Plant-Based vs. Vegan Diet: Exploring the Key Differences

Learn about the key differences between a plant-based and a vegan diet and the nutritional and health benefits to make an informed choice for incorporating plant-based foods into your daily eating and health goals.

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by
Sarah Bullard, MS, RD, LD
— Signos
Dietitian and Nutrition Writer
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
August 2, 2023
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Plant-based and vegan diets are becoming more popular. At the beginning of 2022, 10% or 16.5 million adult Americans considered their eating vegan or vegetarian.1 This group is equally split between vegan and vegetarian or plant-based.

A strict vegan diet omits anything animal-based, including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk products, and honey. A plant-based diet prioritizes and increases the amount of plant-based foods but may include some animal products in varying amounts. People eating plant-based diets don’t always avoid animal products (i.e., pescatarians and octo-vegetarians) but tend to reduce how much they eat.1 

Both vegan and plant-based diets emphasize the intake of plant foods. Removing the labels and strict eating rules helps someone add beneficial components of many diets to their specific way of eating for long-term success.

The rationale for following a plant-based or vegan diet may stem from various reasons ranging from cultural, health, religious, or animal and environmental concerns.

In this article, we’ll explore the key differences between a plant-based and a vegan diet and the nutritional and health benefits of making an informed choice for incorporating plant-based foods into your daily life. 

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What Does Eating a Plant-Based Diet Mean?

A plant-based diet emphasizes eating abundant plant foods without specific animal product restrictions. A person eating a plant-based diet may eat or avoid animal products. Another term that can describe plant-based eating is the flexitarian diet.

The flexitarian diet is for people who want a “flexible” healthy guideline for eating more plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, beans, and whole grains and less animal-based foods like meat, dairy products, fish, or poultry.2

Plant-based diets, including the flexitarian diet, offer many health benefits. A 2017 Frontiers in Nutrition review of 25 studies of people following flexitarian plant-based diets linked their eating pattern to healthier body weight, improved markers of metabolic health, reduced blood pressure and risk for type 2 diabetes, and meeting their daily fiber intake of at least 25 to 30 g daily.2

On average, people consuming plant-based diets consume 34.9 g of fiber daily.3 Meeting the recommendation of dietary fiber helps to keep you full, stabilizes blood sugar levels, and promotes digestive and gut health. 

A review article from 2020 focused on the specific healthful components of plant-based diets like heart-healthy vegetable fats, increased dietary fiber, and phytosterols for managing heart disease and reducing the risk of developing heart disease.4 Plant-based diets offer heart-healthy fats and are limited in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Plant-based foods provide a rich source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants not found in processed foods. Consuming many plant sources provides your body with never-ending variety and nutrients. 

Health Benefits (and Downsides) of Eating a Plant-Based Diet

1. Reduced risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

Chronic metabolic health disease risk is reduced with an increased intake of plant-based foods. The Frontiers in Nutrition review analyzed the results of six studies, finding reduced rates of diabetes and improved markers that predispose someone to diabetes for people eating vegetarian or plant-based diets compared to non-vegetarian diets. Even more beneficial risk reductions were seen with more vegetable and reduced meat intake.2 

In the past, specific components were researched to reduce heart disease risk. Recently, a whole diet approach has been more effective in monitoring than a single component, such as saturated fat intake alone. Research supports that eating a plant-based diet limited in meat products helps lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and heart disease risk.4 

2. Improved weight management and maintenance of a healthy body mass index (BMI).

People following a plant-based diet tend to have a lower body mass index than non-vegetarians based on a review of five studies involving 71,751 participants. Non-vegetarians had the highest average BMI level at 28.7, and 33% of the subjects were classified as obese.2 

Additionally, people eating plant-based diets tend to exercise more than those eating a non-plant-based diet.2 Maintaining exercise helps with weight management and preventing health problems. 

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3. Enhanced overall nutrient intake and diversity.

People following a plant-based diet have higher intakes of fruit and vegetable-derived vitamins such as vitamin C, beta-carotene, folate, and vitamin E.4 

A systematic review comparing vegetarian and nonvegetarian diets found higher diet quality among vegetarians.5 

A healthy eating index (HEI) tool uses a scoring system to evaluate foods with scores ranging from 0 to 100. An HEI score of 100 indicates that the food aligns with key dietary recommendations and dietary patterns published in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.6

In the systematic review, vegetarians scored between 4.5 and 16.4 points higher than non-vegetarians. The criteria for a vegetarian diet in these studies aligned with a plant-based diet that did not necessarily restrict animal protein altogether.5

Potential Challenges

A plant-based diet has many advantages in health, disease prevention, and nutrition quality. Some individuals may struggle with some aspects of a balanced diet while eating plant-based. Every new diet takes more planning to find suitable recipes you enjoy preparing and eating. 

Social and cultural factors may make it difficult to follow a plant-based diet when eating outside the home or in certain areas where fewer plant-based foods are available or affordable.

A plant-based diet may require extra planning to ensure adequate intake of vitamins B12 and D, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and zinc. The extensive study involving 71,751 participants found that the average intake of these nutrients was above the minimum requirement, even in strict vegetarians.2 These vitamins can be of concern when meat and animal products are removed and not replaced with nutrient-rich substitutes. 

What Does Eating a Vegan Diet Mean?

People following a strict vegan diet remove all animal-derived products like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk products, and honey. By default, an individual following a vegan diet eats plant products. A vegan diet full of nutritious plant foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, beans, and whole grains can have excellent metabolic health benefits.2,7

Due to the lack of animal products, a vegan diet is lower in saturated fat and cholesterol. Vegan diets have been found to lower blood glucose levels, cholesterol levels, and body mass index. Vegan diets can help promote heart health and reduce cancer risk.4,7,8

Additionally, due to the abundance of fiber-rich plant foods, individuals following a vegan diet consume more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Two abundant nutrients found in vegan diets are potassium and magnesium, which help lower blood pressure and the risk of stroke.7 Fiber-rich foods fill you up longer and can help with weight management. 

Health Benefits (and Downsides) of Eating a Vegan Diet

1. Lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer.

A large meta-analysis including 96 studies found a 25% risk reduction for cardiovascular diseases in individuals following vegan and vegetarian diets compared to those consuming meat. Additionally, the risk of all types of cancer was reduced by 15% in individuals consuming vegan diets.8

Plant-based diets are associated with lower blood pressure and can reduce blood pressure by about six points.7 

2. Improved management of blood sugar levels and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

The prevalence of type 2 diabetes is low in people eating plant-based diets. Many studies have shown reduced blood sugar levels, metabolic health, and heart disease prevention.2,7 

Fewer studies have looked directly at the effect a vegan diet has on glucose levels.  A short-term study showed a 28% decrease in blood sugar levels for vegan participants.7 The fiber-rich diet is thought to keep you full longer and maintain stable blood sugar levels. 

3. Potential weight loss and weight management benefits.

Large intakes of plant foods, including the vegan diet, have been effective for weight loss, specifically abdominal weight loss. Carrying extra weight in the abdominal area poses a greater risk for heart disease and diabetes.

In the largest study observing different types of vegetarians, vegans had the lowest average BMI level at 24, with only 9.4% of the subjects classified as obese.2 One rationale is that the fiber intake is significantly higher among those following a vegan diet. Fiber satisfies longer and reduces unnecessary eating, helping with weight loss and weight management.

Potential Challenges

A vegan diet helps prevent heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and weight management. Due to eliminating all animal byproducts or possessing knowledge on how to prepare balanced meals using only plants, some individuals may need help following a vegan diet long term. 

A vegan diet requires extra planning to ensure adequate intake of vitamin B12 and vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and zinc. Often, individuals can meet these nutrient needs with appropriate nutrient-rich animal product replacements. Some people may require supplementation or working with a registered dietitian nutritionist to ensure they meet the necessary nutrients.

A vegan diet is more restrictive, and individuals may have trouble dining out. Finding nutrient-rich replacements readily available in more rural areas can be challenging. Vegan diets often require more thought and planning to ensure adequate nutrition is met. Following a vegan diet has been easier in recent years due to increased consumer interest and new food products available at grocery stores.

Plant-Based vs. Vegan Diet: Key Differences

To recap, a plant-based diet focuses on eating more plant foods and fewer animal products. A vegan diet eliminates all sources of animal products, leaving plant-based foods as the whole sum of the diet. 

Both diets emphasize whole grains, fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Ideally, someone following either diet will benefit more from eliminating highly processed oils and foods. Many people are surprised that many pre-packaged cookies, crackers, treats, and chips are classified as vegan foods

A plant-based diet that doesn’t entirely eliminate animal products may be more appealing for individuals wanting to try a flexible vegetarian diet and reap many health benefits from increased plant foods. Many people feel less pressure following a plant-based diet than a vegan diet. The focus is on adding beneficial foods instead of restricting foods entirely. 

Many reputable vegan diet resources are available to make it less daunting to follow and help individuals wanting to avoid animal products find suitable nutrient replacements. People choose to follow a vegan diet of health concerns to ethical reasons, animal welfare, or environmental considerations.

Plant-Based vs. Vegan: Which One Should You Choose?

There is no one way to eat. That is the beauty of food and nutrition. A person can follow a healthy plant-based diet or a healthful vegan diet. Research has shown that both diets are beneficial in terms of heart health, prevention of diabetes, and weight management. 

If following a diet or meal plan causes you stress or anxiety, there is no need to identify with one type of diet or style of eating. Focus on incorporating beneficial plant-based foods into your daily eating routine. Take it day by day. Small changes add up in the long term. 

Quick Tips to Eat Vegan or Vegetarian

  1. Talk to a professional. A registered dietitian nutritionist can help you understand how to replace animal products with specific plant foods for optimal health. 
  2. Take it slowly. Focus on one meal or snack at a time. Once you feel confident, move on to a different meal to adopt more plant-based options. You can follow a vegan diet as you gain more confidence and knowledge of plant-balanced meals
  3. Make swaps for your favorite recipes. Dairy and cheese are often simple swaps due to the variety of plant-based milk and cheese substitutes. 
  4. Keep an eye on labels. Be aware of alternative animal ingredients or names of animal products if following a vegan diet.
  5. Have fun! Try out some new recipes or cuisines full of plant foods. 

Learn More About Healthy Nutrition with Signos’ Expert Advice

Research indicates a substantial health benefit from including more plant-based foods. A plant-based or vegan diet can be a healthful addition to your life. Incorporating new foods can take planning and help. A continuous glucose monitor (CGM) can help you know how your body responds to different foods and fiber content. 

A Signos’ CGM can help you improve your health. Take a quick quiz to determine if Signos is a good fit for you. Learn more about nutrition and healthy habits on Signos’ blog.

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References

  1. Norwood, F. B. (2022, March 10). 1 in 10 Americans say they don’t eat meat – a growing share of the population. Alliance for Science. https://allianceforscience.org/blog/2022/03/1-in-10-americans-say-they-dont-eat-meat-a-growing-share-of-the-population/
  2. Derbyshire E. J. (2017). Flexitarian Diets and Health: A Review of the Evidence-Based Literature. Frontiers in nutrition, 3, 55. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2016.00055
  3. Rizzo, N. S., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Sabate, J., & Fraser, G. E. (2013). Nutrient profiles of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dietary patterns. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 113(12), 1610–1619. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2013.06.349
  4. Trautwein, E. A., & McKay, S. (2020). The Role of Specific Components of a Plant-Based Diet in Management of Dyslipidemia and the Impact on Cardiovascular Risk. Nutrients, 12(9), 2671. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12092671
  5. Parker, H. W., & Vadiveloo, M. K. (2019). Diet quality of vegetarian diets compared with nonvegetarian diets: a systematic review. Nutrition reviews, 77(3), 144–160. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuy067
  6. Healthy Eating Index (HEI). (n.d.). Food and Nutrition Service. https://www.fns.usda.gov/CNPP/healthy-eating-index-hei
  7. Marrone, G., Guerriero, C., Palazzetti, D., Lido, P., Marolla, A., Di Daniele, F., & Noce, A. (2021). Vegan Diet Health Benefits in Metabolic Syndrome. Nutrients, 13(3), 817. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13030817
  8. Dinu, M., Abbate, R., Gensini, G. F., Casini, A., & Sofi, F. (2017). Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 57(17), 3640–3649. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2016.1138447

About the author

Sarah Bullard is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer with a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a background in research and clinical nutrition, personalized nutrition counseling, and nutrition education.

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