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Healthy Eating

Plant-Based, Vegan, & Vegetarian: What’s the Difference?

Considering going “plant-based” but not sure if that means vegan, vegetarian, or something entirely different? Don’t fret! We’ll get to the bottom of what each diet style encompasses, as well as make sure you’re confident in understanding what you can eat on each one.

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What does a adopting a plant-based diet really mean? Honestly, whatever you want it to mean! Some individuals define plant-based eating to include only foods that come from plants, whereas others focus on eating an abundance of plants but also allow for some animal proteins. Unlike a vegan or vegetarian eating pattern, a plant-based diet has no standard definition just yet. Even research regarding plant-based diets has varying descriptions that allow individual scientists to define the eating pattern according to the needs of their study.

According to The Plant-Powered Dietitian, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RD, “there is movement to define a plant-based food as 100% plant-based per the Plant Based Foods Association (PFBA), though no current standard definition exists for this way of eating. A recent survey by the Vegetarian Resource Group (VGR) found that people define plant-based in many ways: chefs usually mean vegan, yet researchers and health care professionals often mean a mostly plant-based diet.”

Palmer went on to note that she believes a plant-based diet is a diet that focuses primarily on eating foods that come from plants. She noted that there is a wide spectrum of eating patterns that encompass this, with vegan the most plant-based through vegetarian, pescatarian, and semi-vegetarian or flexitarian.

Regardless of how the individual defines the plant-based diet amongst their own eating pattern, all plant-based diets have one thing in common: eating more plants, like fruits and vegetables. And, frankly speaking, this is never a bad thing!

What Is a Vegan Diet?

According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a vegan diet is an eating pattern that includes only foods that come from plants. This means that any animal products or animal product derivatives, like honey or gelatin, are not consumed.

A well-planned vegan diet is usually rich in fiber thanks to a large amount of produce picks incorporated, as well as nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and pulses. It’s important to note that a vegan diet does not necessarily mean a healthier diet. As the research points out, it still incorporates fats and sugars and does not have to be whole-food-based. This means a poorly planned vegan diet could be rich in vegan cookies made with coconut oil and sugar without really being a nutritional benefit.

Following a vegan diet may demonstrate improvements in lipid profiles and overall health for specific individuals with underlying disease states, but it’s important to make sure you work with a trained dietitian or healthcare provider to ensure your diet and supplement regimen is sufficiently meeting common nutrient shortfalls that come with a vegan diet.

What Does a Vegetarian Eating Style Mean?

Vegetarianism is probably the most popular plant-based diet, but even here, there are actually a few different eating patterns that people call “vegetarian.” Here’s the breakdown of the three most common:

  • lacto-vegetarian consumes plants and milk-based products, such as yogurts, cheese, and milk, but excludes eggs and animal proteins (including seafood, meats, and poultry).
  • An ovo-vegetarian consumes eggs, but excludes milk-based products and animal proteins (including seafood, meats, and poultry).
  • lacto-ovo-vegetarian consumes both milk and egg products, but excludes animal proteins (including seafood, meats, and poultry).

Now, since some vegetarian eating patterns include some forms of animal proteins (like eggs and dairy), they don’t need to be supplemented with additional nutrients like a vegan diet does.

Let’s take a closer look at supplementing for meeting your nutritional needs on these plant-based diets.

Supplemental Nutrients for Plant-Based Diets

If you’re thinking about going plant-based—or already are—it’s a good idea to work with a dietitian who specializes in plant-based diets to ensure that you’re are meeting your total vitamin and mineral needs. That said, Palmer advises considering the following nutrients specifically when following a plant-based (vegan or vegetarian) diet to ensure your body is getting what it needs.

  • Vitamin B12: If you eat very few animal proteins, you should supplement with vitamin B12. Vegans specifically need to supplement at greater levels because they do not receive this nutrient in sufficient quantities in their diets.
  • Calcium: If you consume dairy products, you probably don’t need to worry about this bone-building mineral. But, vegans should make sure to get plant-based calcium sources (soy, legumes, leafy greens) into their diets each day. This also applies to vitamin D, since dairy milk is fortified with D it may be higher in some vegetarian diets compared to vegan diets. Many plant-based milks are fortified with both calcium and D, which really helps if you’re following a vegan diet.
  • Iron: Since iron content is about the same for vegetarians and vegans, both should get ample plant iron sources in their diets from foods such as dark leafy greens, beans, legumes, and peanut butter and other fortified foods.
  • Zinc: Similar to iron, make sure to get plenty of whole grains, pulses, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds in your plant-based diet to help meet your zinc needs.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Both vegetarians and vegans likely need more of these healthy fats. Good vegetarian sources include omega-3 rich milk and eggs. But, it’s also a good idea to incorporate plant-based omega-3 sources such as walnuts, chia seeds, and hemp seeds into both diet types. In addition, you can consider algae supplements for long-chain omega-3s.

From: Vegetarian Times