Vegan vs Vegetarian vs Plant Based Diets, Flexitarian, Pescatarian, Plant Forward Diets, the Differences and SimilaritiesAug 25, 2023
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We’ve been helping people go vegan or make more plant based choices at Brownble for years now, and one thing I can tell you is that no two stories about going about this change are the same. There are definitely some templates, for instance, people who make the change from one day to the next and have this “doing it cold turkey” personality, people who go vegetarian first and then eliminate dairy and eggs, people who remove one animal staple at a time, people who like me went vegan at home first and then made the transition, people who start with one meal a week and slowly move up from there.
There is a lot of talk in vegan circles about how unless you are eliminating all animal products you aren’t doing enough. This message I think in one way stemmed from wanting to explain why vegans choose to take an additional step from what was most common which was a vegetarian diet, but here’s how I see it:
Imagine a dimmer switch, you can turn the light completely off but when you turn it on, you can slowly increase the lights intensity until the whole room is brightly lit.
Today we’ll be talking about this spectrum of choices, the different labels that exist when it comes to ways of eating that seek to reduce the consumption of animal products, and what I believe are some of the traps we put in our very own journeys by thinking the light has to be either on or off.
There are so many terms nowadays to talk about diets and lifestyles that seek to reduce or exclude animal products. We've got vegetarian diets, plant based diets, plant forward diets, flexitarian diets, pescatarian diets, vegan diets and more, and the common question most people have is what are the differences between each of these terms and ways of eating. Let’s start by defining each one:
Vegetarian Diets · What do Vegetarians Eat?
Usually when we talk about a vegetarian diet what people are referring to is lacto-ovo vegetarian.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and grain products, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, dairy and eggs, meaning they exclude the meat of all animals. They don't eat meat from cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, lambs or any other land animals, insects, or fish or other sea animals.
There's also a smaller subdivision here:
Lacto vegetarians include dairy in the diet but not eggs.
Ovo vegetarians include eggs but not dairy.
Vegan diets · What do Vegans Eat?
Vegans eat fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and grain products, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, and products made from plant-based ingredients as opposed to animal-based ingredients. Vegans don't eat the meat of any animals (including fish and other sea animals), dairy, eggs, honey or other animal by-products.
Veganism also includes other ethical lifestyle choices which we'll get into below.
Pescatarian diets · What do Pescatarians Eat?
Pescatarians eat fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and grain products, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, along with fish and other sea animals. They don't eat meat from cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs, lambs or any other land animals.
Some pescatarians avoid eating both eggs and dairy, while others include only eggs, others only dairy, others omit both.
Flexitarian Diets · What do Flexitarians Eat?
The term flexitarian usually refers to people who are eating mostly vegan or vegetarian diets but do include small amounts of meat or other animal products in the diet (including dairy and eggs).
Plant Based Diets · What do People who are Plant Based Eat?
This term is a bit tricky because not only is there not an official definition for this way of eating, but it's used in different ways to refer to a diet that is based on plants.
Originally, a plant based diet (or a plant based meal, a plant based restaurant) was used as a synonym to vegan (and with that came an exclusion of all animal products from the diet).
When I write our content for Brownble, when I film videos, when I teach our cooking classes or write any of our courses, I use these the terms vegan and plant based as synonyms. For many people these are the same thing.
The term plant based has also been used when talking about a vegan diet when it comes to the dietary aspect (i.e. the food you eat), but not referring to some of the other lifestyle aspects of being vegan (more on this later on). Essentially, someone who was making all of the vegan choices when it comes to their plate and their meals, but weren't so concerned about making animal friendly choices outside of meals in other lifestyle aspects like the products you buy, cosmetics, clothing, etc.
It also got a big push within a very particular niche, among people who had decided to eat essentially a 100% vegan diet excluding all animal products, but were doing it mostly for health reasons, and not so much for environmental or ethical reasons such as animal rights. It became a very popular term among doctors that are recommending a plant based diet to patients to heal or prevent certain chronic illnesses, and where the focus wasn’t on ethical issues.
In recent years however, the term plant based has been used to talk about a diet that is mostly vegan and centered around plants but still includes some small amounts of animal products, sometimes by people who are easing their way into a vegan diet and sometimes by people who are simply making plants the focus of meals, but are still including other non-vegan foods. Within this definition, it would be very similar to what is referred to as a flexitarian diet.
A Newer Term: Plant Forward Diets · What do People Who are Plant-Forward Eat?
Recently I've been seeing the term plant forward instead of plant based to refer to some of these diets where small amounts of animal products are still included but the diet is mostly centered around plants.
Why so many Terms and Dietary Labels?
When it comes to our way of eating, as human beings we seem to love labels. We love to have a tidy box where we can put ourselves in. Where we know where the limits are, what that means to us, and as comfort in knowing that others will also know what that means. Since we’re all so different and we all have different needs, and we all have different life circumstances, when we can't make one of these fit, we make another term for it, but what they all have in common is that they’re ways of eating in which you're inching your way to a reduction or full elimination of animal products and in that way, we're all in this together and we're all doing the best we can.
In other words, we are all filling up the room with light on different parts of that turning of the dimmer switch.
We're all pushing this movement forward in that we're acknowledging and realizing that there are serious consequences to the way we purchase products, the food products we buy and the methods by which they are produced, and one thing that is now pretty much accepted as a baseline among health professionals, more plants means so many positive things for your health.
Anybody who uses any of these labels is trying to make better and better choices, for different reasons as the central point, but we acknowledge that there is a need for change, especially when it comes to how animals are raised and killed in these industries.
For a lot of people there is also the need to find another name for it because we don't like to be caught making a "wrong choice", or a choice that goes against what we've previously said or what we had committed to.
Everyone has met a vegan, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, someone who is very much against veganism, who is nitpicking at every single choice you make and trying to find the place where you aren't doing it 100% right. I get it, those people are out there, but you don't have to let that guide your choices and that's something that sets us a bit apart at Brownble. We like to give you a different perspective on veganism that allows you to see that it's about so much more than just that individual choice. that individual meal, that one plate, that one dish, that one restaurant outing.
I have been vegan for over 10 years and together with my husband Carlos who is an MD, we created this space at Brownble to not only teach you how to cook delicious vegan recipes but bring you support in all areas when trying to make this choice. It's not only for vegans, we have students who are all across the eating spectrum, and we have been on this mission to help you towards this wish, because for most of the people who come through our doors it's a legitimate desire. They want to try making a different choice to reduce or eliminate animal products and try to move into a kinder way of eating that is gentler on the environment, respectful of animals and supportive of our fellow humans as well.
Apart from what is in our meals, what is the definition of veganism? What does it mean to be vegan?
When you read this list of all of these ways of eating, veganism can feel like the most rigid and most extreme way of eating, and if you've ever met one of these very militant vegans you can definitely have that association with it. A vegan diet however is about much more than the perfection on your plate. Let's explore the definition of what veganism and eating a vegan diet mean as a starting point, and then I’ll give you my own way of defining it:
"Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals." - The Vegan Society
The Vegan Society also adds:
"There are many ways to embrace vegan living. Yet one thing all vegans have in common is a plant-based diet avoiding all animal foods such as meat (including fish, shellfish and insects), dairy, eggs and honey - as well as avoiding animal-derived materials, products tested on animals and places that use animals for entertainment."
When we talk about veganism we are talking about so much more than the specifics of what happens on our plate. I always tell our students that if you can only start in one place or area, the plate is where you're going to have such an incredible impact since we do it 3+ times a day, every day for years on end, but you can start wherever you can start, and that means so many different things for different people.
How you incorporate this into your life, the ways of transitioning into a vegan diet and lifestyle can vary so much from person to person, and it should. We're all so different, and one of the things I always try to focus on when I share this definition is that part where it states "as far as is practicable and possible".
Here's what veganism is NOT about
It's not about putting each and every choice as the end goal and the perfect place where we're going to get an A+ on every meal stating you made a 100% vegan choice or a year of 365 perfect vegan choices and only then can you call yourself a vegan.
I like to teach our students that veganism, and with that its meaning of going beyond the specifics of what is on the plate, is a kind of filter through which we make our different choices.
The choice in itself isn’t the end goal, the end goal to me looks like being able to make this journey that is your life, and with it, its eating choices and purchasing choices, through that filter, as best you can.
Because I went vegan initially because of animal rights reasons, to me that filter is mainly kindness towards animals, it’s a filter of reducing harm (I’m not even talking about eliminating harm, we’ll talk about this important distinction in a future episode). It is not the plate of perfect 100% vegan food that is the goal, helping animals is the goal, and we do that by one day after another, one choice after another making as many choices as we can through that filter.
After learning about what happens to animals in these industries I needed to know if eating a vegan diet was health supportive, if I could be healthy and get all my nutrient needs met as a vegan. This is something else that is very important to me and also part of my values, as in valuing and respecting this special one of a kind body that I have. Then I learned about the use of environmental resources when it came to plant consumption vs animal consumption, then I learned about how these industries impact surrounding communities, workers and their families. They all started adding up.
You can of course adapt this filter to your reason behind making this choice. Environmental reasons, health reasons, animal rights reasons, helping our fellow humans, two of the above, all of the above. With any of them, the perfect plate or perfect meal or perfect day of eating or perfect purchasing decision isn’t the absolute and final objective, and this is a big part of the message I want to give you through this podcast.
Even when it comes to health, which needs to include your mental health, your health when it comes to your social connections and relationships, we can still apply the filter analogy as in seeing all those individual choices that we’ll be taking throughout our lifetime as paving the path, it’s navigating that path through that filter, without obsession or perfectionism that will take us to where we want to go and will help create all those changes we wish to see.
That filter is something that you can renew each day, no matter what happened the day before. The path and your choices are ongoing. We have a lifetime of getting back on the path with that filter leading the way, as many times as we need to recommit to it.
Veganism and Perfectionism
We also have to add to that the imperfection present in every choice we make as humans. There is no such thing as a 100% cruelty free agriculture system. That doesn't exist yet. at least not in the methods and the way things are today.
There is also no such thing as a 100% pure vegan. We're not there yet, and we need to start realizing that because there is imperfection in all of these areas, we are allowed to have imperfection in our choices.
When we’re on this journey. It doesn't mean that if we made a choice that wasn't 100% perfect, we can't do it or we've failed. It means it's a part of the process. It's about doing the best we can today and no matter what happened today renewing that tomorrow and trying our best again from a clean and fresh start.
It doesn't mean that by saying this I'm saying that you can go do whatever you want because veganism is imperfect by definition. I think we all know where we stand when we want to make a commitment like this or we're inching towards this.
I think we're all about trying to make that kinder choice each time, but where I am coming from is this: I want us to have and incorporate a bit more flexibility in how we judge the moments in which we had to make a choice that was imperfect. That's where that sweet spot is in that we have that kindness towards ourselves as well. This is part of the secret recipe of making changes this big, long term.
When we remember that in this way, the word vegan is very different from all of these other words. I think you'll see that veganism doesn't have to be that tiny box you close yourself off in. It can actually be a very open journey, in which you are doing the best you can, in which you realize that it is about that filter through which you're looking at all of your choices, not only dietary choices, but you are also not concerned and not
worried about that purity and perfection on the plate because it's not about that one plate of food.
Having said all of this, no matter how you choose to eat, in any of these ways of eating in which you’re eliminating or reducing your consumption of animal products, you’re going against the grain of what we see most people doing, it’s going to take a learning curve and a process, and I find that it’s also important, if you’re making this choice, that you commit to it. That you see it less as “a right now thing I need to get just right” and instead add on choices thinking of the long journey ahead. That you make it an important process you’ll be putting your attention on until it becomes second nature. And within that commitment, you add the flexibility and self compassion when things don’t go as planned.
Through social media, books and documentaries you are going to see many different ways of making this change and one thing I can tell you is that there is not just one way that works for everyone. Leave space for the circumstances that make you you, and this is often a good question to ask yourself as you add on more of this new way of eating or purchasing products:
“What I am incorporating today, how can I take it on board so that it can accompany me and my lifestyle for many years to come?"
Take the journey and the transition into this in whatever way feels right to you, even if you feel it is too slow at first, I promise you will start building up momentum in ways you never even expected.
Part of that commitment, no matter where you are on the spectrum of eating, is to remember that just because you picked a label for the way you eat, the belonging doesn’t get bigger than your curiosity. I can’t tell you how often we encounter students that love vegan food and vegan cookbooks and vegan ingredients and vegan options and when I ask why they don’t consume them they say “well, I’m not vegan”. As if again, you needed to belong or nothing there is for you. Vegan food means salads, and pasta, delicious meatless burgers with all the fixings you can find pretty much anywhere these days, veggie bowls filled with vegetables, grains and beans, it can mean a veggie roll at a sushi restaurant, delicious ramen or noodles, amazing desserts only made with a recipe that swaps out eggs and dairy, it can mean delicious goodies on the grill, your favorite latte only made with non dairy milk, pancakes, you name it. So this is my call to anyone who is curious, to allow yourself to try these options out, even if you think you will never go fully vegan. These foods and options are there for anyone who wishes to include more of them, and that way, we don’t get the label get in the way of making more positive choices for animals, the environment or ourselves. I always tell people: give it a try! It might surprise you, just as it did me.
Making more plant based and vegan friendly choices has an enormous impact on the life of animals, the environment, your health and disease prevention, in the lives of communities that surround these industries, and if you’re like me, with your own relationship with food itself. These are all topics we’ll cover individually throughout the podcast, because staying close to your motivation and why you decided to make this change, is the secret sauce to helping you stick to it and renew that purpose each day.
Before I go today, since today's episode is all about those dietary labels, know that you are always welcome in this space. If you are a pescatarian, flexitarian, vegetarian, hardcore carnivore trying to support someone in your life who is making one of these choices, or you're just curious. If you are a mostly vegan except when you go to your in law’s house, or mostly vegan except when it's Thanksgiving, or vegan until 6. If you choose to not use a label at all or if you’re going into this all in, or have been vegan for years like me, no matter where you are on that spectrum of eating we are here to support you and help you take your journey forward.
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