Vegan vs Plant-Based Diets: Beyond the Definitions

veganism and plant-based diets

Vegan vs plant-based diets – we unpack the differences and the subtleties with the definitions.

Vegans are living in interesting times. There’s been a recent explosion in products and places to eat vegan food, as well as a better acceptance of the lifestyle.

So much so, that 2018 was hailed as the year veganism went mainstream.

The stats certainly stack up: there was a 350% increase in the number of vegans in the UK between 2006 and 2016. And Veganuary reported a record 168,000 participants pledging to give up all animal food and drink products this January. Vegan options are definitely becoming more mainstream in supermarkets and restaurants. Plant-based milks alone are seemingly unstoppable.

But with this rise, comes a lot of questions. What does it mean to be a vegan in 2018? Is someone vegan if they still wear leather shoes yet avoid eating all animal products? What does plant-based mean? It’s certainly a newer term than vegan. Is being plant-based different from being a vegan? Does it even matter?

Putting Veganism in a Box?

Definitions aside, the reasons for being vegan can differ too. Vegan forums and social media groups offer interesting, and sometimes intensely passionate, views. Some cite reasons of health, some say it’s down to animal welfare and for some it’s the impact on the environment. Others say it’s for all three reasons. Some argue that one is more important than the other.

Certainly the traditional idea of a vegan was someone who abhorred animal cruelty of any kind, including farming methods – regardless of how free range they might be – and slaughter. Some think being vegan for any reason other than animal welfare constitutes ‘just’ being plant-based.

But maybe, as we’ve become more environmentally aware, more of us are choosing to eat plant-based for environmental reasons? Part of the bigger picture, inspired by the war on plastics, perhaps? Or as we understand more about diet, maybe it’s down to health?

Animal rights organisation PETA claim on their website that a vegan is someone who “does not consume, wear, purchase or use anything that is made from an animal”. So does this mean someone who ‘only’ eats a plant-based diet but might wear woolly jumpers in the winter can’t identify as a vegan?

Veganuary make it less constrained. They say that (aside from not eating animal products) “most vegans will also avoid wearing animal products like fur, leather, silk and wool, and will also choose household products and cosmetics that contain no animal-derived ingredients”. The words “most”, “avoid” and “choose” help to loosen the boundaries and make things a little more inclusive.

The ‘Why’ of Veganism and Plant-Based Diets

Because how we’re identifying is changing, I wanted to get to the bones of why people turn to veganism and plant-based diets. So I turned to the oracle that is Facebook. I have a lot of friends (real ones) on there that I knew would give me some genuine insight. And it turns out I associate with a lot more people passionate about this stuff than I knew!

As I suspected, replies ranged from animal welfare, to health, to the environment.

Animal Welfare

The majority of friends gave reasons of animal welfare. Which was no surprise, as I see a lot of animal cruelty-based posts on my newsfeed. And this aligns with the Veganuary stats from this year – the biggest proportion, 43%, said they were taking part for reasons of animal rights.

Most of my Facebook responders said that as vegans, they ate a plant-based diet, didn’t wear anything made from leather, fur or silk and avoided beauty and household products that had been tested on animals. But not all of them. Some said they used a leather bag or wore silk undies, but still identified as vegans.

All were of the agreement that there’s no such thing as a ‘humane’ killing. Nor is there any reason to take an animal’s bodily fluids… One said that as a breastfeeding mother, drinking the breast milk of another species made her feel sick. I can’t say I disagree.


Health was another big reason my circle of friends gave. One said, for her it was a mix of compassion and the belief that meat and dairy products are unhealthy.

She believes that eating plant-based means taking processed foods out of our diet and eating freshly prepared, whole foods. Interestingly, she identifies as vegan, and says she will wear leather and wool, but only if it’s second hand.


There’s no doubt about it, the meat and dairy industries use a helluva lot of resources. And as we learn more about that impact, the environment is being given as a reason to avoid animal products much more frequently. The amount of resources the world is dedicating to animal agriculture simply isn’t sustainable.

Even choosing to give up dairy milk has an impact, something that a surprising amount of my meat-eating friends are choosing to do. And with so many alternative dairy-free milks available, I’m not surprised!

So although my Facebook study wasn’t particularly robust, it still reflects the trends in the changing face of what it means to be vegan.

The Rise of the Almost-Vegan

The ‘mainly plant-based’ like me are also having an impact, and helping to stoke the rise of plant-based options. Arguably, people like me blur the lines of what the whole thing means even further. I took part in Veganuary this year, and like 62% of my fellow Veganuans, decided to (more or less) stick with it.

My reasons were initially environmental. I’m one of the ones who decided to change my diet after watching Cowspiracy. I was sickened by the impact animal agriculture has on the planet and realised the enormity of what my individual impact has. But now, eating a plant-based diet 90% of the time has definitely also become a health-thing. And it’s made me more aware of nutrients, rather than just food.

Veganism Belongs to All of Us, However We Interpret It

So one of my original questions was does it matter how or why we eat plant-based? And the short answer is no.

How we choose to have an individual impact is personal. Whatever our reasons, we should be celebrating the rise in people choosing to avoid meat and dairy. Being gentle and non-judgemental is key. Let’s not get caught up in box ticking and out-veganing each other. (Certain vegan Facebook groups, I’m looking at you.) Raising our vegan game is something we choose to do. There’s no room for purism here.

We’re more accepting of changing traditional boundaries on topics such as gender and sexuality. So let’s include what we name someone who doesn’t consume animal products in that. Let’s not scare someone off dipping their toes in the plant-based waters for fear of ‘not doing it properly’ or being judged for not being enough.

The Lines Are Blurring

Veganism, being plant-based and being almost plant-based are on the rise. Our own health, that of the environment and the wellbeing of animals are all reasons to ditch animal products. And the more we demand plant-based options, the more we’ll see them in shops and restaurants. Which will make it easier for others to make the transition from the meat and dairy based meals that are so traditionally engrained in British food.

And one thing is certain. Being a vegan used to be solely based on ethics. Being plant-based was always thought as being for reasons health, and eating whole, unprocessed foods. In 2018 the lines aren’t so clear. Veganism isn’t necessarily the ‘lifestyle’ it once was. The terms vegan and plant-based diet can be used interchangeably and we all have our different reasons and identities.

So if you’re thinking about it, don’t worry about what to call yourself, and give it a go! Lose yourself in a world of delicious plant-based food. Because that’s definitely reason in itself.