Vegan or plant-based, is it the same?

I won’t worry about a small amount of anchovies in my puttanesca.


Yes, there I was, figuratively jumping up and down when I heard former President Clinton discussing his plant-based diet a couple of years ago on CNN with Wolf Blitzer.  Why?  I’m a nutrition educator with a Master of Science degree in human nutrition.  I tend to get excited about things like diets.  This was a landmark occasion–a high-profile role model reversing his heart disease with a whole food plant-based diet and sharing it with the world!

Having this kind of national publicity and visibility for sound diet and nutrition information is pretty exciting.  Especially so in a world dominated by marketing, advertising and lobbying by industries that spend a fortune convincing us to eat things that are more in the interest of their profit than our health.  Clinton’s was a voice cutting through all the noise.

After hearing the interview, I began to wonder… many people will “get” what was meant when he said “plant-based diet” rather than just vegetarian or vegan?  This phrase “plant-based” could sound kind of nebulous if you’ve never been introduced to this term.  I’ll confess, I’ve even heard people on whole food plant-based diets debating the term.

coconut puddingFirst of all, Clinton’s “plant-based diet” refers to the whole food plant-based diet.  Personally, I like to think of this diet in terms of guiding tenets rather than absolute rules – essentially eat mainly whole plant foods.  Fill your plate with a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds as whole as nature intended.  And seek to minimize or eliminate animal-based foods, processed foods and refined foods, such as sugar, flour, and oils.

But wait, how much of these foods that we are seeking to eliminate are allowed?  No doubt this is where the debates come in.  But I’m not going to draw a line in the sand.  One of the neat things about a whole food plant-based diet is that it can be inclusive of so many different styles of eating—such as vegan, vegetarian, raw, and macrobiotic to name a few.  And one of the great things about eating this way is the ability to relax and not stress out about the details, as long as you are eating almost all of your diet as whole plant foods.  Personally, if I eat a leafy green salad with a no oil dressing and 100% whole grain penne puttanesca, I’m not going to worry about eating a few small anchovies.

If I were a strict vegan, on the other hand, I would worry about eating a few small anchovies.  Let’s take a moment to specifically compare a “vegan” and “whole food plant-based” diet.  I’ve observed both overlap and confusion between these terms.  In fact, I hear people even freely use these terms interchangeably.  In fact, Clinton at one point described his diet as “vegan”.

We have two points to consider with respect to these diets, their inclusion of: (1) animal-based foods, and (2) processed and refined foods.  Let’s start with animal foods…..

The very first Vegan Society was born out of a desire to protect animal rights and end animal exploitation in all forms.  Therefore a true vegan abstains from all animal products, not just all animal-based foods, but also the use of other materials such as leather, silk, and wool.  No animal products, period.  At least this was the original intention.

On the other hand, a whole food plant-based diet is relaxed about the inclusion of small amounts of animal-based foods – very small amounts, that is.  The thrust of a whole food plant-based diet is health support vs. animal rights.  As I mentioned, I won’t worry about a small amount of anchovies in my puttanesca.  Clinton even eats fish “once in a rare while”.

Now, for our second point of comparison, let’s consider processed and refined foods.  The whole food plant-based diet seeks to minimize or eliminate these foods because they are less nutrient-dense than whole foods.  A vegan diet on the other hand can legitimately consist almost entirely of refined and processed foods and be happily considered vegan (M&M’s, potato chips, and white bread are all vegan).

So now I hope you see, a person can be both whole food plant-based and vegan or just either one and not the other.

Today rates of chronic diseases (heart disease, diabetes, and cancer to name the big ones) are skyrocketing.  These chronic diseases are also known as “diseases of affluence” because they appear in the developed nations and other quickly developing parts of the world.  What have we learned from more traditional cultures eating a whole food plant-based diet?  The incidence of these chronic diseases is very low or non-existent.  They need not exist.  We are creating our own problem.

What did we do differently in affluent countries to deserve these chronic diseases?  Well, factory farming animals and building efficient transport systems made meat abundant and ubiquitous such that it could star on every plate at every meal.

Let’s face it; if you have to participate in killing, cleaning, cutting up and rendering of the animal, you’ll probably eat less meat.  Pre-industrial man didn’t have meat wrapped in plastic waiting under the tree for him.

We also developed the technology to refine and process our foods en masse, sadly striping away the fiber and a great deal of nutrients from our foods.  It’s time to get back to nature—the whole food plant-based diet!

Whole plant foods provide us all of the essential nutrients (including all the protein your body needs) that animal foods do but with the added benefits of fiber and phytochemicals.  There are thousands of phytochemicals in plant foods that work synergistically with our biochemistry to support healthy cellular functioning.

There is a mass of scientific literature that has shown – with compelling confidence – that the higher a percentage of whole plants in a diet, the healthier (in terms of avoidance of diseases) people are.

Every positive step you take toward the direction of a whole food plant-based diet will increase your nutrient, fiber, and phytochemical intake and decrease your risk for chronic diseases.  Your personality may dictate that you decide as of this moment to never eat animal foods, refined and processed foods ever again.

But if it doesn’t, don’t be intimidated by your neighbor who is clearing out his pantry and fridge right now.  Every percentage increase in the proportion of whole plant foods in your diet matters.

Change is a personal process.  Start protecting your health today by exchanging refined, processed or junk food snacks for whole fruit or veggies dipped in no oil added hummus or other bean dips.

Replace the steaks in the middle of your plate for legume dishes and abundant greens.  If you’re not ready to go cold turkey on the turkey, check out some recipes that use “meat as a condiment” vs. the star of the plate.

Check out some whole food plant-based recipe books and talk to others eating this way for education and inspiration.

But if you want maximum benefit and protection or healing from chronic disease, you may want to start planning your change in earnest.  Clinton could have prevented his heart disease had he eaten a whole food plant-based diet all of his life.  At least for that old dog, he did learn some new tricks.

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