Angerame, a Jivamukti yoga teacher and author of Lisa's Project Vegan, compares the factions to divisions within Judaism: if "vegans" are Orthodox, "plant-based" eaters are Reformed.

What works?

Those who choose plant-based diets, of course, often agree with ethical vegans on lots of counts. They may recognize the horrors of factory farming and the incredible environmental issues associated with meat consumption, while just not espousing the deeper tenet of “eating animals is always wrong.”

More vehement vegans may still want to throw red paint at them, but others, like Melngailis, think that a more measured approach will better advance the overall cause.

“I would argue that there’s a role for activist vegans certainly, and I appreciate it, and part of me wants to lie naked in styrofoam covered in blood,” she says. “But realistically, it’s much easier for the general public to embrace a gradual shift towards a plant-based diet.”

Angerame agrees. While she eats vegan and doesn’t wear wool or leather, she prefers to spread the word subtly.

“At the end of the day, if everybody stops eating as much meat, we’ll save the planet and our health and save our animals. It all goes in the same direction,” she says.

But can a community with vastly different motivations learn to understand each other or does it risk falling apart at the seams? Can plant-based and vegan get along?

Says Angerame, “I just keep saying, ‘We’re on the same team!’” —Lisa Elaine Held

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