There is often an assumption that vegan and plant-based mean the same thing. The terms are related but there is a difference and it is important to understand what that difference is.
VEGAN is a lifestyle and moral view that animals are fellow sentient beings not to be eaten, worn, tested on, or exploited in any way for human use which extends beyond food and includes the likes of fashion, makeup, cars, pharmaceuticals, lab testing, investments, and entertainment like vegans are against zoos or circuses that use animals.
Vegan food is any food that does not contain any animal-based ingredients nor has ingredients that were tested on animals.
PLANT-BASED is a diet, a style of eating foods from plants primarily in their whole form and avoiding animal-based foods. Whole, plant-based foods are vegan, but vegan food does not have to be whole foods.
The key phrase is whole foods meaning foods in their most original form, and even better if it’s organic because you avoid the toxic synthetic pesticides. In a whole foods, plant-based diet, the bulk of your food comes straight from the ground or tree, is loaded with fibrous vegetables and fruit and is minimally processed like pasta, 4-ingredient bread, oatmeal, a jar of organic tomato sauce, or pre-made soup. Most of us do not have the time nor patience to make things like bread, pizza dough, soup or pasta from scratch and that is okay.
Eating vegan also does not automatically mean healthy either. You can eat vegan for the day and not eat one vegetable, fruit, legume, or whole grain. MSG, high fructose corn syrup, aspartame and even Crisco is vegan. Whereas, eating whole food, plant-based is ideal for creating healthiness and can help reverse lifestyle-created chronic diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Let’s look at some examples.
In this first example, here is a whole day of eating vegan which you will notice is almost void of any whole foods except lettuce and tomato in a burger, and a small amount of chili on fries. There is a donut and latte for breakfast. A vegan margarita pizza for lunch. A veggie burger with chili fries for dinner, and a brownie and chocolate ice cream for dessert.
You can completely avoid eating any animal-based foods and still gain weight, get heart disease, become diabetic, be constipated, and have high cholesterol among many other chronic health issues. One of the reasons people who go vegan and experience health issues is because they are eating more like this which is indeed free of animals but is loaded with processed sugar, fat, and sodium and lacking in key nutrients.
Now, here is an example of a day eating whole foods, plant-based. This example is loaded with vegetables, fruit, starch and whole grains. There is overnight oats made with maple pecan milk, figs, pecans and granola for breakfast. Thai red curry with spiralized sweet potato noodles, carrots, broccoli, tofu, and cilantro for lunch. A one pot bulgur with bok choy, cherry tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms for dinner, and fresh strawberries for dessert.
See the difference now? You want to eat more like the latter than the former. The ideal approach for health is eating a whole foods, plant-based diet, but also don’t feel like you have to completely deprive yourself either because food should be a pleasure which includes indulgence from time to time.
Being a reformed yo-yo dieter, I find that forbidding foods puts you emotionally into that diet mentality of deprivation and just makes you want it more versus getting your body naturally used to a new eating style so you just no longer have any taste or desire for those decadent or highly processed foods. Your palate adapts to what you feed it the most.
If you can eat foods that support your health goals 80-90% of the time, and leave the rest for indulgence, that’s great. That’s the formula I follow because it’s flexible which is another reason the Flexitarian style of eating resonates with me. I dropped 40 lbs, and have kept it off for 10 years now without having to diet any more.
Here’s an example of one of my 80/20 days. Breakfast is a big green, carrot and cherry tomato salad with figs, nuts and sprouted beans. Lunch is Amy’s organic vegan fast food of burger, chili fries and mac n cheez (I split this with a friend.) Dinner is a black bean tamale with beans, rice, avocado and fresh tomato salsa, and dessert is some plums. I drink organic soda like 1-3 times a year because sometimes I like a soda with burgers or I want a rum and cola or Seagram’s 7 and lime soda.
You’ll see the word “plant-based” being used more in marketing because for consumers who are still meat eaters, the word “vegan” can be a turn-off whereas “plant-based” is more about an ingredient view versus a moral view.
Depending on how they are made because there are so many methods now, the meat, dairy and egg alternatives are vegan, low carbon, and/or plant-based but are also not automatically considered health foods just because they do not contain animals, cholesterol, trans fats or GMOs. Some of these alternatives can contain significant amounts of sodium, sugar, fat, gums and preservatives.
The Whole Foods Market list of Unacceptable Ingredients For Food is a great reference to use for cutting way down on the artificial and overly processed ingredients.
I like to do combos of things when I do eat the meat alternatives. In my meal above, is sweet and sour pork using Gardein’s Porkless Bites served with organic brown Jasmine fried rice, and sauteed sugar snap peas with shiitake mushrooms and onions.
Look for plant-based milks that are low in sugar. The vegan meats and cheeses should be treated more like transitional foods to help you wean from the animal-based meats and cheeses, or eaten on occasion versus everyday at every meal.
My blog includes the meat, dairy, and egg alternatives because although I promote a more whole foods, plant-based diet, I also know how challenging it is to transition. I’m more about progress versus perfection even if it takes you a longer amount of time to make the shift. The important thing is that you are taking action which is better than doing zero!