Nutrition Expertise

Plant-Based and Vegetarian Aren’t the Same Thing

Plant-based eating is on the rise. #MeatlessMonday and #MeatlessMeals posts frequent your social media feeds. Even Beyoncé is offering up free concert tickets in an effort to raise awareness about plant-based eating. From a Registered Dietitian’s perspective, this is all great news.

What’s concerning to me is how the term “plant-based” is being used interchangeably with the term “vegetarian”. Plant-based and vegetarian are not the same thing. And while I’m at it, plant-based isn’t the same as vegan, either. So, whether you are trying to eat a plant-based diet or simply trying to choose these options more often, it’s important to make this distinction and understand the differences.

Vegetarianism and veganism are 2 styles of eating that exclude meat, fish or poultry. There are a few different types of vegetarian diets but for the purposes of this article, I’d like to keep things simple. Veganism takes it a step further and excludes all animal products including eggs, cheese, yogurt and animal-derived products like honey and gelatin. Although they both clearly define a person’s style of eating, they are often adopted as an overall lifestyle.

What is a plant-based diet? A plant-based diet is a style of eating that is plant-dominant. It is a diet heavy on vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Consider it a shift from anchoring meals with meat to using vegetables and other plant-based foods as the main event. Most importantly, it doesn’t specifically cut out any food groups, including meat and animal products. Just so I am completely clear: You can follow a plant-based diet and still eat meat and animal products.

Why does it matter? As a long-time Registered Dietitian, I support diets that promote optimum health. First, I am in no way speaking poorly of the choice to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. A person’s decision to follow either lifestyle is personal and can absolutely be a healthy way of eating if done properly. From my vantage point, however, a plant-based diet is a much more realistic approach because it allows people flexibility. Flexibility is what makes an eating style easier to maintain long-term.

There is no question that eating more plant-based food is good for you. Research continues to show that a diet that emphasizes plants – vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts – reduces your risk of chronic disease. As a result, it is good for your heart, your weight and your overall health. Whether you identify as a vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based, choosing to eat more plant-based foods is good for you. 

This does not negate the importance of the overall quality of your diet. You can be a vegetarian and choose to eat jelly beans all day. I think we can all agree that a diet based on jelly beans isn’t the healthiest choice. As more and more plant-based foods emerge on the market, this is extremely important to understand. Furthermore, all calories are not created equal, so focusing more on the quality of food and less on the calories is what leads to better health.

There’s no question that the plant-based trend is one that I can stand firmly behind. My hope is that this article equips and encourages you to consider it for yourself. Nevertheless, whether you strive to be plant-based, or just want to add more fruits and vegetables into your diet, remember that good nutrition is never all or nothing. Start small and begin to make gradual changes that move you closer to your health goals. Going forward, look to incorporate more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds into your overall diet. Know that every step you take makes a difference. Don’t get caught up in thinking that you have to exclude anything. You don’t.

nutritious meal, plant-based

Eric Marjoram