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Friday, July 26, 2019

The Differences Between a Vegan Diet and a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet

I think almost as much as I hear the question, "Where do you get your protein?" I also hear the question "What is the difference between a vegan diet and a whole food plant-based diet?" Many people equate the two as being the same, and in fact I hear people using the term "vegan" when they really mean "whole food, plant-based." So, I thought I would do a blog post on the subject.

I think the reason the two diets become equated is because both involve not eating meat or other animal products. Vegans do it for ethical reasons that they don't want to exploit animals, and that non-exploitation extends out not just to diet but to also avoiding as much as practical all consumption of animal products. It's not just animal-based foods that vegans avoid, but it's also leather products, wool products, animal ingredients in various products from soaps to medicines and to products that are produced as a result of animal testing.

For purposes of this discussion, however, I am restricting my discussion to a "vegan diet" as opposed to the broader subject of being a vegan. And in a vegan diet, there is only one rule. That is to avoid foods which contain animal ingredients or were developed through the exploitation of animals. A vegan diet is not about being healthy; it is about protecting animals.

Having said that, I recognize that there are many vegans who are concerned about their health, and many people who are whole food, plant-based have also adopted the vegan way of life. That's true in reverse too. Many vegans have adopted the whole food, plant-based way of living. Generally, those people call themselves whole food, plant-based vegans. But just being whole food, plant-based does not make a person vegan. And just being vegan does not make a person whole food, plant-based.

Before going on to explain how eating whole food, plant-based is different from the vegan diet, I want to mention that there are other common areas of concern that both a whole food, plant-based person can have and a vegan can have. One of course is health, which I will get into next. Another is the environment. Many also have concerns about how our food system affects climate change. A  number of people eating either whole food, plant-based or vegan or both have concerns about how national policy can be influenced by the food we eat and the foods we should be eating. How food affects our taxes, our overcrowded medical industry, our education system, etc. That's the subject of my next blog post (or at least that's what I'm planning right now for my next blog post. I think it's an important topic).

Many of us have all those concerns, but it's not necessary to have all those concerns to eat either vegan or whole food, plant-based.

Eating whole food, plant-based is generally first and foremost about personal health. And in that regard, eliminating or reducing animal products in a person's diet is only one aspect of a whole food, plant-based diet. Other factors of equal importance are:

  • The elimination or limiting of most processed foods, including "vegan foods," due to not only the added sugars, salt and fats, all of which are important to not consume too much of, but also due to the manmade chemicals and "natural flavors" contained in most processed foods.
  • The elimination or limiting of oils due to the high caloric density of the oils and the inflammatory properties of the oils, especially when heated. Consumption of oil also makes it very difficult if not impossible to achieve a person's healthiest weight level
  • Avoided use of added sugars in foods consumed.
  • Limiting or avoiding salt added to foods consumed.
  • If animal products are consumed, they are limited to less than 5% of the calories in the diet (based on Dr. T Colin Campbell's work in the China Study and on how people in the Blue Zones, where people have lived healthy lives the longest, eat). In no case are processed meats or red meats considered healthy foods to eat. Recent studies have shown the same concerns for white meats too.
None of those guidelines are part of the vegan diet. Only the elimination of animal products is necessary to be following a vegan diet. Again, I stress the word "diet" there because there is more to being an actual vegan than that (just as there is more to living a healthy lifestyle than eating a whole food, plant-based diet).

I actually consider the whole food, plant-based way of eating to be closer to the Mediterranean diet than I do the vegan diet. The Mediterranean diet is a diet whose principle purpose is health and the prevention of chronic diseases as is the whole food, plant-based diet. It eliminates red meat and processed meats and it emphasizes the inclusion of large amounts of fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains, legumes and nuts and seeds in the diet. It also emphasizes avoiding added sugars and salt and limiting the animal products that are eaten. Of course, the big differences are in the amount of olive oil used and in the consumption of "white meats" and dairy products. Therefore, it's not a perfect comparison. But neither is it a perfect comparison to equate us with the vegan diet (as shown by the bullet points above).

Thinking that we who eat whole food, plant-based are vegans can (and does) lead us down unhealthy pathways. I know many people who claim to be whole food, plant-based and think nothing of eating a "vegan" labelled food even though it can have terrible health consequences for them. Maybe not if they do it only once, but if it's a regular habit, which it can become if you think of this as just a vegan diet, then it can have undesirable health consequences that may surprise them since they think they're eating healthy. The same with eating out in restaurants. If all you think is important in a restaurant is to order something without meat or cheese or egg then you are likely going to end up with a plate of food that has unhealthy levels of salt, oil and sugar in it. 

So, really, think whole food, plant-based when it comes to food. If you want to be vegan too, that's great. But even if you are a whole food, plant-based vegan, you want to think whole food, plant-based when it comes to your food. It's as simple as that.

J Lanning Smith
Twice the Man Half the Weight
July 26, 2019


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