A Registered Dietitian Explains the Difference Between the Terms ‘Vegan’ and ‘Plant-Based’

Photo: Stocksy/ Nadine Greeff
The negative impact consuming animal-based foods has on the environment is undeniable, and as a result, many folks have long been turning to the plant-based movement to help soften the ecological blow of the meat industry (as well as for cultural, religious, dietary, or lifestyle reasons). This is a positive; from where we stand today, it's clear that plant-based eating is here to stay. Just last year, Merriam-Webster announced the term “plant-based” would be adopted into the dictionary—an obvious nod to environmental efforts in the food industry.

But now that we’re getting very literal, the terms “plant-based” and “vegan” have been somewhat of a gray area of confusion in the past: We often hear them used interchangeably. But according to the dictionary, they’re far from the same. We’re delving into what they really mean and how to use them appropriately ahead.

Experts In This Article

The difference between the terms ‘vegan’ and ‘plant-based’

First things first, let’s define these terms, as per what the holy grail of words (the Merriam-Webster dictionary) says. Let’s start with the newly-added official "plant-based" definition, in which M-W opted for two options. First: "Made or derived from plants." Think plant-based burgers. And the second: "Consisting primarily or entirely of food—such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, oils, and beans—derived from plants.” Think plant-based meals.

Conversely, “vegan” is defined as “a strict vegetarian who consumes no food—such as meat, eggs, or dairy products—that comes from animals.” They also add, “one who abstains from using animal products—such as leather.”

To make sense of these definitions and how they’re used in a nutrition-based professional context, we caught up with Lindsey Palmer, MBA, MS, RDN, vice-president of nutrition and industry relations at Chartwells K-12. “In my time as a registered dietitian, I have seen these terms evolve and have been pleasantly surprised to see an increase in the number of people looking to embrace plant-forward eating,” Palmer says. And she’s not the only one seeing a rise in the plant-forward movement, either. “You can tell that food manufacturers are aware of these trends by noting the explosion of plant-based products in the marketplace compared to just a few years ago,” she adds.

That said, Palmer notes there has been significant confusion regarding plant-forward terms like 'plant-based' and 'vegan'. In her practice, this is how she defines them: “The term 'vegan' means you follow a diet free from all foods derived from animal origin, including meat, dairy products, eggs, and animal byproducts such as lard, gelatin, and even honey,” Palmer says. Meanwhile, according to Palmer, the term plant-based is far more general. “Typically, those that follow a plant-based diet eat mostly from plant sources. However, they may still consume some products that are not plant-based. This term is not as clearly defined as vegan since it’s newer.”

“Typically, those that follow a plant-based diet eat mostly from plant sources. However, they may still consume some products that are not plant-based. This term is not as clearly defined as vegan since it’s newer.”—Lindsay Palmer, MBA, MS, RDN

Further complicating the ability to define these terms easily, Palmer notes there are also subcategories among these groups. “There are many variations among those who consider themselves plant-forward eaters, with new subcategories cropping up regularly,” she says. "For example, raw-food vegans only eat foods that are raw or cooked to temperatures below 118°F; lacto-ovo vegetarians may consume animal products such as dairy and eggs; pescatarians eat similarly to vegetarians but also consume some seafood; flexitarians or plant-forward eaters are often primarily vegetarian but may also occasionally or in small quantities consume some meat, seafood, or other animal products.” And the list goes on, Palmer says.

The health benefits of a plant-based diet

Either route you choose—whether it be plant-based, vegan, or a subgenre of the two—Palmer says there are tons of pros to adding more plants to your diet. “Plant-forward eating consistently ranks among the healthiest of eating patterns with benefits including reduced risk of many diseases and improved longevity,” Palmer says.

That said, although plants contain tons of nutrients, Palmer emphasizes the importance of a well-balanced diet. “Plant foods contain great sources of all the macro and micronutrients we need to thrive; however, consistently consuming a variety of foods is important, just like with any diet."

According to Palmer, a balanced plant-based diet contains: plenty of whole grains, beans and/or legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. “There are a few nutrients that those following a strictly vegan diet may wish to supplement since they are not widely available in plant foods, such as vitamin B12, iron, and zinc,” Palmer says. However, it’s advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before introducing a new supplement into your daily routine.

An RD shares the top vegan and vegetarian protein sources:

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