A plant-based meal.

What’s the Difference Between Plant-Based and Vegan?

Plant-based” has been gaining traction as a term that describes a certain way of eating, but how does it differ from being vegan?

Veganism has long been understood as a way of eating that excludes not only meat, but eliminates all animal-based products and by-products, including dairy and eggs. The term “plant-based” however, has become a new way of describing a similar ethos.

When it comes to plant-based versus vegan diets, are there any major differences between them? The Institute of Culinary Education’s Chef Ann Ziata helps break down some of the nuances between vegan versus plant-based cooking and eating.

What Does Vegan Mean?

Vegan is a term that describes plant-based eating, but the term “vegan” often describes more than just a diet, but a particular lifestyle and ethos.

“Veganism is the abstinence of using any products made from animals,” Chef Ann says. “A vegan diet means that an individual only consumes 100% plant-based foods.”

For some individuals, though, being vegan often extends beyond food choices into other daily lifestyle considerations.

“A vegan lifestyle [can] also include animal activism, and avoids using leather, down, suede, dyes from beetles and products that have been tested on animals,” Chef Ann says.

Essentially, a vegan diet is one that is primarily concerned with animal welfare.

A plant-based dessert.
Plant-Based Culinary Arts students craft a seasonal multi-course menu as a part of their curriculum. 

What Does Plant-Based Mean?

A plant-based diet is one that can technically be vegan, depending on the individual approach and accompanying lifestyle choices.

“A plant-based meal is a vegan meal,” Chef Ann says. “It will not contain any animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese, eggs and honey. All the ingredients must come from plants, like grains, vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts and seeds. Although not technically a plant, mushrooms are welcome in a plant-based menu.”

It’s often a matter of nuance, then, but when it comes to plant-based versus vegan, it may be related to what the driving factor is in choosing to eat only or mostly plants. In the case of veganism, it’s often an ethical concern, but with plant-based cooking, it’s often a health or agricultural consideration.

Plant-Based Culinary Arts at ICE

“I worked at a restaurant that was 100% plant-based with no animal products in any of the dishes,” Chef Ann says. “They did not use the term vegan because they were promoting eating more plants, not a vegan lifestyle. They were okay with using leather-bound menus, [for example].”

Furthermore, because it’s more related to health and agricultural welfare, the term plant-based versus vegan does leave room for the possibility of occasional or ethically raised animal products.

“Some people may consider themselves plant-based, but are technically flexitarian,” Chef Ann says. “Flexitarians eat plant-based foods the majority of the time, but will occasionally include moderate amounts of humanely sourced animal protein, especially if it’s also acquired from local farms.”

Does Plant-Based Ever Mean Vegetarian?

As far as whether plant-based is similar to a vegetarian diet, it’s the same as above — if an individual mostly eats only foods sourced from plants, and occasionally includes eggs or dairy products that have high ethical or environmental standards, then it’s possible to refer to this as a plant-based diet.

When it comes to the difference between vegetarianism and veganism, however, there is an important distinction.

“Vegetarianism includes dairy and eggs,” Chef Ann says.

That means that vegetarianism cannot ever be considered the same as veganism since animal by-products are consumed.

“Originally, it was known as lacto-ovo vegetarianism, but it's since been shortened. A pescatarian consumes fish, but not meat or poultry,” Chef Ann says.

What Are Some of the Benefits of Plant-Based Cooking? 

Whether you call it plant-based or vegan, there are many benefits to considering eliminating meat and animal products from your diet. To begin with, the staple products for plant-based cooking are some of the most nutritive and typically align with the Mediterranean diet, which is considered one of the best approaches for heart-healthy eating.

“Whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts and seeds are incredibly nutritious and delicious,” Chef Ann says. "Minimally-processed plant-based foods are also high in fiber, full of phytonutrients, and help keep us properly hydrated.”

Furthermore, there is evidence that agriculture based on growing food crops rather than raising animals can have a significant effect on the planet's health as well as human health.

“When locally sourced, having a plant-based diet will also decrease your environmental impact,” Chef Ann says.

How to Cook Plant-Based Food:Tips from Vegan Chefs on Grilling Meat Alternatives 

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