Qn of the Month: Is there a Difference Between a Vegan Diet and a Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet?


A Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet (image credit: forksoverknives.com)

A: I think there is! Others may disagree. Let me tell you why I think there could be potential differences, depending on the actual dietary practices of the individual. A person on a vegan diet subsists on plant-based foods and excludes all animal protein foods and products from the diet. However, it is entirely possible to be on a vegan diet and still not have a very nutritious overall diet. For example, such a person could eat no animal products but still have a substantial portion of his or her daily intake from processed commercial ‘animal product-free’ and refined ready-to-eat foods, filling up on foods such as biscuits, crackers, sugary cookies, chips, cakes, and different vegetarian alternative or dairy-free alternatives that provide many calories but are not nutrient dense. The same could apply to a vegetarian who excludes most animal-based products (but still include dairy, eggs, fish or a combination of these categories). Such a person could also still eat many commercially processed and refined foods that are not ‘animal-based products’ but essentially be on a ‘junk food’ vegetarian diet. I’m not saying that one should never eat such foods (I do at times!), but the real question is what proportion these foods make up in one’s diet.

What about a whole foods plant-based diet? There is a great infographic (see above) and definition given in a Forks Over Knives post written by Naomi Imatame-Yun (see source). The definition she gives is this: “A whole-food, plant-based diet is centered on whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plants. It’s a diet based on fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, and legumes; and it excludes or minimizes meat (including chicken and fish), dairy products, and eggs, as well as highly refined foods like bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil.”

Hence, a person who is on a whole foods plant-based diet would tend to completely omit or minimize animal–based foods from the diet, while focusing on eating foods that are unprocessed and unrefined (in its natural form) that can be eaten raw or consumed after cooking. Such a dietary pattern would yield a more nutritionally rich overall diet, with many of the vitamin, mineral and nutrient benefits from eating whole foods.

This is not to say that a person on a vegetarian or vegan diet may not have the same focus on whole foods, but I think the emphasize on unprocessed and refined foods (in my mind) is stronger on a whole foods, plant-based diet. Why do I say that? Because in my experience transitioning over to a plant-based diet, I have found it relatively straightforward to gradually reduce the amount and kinds of animal-based foods from our family’s diet, while adding in more vegetables and pulses and finding commercially processed vegetarian alternatives to some of the products we have been used to having (like dairy-free cheeses and vegan margarine instead of butter). But now I see the real challenge is to incorporate more whole foods into our family’s diet, and not be simply substituting or depending heavily on the myriad of commercially processed foods out in the market that are not ‘animal-based’. These could include grain commercial products like vegetarian cookies, crackers and biscuits, as well as commercially processed vegetarian versions of familiar animal-based products, that provide calories but may not be very nutrient dense. In our modern day society though, it may be more challenging to achieve a whole foods plant-based diet because of the abundance and ease of using these ready prepared processed foods. I think there is a place for using these products, but it should not take our eyes and focus off of intentionally building a healthy eating pattern around primarily whole foods and plant-based foods.



  1. Imatome-Yun, N. forksoverknives.com. Plant-Based Primer: The Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Plant-Based Diet. https://www.forksoverknives.com/plant-based-primer-beginners-guide-starting-plant-based-diet/. January 3, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.)

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