Nutritionists explain why the two eating styles are often confused, plus which one is best for you.
It's hard to keep track of the latest healthy-eating trends: Paleo, clean eating, gluten-free, the list goes on. Two of the most buzz-worthy eating styles at the moment? The plant-based diet and the vegan diet. While lots of people think they're the exact same thing, there are actually some important differences between the two. Here's what you should know.
What's the difference between a vegan diet and a plant-based diet?
Plant-based diets and vegan diets aren't the same. "Plant-based can mean different things to different people," says Amanda Baker Lemein, R.D., a registered dietitian in private practice in Chicago, IL. "Plant-based means incorporating more plant products and plant proteins into your daily diet without completely eliminating animal products." Basically, plant-based can mean upping your veggie intake and reducing your intake of animal products, or removing certain types of animal products from your diet completely. (Need some example of what plant-based people eat? Here are 10 high-protein plant-based foods that are easy to digest.)
The vegan diet is ~much~ more clear cut. "Vegan diets exclude all animal products," Lemein says. "Vegan diets are much stricter and leave little room for interpretation, while plant-based diets may mean meat-free, but still include dairy for one person, while someone else might include a few meat products throughout a month's time but still focus the majority of meals on plants." Essentially, plant-based diets allow for more of a gray area.
What are the benefits?
The health benefits of both eating styles are similar and well-established. "Eating more plants and cutting back on meat is almost always a good thing, as research tells us consuming a plant-based diet can help reduce our risk of developing chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease," says Julie Andrews, R.D.N., C.D., a dietitian and chef who owns The Gourmet RD. There's also evidence that suggests breast cancer rates are lower in those who stick to a plant-based diet.
It's important to note, though, that just because something is labeled "vegan" doesn't make it good for you, and this is a trap a lot of vegans (and plant-based eaters) fall into. "My one concern about the modern vegan diet is the explosion of ubiquitous animal-free junk food, such as ice creams, burgers, and candies," says Julieanna Hever, R.D., C.P.T., a dietitian, trainer, and co-author of Plant-Based Nutrition. "These aren't much healthier than those containing animal products and are still contributing to chronic diseases." Hever recommends anyone who attempts a vegan diet take a whole food, plant-based approach, meaning minimizing processed options whenever possible.
Andrews agrees that what it comes down to is making sure your diet is well-planned and doesn't rely too much on processed foods. "We know whole plant foods such as nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, legumes, and vegetable oils are packed with nutrition (heart-healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, fibers, protein, water), but no matter which eating style you choose, careful planning is important," she says.
This may be easier to achieve for plant-based eaters than vegan ones, Lemein says. "Certain micronutrients, including vitamin B12, vitamin D3, and heme iron exist only in animal products like dairy, eggs, and meat." That means vegans often need to supplement them. "With a plant-based diet, you can still reap the benefits of eating more plant products and plant proteins, yet still find ways to incorporate animal products into your diet, just in much smaller amounts than the typical American diet."
Who are these diets right for?
As it turns out, successful plant-based and vegan eaters often have different goals in mind. "I find those who have ethical or moral reasons for choosing veganism generally do better than those who are trying vegan diets for weight loss reasons," Lemein says. Vegan eating is less flexible than plant-based eating, so you really need to want it. "From my experience, it takes a lot of home-cooking to be a healthy vegan," adds Carolyn Brown, R.D., an NYC-based dietitian who works with ALOHA. "Plant-based is an easier goal for someone who doesn't love cooking; you can still eat at most restaurants."
There's also the mental piece of the puzzle: "I think being vegan is harder because it's a bit more restrictive, and those 'no I don't eat that's can be psychologically exhausting," Brown says. "In general, as a dietitian, I love to focus on what we're adding in, not what we're cutting out."
In other words, adding in more plants tends to be more realistic than cutting out all animal products. That being said, for those who feel strongly about skipping out on animal products, being vegan can be just as healthy as eating plant-based, and possibly more emotionally rewarding. (BTW, here are 12 things no one tells you about going vegan.)
Know that regardless of which eating style you want to try, you don't need to make the changes all at once. In fact, it's probably better if you don't! "For someone just starting out with eating more plants, I suggest setting small goals like cooking with one new vegetable each week or aiming for three-quarters of your plate to be made up of plant foods like veggies, fruits, grains, beans," Andrews says. That way, you're less likely to feel overwhelmed, discouraged, or intimidated by completely revamping your diet.