What is the difference between vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based diets?
What does being a vegan mean?
Being vegan is not only about not eating meat; it is important to recognise that being vegan is a lifestyle choice and goes way beyond what you put on your plate. A vegan thinks carefully about the clothes they put on their back, the shoes they put on their feet, the make-up they put on their skin and the way they participate in social activities. The Vegan Society defines veganism as ‘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."
Vegans choose not to support animal exploitation in all forms and avoid visiting zoos or aquariums or taking part in dog or horse racing. Vegans do not buy leather, suede, fur, wool, pearls, and silk. In the UK, and most parts of the world, the medicines we use have often been tested on animals. This animal testing is an important early-stage aspect of the safety research for new medicines and veganism does not preclude the taking of medication. The definition of veganism ‘as far as is possible and practicable’ recognises this challenge. Many medicines contain lanolin, gelatine and lactose, and information on medicinal ingredients can be found online. Lactose is also a problem for many people across the globe who are lactose intolerant. The Vegan Society does not recommend avoiding medication and vaccines prescribed or recommended by health professionals. A vegan diet excludes all animal products, and this includes meat, diary, eggs, honey, and gelatine. The challenge for a vegan is being aware of the ingredients in processed foods. Often animal products are included in foods as stabilising or bulking agents, lactose being a good example. The pressure to improve food labelling in the UK is as much welcomed by vegans as people with food allergies. Not all wines are vegan as some do contain animal products, and so looking carefully at the labelling for drinks is also necessary for vegans.
A vegan diet requires careful thought and planning to ensure that the diet contains the right balance of vitamins, and proteins. The Vegan Society has formed an exciting alliance with the British Dietetic Association (BDA) and both organisations are working together to show that "it is possible to follow well-planned, vegan-friendly diets that can support healthy living in people of all ages, and during pregnancy and breastfeeding" and “promote reliable, evidence-based advice on what constitutes a healthy vegan diet to members of the public, services users and medical professionals". In the last two years a great range of vegan cook books and online recipes have come to the fore and the variety of vegan ready-made meals and products in the supermarkets has increased.
What is a vegetarian?
Vegetarianism is nothing new, many iconic historical figures were vegetarian, including Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein, Mary Shelley, and Mahatma Gandhi. It is estimated that there are more than 400 million people that identify as vegetarian in India alone. People choose vegetarian diets for many reasons, including personal preference and health concerns. Many people adopt a vegetarian lifestyle for ethical reasons, and in the last decade, in response to the climate emergency. Religious beliefs also can play a significant role in vegetarianism: followers of Jainism practice nonviolence (also called ahimsa, meaning ‘do no harm’), and do not eat meat and certain vegetables (such as onions, potatoes, and garlic). Hindus and some Buddhists also believe in ahimsa and Seventh-day Adventists support a vegetarian lifestyle.
Vegetarians do not eat animal flesh, be that of pigs, cows, chickens, deer, goats, turkey, and fish. Vegetarians will eat dairy products (such as milk, cheese, ice cream, and yoghurt), eggs, and honey. There is no hard and fast line as with a vegan diet, and some vegetarians are happy to eat foods that contain animal-derived ingredients such as gelatine (found in sweets) and rennet (found in some cheeses), whereas others avoid these foods. A person who doesn’t eat land animals but does eat fish is called a pescatarian. Most vegetarians usually eat enough protein and calcium (found in dairy products) but as for vegans if a diet is not planned properly, there is the chance of missing out on essential nutrients such as iron and vitamin B12.
The relationship between meat eating and obesity has been known for over a decade and many people have turned to a vegetarian diet to control weight-related health issues. The diet of a vegetarian is less restrictive to that of a vegan and there have been a wide range of books, menu choices and ready-made meals available for a long while.
So, what is a plant-based diet then?
The term plant-based is a fairly recent term and one that has crept into our vocabulary in response to the debate around meat eating and the climate. It basically means a diet where the amount of meat and fish consumption is limited. It is not a diet that excludes meat or fish but one where the amount or frequency is the smaller proportion. Within a plant-based diet, people eat mostly whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), unsalted nuts, and healthy oils like olive and coconut oils. People also tend to avoid ultra-processed foods (certain canned foods and soups and packaged meats), refined grains (white bread, white rice), snack foods (potato chips, cookies) and sugar-sweetened beverages. The evidence of the harmful impacts of ultra-processed foods on our health and well-being and biodiversity has been highlighted in the last year and it's not something to be ignored.
Ultra-processed foods more often than not contain little or no whole foods, are ready to consume or heat and are manufactured using industrial additives and processes. They often have no resemblance to the real foods found in nature. They are often high in fat, salt and added sugar, with no dietary fibre. None of this sounds good!
National level government endorsed policies encouraging plant-based diets are increasingly providing direction to the public, with both Denmark and Canada highlighting to their citizens that eating plant-based, varied food in moderation, with the avoidance of processed foods, will ‘help support improved personal and planetary health simultaneously’. Win: Win.
Often people who adopt a plant-based diet will consider carefully where their meat and dairy products are sourced from and often shop locally or from sustainable outlets. Diet is a four-letter word and there is not another word in the English language that has so many negative connotations for something that helps sustain us, helps us grow, keeps us alive and can be so much fun (cooking, growing veg, foraging, BBQing). It is sad that we have to think so much about our diet, especially in a world facing so much hunger.
Advice is widely available for eating healthy vegan and vegetarian diets. The benefits of eating no or less meat go beyond addressing the climate emergency, with the evidence accumulating showing it can be good for our waistline and wallet if done right. Also, it can be great fun and extremely rewarding learning to cook new recipes, especially with children (who often love wonky carrots, knobbly artichokes, and red ripe strawberries).
There are many ways we can contribute personally to the climate emergency and limit global warming, with the Friends of the Earth’s 8 lazy ways to be environmentally friendly eminently doable. What we eat, how we source our food, and how we manage food waste is an important part of this. But food is not the only way we, as people in the street or citizens as the United Nations tends to call us, can take action to transition to a low carbon world. But with food the action we take must be sustainable and involves us taking into consideration our budget, and circumstances, all highly personal and a matter of choice. To respect people’s choices, it helps to know where they are coming from, and I hope this blog clarifies things in relation to diets.