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Whole food plant-based vs vegan vs plant-based vs vegetarian: what are the differences?

Updated: Jan 8, 2022

#wholefoodplantbaseddiet #plantbaseddiet #vegandiet #vegetariandiet

Have you heard a friend or family member say they eat plant-based or identify as a vegan? Or they might even say they are trying the whole food plant-based diet? The common denominator of all of these “diets” is that the individual focuses the majority of their meals on fruits, vegetables, plant-based protein sources, grains, nuts, and seeds. However, there are many differences between each of these diets such as what they do eat, what they avoid eating, and why they chose to eat that way.

I remember first learning about vegetarianism when I was in high school, a few friends had discovered animal cruelty videos online that influenced each of us to make a change in our diet and avoid eating meat. Unfortunately, we were not aware of the support we could have had from a dietitian on how to implement a nutritionally adequate diet while avoiding meat. Identifying as a vegetarian lasted about only one year for me, the reasons I chose to avoid eating meat were for animal welfare versus improving my health through eating more plant sources of nutrition or helping improve the environment. Perhaps you have heard similar stories like mine from friends or families whose reason for choosing to eat a vegetarian diet or vegan diet. In general, the major reasons an individual may choose to eat a vegan, vegetarian, plant-based diet, and so on would be for animal welfare, to make a positive impact on the environment, and to improve their health through consuming more plants.

Fast forward a few years after high school when I began my dietetic internship with two registered dietitians who shared their knowledge and experience about the whole food plant-based diet with me. The whole food plant-based diet is described the best by T. Colin Campbell from the Center for Nutrition Studies as a “whole” diet where the foods are minimally processed. The foods that are included are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. The foods avoided are meat, dairy, eggs, plant fragments (vegan replacement foods), added fats, refined sugar/grains, sugar-sweetened beverages, and protein isolates. []




Whole-Food Plant based

Avoids eating all animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, fish/seafood)

May eat eggs, and dairy, but avoids meat

Eats minimal animal products (meat, eggs, dairy, seafood/fish)

Eats whole foods, minimally processed

May avoid using cosmetics that are tested on animals

May eat dairy, avoids meat and eggs

Avoids meat, dairy, eggs, oils, refined grains, processed foods

May avoid wearing clothes that are made from animals (leather, fur)

May eat seafood/fish, cheese, eggs and avoids meat


Note: The differences between each of these diets can be categorized by what each individual avoids or what they eat more of. However, whatever reason a person chooses to eat a certain way, the important factor to consider is ensuring that each individual consumes a nutritionally adequate diet so that they can flourish! Seeking advice from a registered dietitian nutritionist such as myself can ensure that you are eating a nutritionally adequate diet.

Audrey Butler, RDN, LDN is a Dietitian in Chicago who helps individuals implement a nutritionally-balanced diet using a plant-forward approach to feel healthy and energized. As a vegetarian nutritionist, she knows first-hand what the journey is like to implement a nutritionally-balanced diet, vegan diet, vegetarian diet, and p