The Difference Between Plant-Based and Vegan

Since committing to a plant-based diet, I have found there is a lot of confusion between the terms “plant-based” and “vegan.” When someone asks me why I can’t have eggs or milk or whatever, the easy response is “I’m vegan.” I have since learned that there is an important distinction between the two terms.

Whole Foods, Plant-Based (WFPB) is a term coined by Dr. T. Colin Campbell and made popular by the film Forks Over Knives. WFPB describes a diet consisting of whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables in their whole, minimally processed forms, while eliminating added oils, sugars, processed flours, and animal products. WFPB is the diet Campbell and many other plant-based scientists and doctors recommend as the best diet for living a long, disease-free life. While WFPB is free of meat, eggs, and dairy, it is different from veganism.

Veganism refers to a lifestyle eliminating animal products altogether. This includes food, but also things like honey and beeswax, leather and wool, and any other animal byproduct. Donald Watson coined the term “vegan” and founded the Vegan Society in 1944. A few years later, Leslie Cross proposed veganism be defined as “[t]he principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man.” So, veganism is historically a lifestyle based in an ethical opposition to the use of animal products. People subscribe to veganism for health, environmental, and ethical reasons.

Dr. Campbell argues, however, that the term “vegan” does not necessarily describe a healthy diet. Twizzlers, potato chips, french fries, and a huge number of processed, sugary, greasy food are animal-free and thus can be included in the vegan lifestyle. He created the term “Whole Foods, Plant-Based” as a way to distinguished the diet he recommends from one only removing animal products.

In addition to the difference in diet, WFPB makes no claims or restrictions on lifestyle outside of food. One can eat a WFPB diet and have no problem wearing wool or leather clothing, or even eating honey (although this could be defined as an added sweetener. More on honey in a later post). So, in sum:

Vegan – “Sure, why not?”
WFPB – “No way!”

Wool sweater:
Vegan – “No way!”
WFPB – “Sure, why not?”

While each individual may not completely fit the mold of a plant-based eater or a vegan, it is important to know the definitions and be able to distinguish between the two. Veganism is a lifestyle, WFPB is a diet. I do not consider myself vegan, and while I try to follow a WFPB diet for health and environmental reasons, I do not have a perfect record (eating healthy is like swimming upstream in today’s world). Rather than subscribe to a set of rules, I prefer to research the facts about the food I eat and make decisions that best fit my personal values and health goals.

What do you think?


Further Reading:
Colin Campbell’s Website
What to Eat on a Plant-Based Diet
Happy Herbivore’s Take
About the Vegan Society
Time Magazine’s History of Veganism


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s