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Vegetarian, Vegan, Whole-Food Plant-Based? What's the Difference?

food Feb 12, 2024

There’s no denying the rise of plant-based eating worldwide. Take a walk through any grocery store aisle, and the term “plant-based” pops up everywhere, from the chips aisle to the cleaning products. According to Good Food Institute (an industry group based in the US), sales of plant-based products are growing faster than total food sales.

What do the terms have in common? 

Vegan, vegetarian, and whole food plant-based eating all encourage you to reduce or eliminate meat, dairy, eggs, and other animal-based foods from your diet. On the surface, the terms may seem interchangeable, but there are significant differences between them. If you’re new to healthy eating, the terms can be very confusing.

In this article, I’ll explore the differences between all 3 of these lifestyle choices and the health benefits/risks associated with them, with an eye to clearing up the confusion these terms can create. 

Ready? Here we go.


Traditionally, vegetarians avoid meat (beef, chicken, pork, etc.). They may eat food produced by animals, though, so they might include things like eggs and dairy (milk, yogurt, ice cream, cheese, etc.). I like to think of Vegetarian as step one on your way to the healthiest eating pattern.

It is actually pretty easy to stop eating meat. If you’re a home cook, you simply stop buying it at the supermarket.

If you eat out often, it’s also pretty easy to find something on a menu that doesn’t have meat. Many restaurants have at least one dish that doesn’t contain meat. There are always salad options, or you can order the side dishes that come with a meat entrée.

The term Vegetarian has also spun off variations like flexitarian (sometimes vegetarian, but also sometimes eats meat) and pescetarian (avoids meat but will eat fish). I’ve even met people who call themselves vegetarian because they avoid red meat but will eat all other meat (chicken, fish, etc.), eggs, and dairy. Vegetarian seems to have the broadest definition and is often defined by the individual using the term.


Avoids all animal products. Vegans champion animal rights and do not consume or use any item that is produced by animals. In addition to avoiding all meat and fish, they avoid eggs, dairy, and honey because they are produced by animals. In eschewing animal products, they also avoid clothing and other items made from animals, like leather, fur, or wool.

Being vegan may or may not mean you’re eating a health-promoting diet. The emphasis is on avoiding animals and animal products while promoting the rights of animals. So, similar to being vegetarian, it’s actually pretty easy to avoid eating beef, chicken, and fish. It can be more challenging to avoid eggs and dairy as they are ingredients in many food items, especially if you eat out often.

How can a vegan diet not be health-promoting? Because the emphasis is on avoiding animals and animal products, processed food may play a large role in a vegan diet. 

A snack of potato chips and a soda can easily fit into a vegan lifestyle, but it is far from health-promoting. Even seemingly healthy vegan foods may not be health-promoting, like fake meat products, frozen vegan pizza, and vegan ice cream. All of these are acceptable on a vegan diet, but they can also be loaded with artificial ingredients, oils, sugar, and salt.

Whole-Food Plant-Based (WFPB)

The emphasis in a WFPB lifestyle is to add more whole plants into your diet while limiting or eliminating processed food and, in some cases, added sugar, oil, or salt. WFPB eating may or may not entirely eliminate animal products. Which can be confusing.

Let’s do a deeper dive into where the WFPB term comes from.

Back in 2004, Nutrition Scientist T. Colin Campbell published The China Study. This book was the result of decades of study of the nutrition habits of people all over China and their health. The study invetigated the relationship between what people ate and incidences of chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes and overall mortality.

As he and his team analyzed the data, he coined the term plant-based. He was striving to come up with a term other than vegan or vegetarian because either of those terms tends to spark resistance from people who are not already vegan or vegetarian. At the time, inspiring an “us and them” reaction (I’m vegan/vegetarian and you’re not).

Plant-based seemed to be more “scientific” and less controversial. He added whole food to the description as he noticed that the people in the study were eating whole plants and not processed vegan or vegetarian foods (you can read the history of the term in his own words here).

Once The China Study was published, the term gained popularity among the general public. Once food manufacturers got wind of it and recognized a new term that could sell more products, it became ubiquitous. It has also been shortened to just plant-based, often losing the whole food distinction.

Why the distinction matters

The big difference between the three terms comes down to exclusive vs. inclusive.

Vegan and vegetarian lifestyles focus on what you cannot eat. Don’t eat meat, don’t eat dairy, don’t eat eggs, don’t use animal products. 

Your health may improve as a result of adopting this way of eating, depending on what you’re using to take the place of meat. If you increase the processed food in your diet, you may not see the health benefits you’re looking for, including weight loss and improved chronic disease symptoms.

The focus for whole food, plant-based living is adding more whole plants into your diet. The emphasis is on whole plants, not processed non-meat. WFPB encourages behavioral changes like: 

  • Adding beans into your diet as a protein source. 
  • Increasing servings of whole fruits and vegetables in every meal and snack. 
  • Use whole grains with meals.  
  • Add nuts and seeds sparingly as a source of fat. 
  • Reduce servings of animal-based foods as much as possible. 
  • Avoid processed food. 
  • Reduce added sugar, oil, and salt in your diet.

The health benefits of fruits, veggies, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are well documented in nutritional science. The harms of processed food are also well-documented.

Why the distinction doesn’t matter

Can you be all 3 options? Vegan, vegetarian and plant-based? Actually, yes.

In my own plant-based journey, I have found that I’ve moved through all of these phases. In the words of Maya Angelou, “When you know better, do better.” 

Back in my 20s, I started out as a vegetarian, avoiding all meat and fish but including eggs and dairy. Living in NYC, I couldn’t imagine a life of bagels without cream cheese. Oh, and there was pizza. 

I’ve since eliminated all animal products from my diet on most days. I occasionally eat fish (once per year or less), or I’ll eat a pastry that I know has butter and eggs. I’ll look for vegan options, but sometimes, they’re not available. I do what I recommend my clients do…make the best choice you can when you can.

Your choice to consider yourself vegetarian, vegan, or WFPB, comes down to your own personal beliefs and commitment to your health.

How about trying this?

Putting pressure on yourself to identify as vegetarian, vegan, or WFPB misses the point for your long-term health. Instead, start being conscious of what you’re eating. Take it one meal or snack at a time and make the healthiest choice you can. 

Being conscious of what’s entering your body is an easier way to eat than trying to live up to someone’s definition of what you’re eating. Plus, you will have the opportunity to recommit to your health and yourself with every bite. In this way, you can avoid slipping into processed-food convenience habits and give your body what it needs.


If you’re thinking about healthier eating, there are 3 non-meat options for you.

  • Vegan: Eliminates all animal-based food and other items from their entire life, advocates for animal rights, and includes processed foods as long as they don’t contain or harm animals.
  • Vegetarian: Avoids meat, sometimes fish, often includes eggs and dairy in their diet.
  • Whole Food Plant-Based: Encourages eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans/legumes, nuts, and seeds, avoids processed food, including processed vegan options. By focusing on including more whole plants, animal-based foods are reduced or eliminated. May also avoid added sugar, oil, or salt.

If you want to change your diet to create a healthier body, eat more plants.

Need help getting started living a plant-based lifestyle? Download this recipe book and check out my 30-Day Plant-Based Kickstart.


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