Plant-based eating is gaining momentum. I can’t click on Netflix’s Suggestions for You without seeing a documentary extoling the virtues of veganism. As we dive deeper into what that means for our diets, a few variations arise, with different connotations. Two of the mainstream plant-based diets are vegan diets and whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) diets. But what’s the difference?
Why try either?
People choose to follow a vegan diet or a whole-food plant-based diet for many different reasons including health, ethical issues or environmental concerns. Research indicates that a balanced diet full of plant-based foods can provide a multitude of health benefits. In fact, it’s worth including this excerpt from a 2016 position paper by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:
It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes. Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity.
What’s a vegan diet?
While vegetarians eliminate meat, fish and poultry, vegan diets take it one step further, excluding all foods derived from animals, even eggs and dairy. Also out: honey (from bees), marshmallows (they are made with gelatin, which comes from animal bones and hooves), kimchi (fish sauce is usually an ingredient), and Worcestershire sauce (contains anchovies). Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, lentils, soy products, nuts and seeds are staple foods in a vegan diet.
How is that different from a whole-food, plant-based diet?
A whole-food, plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily exclude animal products, however it emphasizes whole, unrefined, minimally processed plant foods. It’s a diet based around whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds. There are no strict guidelines for what it entails other than focusing on plant-foods and avoiding highly processed foods.
Of course, not all “processed” food is bad. There is a difference between highly processed and minimally processed. For example, hummus could be considered processed, but there are varieties that are made with minimal ingredients or additives and still provide health benefits. Smoothies are also “processed,” since you blend a bunch of foods together. But again, if you don’t take anything out, and don’t add unhealthy ingredients, they can be a nutritious option.
Which diet is healthier?
Both a vegan diet and a WFPB diet can be a healthy eating pattern, when done correctly. It really depends on what you choose to eat. You can find foods that are technically vegan, but have little or no nutritional benefit. The same goes for a WFPB diet: if you only eat celery, you’re not getting the balance of nutrients you need to function. Because a WFPB diet emphasizes unrefined, unprocessed foods derived from plants, it tends to encourage healthy choices, but, as always, the key is to consume a range of plant-based foods to ensure you’re getting everything your body needs.
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