Plant-Based Versus Vegan: What’s The Difference?

5 Mins Read

With so much buzz around plant-based and vegan diets, thanks to campaigns such as Veganuary, documentaries like The Game Changers and the significant uptick in consumers avoiding meat and dairy products for the planet, it’s easy to get the two terms mixed up. If you’re caught up in the confusion and wondering what the difference is between being vegan and being plant-based, you’re probably not alone. But not to worry: below is Green Queen’s comprehensive yet digestible overview of the actual differences between these two popular terms to set the record straight. 

Going vegan: what is veganism? 

In 1944, the term “veganism” was officially coined by Donald Watson, a former leader of a branch of the Vegetarian Society, who alongside several colleagues felt the need to distinguish between simply meat-free and those who ditched all products with animal derived ingredients and formed The Vegan Society.

Veganism is therefore different from vegetarianism, whose adherents exclude animal meat and seafood from their diet. In addition to ditching meat products, vegans avoid consuming all animal by-products such as eggs, dairy and honey in their diets, and also advocate to exclude as much as possible all animal-derived or animal cruelty associated products, which include things like consumer goods that have undergone animal testing or leather in fashion

Source: Woman’s World

For many decades, veganism was thought of as a “hardcore” or “radical” lifestyle reserved for extremists. Today, we’re seeing veganism on a serious uptick as scientists reveal the negative health and environmental impact associated with excess consumption of meat and dairy.

Amid the rise in eco consciousness across the world, especially from younger generations, more people are not only choosing a vegan lifestyle because of animal concerns, but because of environmental and health-related worries too. Nowadays, the concept of ditching all meat and animal by-products from diet to fashion and homeware is becoming more popular than ever before.  

Plant-based: what does it mean? 

Plant-based”, on the other hand, refer to diets that consist of plant ingredients. The term first appeared in 1980, when Dr T. Colin Campbell at the National Institutes of Health was researching the potential benefits of a vegetable-based diet on cancer and sought a term to encompass this eating pattern without invoking ethical issues. His book The China Study helped to put the term on the map.

While some users of the term understand “plant-based” as allowing a small percentage of animal products, most users today agree that plant-based diets are free of all animal meat products and by-products. Because plant-based diets are divorced from ethical associations, such as animal welfare considerations, and refer to only one’s dietary habits, it does not encompass any exclusion of products in other aspects of one’s lifestyle, such as animal-based fashion, beauty or other consumer goods. 

What about whole food plant-based?

Recently, with many celebrities choosing a plant-based diet and the record-smashing movie The Game Changers promoting the physiological and mental benefits of eating plant-based, we’ve also seen a rise in the term whole-food plant-based, specifically whole food plant-based diets.

This diet, which can be broadly defined as the kind of diet most health practitioners recommend, is one that is centred on whole, unrefined or minimally refined plant ingredients and foods and eschews meat, dairy and other highly processed foods, such as white sugar, hulled grains and hydrogenated oils.

In this case, even some vegan products that are overly processed, such as refined vegan biscuits or some plant-based meat alternatives, would be avoided. Those who adopt a whole-food plant-based diet will therefore be eating primarily fruits, vegetables, roots and tubers, whole grains, nuts and seeds and legumes in their whole form. 

So what does the difference come down to? 

Source: iStock

Basically, veganism is more than a diet – it emcompasses one’s lifestyle habits and choices, and is likely motivated by ethical considerations such as animal welfare and environmental concerns.

Vegans therefore not only eliminate all animal meats and by-products, but all other products that may contain animal-derived ingredients or involve any form of animal exploitation and cruelty, for example silk and fur.

By contrast, plant-based is simply a kind of diet that excludes all forms of animal meat and by-products, but does not include restrictions in other aspects of one’s lifestyle, and usually promotes choosing whole plant ingredients over overly processed foods.

Therefore, a plant-based meal may by definition be a vegan-friendly meal, but a person who follows a plant-based diet may not necessary be following veganism. Plant-based diet followers may, for instance, wear and use products that have animal derivatives or have undergone some form of animal testing. 

Bottom line: there is no one over the other

At the end of the day, there are serious benefits to be had with both veganism and plant-based (and whole-food) diets, and it all comes down to individual choice and preferences.

Given the wide ranging research that has revealed the plethora of advantages of reducing meat and dairy consumption, from offering a health boost to significantly cutting our carbon and environmental footprint on the planet and promoting a more sustainable global food system, what is clear is that both vegan lifestyles and plant-based diets can drive positive change.

No matter what our individual motivations are, our dying planet needs our help and all the little changes we make to reduce our impact can make a difference to bring about a kinder, healthier and more sustainable world. 

Lead image courtesy of Adobe Stock Images.


  • Sally Ho

    Sally Ho is Green Queen's former resident writer and lead reporter. Passionate about the environment, social issues and health, she is always looking into the latest climate stories in Hong Kong and beyond. A long-time vegan, she also hopes to promote healthy and plant-based lifestyle choices in Asia. Sally has a background in Politics and International Relations from her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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