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Vegan vs. Plant-Based Diets: What’s the Difference?

June 9th, 2021

Nutrition can be complicated, but filling your plate with plants is a surefire way to give your health a boost—we’re talking potential full-body benefits like lower blood pressure, improved brain function, and overall longevity. You don’t have to totally cut out the meat in order to see these results, either. Whether you identify as vegan or plant-based, it’s all about what makes you feel great (though the environmental benefits are also an added bonus). 

Both vegan and plant-based diets involve eating lots of plants; while vegans avoid all animal products entirely, plant-based eaters may consume a restricted amount of meat or animal products. We dug a little deeper into the basic tenets of each diet and spoke to a few Thrive Market employees about their personal views on plant-based and vegan eating.

What does vegan mean?

You likely already know that vegans don’t eat meat, dairy, or any other animal products, but veganism also typically extends to your lifestyle, not just your diet. The roots of the vegan diet can be traced back to ancient Indian and Mediterranean societies; the Greek philosopher Pythagoras of Samos first mentioned ethical vegetarianism around around 500 BCE, and ancient religions like Buddhism and Hinduism also advocated for vegetarianism. The more modern “vegan” term was coined in 1944 by a British woodworker named Donald Watson, who wanted to create an identifier for vegetarians who also did not eat dairy or eggs. When Watson died in 2005 (at an impressive 95 years old), there were 2 million vegans in the US. Today, there are approximately 9.7 million, according to a recent study.

While veganism is—like all diets—ultimately up to the individual and his or her beliefs, it generally means eliminating all animal products, not just food. For example, vegans don’t eat meat, dairy, or things like honey or gelatin, but they also avoid wearing leather or using products tested on animals. Thankfully, there is now a booming industry of vegan foods that don’t contain any of these ingredients, making it easier than ever (and more delicious) to go vegan. 

“I’ve been fully vegan for 8 years, and vegetarian for 28 years. That means no animal products either ingested or worn (no leather or fur) and mostly whole foods—lots of vegetables, fruits, and nuts.”
-Jeremiah McElwee, Chief Merchandising Officer 

“I’ve been vegan for five years. For me, that means lots of fresh veggies, legumes, nuts, some “fake” meats here and there, and of course vegan chocolate. I’ve never felt healthier!”
-Brie Tomaszewski, Talent Acquisition Partner

Resources for Vegan Eating: 

Shop Vegan Groceries at Thrive Market 

Vegan Cooking Tips 

Vegan Dessert Recipes

Vegan Brands You’ll Love

Vegan Dinner Recipes

What does plant-based mean?

Plant-based is a newer term that has many similarities to veganism, but it typically only refers to your diet. The word was first introduced on a wide scale by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, who used it to promote a diet that was high in fiber—primarily from vegetables—and low in fat (though today, plant-based eating does not limit fat intake). 

In a broad sense, plant-based eating is self-explanatory: it simply involves eating a diet that is primarily made up of plants. While veganism encompasses ethical concerns, plant-based eating typically focuses on eating for good health by minimizing heavily processed foods, so some plant-based eaters may also eat the occasional animal product. 

“In the last 2 or 3 years I’ve gone plant-based, mainly for my family’s health and the well-being of our precious planet. My food philosophy includes flavorful experimentation, savoring mindful smaller bites, receiving and giving good energy and appreciation for the land, the farmers, the workers, and the transporters—especially those employing organic and regenerative practices.”
-Tim Gibbs Zehnder, Senior Production Designer

“My food philosophy is to eat as many plants as possible, but always listen to what your body wants; if you are someone who craves animal products sometimes, add that to your diet as well. Plant-based is just as it sounds: make plants the base of every meal, rather than basing it around animal products or grains, which are typical staples of the American diet.”
-Courtney Lenkov, Member Services Specialist

Resources for Plant-Based Eating: 

Shop Plant-Based Meat Alternatives

Plant-Based Diet 101

Guide to Eating a Plant-Based Diet 

Nikki Reed’s Tips for Plant-Based Eating on the Go

Can you be both vegan and plant-based?

In short: yes! While the two overlap in many ways, there are unique merits to both—and for many, these benefits are best achieved by eating in a way that is both vegan and plant-based. Because plant-based eating emphasizes eating whole foods that involve as little processing as possible, adopting a more plant-based vegan diet can be a great way to cut out some of the less nutritious vegan foods and to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet.  

“I eat vegan and plant-based. I originally started doing so 19 years ago out of ethical considerations; over time, as health and environmental concerns arose, I found those reasons to be equally compelling. Basically, I eat to feel good—both physically and mentally.”
-Frank Snyder, Senior Product Manager

Why is Plant-Based Eating Good for You (and the Environment)? 

The benefits of eating plants are measurable and proven—for both your body and the planet. 

Health Benefits of Plant-Based Eating: 

Environmental Benefits of Plant-Based Eating: 

  • Could expand the global food supply by up to 49% without requiring more croplands
  • Combats water scarcity, as meat production has one of the largest water footprints in the world (it takes more than 1,800 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef)
  • Reduces your carbon footprint, as meat production produces more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation industry. 

Quick Tips for Going Vegan or Plant-Based*

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*Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet.

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This article is related to: Plant-Based, Vegan, Vegan Tips, Vegetarian, Vegetarian Tips

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Amy RobertsAmy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.

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