Plant-based? Vegetarian? Vegan? Confused? I’m not surprised.
I’ve easily received my fair share of abuse on social media for eating the way I do. The main issue seems to be this: if I am “plant-based” pixie, then why am I eating eggs and cheese and Haribo? I’ve been accused of confusing and misleading people, and been sworn at from behind a screen on several occasions.
I have happily responded to polite questions from individuals about this, and even changed my Instagram bio to “not vegan” for a while to avoid any confusion (then got rid of it cause I didn’t like having to justify myself). But I know that’s not enough, there’s too much confusion around what the word “plant-based” even means.
Put simply: a plant-based is a diet that is based on plants, and heavily features plants, but does not necessarily solely consist of plants.
Don’t believe me? That’s fine, I’ve come prepared.
Google “Plant-Based Diet”
Here’s a couple of definitions pulled from a simple Google search of ‘plantbased diet’, using only results from the first page:
“A plant-based diet is a diet based on foods derived from plants, including vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fruits, but with few or no animal products. The use of the phrase has changed over time, and examples can be found of the phrase “plant-based diet” being used to refer to vegan diets, which contain no food from animal sources, to vegetarian diets which include eggs and dairy but no meat, and to diets with varying amounts of animal-based foods, such as semi-vegetarian diets which contain small amounts of meat.”
“A whole-food, plant-based diet is centered on whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plants. It’s a diet based on fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, and legumes; and it excludes or minimizes meat (including chicken and fish), dairy products, and eggs, as well as highly refined foods like bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil.”
“A “plant-based diet” can be basically another way to say “vegan”, though many people do use the term to mean that you eat almost all plants with some animal products.”
Stop Googling. Let’s Look at the Science
We all know Google and Wikipedia aren’t the world’s most reliable sources of information, so let’s turn to the science instead.
The position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietiticians of Canada on vegetarian diets (from 2014) states: “…plant-based diets, defined as diets that include generous amounts of plant foods and limited amounts of animal foods…” i.e. not the same as vegan.
In searching for research into plant-based diets, and selecting those articles where their take on the word “plant-based” is not hidden behind a paywall (so you can tell I’m not bullshitting), a clear pattern seems to emerge:
Generally, the trend seems to be that plant-based = low animal products.
“The primary aim of the plant-based diet is to maximize the consumption of nutrient-dense plant foods while minimizing processed foods, added sugars, oils, and animal-based foods. A plant-based diet encourages lots of vegetables and fruits and is low in fat.” [source]
I agree with most of the above statement, although I think it’s a little too specific. I don’t think a plant-based diet has to be low in fat, but the rest holds up well. It’s about eating food that’s nutrient-dense and putting a focus on plants without necessarily giving up animal products entirely.
“Healthy eating may be best achieved with a plant-based diet, which we define as a regimen that encourages whole, plant-based foods and discourages meats, dairy products, and eggs as well as all refined and processed foods.”
Note: does not say elimination of these, just “discourages”.
“It should be noted that the term plant-based is sometimes used interchangeably with vegetarian or vegan. Vegetarian or vegan diets adopted for ethical or religious reasons may or may not be healthy. It is thus important to know the specific definitions of related diets and to ascertain the details of a patient’s diet rather than making assumptions about how healthy it is.” [source]
YES. I couldn’t agree more with this. Assuming someone’s diet is healthy just because it’s vegan/vegetarian/eliminates certain food groups is wrong. A vegan diet can be quite unhealthy, just as an omnivorous diet can be quite unhealthy.
Plant-based Does NOT Equal Vegan
It’s important to make a distinction between “plant-based” and “plant-only”. You can be a plant-based vegan, a plant-based vegetarian, a plant-based omnivore, or just plain old plant-based.
Something or someone can be plant-based and vegan, vegan but not plant-based, and plant-based but not vegan. The two aren’t interchangeable, but neither are they mutually exclusive. So next time someone tells you they’re plant-based, don’t assume, just ask if you’re curious to know more. And please don’t swear at them from behind a screen.