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Plant-based and vegan – what’s the difference?

8 October 2021|3 min read

Key points

  • There are some differences in the reasons why people would choose a plant-based or vegan diet.
  • Plant-based diets may be quite similar to flexitarianism.
  • While plant-based generally describes a person’s dietary choices, veganism may be more of a philosophy or a lifestyle choice
  • One of the key differences between plant-based and vegan is the way the terms were coined and adopted.

If you’re vegan, doesn’t that just mean you eat a plant-based diet? If it was that simple, this would be a very short read indeed. 

Some vegans follow a plant-based diet but not all plant-based eaters are vegan. The plant-based and vegan difference is crystal clear, isn’t it?

Actually, people choose plant-based or vegan diets for fundamentally different reasons

Dietitian and healthylife Chief Health Officer, Simone Austin, says that the difference in motivation could come down to health or environmental factors and there are some key distinctions between the two.

Read on for a deep dive into the world of plant-based and vegan diets.

The plant-based perspective

If you’ve ever wondered ‘what is a flexitarian?’, Simone suggests that a plant-based diet of eating is probably quite similar to flexitarianism.

“With a plant-based diet, it’s likely that the majority of your food is plant-based. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have any animal products. More so that you’ve probably got fewer animal products with more fresh fruit, veggies, grains and legumes,” she explains.

Simone also notes that a plant-based diet may be less likely to include too many highly processed foods. 

She also says that while some people might choose a plant-based diet for potential health reasons, there may potentially be some environmental concerns as well. 

Basically, lots of plants…but not all plants. 


The vegan philosophy

People who eat a vegan diet, on the other hand, don’t eat any animal products at all out of concern for cruelty to animals. 

While plant-based generally describes a person’s dietary choices, veganism may be more of a philosophy or a lifestyle choice. Vegans don’t eat any animal products. But they also don’t wear clothing or use products that result from what they consider to be the exploitation of animals, such as leather shoes or lanolin ointment. 

According to Simone, many vegan and meat-free alternatives may fit within the vegan lifestyle, but not necessarily the plant-based one.

“If you think about lollies, if they are gelatine free then they could easily be vegan. But I wouldn't consider them a plant-based food,” she says. 


The difference between plant-based diets and vegan diets

One of the key plant-based and vegan differences is in the way the terms were coined and adopted.

Veganism has been around since 1944. A man named Donald Watson wanted to distinguish between vegetarians who still ate animal products, such as eggs and honey, and those who didn't.

The origins of the plant-based diet are much more recent.

“In 2019, the EAT-Lancet study came out,” says Simone, “This study really pushed the increase of plants in the diet for sustainability of the planet and food sources. Over the last few years, the popularity of plant-based eating has seen an increase.”

Simone also mentions that there’s other recent research that found that people who eat 30 different plant foods in a week may benefit from more diverse gut microbes. So, as Simone says, this type of research could help people realise that a plant-based diet is one way to potentially get the variety you need in your diet.

So, could you eat honey if you're vegan? No, because it’s produced by bees. But, if you’re following a plant-based diet, then you could. Could you eat eggs on a plant-based diet? Yes, but not if you’re vegan as, again, they’re made by animals. 


How to transition to a plant-based diet

No matter the differences, if you want to make the switch to eating more plant-based foods you may have a few questions. 

Wondering how many servings of vegetables per day you may need to eat? Simone suggests taking a look at the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating

“If you look at those guidelines, the majority of the food is fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains with small amounts of animal products. That’s really what plant-based eating is about,” she says.

Simone also suggests being aware of high protein vegetarian foods.

“Is plant-based protein easier to digest? Not necessarily,” she explains. “Really it’s about understanding the complete picture of your whole diet. What are your iron levels and B12 levels? If you’re removing dairy, how are you ensuring you get enough calcium? These are all things you need to consider.”

We’re fortunate to have so many fresh fruits, nuts, seeds and vegetables in season in Australia. Understanding what these are may also help to ensure you could maintain a plant-based diet with fresh and delicious foods. 


The moral of the story

Maybe you’re a parent wondering how to encourage your children to eat vegetables. Or perhaps you’re curious about the question of does a vegetarian diet reduce inflammation

Whether you decide to try a flexitarian/vegan/vegetarian/plant-based diet, the research shows that eating more plant-based foods and vegetables could be good for you. 

Of course, if you have any dietary or health concerns, be sure to speak to your health professional.


Simone Austin is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, an Advanced Sports Dietitian and President of Sports Dietitians Australia. Her passion for optimising sports performance and health through nutrition has led Simone through her 25+ year career working with some of Australia’s top sports teams.

Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board September 2021.


This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. If you have any concerns or questions about your health you should consult with a health professional.