What is a plant-based diet? Everything you need to know

Author: Lindsey Harrad

Read Time:   |  18th October 2022

More people are eating a plant-based diet than ever before, but what exactly is it and is it different to being vegan? We explore what it means to be plant-based and how it differs from veganism.

You’ve probably heard the term ‘plant-based’ bandied around quite a bit in recent years, and these days it seems to pop up on everything from microwave meals to flip flops and even loo roll packaging.

While the term might seem self-explanatory, the way people use the description interchangeably with other terms such as ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ means the exact definition has become a little hazy. So, what does ‘plant-based’ really mean? Let’s clear up any confusion…

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet includes only foods derived from cultivated or wild plant sources, such as fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, pulses, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices.

It does not include any animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs or honey. The vegan diet is a plant-based diet.

What foods are plant-based?

All foods derived only from plants, so this includes wholefoods such as broccoli, chickpeas or walnuts, along with homemade or processed foods and recipes that contain no animal ingredients such as biscuits, hummus, baked beans or meat alternatives.

When it comes to readymade products, if it’s labelled as vegan, it’s plant-based; if it’s labelled as vegetarian, it may not be completely plant-based.

Plant-based foods include both wholefoods like fruits and vegetables, as well as processed foods like meat alternatives and readymade products. Image credit: vaaseenaa via Getty Images

Plant-based foods include both wholefoods like fruits and vegetables, as well as processed foods like meat alternatives and readymade products. Image credit: vaaseenaa via Getty Images

Which foods are not plant-based?

This would include all types of meat, fish, dairy, eggs and honey, along with products and dishes made using animal ingredients such as cakes, pizza, noodles, ice cream, pastry and readymade meals.

Always look for the vegan label if you want to be sure a product is completely plant-based.

What is a wholefood plant-based diet?

Within a plant-based diet it’s still possible to eat plenty of ultra-processed products containing highly refined ingredients along with chemical additives, salt and sugar such as vegan burgers, snack bars and breakfast cereals, but these are not always the healthiest choices.

A wholefood plant-based diet is the gold standard because it features predominantly natural plant foods with no or minimal processing.

This could include whole fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, along with lightly processed products made using a minimum of natural wholefood ingredients such as wholemeal bread, tahini, soya yogurt or tofu.

A wholefood plant-based diet centres around natural plant foods with minimal processed products. Image credit:

A wholefood plant-based diet centres around natural plant foods with minimal processed products. Image credit:

What’s the difference between plant-based and vegan?

If you’re vegan then your diet is plant-based, but if you’re plant-based you may or may not be vegan. Confusing, isn’t it?

Essentially, what you need to remember is that the term ‘plant-based’ typically refers to diet, while veganism is a complete lifestyle philosophy that excludes all forms of exploitation of, or cruelty towards animals in every aspect of life, including food, clothing and household products – as far as reasonably possible.

While the boundaries of plant-based eating have rather fuzzy edges, being vegan is a clearly defined lifestyle choice. It’s true to say that people may be at different stages on their vegan journey, but it’s not something that can be cast off at weekends so you can enjoy a steak and chips at the pub.

However, if that’s what you want to do, that’s fine – just don’t label yourself vegan. ‘Predominantly plant-based’ might be a better description, to avoid confusion.

Trying out a plant-based diet is often the first step towards fully embracing the vegan lifestyle, although those attracted by the health or sustainability benefits of veganism may go no further than adopting a plant-based diet, while those motivated by animal welfare may go on to become fully vegan.

The term 'plant-based' refers to a diet centred around plant foods while veganism is a lifestyle that seeks to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty. image credit: bohemama via Getty Images

The term 'plant-based' refers to a diet centred around plant foods while veganism is a lifestyle that seeks to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty. image credit: bohemama via Getty Images

Are there different definitions of the term ‘plant-based’?

No – but there is some fluidity about how the term is used, which can be rather confusing! Unlike the term ‘vegan’, which has a very well-defined, unambiguous meaning, ‘plant-based’ is often used more flexibly and may be open to individual interpretation.

Some people may describe themselves as plant-based because they’re not keen on the term vegan, or because they want to retain some flexibility in their diet or lifestyle choices, or perhaps because they follow the dietary principles of veganism but not the complete lifestyle.

Other people might describe themselves as being ‘mostly plant-based’, when they are in fact ‘vegetarian’ or they eat mostly plant foods but occasionally choose dishes containing meat, fish or other animal products – perhaps only when eating out or at weekends, for example.

Put it this way – if you have a friend coming over for dinner who describes themselves as ‘plant-based’, it’s probably best to check what they do and don’t eat in advance, because it’s something of a grey area…

The term 'plant-based' is often used flexibly by people who don't like the term vegan or want to remain flexible with their diet and lifestyle choices so they may occasionally eat things like eggs. Image credit: via Getty Images

The term 'plant-based' is often used flexibly by people who don't like the term vegan or want to remain flexible with their diet and lifestyle choices so they may occasionally eat things like eggs. Image credit: via Getty Images

Can the term ‘plant-based’ apply to your wider lifestyle beyond diet?

Living a ‘plant-based lifestyle’ typically means aiming to live a plant-rich life generally, which might include things like buying products made from renewable plant materials rather than manmade, growing your own vegetables, or using vegan beauty products made with natural ingredients.

Many vegans may do these things too, but their priority is to specifically avoid animal products of all kinds. That includes everything from obvious no-nos like Big Macs, wool jumpers and leather shoes to everyday products with hidden animal ingredients such as lipstick, wine, pillows or fabric softener, and for some people, may also include not participating in activities such as visiting zoos.

In some cases, making vegan choices may mean opting for manmade products that aren’t plant-based and may not always be the most sustainable option – such as plastic boots instead of leather or acrylic carpets instead of wool.

But if being vegan and prioritising animal welfare is at the top of your values hierarchy, then that’s the compromise required.

A person living a plant-based lifestyle may also look to buy sustainable products like cosmetics as environmental concerns often motivate people to stop eating meat. Image credit: aldomurillo via Getty Images

A person living a plant-based lifestyle may also look to buy sustainable products like cosmetics as environmental concerns often motivate people to stop eating meat. Image credit: aldomurillo via Getty Images

What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?

Vegans choose a plant-based diet because they believe it is a kinder, more compassionate choice that does not support livestock farming or fishing, and avoids contributing to the large-scale global exploitation and slaughter of animals.

But a plant-based diet has considerable environmental benefits too. Food production contributes 35% of all manmade greenhouse gas emissions, with meat and dairy causing twice as many emissions as plant foods.

Research suggests that if we all switched to a predominantly plant-based diet, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by as much as 52%.

Finally, there are numerous health benefits to a plant-rich diet, and these apply whether you are fully or mostly plant-based.

For example, in large population studies and randomised clinical trials, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce the risk of conditions such as heart disease1, type 2 diabetes2 and certain cancers3 as well as promote longevity, and this diet features small amounts of fish, poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt alongside an abundance of plant foods and very limited quantities of meat and sugary foods.

Research shows that the greater diversity of whole plant foods we eat, the healthier we are and the longer we are likely to live.

Exciting new research into the role of gut bacteria in promoting wellbeing suggests that eating at least 30 varieties of plant foods every week is the best way to nurture a thriving gut microbiome4, which in turn can help protect us against a variety of health issues from obesity to depression and type 2 diabetes.

Put simply, the fewer animal products you eat, the more space you create for putting more health-promoting plants on your plate instead.

Plant-based diets are beneficial to both our health and the planet as meat and dairy generate double the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as plant foods. Image credit:

Plant-based diets are beneficial to both our health and the planet as meat and dairy generate double the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as plant foods. Image credit:

Is a plant-based diet healthy?

A plant-based diet can be as healthy or unhealthy as you choose to make it. Remember that sugar, wine, vegan chocolate and crisps are all made from plant foods!

However, if your diet is predominantly based on minimally processed wholefoods then you’ll certainly be getting a gut health-boosting fibre-rich diet packed with vitamins, minerals and beneficial polyphenols and antioxidants, which evidence shows is the best way to stay healthy and avoid conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

A wholefood plant-based diet can provide most of the nutrition you need to thrive, providing it is well planned to ensure a good balance of important nutrients that often come from animal products such as vegan protein, omega 3s, iron, zinc, iodine and calcium.

However, if you eat an abundance of vegetables, fresh and dried fruit, soya products such as tofu and tempeh, fortified plant milks and yogurts, nuts, seeds, nut butters, tahini, wholegrains, beans and pulses you’ll naturally be getting most of the essentials.

For great tips on how to maximise the nutrition of every meal on a plant-based diet, Vegan Savvy by dietitian Azmina Govindji is a very handy guide to keep in your kitchen.

If you don’t eat any animal products at all, a vitamin B12 supplement is recommended (along with fortified foods, yeast extracts and nutritional yeast) and you may wish to include a vegan-friendly omega 3 supplement and also vitamin D, which is advisable for everyone, especially in the winter months.

Fortified products such as plant milks are a good way to top up your stores of a range of essential minerals such as iodine and calcium.

The Vegan Society also provides a useful guide to vegan nutrition and vegan supplements.

Can you eat eggs on a plant-based diet?

If you’re following the strict definition of a plant-based diet, then eggs are off the menu as they are an animal product. But if you are not an ethical vegan and choose to eat eggs or products containing eggs occasionally within a vegetarian or predominantly plant-based diet, then that’s entirely your choice.

But please do choose higher welfare free range and organic eggs wherever possible.

Can you eat honey on a plant-based diet?

Again, technically no – honey is produced by bees not plants, and so honey is not suitable for vegans. But if you’re following a more flexible plant-based approach or are vegetarian, then honey could be included.

Loving finding new places to eat?

Work up an appetite as we take you on a tour of the best vegan restaurants in the UK.

References

  1. Martínez-González, M. A., Gea, A., & Ruiz-Canela, M. (2019). The Mediterranean Diet and Cardiovascular Health. Circulation research124(5), 779–798. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.118.313348
  2. Martín-Peláez, S., Fito, M., & Castaner, O. (2020). Mediterranean Diet Effects on Type 2 Diabetes Prevention, Disease Progression, and Related Mechanisms. A Review. Nutrients12(8), 2236. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12082236
  3. Mentella, M. C., Scaldaferri, F., Ricci, C., Gasbarrini, A., & Miggiano, G. (2019). Cancer and Mediterranean Diet: A Review. Nutrients11(9), 2059. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11092059
  4. McDonald, D., Hyde, E., Debelius, J. W., Morton, J. T., Gonzalez, A., Ackermann, G., Aksenov, A. A., Behsaz, B., Brennan, C., Chen, Y., DeRight Goldasich, L., Dorrestein, P. C., Dunn, R. R., Fahimipour, A. K., Gaffney, J., Gilbert, J. A., Gogul, G., Green, J. L., Hugenholtz, P., Humphrey, G., … Knight, R. (2018). American Gut: an Open Platform for Citizen Science Microbiome Research. mSystems3(3), e00031-18. https://doi.org/10.1128/mSystems.00031-18

Written by

Lindsey Harrad

Lindsey is the former editor of Vegetarian Living magazine and the author of Living Plantfully, a book exploring how a plant-rich life can boost the wellbeing of both people and planet.

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