800px-Légumes_01The terms vegan and plant-based have been used interchangeably as a way to describe those that do not eat animal products. However, the two types of diets are very different.

Vegan: A vegan diet focuses on the exclusion of animal products (meat and dairy). Some vegans have strong feelings about animal rights and choose to eliminate all types of animal products from their lives, including clothing (wool, silk, leather) and personal hygiene (soaps, lotions, perfumes). They even avoid foods and other products that come from insects (honey, beeswax).

Although we are slowly becoming aware of the link between consuming animal products and our health, a vegan diet is not always healthy. When a person’s food choices focus primarily on the exclusion of animal products, his/her diet is not necessary nutritionally balanced. Instead of adding a variety of whole plant-based foods, many vegans use carbohydrates and/or heavily processed foods (prepackaged and prepared meals, soy based seasoned faux meat and cheeses) to balance out their meals.

The food industry uses the term vegan to identify foods that do not include animal products. However, a lot of these food items contain additives and chemical processing in order to reproduce a similar flavor or texture of a non-vegan product (i.e. vegan mayo, cheese, sausage, bacon, burgers, etc.).

Plant-based: Although a plant-based diet, similar to a vegan diet, excludes all animal products (meat, fish, dairy, gelatin), a plant-based diet emphasizes the nutritional value of what you eat rather than what you don’t, focusing on whole natural plant foods (vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and fruits). By placing attention on natural foods, plant-based consumers avoid heavily processed foods that contain chemicals, additives and refined sugars (junk food, soft drinks, prepackaged meals, meat and dairy substitutes).

While a plant-based meal qualifies as vegan, a person who follows a plant-based diet is not necessarily a vegan in regards to animal rights and the exclusion of all animal products from clothing to cosmetics. Conversely, someone who is vegan may not be eating a plant-based diet because their food choices include heavily processed foods.

Unfortunately, the term plant-based is not yet recognized as a food identifier in the food industry. This creates a challenge for people eating a plant-based diet as they seek out foods that contain only natural ingredients. As a result, reading food labels becomes a required skill. When eating out, it’s always a good idea for the plant-based consumer to preview a restaurant’s menu prior to dining in order to determine what adjustments may need to be requested for the meal. Consequently, plant-based consumers are drawn to preparing their own meals, learning and experimenting how to cook from scratch.

Below is a chart of what might be consumed for either diet.

Vegan versus plant-based

* A plant-based diet consists of breads made with whole plant ingredients (such as sprouted grains) and no refined sugars or chemical additives.

** A plant-based diet includes only minimally processed foods (whole grains ground into flour or made into pasta, naturally made soy or nut milks) that use whole plant-based foods without chemical additives and refined sugars.