Plant-Based vs. Vegan: What Is the Difference?

Differentiating between whole food, plant-based and vegan diets may seem overly nit-picky, but it could help bring healthy, environmentally sustainable diets to a wider audience. Therefore, I think it is well worth discussing.

Eating meat is bad for the environment. There’s no other way to put it. Animals require large amounts of feed and water for the calories they end up providing us, and the livestock sector contributes to almost a fifth of all global greenhouse emissions. That’s about as much pollution as is produced by cars.

And it’s not healthy, either. This year, the UN’s International Agency for Research on Cancer published a report this year that stated that processed meats cause cancer. They also contribute to cardiovascular disease and obesity.

So forgoing animal foods is a good idea, but there’s a lot of hype and confusion on how to do it. Do you need to go full-on vegan to make an impact? Let’s find out.

Veganism Is a Lifestyle

Veganism describes an animal-free diet that forgoes any animal product like meat, butter, eggs and honey. Vegans do not wear materials like leather, silk or wool — nor do they use cosmetics tested on animals. It’s part of an underlying philosophy that what people consume does not need to cause harm or suffering to animals.

Vegan Diets Are Not Necessarily Healthy

It’s possible to have a poor vegan diet. Did you know that Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup and Fritos are perfectly vegan? There are also lots of meat and milk substitutes that are heavily processed from soy or other plant products. They contain no animal ingredients, but often have lots of artificial flavors and added salts and sugars to give the food a pleasant taste.

The good news is that, because these foods do not use any animal products, they are more sustainable than consuming meat. They may also be great aides in transitioning away from animal products. But that doesn’t make them “healthy.” Vegan meat substitutes that are high in added sugar, salt and processed fats may contribute to cardiovascular disease and obesity (and therefore other debilitating diseases like diabetes), just like meat or other unhealthy foods do.

Whole Food, Plant-Based Diets Are Healthy and Concern Food Only

The term “plant-based” describes a diet in which someone eats only plants. It doesn’t encompass other vegan lifestyle choices, like avoiding wearing leather.

Plant-based diets are often also called “whole foods-based” diets. This is what makes them healthy. “Whole foods” is not a scientific term, nor does it have any clear meaning. But in most health food circles, the term is meant to signify that the foods are not heavily processed. Fritos and artificial meat substitutes are therefore not whole foods and couldn’t be considered a part of whole food, plant-based diets.

Whole foods tend to contain fewer of the ingredients known to cause diseases, like sugars, salts and fats. Because they are not heavily processed, they also tend to contain more of the fiber, antioxidants and vitamins naturally found in foods.

Additionally, you don’t need to be worried about being thrown into the obnoxious category often reserved for vegans (As the tired joke goes: How do you know if someone is a vegan? They will tell you). It’s not a moral philosophy if you don’t want it to be. There are tangible, obvious benefits to eating a healthy diet and minimizing your impact on the environment.

Small Changes Make a Difference, Too

So, no, you don’t need to be a vegan to save the environment and your health. Reducing the amount of meat and animal products you eat (Remember — it’s plant-based, not plant-exclusive) and sticking to whole foods is all you need to do to get started.

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