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What’s the difference between the terms ‘vegan’ and ‘plant based’?

Veganism is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet, and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals. An individual who follows the diet or philosophy is known as a vegan. Distinctions may be made between several categories of veganism. Wikipedia

A plant-based diet is a diet consisting mostly or entirely of plant-based foods. Plant-based diets encompass a wide range of dietary patterns that contain low amounts of animal products and high amounts of plant products such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Wikipedia

In practice both of these words are largely used interchangeably, but there is a difference.

‘Vegan’ describes a dietary approach that does not involve eating any foods derived from animals at all. Obviously this means not eating any meat or fish, but also includes not eating food produced by animals such as milk from cows (or from any other animals) and any derived products such as cream, yoghurt, cheese. Eggs fall into this category and – what might seem the most extreme aspect of veganism – honey as well, since it is produced by bees (here’s an interesting article discussing the issue).

Veganism is in a way a subset of vegetarianism, which is where meat and fish is avoided but eggs and dairy foods (and honey) are eaten.

The term ‘plant based’ is a fairly recent arrival and really describes anybody following a diet that consists mainly of food derived from plants. It does not totally exclude the consumption of animal products but implies that plants are the biggest component of someone’s dietary intake. But since there’s no set definition as such, almost anyone can claim to be following a plant based diet (even whilst eating a steak).

Our theory is that the term came into use as a way of encouraging people to increase the plant, ie fruit and vegetables, component in their diet without insisting on them cutting out animal based food entirely.

Not necessarily vegans

The term ‘plant based’ also neatly sidesteps a common (mis)perception that vegans are all militant extremists. Just Google the term ‘vegan’ and search the news – you’ll see plenty of references to vegan protestors and the like.

People choose a vegan diet for one or more of the following three reasons…

  1. to prevent cruelty to animals in general (and in the human food chain in particular)
  2. to follow a more sustainable diet and minimise their carbon footprint
  3. for health reasons (either short or long term)

Of course following a plant-based diet will – to an extent – achieve the same things, just to a lesser degree. But they’re both steps in the right direction, on all counts!

For a detailed analysis of the impact of diet on climate change, see this recent article on The Conversation…

Main photo by Marina Helena Muller on Unsplash
In text photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

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