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With the interest in plant-based eating on the rise, it’s natural that some questions arise regarding the most commonly used terms within the herbivorous realm. If you’ve been wondering the difference between the terms vegan, plant-forward, or whole foods plant-based, then take a moment to read and learn the (sometimes subtle) differences. It can be a valid confusion since some people use the terms interchangeably. Let me explain what the main differences are to some people and what other terms get thrown into the mix. Let’s try to understand this vegan vs plant-based debate.

With that said, let me just say first that I often think labels really aren’t as important as some people make them out to be. This isn’t a religion; it’s just a way of trying to continuously do better in the world. So don’t worry about trying to be “perfect,” which isn’t even possible. Do the best you can today and keep striving to do better tomorrow.

Now, let’s talk about what some people mean when they use these labels.

Graphic showing the differences between vegan, plant-based and whole foods plant-based


Let’s go back to the roots: The term “vegan” goes back to Donald Watson who coined it to describe a person who completely abstains from all kinds of animal products out of ethical considerations. While being vegan entailed the elimination of animal-derived foods, it also meant abstaining from animal-derived products such as leather or cosmetics relying on animal testing, ultimately rending veganism a way of living that goes beyond just diet

“Veganism is a 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.” quote by The Vegan Society.

Over time, many people have started also referring to being vegan primarily as following a vegan diet, taking non-dietary considerations off the table. Being oneself vegan thus increasingly reflected wellness and health rather than ethical considerations. Given the initially much broader definition and scope of veganism and its connotation as a way of living, some people felt less comfortable using the term vegan solely as a reference to a dietary paradigm which is where the term “plant-based” comes in handy.


A plant-based diet is defined as one that predominantly consists of plants. Many use “plant-based diet” as a synonym for “vegan diet,” which I tend to do as well. But by strict definition, merely being “plant-based” doesn’t necessarily mean total abstention from non-plant foods any more than a “wheat-based loaf of bread” means there are no non-wheat ingredients. That said, it’s very rare for a product containing animal products to be labeled as “plant-based,” and it really shouldn’t be, since that would sow real confusion.

Whole Foods Plant-Based vs Plant-Based

Another confusing term many people struggle with is “whole foods plant-based.” Are you wondering what’s the difference between whole foods plant-based and only plant-based? As we can infer from the word “whole” the premise of this lifestyle is to eat only whole (not refined) plant-based foods such as whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and seeds, leaving out foods like oil, white rice, white bread, plant protein isolates that make up most plant-based meats, and other highly refined foods.

The bottom line is that:

  • Veganism is typically seen as a lifestyle that entails the abstinence of all types of animal-derived products ranging from food and clothing to cosmetics and supplements for ethical reasons.
  • A vegan diet is the subset of veganism abstaining from the consumption of animal-derived foods.
  • A plant-based diet is identical to a vegan diet if it entails the abstinence from all animal-derived foods, albeit without making ethical propositions as implied in the etymology of the term “veganism”.
  • A whole foods plant-based diet is focused on eating 100% plants with no refined foods in it like oil, refined grains, and most faux meats.

In the end, labels are not the most important thing; what matters is trying to do the best we can to live a healthier and kinder lifestyle. Eating a more plant-based diet is good for us, the environment, the animals, and it can be great for our budget, too!

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