So you’ve decided to eat more plants… but now you’re not sure what to call yourself.
With all the “-isms” floating around I don’t blame you! The confusion is completely understandable because it feels like a new dietary label pops up every other month – I also sometimes feel like it’s hard to keep up.
To make matters worse there doesn’t appear to be much of a common understanding of what these labels mean, especially online! Everyone seems to have their own understanding of what it means to be “plant-based” or “vegan”.
All too often I see people getting chewed out on reddit or Facebook for calling themselves the wrong thing. “Well actually if you don’t do X you really shouldn’t call yourself vegan.” Thanks Karen, there goes another new plant-based eater who was looking for help but got alienated and confused instead.
The situation really isn’t tenable, and I believe it’s super important that we all do our part to help come to a common understanding of what these labels mean. To that end I’ve compiled this article describing the more common diets which focus on plants more than animals.
I’ve also added a quick reference guide at the bottom of this page, which compiles the information in a more condensed and visual way. You can also download a shareable version.
At its simplest definition, vegetarians can be described as people who don’t eat meat. Vegetarians will typically eat other animal-based products like honey, gelatine, eggs, and dairy.
There are also a couple of subcategories of vegetarianism.
This is the “proper” fancy-sounding name for what many people would consider vegetarian. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians will eat no red meat, poultry, or fish. They have no reservations consuming other animal products like dairy, eggs, honey, gelatine, etc.
Similar to lacto-ovo-vegetarian, but those following this diet also exclude eggs from their diet, as well as food products containing rennet (which is made from unweaned calf, lamb or goat stomach). Dairy products not containing rennet are allowed, which means most types of cheese are excluded from this diet.
Lacto-vegetarianism is very common amongst followers of Dharmic religions like Hinduism and Sikhism, based on the principle of “ahimsa” (do no harm).
Again similar to lacto-ovo-vegetarians, but exclude all dairy products from their diet, and will eat eggs.
Vegetarians who exclude red meat and poultry from their diet, but who do eat fish and fish products. Some pescatarians will also completely exclude eggs and/or dairy. This diet is a popular entry point to veganism, where fish is gradually phased out.
Those on a plant-based diet will focus on getting most of their calories and nutrition from plants, and will mostly (or completely) cut animal products from their diet.
Plant-based eaters who have not completely cut animal products from their diet can also be referred to as Flexitarian (from the word “flexible”).
Some who have completely cut animal products from their diet may choose to call themselves plant-based (not vegan) to avoid the sometimes unpleasant political or activist connotations some people may have with the term vegan.
Whole Food Plant-Based
An extension of Plant-Based, those eating a WFPB diet will concentrate on eating mostly (or exclusively) plants, but they will also exclude refined or highly processed foods from their diet. As the name suggests, this diet places an emphasis on whole or natural food, which has not been processed or refined or significantly changed on a production line somewhere.
This means foods like olive oil, white flour, or white sugar are off the menu. It unfortunately also means convenience foods like Beyond Meat or Quorn are not to be eaten.
Though it’s fair to say that many – perhaps most – WFPB eaters are also vegan this does not necessarily have to be the case. Those who have not ruled meat out completely will also exclude processed meats from their diet, like ham, bacon, or salami.
Vegans don’t consume or use any animal products.
They don’t eat any red meat, poultry, or fish. Eggs and dairy are off the menu, along with a long list of other things, including honey and gelatine.
Vegans will also do their research and know that many common food products are sometimes (or usually!) not vegan. White sugar, wine, and apple juice – for example – are usually not vegan and need to be verified before purchased.
But for vegans it is not just about food. Vegans are careful to not buy any products where animals were involved in the production. Leather, wool, and animal-tested cosmetics are obvious examples of products vegans will avoid, but animal products can pop up in the weirdest of places – even tattoo ink and paintballs are usually not vegan!
The word “vegan” was originally coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, in his newsletter The Vegan News, as a more pithy term for “non-dairy vegetarian”. The Vegan News very quickly broadened its scope beyond food, and within a year was publishing lists of animal-free toothpaste, shoe polish, stationary, and more. In 1951 they published a definition of veganism as “The doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals”.
There are those who feel strongly that you have to be politically active to call yourself vegan, but I don’t agree. I would refer to politically motivated vegans as “animal activists” and they certainly have their place in the world, but I don’t believe you have to be one to identify as vegan.
As the name implies, raw vegans don’t eat cooked food. Proponents of this diet claim it is healthier to eat food that has never been heated above 104°F (about 40°C), in a nod to how many aboriginal tribes used to eat.
I also have to point out that the raw vegan diet is met by a fair amount of reasonable skepticism in the scientific community. Heating food will in many cases increase the bioavailability of nutrients, and reduce the amount of anti-nutrients.
Whole Food Vegan
When you apply the principles of a whole food plant-based diet with a vegan lifestyle you become a Whole Food Vegan.
All animal products are (obviously) excluded, as well as all highly processed and refined foods. This means no olive oil, no Beyond Meat, and no Oreos! Some may find it challenging to adopt this diet from the outset as it can take a while to learn how to cook tasty health meals the whole food vegan way.
That said, this is perhaps also the healthiest diet for you – when done right. Combining the health benefits of a vegan diet with the health benefits of a whole food diet will almost certainly lead to improvements in your weight, cardiovascular health, and more.
But What About…
I know, I know – there are probably a few dozen more diets which could be included in this article, but for the sake of readability I thought I would concentrate on the more mainstream diets. As a general rule of thumb, the diets I’ve excluded fall into a handful of categories.
First, there are those diets which are (in my personal opinion) prohibitively difficult to implement completely and effectively, without having to dedicate a significant part of your life to it. These would include diets like nutritarianism or Jain vegetarianism.
Second are those diets very similar to ones mentioned here. There are many variations of vegetarianism, including pollotarianism (vegetarian, but allows poultry consumption) and kangatarianism (vegetarian plus kangaroo meat). I didn’t feel this list was poorer off by excluding them.
Third, diets which have some a fair amount of scientific skepticism surrounding their efficacy and health, like fruitarianism. I also considered excluding raw veganism from this post but ended up including it with a disclaimer.
Mix and Match
Many of the above diets are not mutually exclusive, so it is possible to be more than one of them at a time. It is, for example, perfectly possible to be both Whole Food Plant-Based and Vegan. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t identify as, in this context – because it’s up to you to label yourself, no-one else.
By that same measure it is also very common for people to change their diet – even if only temporarily – to experiment with different ways of eating, and a view to perhaps improving over time. You could, for example, very reasonably upgrade your eating habits from Flexitarian to Pescatarian to Plant-Based to Vegan.
Just because you identify a certain way does not mean you have to remain that way forever! If you do decide to experiment with different ways of eating, remember to take your time and transition at your own pace. You know best the amount of time and budget you can dedicate to your transition, so don’t let anyone coerce you into moving at anything other than the speed that’s right for you. Lasting change takes time!
As members of the wider plant-eating community it’s important that we share a common understanding of what these labels mean. Please help me spread the truth behind what these labels actually mean, and if you see someone misusing or misunderstanding a term please correct them in a kind and polite way (or just link them to this page, or the pdf below).
This cheat sheet aims to give you a quick overview of the most popular plant-focused diets. It is obviously non-exhaustive for the sake of brevity. You may also download it as a pdf, if you’d like to share it around.