So, what really is the difference between vegan and plant-based?

Going meat free (or at least cutting back on meat) has been in vogue for a while now. Whether it’s for environmental reasons, ethical reasons or just to be a little healthier, there’s *a lot* of people putting more plants on their plate – and as a dietitian, I’m all for it. No surprises there.

What might surprise you, however, is that although people tend to use the terms ‘vegan’ and ‘plant-based’ interchangeably, they can actually mean very different things. So, to keep you in the loop, here’s what you need to know.

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What is a vegan diet? And what are the pros and cons?

A vegan diet is completely void of all animal products. That means no meat, poultry, eggs, seafood or dairy, or anything made from these ingredients. Even honey is off the list! Fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds (or products made from them) are the only foods on the menu on a vegan diet.

Of course a vegan diet can be jam-packed full of good-for-you foods. Any eating pattern that’s chock-full veggies scores a lot of points in my books! But (and there is a big ‘but’), vegan diets can also be full of junk if they’re made up of vegan chocolate, hot chips, faux meats and the like. In other words: just because something doesn’t contain animal foods doesn’t mean it’s automatically good for you.

A vegan diet can be incredibly restrictive as it cuts out so many foods. Of particular concern are nutrients like Vitamin B12 for healthy blood, bone-strengthening calcium, iron for oxygen transport and zinc for wound healing.

Don’t get me wrong – it is more than possible to have a healthy, nutritionally adequate, balanced vegan diet, but it needs to be well planned in consultation with a nutrition professional. Otherwise, there’s a chance your vegan diet will lack essential nutrients.

What is a plant-based diet? And what are the pros and cons?

A plant-based diet, on the other hand, doesn’t have a precise definition, so it’s up for interpretation. My idea of a plant-based diet is this: it’s one that’s built on a foundation of plants… but isn’t exclusively plants.

Fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds form the vast majority of it – but meat, poultry, eggs, seafood and dairy can be included, too. As with vegan products, everything labelled ‘plant-based’ isn’t always a sure-thing in terms of good nutrition, so you still need to have your wits about you. But if you stick to real, whole foods, you’re doing a good thing for your health.

As this version of a plant-based diet is far less restrictive than a vegan diet, I have far less qualms about it. In fact, it’s the type of diet I’d promote. Not only does it include a wider variety of foods (and therefore more likely a wider variety of nutrients), it’s also not going to put you into a dieting mindset where you obsess over the strict list of foods you can and can’t eat. Instead, it’s just about making plants the hero of your plate, rather than an afterthought.

Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based accredited practising dietitian. You can connect with her on Instagram @honest_nutrition.

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