Vegan vs Vegetarian vs Plant Based: Are They The Same?

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In short, the answer is no! The terms vegan, vegetarian, and plant based are not the same things.

While they have some similarities, each category has distinct differences – including one that goes beyond diet.

As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and person who identified as all of these labels, I’ll share my expertise and experience on this subject!

Summary: All vegan, vegetarian and plant based dietary patterns reduce meat. Vegans avoid all animal products, vegetarians allow dairy and/or eggs, and plant based eaters have a plant predominant diet without specific restrictions. Vegans who follow veganism (a philosophy) also extend their avoidance of animals to non- food things, such as products and entertainment.

Disclaimer: This article is just providing education, and is not a substitute for medical or dietary advice. Talk to your doctor about any health concerns, if you want to make major dietary changes, or take a supplement. See our Disclaimers for more details.

Title Reads: Vegan vs Vegetarian vs plant based are they the same? There is a picture of different dishes near each label ( a vegan meal, a vegetarian meal, and a plant based meal). there is also a picture of Christine looking at a different foods.

What is a Vegan?

A vegan is someone who avoids the use of animals as commodities.

Areas where vegans avoid using animals include in:

  • the diet (avoids meat, eggs, dairy, fish and honey, and foods made with isolated components of these)
  • non-food products (examples: non vegan makeup and clothing)
  • entertainment (examples: avoiding zoos, aquariums, horse races)

To understand who vegans are, let’s take a look the most commonly used definition of veganism by the Vegan Society:

“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

Source: https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism

When someone follows a vegan diet, they may sometimes call themselves vegan as well. However, these folks may or may not follow or agree with the whole philosophy as stated in the definition.

The most technical term for this type of person is: ‘someone who follows a vegan diet.’ They might also identify as ‘plant based,’ but for simplicity’s sake when eating out – they’ll often say that they are vegan.

I don’t have problem with this, but I do wish more folks understood why I (as a vegan) want to avoid going to zoos and buying lip balm with honey in it (just a couple examples)!

And that is why I bring these distinctions up.

Want to learn more about very real vegan challenges? Read about the struggles of being vegan here!

Examples of vegan diets include:

  • Vegan diet: no animal foods or animal derived ingredients in the diet. A vegan diet includes fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and any other edible food that doesn’t contain parts or secretions from animals.
  • The PlantStrong Diet – (previously known as the Engine 2 diet), this diet emphasis whole food plant based sources, and eliminates oils and refined grains. It is also includes foods low in sodium, added sugars, and fat.
  • The Daniel Diet – One source suggest this diet is inspired by a charter (Daniel) in the Bible. It excludes animal products, emphases whole plant based foods, and avoids alcohol, or caffeinated beverages, like coffee.

What is a Vegetarian?

A vegetarian is someone who does not eat meat or animal flesh.

The animal products that they may eat include: dairy, eggs, and honey, although some may choose to exclude these.

As opposed to vegans, when someone says they are ‘vegetarian’ it’s most likely they are only talking about their diet (they avoid meat) as opposed to a philosophy of reducing the suffering of all animals as reasonably as possible.

Examples of a vegetarian diets include:

  • Lacto Vegetarian – a vegetarian diet (no meat) that includes dairy, but not eggs
  • Ovo Vegetarian – a vegetarian diet (no meat) that includes eggs, but not dairy
  • Lacto Ovo Vegetarian – a vegetarian diet (no meat) that includes both eggs and dairy (the least restrictive vegetarian diet) .

What Does Plant Based Mean?

While there is no official definition of ‘Plant based’ it is often referred to as a dietary pattern that that predominantly contains plants.

When used in the context of a ‘plant based food product’ it often means the composition of that product is mostly plants.

This goes for non-food ‘plant based’ products as well.

An individual who is plant based can eat meat, dairy, eggs, and honey, but those foods aren’t the focus of their diet.

Examples of plant based diets include:

  • The Mediterranean diet – Predominantly veggies, fruits, whole grains and legumes. This dietary pattern may include some low fat/fat free diary products, fish, chicken, and non tropical vegetable oils, and nuts, but reduced highly processed foods, added sugars, fatty meats, add excessive sodium.
  • The DASH diet – DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This dietary pattern is similar to the Mediterranean diet, and also has a emphasis on choosing low saturated fat foods that are rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein rich foods, and limiting sodium to <2,300 milligrams of sodium per day for adults.
  • MIND Diet- This stands for the Mediterranean- DASH diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND). It si a comination of the Mediterranean and DASH diet, and suggests including certain foods each week learn more here.

Vegan vs Vegetarian vs Plant Based: Are They The Same?

graphic showing the differences between vegan vs vegetarians vs plant based, with categories for various food items they do or do not eat, as well as a non food related section.

Here’s a summary of the differences between a vegan vs vegetarian vs plant based folks:

Similarities between vegans, vegetarians and plant based folks:

  • Plant foods contribute a large portion of all these dietary patterns.
  • Vegans, vegetarians and plant based folks reduce meat (although at varying degrees) as compared to omnivores.
  • ‘Plant based’ is a term that can be applied to both vegetarians and vegans.

Differences between vegans, vegetarians and plant based people:

  • Veganism is both a philosophy and lifestyle that avoids the commodity status of animals. So, a ‘vegan’ is not just a dietary pattern). In contrast the term ‘plant based’ or ‘vegetarian’ often refers to a dietary pattern.
  • Those on plant based diets sometimes eat meat, while vegans and vegetarians avoid it.
  • Depending on the specific dietary type, vegetarians and plant based folks may eat eggs and dairy, while vegans avoid these.

Does it Really Matter?

Making the distinction between vegans, vegetarians, and plant based folks helps us better understand their dietary pattern and, in the case of vegans- a philosophy.

Vegans, vegetarians and plant based eaters can all be called plant based.

However, vegans avoid all animal products, vegetarians only (at least) avoid meat, where as plant based eaters avoid meat – but to varying degrees.

Are There Any Health Benefits Associated with Plant Based Diets?

Research suggests that some plant based diets may offer health benefits.

As quick reminder- studies should be viewed in terms of their limitations and applicability. For example some folks need to use medication in spite of dietary changes. You should work with your doctor on your own personalized needs.

With that being said, let’s chat about some of the research!

One 2023 meta analysis of 30 randomized controlled trials suggests that vegans and vegetarians may have lower LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol compared to omnivores (1). As elevated LDL is a risk factor for heart disease(2) – the #1 leading cause of death in America, this is something to pay attention to.

One systematic review and meta-analysis suggests that substituting meat with whole grains, legumes, or nuts (important components in a health plant based diet) is better for cardiometabolic health(3).

Another recent systematic review of 4 randomized controlled study on a Mediterranean diet (rich in fruits, veggies, beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts), and the prevention of cardiovascular disease, suggests it may offer some benefit on certain cardiovascular outcomes(4).

The UK Biobank prospective study suggests about 76 grams of red meat intake per day is associated with increased colorectal cancer risk (5).

A common ground beef hamburger could easily exceed that 76 grams, as one source indicates commercially sold hamburgers may be only 4 ounces of 120 grams(6).

These are just some of the reasons why we should pay attention to our meat intake.

Finally, let’s take a look at what the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – one of the most renowned dietetics organizations in the world, has to say on the subject of vegetarian diets:

The ‘Position Paper of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets’ states:

“It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases…Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Low intake of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that produce lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and better serum glucose control. These factors contribute to reduction of chronic disease. Vegans need reliable sources of vitamin B-12, such as fortified foods or supplements.”

Source: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27886704/

Come concluding thoughts on the health benefits: A healthy and varied plant based diet that is appropriately supplemented may offer some health benefits.

Still, it is important to note that a healthy dietary pattern is one aspect of healthy living. Other important factors like sleep, exercise and managing stress should not be ignored, and there are some factors we can not change, such as genetics or age.

Did this post help you clarify the differences between these labels? Do you find these labels useful or, not so useful? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Enjoyed this article? Make sure you check out these:
Are Vegans Skinny?
📚 Plant Based Diet Books (Picks from Dietitians)
🥛Plant Based Milks: The 101
Don’t want to be an ex-vegan? Make sure you are avoiding the common mistakes new vegans make! Join Plant Powered You’s E-mail Insider list, and get my exclusive video on the ‘3 Common Mistake Vegans Make!

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2 thoughts on “Vegan vs Vegetarian vs Plant Based: Are They The Same?”

  1. I was always wondering what the difference was. Now I know it. I have a few vegan friends and when I invite them for BBQ, I never know what they eat and what don’t. Now I know.

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