As many of you may know, I did a 21 day plant based challenge back in November, where I cut out all animal products and most highly processed foods. As shocked as everyone (including myself) was, I actually really enjoyed those 21 days and never really went back! A “challenge” that was intended to last 21 days has now lasted 7 months, and I don’t think I’ll be changing my ways again anytime soon.
Ever since making this transition, I’m often asked what the difference is between “plant based”, “vegan”, and other similar terms. I want to start this post by pointing out that there seems to be different definitions of these diets (or “eating patterns”, as I prefer to call them), depending on the source. With that being said, the descriptions I’m going to give you today are what I believe are the “most accepted” among the vegan/plant-based community, but someone else may tell you differently. Ultimately, these are all just labels. What really matters is that YOU pick the dietary preferences that work best for YOU, and that’s that. BUT it is helpful to know what these terms typically mean.
If visuals are your thing, check out this chart I created that sums up today’s post. But continue reading for a more detailed description of each eating pattern!
When I made the transition from vegetarian to plant based, I had a lot of responses along the lines of “weren’t you already plant based? Isn’t that what a vegetarian is?”. So I felt that it was important to include this distinction in this post as well!
Simply put, vegetarians don’t eat meat. That’s it.
If we want to get into it a little bit more, there are technically multiple variations of vegetarian. Typically the term “vegetarian” refers to lacto-ovo vegetarians, but some may identify with a different title. Below are some of the more common types of vegetarians:
- Lacto-ovo Vegetarian: Excludes meat/poultry/seafood; still eats dairy and eggs
- Lacto Vegetarian: Excludes eggs and meat/poultry/seafood; still eats dairy
- Ovo Vegetarian: Excludes dairy and meat/poultry/seafood; still eats eggs
- Pescatarian: Excludes meat/poultry; still eats seafood, dairy, and eggs.
Again, I could go on for a very long time here if I wanted to because there are tons of variations out there – but we are going to try to keep it simple, so these are the terms that you’re likely to hear the most often.
The term “vegan” is probably the easiest to define, because this one doesn’t have much debate. A vegan diet is simply one that excludes all animal products. Simple as that!
Animal products include (but are not limited to):
- Meat (including poultry and seafood)
- Honey and bee pollen
There are other things that should technically be included in this list – like certain food additives, some beers and wines, etc. But if I tried to list every single thing, we would be here for a very long time. So I’m keeping it simple and just listing the animal products that we see the most often.
It should also be noted that some vegans don’t just exclude animal products in their diets, but also don’t use animal products at all in their daily lives. This means their clothing, makeup, soaps, and pretty much everything else are free from all animal products. Many vegans choose this lifestyle due to ethics, animal rights, or environmental impact – which is why they may choose to cut out animal products from aspects of their lives other than just their food choices. However, this is not always the case.
Alright, now we are getting more into the titles that have a little bit more debate.
The basic idea of a plant based diet is that the focus is on eating foods from plant sources. Many people use the term “plant based” if they eat 100% plants and absolutely no animal products, but there are also many people who use this term if they simply focus on eating plants. This means that they tend to avoid animal products, but might not necessarily cut them out completely.
I like to think of this option as “mostly vegan”. You eat plants most of the time, but animal products may sneak their way into your food occasionally.
Whole Food Plant Based (WFPB)
This one is a similar concept to plant based, with one major difference. It still focuses on foods from plant sources. BUT, more specifically, it focuses on WHOLE FOODS from plant sources. The term “whole foods” basically refers to foods that are not processed at all (such as whole vegetables and fruits), or minimally processed foods (such as tofu and whole grain pasta).
Again, some people who consider themselves WFPB cut out animal products and highly processed foods completely, but many simply avoid these items while still occasionally consuming them in moderation.
Some examples of highly processed foods that are typically avoided in a WFPB diet (in addition to all animal products) are:
- All purpose flour
- Refined sugar
- Grains that are not whole grains – such as white rice
- Added chemicals that you can’t pronounce
- Baked goods, canned beverages, or packaged snacks that include any of the above
- *Some also avoid added salts, but this isn’t always the case*
Essentially, this is plant based with the additional avoidance of highly processed foods.
What am I?
To be completely honest, throughout my life I have been a number of these things! When I was 8 I became pescatarian, then around 12 I decided to give up fish and went full vegetarian (lacto-ovo). I stuck with the vegetarian way of life up until my early 20s, then I started slowly transitioning towards a vegan, and eventually plant based, lifestyle.
The term that matches my current eating habits closest is probably WFPB. During my 21 day challenge I avoided processed foods more strictly than I do now, but I still tend to avoid them in most cases.
For me personally, I basically don’t eat any animal products or highly processed foods at all when I’m eating my meals at home. However, when I go out to eat, I think of these as my “splurge” meals. For these meals I still almost always stay away from animal products – but I don’t necessarily worry as much about processed foods such as oils. The one thing that I absolutely 100% stay away from, however, is meat. I haven’t consumed meat since I was 8, and at this point I simply have no interest in it!
So Why is This Important?
In my short time living a WFPB lifestyle, and in my many years as a vegetarian, I’ve noticed that many people don’t know the differences between these various terms – which is totally okay! However, I’d like to think that by spreading education on the topic, it might make a little more sense and clear up any confusion you may have regarding these eating patterns – especially because more and more people are transitioning towards a more plant based lifestyle these days. Knowing these terms can help us to keep up the conversation around eating more plants, and help to choose the eating habits that might be best for each of us. Plus, it’s helpful to know what it (likely) means when that recipe on Pinterest is labeled “plant based”!
I would like to reiterate the fact that I truly believe these are all labels – ultimately what matters is that you eat the way that most agrees with you and your body. If your eating habits don’t fit one of these descriptions “perfectly”, that’s okay! It’s also okay for you to make a slow transition towards one of these diets, if that’s something you want to do. Just because you want to become vegetarian or vegan, doesn’t mean you have to completely change your entire way of life overnight.
Do you associate your eating habits with any of the above terms? Is there one that you are hoping to transition to? Let me know in the comments!
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